Nowhere on earth did a Goddess ever reign as she did in Malta. Architect Richard England explains the Maltese temples themselves as the personification of the Earth Mother, with floor plans which echo abundant maternal curves. One can easily imagine the concept of entering the "womb" of the temple for communion with the Goddess, and emerging "re-born" into the sunlight. Amazingly, visitors can still walk in several of these prehistoric temples. They are UNESCO World Heritage sites and the oldest free-standing buildings on the planet. But what about the advanced civilization which they represent?
Two terms seem to go hand-in-hand when the temples of Malta are discussed. Fertility Cult is often used to describe pre-patriarchal societies of the Neolithic period, which in most of the world some 4,500 years ago worshipped a Goddess. The concept is universal and shows up at one time or another in virtually every culture on the planet. Mention the words Fertility Cult and you really capture "civilized" people's attention: wild abandon and sexual frenzy, sweaty bodies and wicked native drums. Put all that in the context of a torch-lit megalithic temple and the active imagine could run hog wild.
Not much survived of the early matrifocal people of Europe once they were overrun and assimilated by aggressive tribes identified by archaeologist Marija Gimbutas in "The Language of the Goddess" (1989, San Francisco: Harper and Row.) With mobility of mounted horses and the authority of metal weapons the invaders made relatively quick work of establishing a new order in the old world. A successful takeover would have demanded the smashing and widescale eradication of any existing goddess spirituality. With a few exceptions myths and legends were all that remained to carry memory of the ancient times, and over subsequent millennia recorded history managed to distort or destroy most of that as well. The one clear remnant that comes down to us today is the use of such terms as Mother Nature and Mother Earth.
As hunter-gatherer humankind came out of the caves of Europe and western Asia, people soon learned something about agriculture, animal husbandry and the production of a continuous food supply. They already knew that females, both in the fields and at home, carried young within their bodies and gave birth. There was no great mystery about it. That was just how things happened. It's extremely difficult to believe that they didn't also understand a need for the male of the species in reproduction, although some anthropologists argue this point. At least in the Maltese Temple Period material, there is more than a little suggestion of duality and a healthy respect for gender differences. Gimbutas referred to sculpture and carvings of plumply rounded devotional figures as clearly representing, above all else, the concept of regeneration. When early people witnessed the earth bringing forth fruits and grains, they identified it with the same feminine characteristics of creation and nurturing. It was, after all, the mother who fed the young, and the earth that fed the people. In this way, the concept of a feminine deity of fertility and abundance would have been entirely natural.
When we talk about Neolithic Malta, we are considering a time period long before Buddha and Mohammed, before Jesus and Moses and even Abraham. Sometimes it's difficult to put aside those later influences and remain totally objective about the existence of a civilization which is neither recorded in the Bible nor described in the hieroglyphics of an Egyptian tomb. How is it that the Maltese Fertility Cults have been such a secret? It's likely that the early people who had written language never knew about them.
As if by destiny, the megalithic temples of Malta were overlooked or ignored for many thousands of years. Abandoned for some reason at around 2500 BC, they sat in isolated silence for centuries. The roofs fell in. Weeds grew between the stones. Through a long and complicated history of foreign occupation and resettlement of the Maltese archipelago, the debris of ages continued to collect in the temples.
Although there is evidence of trade and communication with other regions, the "temple culture" of Malta developed their unique artistic expression and iconography along lines which are totally unlike anything seen elsewhere from the same time period. For more than a thousand years they successfully existed in peace and harmony with themselves and their environment. No evidence of weapons, warfare or defensive architecture exists in the ruins.
The debate continues over the "fertility" and "Goddess" idols which have been discovered inside the temples and in the prehistoric underground burial chambers. Some of the excavated figures are clearly feminine images, skillfully represented down to the pleats in their cloth garments, the carefully braided hair hanging down their backs and the woven cane of their furniture. The carved heads in another group of stylized ritual objects strongly suggest male features with long noses and wide jaws. The bodies of these are straight and angular, clearly clothed. Other representational pieces are phallic in nature and leave no room for doubt.
But most of the "cult statuettes" are a mystery; posed both standing and comfortably seated in various positions. Although headless, many are equipped with a socket between the shoulders and tiny holes for manipulating a cord. Several were found with separate heads nearby. They may have been designed to fulfill the function of some sort of oracle. The important locations in which they were found unmistakably point to ritual use. It has been argued that these graceful statuettes with their corpulent nude bodies can't possibly be female because they don't have well-defined breasts. Neither does any of them have a penis to make it unarguably male. There can be no denying that they are curved in the way that a woman usually curves when she lets nature take over. One modem Maltese gentleman proposes that the fat arms, thighs and calves on these figures are styled to signify strength. Mr. Joseph S. Ellul, whose father was for many years caretaker at the Hagar-Qim site, theorizes that this is the power which would have been required to move the massive stone slabs which make up the temples. ("Malta's Prediluvian Culture", 1988, Malta: Printwell Ltd.) The sculptures may simply be androgynous figures of abundance. Perhaps, in a society where gender was not the issue that we make it today, they were designed to serve equally with the modeled head of either priest or priestess, depending on who was officiating at the time. We may never know for sure.
One thing is certain: whether or not they ever accommodated wild orgies, the megalithic limestone temples of Malta were and continue to be places of immense importance in human history. They are remarkable evidence of a people who have been described by cultural anthropologists as among the purest and most impressive cultures that ever existed. Personally, I have to wonder what our world might be like if the knowledge were widespread that once upon a time, God looked just like my mother!