Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Ancient Island of Malta

By Analea Styles
In a short account in Acts, wedged between his shipwreck and arrival in Rome, we find Paul and his company on the island of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea (Acts 28:1-10). The brief story describes the unusual kindness of the native people towards the shipwrecked survivors. It is on this island that Paul is bitten by a viper and yet suffers no harm, causing the natives to think him a god.
Yet when Paul was given the opportunity to pray for and heal many people on Malta, including the father of the Roman leader of the island, we can assume he was able to preach the Gospel to them as well. History tells us that many of the island residents eventually became believers in Christ because of their interaction with the Apostle.[1]

God used Paul’s short visit to make a lasting impact on this people, to bring many to salvation. It is a beautiful story of God’s preservation through a shipwreck and His sovereign purpose, which led to an island of changed hearts.

But rewind 2,000 years before the Romans, the Carthaginians, and the Phoenicians arrived on the island; the ancient people of Malta had developed a successful, but pagan civilization. Studying the fascinating past of Malta makes the seemingly accidental visit from Paul so much more amazing! The ancient inhabitants were completely lost in their false religion; no one could have guessed that in the future, God would send His message of grace to the small island to save them from themselves.

The Forgotten World of Malta

Malta is home to some of the most ancient freestanding megalithic structures in the world. There are over 40 “prehistoric” temples, which most historians believe were dedicated to a “mother-earth” goddess[2] (others suggest the ancient Maltese were more dedicated to a form of ancestor worship).[3] Most of the temples were roofed over, paved with large stones or concrete, furnished with doors and curtains, and decorated with sculptures, paintings, and carvings.[4]

Maltese temples were usually constructed in pairs

Researchers have found indications of ancestor worship, oracular (priests who spoke for the gods) and fertility cults, and mysterious rituals. They believe the temples were used for ceremonial and ritualistic activities including animal sacrifices[5] and maybe divination. Most of the temples were constructed in pairs, with two temples built in close proximity to each other. Many, presumably all, are astronomically aligned to the solstices[6] and were built using surprisingly sophisticated mathematics and engineering.  

Apparently the builders on Malta even made use of the “megalithic yard” (2.72 ft), which is a mathematical constant found at various megalithic sites all over Europe. This is a significant claim because it links the ancient people of Malta to other cultures of the world, even though most historians insist that Malta developed previous to and completely independent of any influence from other civilizations![7]

Spirals, Malta, ancient, megalthic
Spiral designs carved at one the temples on Malta

Another connection between Malta and other world cultures is evident through the decorative use of spiral designs. The Maltese carved spirals all over the walls and altars of many of their temples. Their spirals differ slightly from the characteristic European spirals but some of the more “floral” designs are remarkably similar to later Celtic and Norse styles.[8]

The Hypogeum

One of the most fascinating sites on Malta is known as the “Hypogeum”, a sacred underground structure. It is quite different from the more commonly found freestanding temples and was actually carved underground into the rock of a hillside. It is three stories deep and has several rooms including a “holy of holies”.

The Hypogeum
Wikimedia Commons
In a special chamber called the “Oracle Room”, researchers have discovered some fascinating characteristics related to sound and acoustics. Anything that is spoken in this room can supposedly be heard throughout the entire structure.[9] Some sounds create a reverberation that is similar to that of a human heartbeat and the chamber produces different effects for male and female voices. Its specific purpose is unknown but it was almost certainly used during some sort of ceremonial process.

According to some scientists who have studied the Hypogeum, the frequencies of the acoustic resonance patterns activate key areas of the prefrontal cortex of the brain dealing with mood, empathy and social communion.  Researchers theorize that the ancient people used these characteristics to induce a trance-like state, perhaps in connection to communicating with the dead. [10]

It is not yet known whether the ancient builders intentionally built the chamber to produce these effects, or if they discovered its properties and then enhanced them for their purposes.[11]

Traces of a Serpent Cult?

Entirely separate from most studies of the temples and Hypogeum on Malta, there have also been some records and accounts of a shamanistic serpent-worship cult that existed there in ancient times. 

However though serpent worship was very prominent in the ancient world, and existed in most cultures, there is not a lot of evidence to back up its presence on Malta. There are no concrete archaeological records on Malta describing this worship and there is also very little evidence of snake worship in the art of the temples (unless the spiral designs are symbolic of serpents). Moreover Malta is even not well known for snakes, having only four species – two indigenous to the island and two others thought to be introduced later.

Yet the talk of serpents and snakes brings back to mind an interesting part of Paul’s visit to the island. The Bible tells us that a “viper” came out the firewood Paul was collecting and fastened itself on his hand.

When the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they began saying to one another, “Undoubtedly this man is a murderer, and though he has been saved from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.” However he shook the creature off into the fire and suffered no harm. But they were expecting that he was about to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But after they had waited a long time and had seen nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and began to say that he was a god. 
(Acts 28:4-6)

The Mystery of the Viper

Now it is important to note that none of the four species of snakes on Malta are particularly venomous to humans. This begs the question: why were the natives so impressed with his survival from the snakebite? Why did they expect him to die and why was this event so significant to them?

Scholars and researchers have come up with various solutions to this question:

  • One solution, which seems the most simple, is that there was a venomous snake that existed on the island but it has since gone extinct (even though there is no evidence for this, it is possible).
  • A rather mystical tradition, which many locals believe, is that Paul miraculously caused all the snakes on Malta to lose their venom when he visited.
  • Some researchers say that present day Malta was not in fact the island that Paul and his shipwrecked companions landed on (however the alternate island, present day Mljet, which has many very poisonous snakes, is not a good replacement as the characteristics of the island do not match up to the rest of the story described in Acts[13]).
  • Some suggest that the venomous snake could have come from the wreckage from the ship (but this doesn’t explain why the natives would react in such a way).

This brings us back to the theories of a serpent cult. The possibility lends an intriguing aspect to the discussion of Paul’s mysterious viper. It would not be surprising - the prominence of serpent worship around the world lends credit to the theory. Furthermore, if such a cult existed on the island, then it would make sense for the natives to connect the incident to the gods – first as a sign of judgment, then as a sign of Paul’s own deity. And yet, the lack of clear evidence pointing to such a cult on Malta makes this theory rather flimsy as well.

It is an irritatingly fascinating mystery. Despite much research, the solutions remain rather unsatisfactory. One thing is clear: the native people were a very religious and superstitious group to have such a reaction to the event. Moreover, they were obviously in desperate need of the true Savior!

Ggantija Temples

The Sovereign God

The mystery does not negate the overall wonder and purposeful plan of God throughout the history of Malta. Learning a bit more about this island just makes the arrival of Paul more astounding and humbling. The ancient builders on Malta were intelligent and dedicated to their religion; they were skilled engineers and mathematicians and some of the first in the world to build megalithic freestanding temples and their work still impresses the world.

Yet, by the time of Paul’s visit, they were not a prosperous people; they were lost, superstitious, and searching for signs of the divine. And God loved them. He sovereignly brought His apostle to this small island in the Mediterranean, bringing healing and the greatest message of all.

[1] Lambert, Tim. “A Brief History of Malta”. Revised 2014. Accessed November 18, 2014
[2] “Prehistoric Malta”. Ancient Wisdom. Accessed November 18, 2014.
[3] Grima, Noel. “The Real Prehistoric Religion of Malta”. (November 19, 2006) The Malta Independent Online. Accessed November 24, 2014.
[4] “Neolithic Temples of Malta” Accessed November 18, 2014.
[5] Ibid.
[6] “Prehistoric Malta”.
[7] “Neolithic Temples of Malta”.
[8] “Hal Tarxien”. Ancient Wisdom. Accessed November 17, 2014.
[9] Holloway, April. “The incredible sound effects of Malta’s Hypogeum Hal Saflieni”. January 20, 2014.
Accessed November 28, 2014.
[10] “Ancient Man used ‘Super-Acoustics’ to Alter Consciousness, (and speak with the dead?)”. Accessed November 28, 2014.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Anton, Emil. “Mnarja: a tourist theologian’s take on St. Paul and Malta”. June 22, 2014.
[13] Anton, Emil. “Mnarja: a tourist theologian’s take on St. Paul and Malta”. June 22, 2014.

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