J. Cassar Pullicino



This article is an attempt to show the various folklore elements which Abela included in his Descrittione di Malta (1647). Not that Abela had any clear conception of folklore in the modern sense of the word. In writing his Description, however, he very rightly made use of all relevant data, for he was concerned to write not so much a history as a description of Malta. Hence we find him including "traditions" with other sources on which he based his work, i.e. annals, names of persons, coats of arms, statues, tombs and cemeteries, inscriptions, etymology, manuscripts and medals (p. 55).*

By tradition Abela had in mind much of the material nowadays falling under the wider term folklore, such as legends, folk-medicine, popular customs, dress and costume, folk arts and crafts, and village rivalries. A careful reading of Abela's work reveals a wealth of local lore and tradition that sheds an important light on various aspects of 17th century life in Malta and enables us to assess his contribution to local folkloristic studies.

LEGENDS: In describing the various parts of Malta and Gozo Abela gives interesting legends connected with place-names. A few of these stories are attempts at folk-etymology; others form part of the local lore centring on St. Paul's Ship-wreck in A.D. 60, a few are pious legends in which holy men and women are the protagonists, while others again refer to important phases of Maltese History. The following examples bear out this rough classification:

At Dejr il-Bniet (The Girls' Convent) it is held that some maidens lost their way in a large cavern (p.65); Qala tal-Ghabid (The Black Slaves' Inlet) marked the place where, according to tradition, a number of escaped slaves (Ar.) [p.64] (għabid) offered a futile resistance before being forced by hunger to return to slavery (p.71); Il-Għaram. (The Heaps) is the name given to three mounds which simple folk held to have been petrified "heaps of corn" (p. 68). The inhabitants of Naxxar proudly claim to have been the first Maltese to be baptized by St. Paul in Malta, deriving the place-name from Nassara, i.e. Christians (M. Nsara) (p. 84); Għajn Rasul marks the place where St. Paul made the fountain gush forth to slake the thirst of his companions after the shipwreck (p. 26) and it was the same Apostle who, preaching from a place near the cave now known as St. Paul's Grotto, made his voice heard all over Malta and even induced the Gozitans to embrace the Faith (p. 346).

Wied il-Għasel (the Valley of Honey) was so called because it was traditionally held that at one time there were so many bees in that valley that honey flowed through it all the way down to the sea (p. 71). Here the hermit, St. Corrado, made his retreat, but when he rebuked the Mosta people for their sins he was forced to leave in a hurry and he crossed over the waves on his mantle, stopping first at Kemmuna and finally at Qala, in Gozo, where people believe he was buried (pp. 373-4). Here people from all over Gozo and from Malta came to venerate the saint, and from olden times the faithful used to put their hand through a hole on that side of the church where the saint is believed to lie buried and pick up some earth with great devotion (p. 386).

Għajn Klieb, (The Dogs' Fountain) marks the place where the Christian Maltese ambushed the Arabs, left by Count Roger the Nor-man, who had plotted to massacre the Christians as they were celebrating Christmas, or, as some say, fulfilling their Holy Week devotions in the Cathedral at Imdina. Luckily the Maltese were warned in time by a girl who had overheard the Arabs plotting and the Moslems, whom the Maltese called Klieb (Dogs), were taken by surprise and completely defeated (pp. 81, 267).

At Maqluba, where a small church stands on the brink of a precipice, a village flourished once upon a time, but the people incurred the divine ire on account of the had life they [p.65] led, and everything, people and houses, was destroyed in an earthquake, the only exceptions being the small church and a pious old woman who had vainly urged the villagers to return to God (p. 100). Abela also retells the story of a young damsel from Siġġiewi, a member of the Dingli family, who was killed after resisting the amorous advances of the head of a Turkish band of Janissaries during the Siege of 1565. This story was first related by Bosio and inspired a poem in Spanish entitled La Maltea (p. 96).

FOLK-MEDICINE: Abela noted several folk-remedies which were in use in his time. Medicinal properties were attributed to various stones found embedded in the rock. At in-Nwadar these serpents' eyes, as they were called, were held to be effective against serpents' bites and also as a cure for pain in the side. The embedded stones, which could be of various colours, were tied to rings and applied so that the stone could touch the afflicted part (p. 20). Near Zonqor (Zoncol) these "eyes" were yellowish in colour and when tied to rings instead of jewels they were most effective against bites by poisonous animals. The same applied to ashy-grey stones found all over Malta, but they were also efficacious remedies against malignant fevers, impetigo and similar infirmities. This was all due to a singular virtue imparted by the Apostle St. Paul to Malta stone and it was recognised by doctors, both in Sicily and elsewhere, who used the powder derived from these linguette instead of "belzuaro" with remarkable effects. (p. 133).

The waters of some wells were credited with healing virtues. At Bir Zigrilla, for example, since olden times the people believed in the healing qualities of its waters and it was given to feverish persons, but the supply of this well was cut off with the extension of the water supply to Valletta (p. 80). In Gozo, near Dwejra, on the General's Rock (flagra tal-General) there grew a plant, rather vermilion in colour, which when dried and reduced to powder, and given in liquid form, was reputed to be a good cure for Dysentery. Abela adds that this "fungus", as it is erroneously called, could not be found anywhere else in these islands (p. 121) but this has been found not to be the case.

[p.66] FOLK TRADES AND CRAFTS: Abela's information under this head is all the more interesting because most of the crafts and callings he recorded have now disappeared. At Bisqallin and Hal Bisbut, now incorporated within the village of Zejtun, there was a "Sicilian Colony". The land was excellent for pasture, and therefore the meat and the cheese produced there were exquisite in taste (p. 106). In Abela's time Imsida Creek was known as Daħlet il-Qasab (The Inlet of Reeds), the name being derived from a fishing method which Abela describes in detail as follows:"... quivi da pescatori vien tenuto ed apparecchiato un ordigno di canne legate, e poste artificiosamente insieme di circa sei o sette palmi di larghezza, it quale da essi prolungato, e disteso in mare, poi unito e ristretto in forma circolare, pescano i muletti, o cefali, i quali saltando dal mare nel canneto, vengono dalli medesimi (posti nel mezzo di quel circolo) poscia ammazzati con spessi e replicati colpi di certi bastoncelli, the tengono in mano, correndo con destrezza in diverse parti per dove si spiccano pesci con vaga e dilettevol vista dei spettatori" (pp. 91-2).

At Zurrieq the principal calling of the villagers was the sale of linen and cotton wool, which were considered to be specialities of the locality, no less than some cloaks "tabarri" and woollen carpets made in various colours, and large haversacks used when travelling on horseback, likewise woven in wool. They also produced some pottery ware, vases more "delicate" as he puts it, than those produced in any other part of Malta, and they did so without using the potter's wheel. The potter's wheel, however, had already been introduced both in Malta and in Gozo when Abela wrote his Description (p. 102).

VILLAGE CHARACTERISTICS AND RIVALRIES: Abela derives the word Żurrieq from the blue colour of the deep sea, known as baħar iżraq, but adds that people believe that the village is so called because nearly all the villagers, especially the women, have blue eyes. This belief seems to survive in the modern expression l-għajnejn żoroq taż-Żurrieq, i.e. the blue eyes of Żurrieq. As the air in those parts was reputed to be the healthiest [p.67] in Malta the men and women had a healthy complexion, were well-built, comely and lived to a ripe old age. Many invalids or convalescents used to go to Żurrieq for a change of air and to recuperate their health (p. 102).

Abela hints at the rivalry existing between the villagers of Birkirkara and Naxxar as regards precedence. The excessive rivalry gave rise to scandals in public processions but a happy solution had been found and the two villages took it in turn to march first in public processions (p. 363).

FEASTS: There was nothing elaborate about the Maltese festa in Abela's time, and what he tells us concerns rather traditional customs and outings or calendar feasts than the festa proper. At Għar Lapsi (Cave of the Ascension) it was customary in olden times for the Maltese of those parts to swim there on Ascension Day (M. Lapsi), hence the place-name (p. 23). At Maqluba on the Feast of St. Matthew (21st September) a feast was held each year. Many people came, attracted by the beautiful scenery no less than by pious devotion towards the saint. The owner of the garden at Maqluba did a brisk business on that day selling all his grapes and other fruit to the people (pp. 100-101).

St. Agatha shares with St. Paul and St. George the honour of being a patron saint of Malta. On the day of her feast, the Cathedral Chapter went in procession to the church where high Mass was then celebrated. The "Magistrato" of Imdina attended and a few poor maidens were given a dowry in honour of the saint. The people were very much devoted to this saint and attended in large numbers as in 1551 the Turks were miraculously driven hack when the statue of St. Agatha was carried to the city walls. According to tradition, the saint had sought refuge in Malta from Sicily. To put off her pagan suitor she promised she would give him a definite answer only when she finished weaving a veil, but like Penelope in the Ulysses story, she unwove by night what she had woven by day, thus putting him off indefinitely (pp. 44-45).

The annual procession to Żejtun on St. Gregory's Day was a sign of thanksgiving for the deliverance of Malta from the [p.68] Turks, as Duzina was informed; but there were other version, explaining the origin of the feast. Following their ensign bare-footed and stripped to the waist, people from all over Malta took part in the procession, as an act of penance. The pro-cession, with more than 30,000 taking part, was an orderly affair in those days, and the richly embroidered standards from the various villages and towns made this one of the most famous feasts in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The contingents from the various parishes met at the Marsa plain, where the Captain of the Rod issued the Bando or Proclamation, and the necessary instructions which had to be followed during the procession. Grand Master Lascaris had introduced the practice of firing a gun as soon as the Cathedral Chapter left Imdina to notify the parish contingents and urge them to be at the Marsa punctually. Each party taking part in the procession sang devotional litanies; and the Cathedral Chapter and a few other parish contingents to the accompaniment of "choirs" and "symphonies" reached St. Catherine's Church at Zejtun (pp. 364-8).

DRESS AND COSTUME: Maltese dress and costume figures in classical literature, judging from the various references in the works of Pliny, Diodorus, Cicero and Lucretius given by Abela. In the northern parts of Malta, such as S. Marija l-Għalja, Baħrija, Imtaħleb, Mellieħa and Għajn Ħadid, the cliffs produced a certain gum like tiny dots, called vercella. These were scraped off with an iron instrument and immersed in a liquid to which a certain ingredient was added. The resulting mixture was exposed for some time in the sun and was then used to dye the wool to give it an old rose colour, used specially in the manufacture of a kind of carpet, which they called fardan. It was also applied to silk which was produced in small quantities in Malta (p. 132).

Ecclesiastical costume also engaged Abela's attention. Up to 1685 the canonical dress consisted of a black almutio placed over the surplice. Then Bishop Balaguer, at the request of the Canons of the Cathedral Chapter, obtained Pope Urban VIII's approval to allow them to carry a short purple robe (mozzetta) lined with red armesino over the rocchetto or, alternatively, [p.69] the Cappa Magna, likewise purple, embellished with ermine work varying with the seasons of the year (p. 339).

Many Maltese carried tattoo marks on their hands and arms in the form of a cross. Abela explains this practice as having originated among the early Maltese Christians to distinguish them from the Moslems under the rule of the Arabs, in the same way that the early Christians in Africa had borne tattoo marks to distinguish them from the Gentiles in the times of the Romans and the Goths (p. 319).

Abela's careful description of the legends, beliefs and practices of his day enables us to reconstruct in part some aspects of ancient Maltese folk-life. The student of folklore in Malta owes a special debt to Abela for the 17th century lore which he was able to preserve for posterity material which would otherwise have been lost completely or forgotten.

*Page numbers given in parenthesis in this article refer to Abela's work.