Malta is a magical place in many ways. Our island is rich in history, surrounded by a beautiful sea and crammed with archeological and architectural gems.
But there is a darker side to its allure, which is revealed in ‘The Maltese Bestiary’ by Stephan D. Mifsud. Working off the Maltese folklore, Mifsud, a biologist by profession, has put together a selection of the magical flora and fauna that supposedly still haunt our islands.
Mixing in superstition, legends and half-truths, these creatures remain remarkably Maltese every step of the way, because they are born out of the fears of our ancestors.
Here are some of our favourites.
1. Xifajk – Imp
‘Haqq ghax-xjafek!’ is probably one of the milder swearwords in the Maltese language. But the Xifajk (singular of xjafek and ‘imp’ in English) is not to sniffed at, as this trickster has a habit of pulling pranks for very little reason at all.
This mischevious creature “delights in creating disharmony and getting people annoyed. It does this mainly by playing tricks and pranks.”
2. Għageb tad-Dragunara – The Dragonara Serpent
Apparently, there’s s a huge underground cavern in the valley of Harq Hammiem near St George’s Bay which is said to house “monstrous sea serpents” – hence why the place is called Dragonara. Tell it to the hordes of tourists who frequent the area in summer. Or rather, don’t.
3. Sarangu/Tal-ixkora – Sack Man
Hey kids, fancy some nightmare fuel? Sarangu (‘Sack Man’) is the ‘slave-hunter’ of the netherworld who prowls around looking for kids who’ve stayed up long past their bedtime to throw into his sack and send them down to the devil himself. Though given how the population of Paceville is only getting younger, it looks like he’s either overworked or has thrown in the towel more or less entirely.
4. Golfu – Screech Owl
This one’s a screamer, literally. The Golfu (‘Screech Owl’) is a large owl with the power to (also literally) petrify its victims with its scream. Don’t piss the Golfu off, because it will go Medusa on your ass and turn you into a statue.
“A predatory humanoid that hunts in the dark network of tunnels which connect the daylit underworlds. It waits, and like a spider, pounces on any animal or human victim that passes by.”
Yep, not much consolation with this one. Sleep with one eye open.
6. Ors tal-Gandlora
It’s said that a huge bear has the habit of regularly ascending up a tunnel that exits a hidden cave mouth somewhere on the side of Gelmus hill, in search of unsuspecting prey. Children are warned to lock their windows to avoid the claws snatching them from their beds.
Chilling at the bottom of certain town’s well (particularly Gozitan ones), the only way to deal with an mħalla is to block up the whole thing (and probably move to another village).
8. Ċensa l-Mewt
Death is female, and her name is Ċensa. Derived from the word for ground-rent, life is short and leased out to humans, and death comes to collect it. “Ara ġejja l-mewt għalik, biex tixwik, biex taqlik”
9. Babaw – Bogeyman
Always good to see the classics get a shout-out. But did you know the specifics about this popular bogeyman figure? According to Mifsud, once the Babaw sneaks into a house at night, “It eats anything it finds, including leftover food, pets and even children. Humans sleeping in a house visited by the Babaw may experience vivid spine-chilling nightmares”.
The Babaw may be associated with kids, but its methods are definitely R-rated.
You can order The Maltese Bestiary from Merlin Publishers. All illustrations by Stephan D. Mifsud.