Wednesday 24 March 2021

This Used to be my Playground (and other prehistoric temples), by Saviour Pirotta

A lot of readers have been in touch asking about the temples which form the background for the second half of my latest book in the Wolfsong series, The Mysterious Island. 

The island in question is Malta. The main characters in the book chase the series's main baddie there and discover a culture spiritually more advanced than their own. While they are still adherents of animism, believing that every single inanimate object has a spirit that must be honoured and placated, the islanders have moved on to goddess worship. 

Malta has several megalithic temples from the Stone and Bronze ages, some of which are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites and rightfully protected by law, security guards and entrance fees. When I was a kid they were still open to the elements (much like other historical sites, like early Christian tombs, remains of Roman villas etc) and I used to explore them often. I even know guys who played football around the altars, kicking the ball against the standing stones. Can you even imagine?

I only use two of the temples in my book, chosen because of their geographical position and because they fitted into my timeline. The first one is a complex called Tarxien Temples and marks the height of temple building and decoration on the island.  Built from around 3250BC, the temples have elaborate carvings and show signs that they were used for large scale rituals and animal sacrifice. Their use evolved over the years and in the Bronze Age became cremation cemeteries. The builders left enormous stone balls on the site, which were used for transporting and moving the standing stones. They give a rare glimpse into the building methods of the times. An image of a fertility goddess, today called 'the fat lady' was discovered inside it. Its top half is missing, allowing my imagination to run riot as to what the goddess's face would have looked like. Was it motherly? Stern? Benign? Sword and sandal movie type scary?

The second temple is actually an underground necropolis called the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. Founded circa 4000BC, it has various halls and chambers connected by a labyrinth of steps and corridors. The ceilings are decorated with spirals painted in red ochre that survives to this very day. Its 'holy of holies' faces the winter solstice, and it boasts an 'oracle', a hole in a wall. Apparently, if you stuck your head in it and talked, your voice would echo around the entire temple.

Another statue of a goddess was found here, today called 'the sleeping lady'. She's a big-hipped matron lying asleep on her side. In my book she's referred to as She Who Sleeps and waking her up is inviting mortal danger and chaos. Who was she really? No one knows but one of the joys of writing about ancient history is that you get to fill in the gaps. 

I can no longer play in the prehistoric temples of Malta but they are still my playground in a literary sense, and they will always be.

Saviour Pirotta's Wolfsong much acclaimed series is set at the end of the Neolithic and the beginning of the Bronze Age. The third book, The Mysterious Island, is out now, published by Maverick Books. The final instalment, The Wolf's Song is due in Spring 2022.   Follow Saviour on twitter @spirotta and on instagram @saviour2858.


Stroppy Author said...

How wonderful! Was this a native Maltan culture or part of a wider eastern Mediterranean culture?

Saviour Pirotta said...

As far as we know, it was exclusively a Maltese culture although goddesses were, of course, worshipped around the entire Mediterranean basin.

Becca McCallum said...

How wonderful to be able to play around such sites. Must have fuelled your imagination at an early age!

Saviour Pirotta said...

It did, Becca. I used to spend hours imagining I'm a high priest invoking the goddess for rain (we were always praying for rain when I was a kid).