John Micallef has spent the better part of a decade practicing anthropology in Malta. There's one question that has kept him up at night: Are the Maltese particularly prone to believing in the supernatural? Even today? And if so, why? This is his attempt to answer as best he can today.
What our island-nation lacks in military prowess and force, it more than makes up for in legions of ghosts, saints, and mythical creatures.
From colourful legends about Catholic saints, like our patron Saint Paul participating in military efforts to defend the island from Muslim invaders; to our local versions of the fearsome bogeyman (Babaw), child-snatching shape shifters like Gawgaw and Waħx, and a strong belief in the evil eye (Għajn).
They may hardly carry any impact on the mundane lives of the Maltese, other than to serve as key protagonists for bedtime stories and last-resort parental attempts at deterring small children from misbehaviour.
Yet, as time has passed, Maltese people have not abandoned their supernatural beliefs. They may have only transferred their preoccupations with Babaw to other, swankier, species of ghosts and ghouls.
Through my own research on contemporary supernatural beliefs among Maltese youths, I have documented first-hand accounts indicating that young people in Malta either firmly believe in the existence of supernatural beings, or do not want to risk an encounter with them.
Looking at popular reddit threads about the paranormal, it’s clear that our apprehension with the supernatural is not unique to the islands. Our contemporary world seems rife with all sorts of supernatural experiences and beliefs. The Maltese context, however, presents what I find to be three particular characteristics that make for fertile ground for such beliefs and reported experiences to thrive.
"Maltese people have not abandoned their supernatural beliefs. They may have only transferred their preoccupations with Babaw to other, swankier, species of ghosts and ghouls."
Our Dramatic History (And General Tendency To Exaggerate Stories)
The history of the Maltese islands, marked by dramatic and often violent events, sets the stage for the proliferation of stories about individuals who have met untimely and tragic deaths. More often than not, these are orally recounted and exaggerated accounts of events that may have taken place in a remote past, but in any case they provide two essential components of the effective ghost story: a place and a purpose.
Take the ghost of the Blue Lady of Verdala palace in Buskett. As the tale of her last days (at least, last days in the flesh) goes, she was a maiden who found herself at the unhappy end of a fixed marriage and was imprisoned in one of the rooms of the palace as punishment for her defiance. It is said that she met her tragic end when she attempted to escape via the palace balconies and fatally plunged to the grounds below. An alternative variant of the story sees her voluntarily throwing herself off the balconies out of despair, but in any eventuality the events leading to her death are recounted as highly dramatic.
The tragedy provides purpose and motive for which she ‘lingers’ on to haunt the palace and its occupants, and the palace rooms where the tragedy unfolded provide the place for the haunting. It is through this logic that the haunting is rationalised, and it is this process of rationalisation that gives a ‘scientific’ property that makes it harder for these stories to be entirely dismissed in this day and age.
"Our high density of old buildings and localities with an attached history, coupled with a penchant for the dramatic, make Malta and the Maltese especially good at coming up with similar rationalisations and accounts of ghostly hauntings."
Ghost stories like these are not unique to Malta, and there are interesting and remarkable similarities between the story of our Blue Lady and the stories of other tormented maiden souls reportedly haunting palace hallways across the world.
But as Joseph Attard pointed out in ‘The Ghosts of Malta’ (1997), our high density of old buildings and localities with an attached history, coupled with a penchant for the dramatic, make Malta and the Maltese especially good at coming up with similar rationalisations and accounts of ghostly hauntings.
Our Catholic Surroundings And Upbringing
As British anthropologist Jon Mitchell has noted, the Maltese are brought up surrounded by physical ‘embodiments’ of the supernatural.
We remain overwhelmingly influenced by Catholic traditions, with the sacraments serving as what Jeremy Boissevain defined as rites de passages marking our life stages. We also have a multitude of effigies, some of them reputed to have miraculous properties, populate our streets and churches.
We inhabit a place where not only God and the Devil, but also their angels and minions, are attributed with very human characteristics through our art, iconography, and visual representations, and are thus far removed from disembodied and faceless concepts of Good and Evil.
"We inhabit a place where not only God and the Devil, but also their angels and minions, are attributed with very human characteristics through our art, iconography, and visual representations."
An important part of our enculturation into ‘being Maltese’ involves becoming habitualised to these physical representations of the supernatural, and to directly engaging with them through our senses and emotions.
This carries two implications that directly contribute to a resilience and proliferation of belief in ghosts. First, it opens the floodgates, so to speak, to the possibility that a supernatural transcendent reality exists somewhere out there. Second, it makes one more primed to conceptualizing all sorts of ‘hybrids’ of supernatural creatures with an independent conscience and will to interact with us, and to directly influence our emotional and sensuous states throughout our mundane lives.
We’re Scaredy Cats
Finally, when it comes to the supernatural (but perhaps also to many other things), the Maltese tend to want to stay on the safe side.
When I was exploring the subject through my ethnographic research, I noted that even those who most firmly declare themselves as sceptics would refuse to accompany me in nighttime explorations of places that are reputedly haunted.
This suggests that however latent, belief in the possibility of seeing, hearing, or feeling something, drives many to remain cautious and unwilling to run the risk.
"Even those who most firmly declare themselves as sceptics would refuse to accompany me in nighttime explorations of places that are reputedly haunted."
Considered together with the particular history of the place and a naturalised continuous exposure to flayed saints and magical crucifixes, this gives rise to a fascinating and specific canvas that calls for further anthropological inquiry.
And there will be, I believe, ample time for that in the future, because the ghosts of Malta are here to stay.