Wednesday, 30 September 2009

The Neolithic monuments of Malta and prehistoric cross-cultural exchange

Just back from my first trip to Malta which included visiting some of the Neolithic monuments and stone temples, as well as the Hypogeum, now a World Heritage site.

During the trip, I was struck by several things. Firstly, the people who built these monuments, which are older than the Egyptian pyramids, appear to have followed an older, more earth-oriented, goddess cult, judging by the many 'Venus' statues found in the vicinity. Secondly, the stone monuments also appear to have some connection to celestial pheonomena, judging by the fact that many of them have been found to have orientations to the spring equinox (Mnajdra), or face the direction of sunrise at midwinter (Hagar Qim). Some archaeo-astronomers have conjectured that a few many even have been aligned with the helicacal rising of certain star groups.For example, Michael Hoskin suggests that the so-called ‘Tally Stone’ in Mnadjra temple, may in fact, be a way of tracking the timing of the heliacal rising of certain stars in the constellations of Taurus and the Pleiades – what he calls the ‘Cross-Centarus star group’.1

Further evidence of a fascination and concern with the heavens comes in the form of the ‘Tal-Qadi stone’ – a limestone slab dissected by radial lines into five segments and carved with symbols that appear to represent stars and a lunar crescent - as well as what appears to be a tiny solar wheel, carved onto a stone sherd, which was found near the temple of Hagar Qim, and can now be seen in the National Museum of Malta.(see photos above.)

This purposeful alignnment and orientation of stone monuments and temples to both topographical and astronomical phenomena is not new, nor does it appear to have been confined to the Bronze Age or to one specific region in the world. For example, it is has been suggested that the Egyptians aligned some of their temples with the solstices, whilst the Victorian Egyptologist, Sir Flinders Petrie, established that the corners of the Great Pyramid at Giza are exactly aligned with the cardinal directions. Eslewhere in France, Germany and Spain, archaeo-astronomers have also found evidence of sacred buildings and burials sites being aligned with certain features in the landscape, or point on the horizon that connects to astral pheonomena, such as the solstices. In Britain, it is more or less accepted that passage grave at Newgrange in Ireland, and circular monument at Stonehenge in England, are aligned to the solstices, the winter one in particular.2

Further north, at Maes Howe in the Orkney islands, the mid-winter sunrise also appears to set over the nearby Barnhouse Stone and then enter and illuminate a circular Neolithic stone chamber set at the end of a passage.3 A study in Denmark of some 51 passage graves, known as jættestuer(‘tombs of the giants’)from the north Zealand area, which resemble many others found all over Denmark built aroudn the 3rd millennium BC, many face south or south east t azimuths of between 100 and 120 degrees, which could suggest an orientation with either the direction of sunrise around the winter solstice or even possibly with moonrises at certain times of the year. However, Clausen, Einicke & Kjærgaarda propose that these orientations correspond more closely with lunar phenomena, including eclipses, which they claim also occur at southerly directions low on the horizon during summertime at local lattitudes.4

However, many historians and archaeologists would have us believe that the cultures of northern and western Europe developed in isolation from those in the Middle and Near East, Asia Minor or the eastern Mediterranean. Is this actually justified by the facts, or is it just another example of academic segmentation and a certain cultural biases that affect the interpretion of history?

Alexander Thom and Robin Heath have written about the similarities in measurements used in the building of many Neolithic monuments, even suggesting a standard unit of measurement, the megalithic yard, which Heath suggests may be grounded in soli-lunar cycles.5

Furthermore, there is growing evidence of cross-cultural and even international trade during prehistoric times. We now know that tin from Cornwall was exported right across Europe, via the Phoenicians6, who were also intimately involved in the history of Malta, whilst beads from a Paeleolithic 'factory' in France have been found as far away as Russia. Several ancient writers, including Hippolytus, discuss cultural exchange between the Greeks and Druids, including the tantalising suggestion that the Thracian, Zalmoxis, linked to Pythagoras in some myths, passed on to the Celtic Druids of Gaul ideas concerning the immortality of the soul (metempsychosis). (Hippolytus, Refutation of the All Heresies, Book I, Chapter II, para. 13) Further examples of the cross-cultural spread of ideas across the globe during prehistory can be found at: I think it is high time we stop under-estimating our ancestors and credit them with some nous and ingenuity!

More intriguing still, are the recent discoveries of mummification found in Britain.Mike Parker-Pearson and a team from the University of Sheffield found mummified human remains beneath the foundations of three late Bronze Age roundhouses at an archaeological excavation conducted near Cladh Hallan, South Uist, in the Hebrides of Scotland.7 The bodies, considered to be Europe's earliest prehistoric mummies - became the subject of a BBC2/Discovery documentary, first screened in March 2003, and entitled, The Mummies of Cladh Hallan. More recent research by the same team is revealing that these burials may not have been isolated. According to the University of Sheffield, similar 'mummy bundle' type burials, dated to the same period (circa. 1500 BC) have also been found in other parts of Britain. Does this point to some cultural contact with Egypt, for instance? Or is it simply an example of human beings coming up with similar ideas separately at more or less the same time? Hmmm...I know what sounds more plausible to me!

Genetically, it is also worth noting that markers in the DNA of western European peoples appear to be Middle Eastern in origin, suggesting a gradual migration westwards from the Middle East over time. (See map below.)

(Source: Wikipedia)

If historians think that this genetic migration may be linked to the introduction of farming, for example, could it not also suggest a passing on of cultural, as well as religious ideas? Though, of course, it is difficult to get any sort of handle of time-scales with genes, so chronologies may be difficult to draw up on any sort of small, detailed scale.

Links between this underground structure and above-ground megalithic temples are suggested by the depiction of two-dimensional megalith-shaped pillars, trilithons and 'doorways' carved into doorways and walls which closely resemble the style in which many structures within the islands stone temples were built. It was also the place where the famous terracotta figure called the 'Sleeping Lady' (see picture) was found which echo the larger-scale statues of Venus figures, which were sometimes incorporated into the temple structures such as Haga Qim for example.

What interests me most about Malta, though, is that the culture responsible for building the stone temples either disappeared or suddenly stopped erecting megaliths. Why? Did they leave the island and go somewhere else? If so, was it to migrate slowly westwards? Many archaeologists have also pointed to similarities between the 'Fat Lady' statuettes of megalithic Malta, and the 'Venuses' found elsewhere in Europe, including the Venus of Willendorf, found in Austria and dated to a much earlier period (between 24,000 - 22,000 BC). Venuses have also been found at Catal Huyuk in modern day Turkey (ancient Anatolia in Asia Minor) all of which Marija Gimbutas has suggested points to ancient matriarchal culture indigenous to Europe that was overtaken by a different patriarchal culture, possibly invading from the east. All of this remains speculation, but I am struck by an experience described by one of her biographers that took place in the Hypogeum when attending a conference in Malta:

In 1985, a group of feminist scholars accompanied her to an academic conference in Malta, joining her for tours of the ancient Goddess temples in off-hours. Artist and writer Cristina Biaggi recalls a dramatic moment in the Hypogeum, a giant underground chamber where, it is believed, priestesses served as oracles and sought wisdom though dreams.

"We brought Marija into the center of our circle and she suddenly started speaking in this oracular voice, as though she were in a trance," Biaggi says."No one can remember her exact words, but her message was one of unconditional love and timeless wisdom. When she came out of it, she seemed a little startled. Some of us were crying. The next day," Biaggi recalls, "I menstruated - and I had been menopausal for a year!"8

The Hypogeum is an extraordinary and mysterious place. Dated to around 4000BC, it consists of a series of undergound interlocking chambers on a number of levels and carved from solid rock. When originally excavated, the bones of over 7000 bodies were found in it. Yet it does not appear to have been used soley as a burial crypt. There are signs of ritual and ceremonial functions in several chambers, including the 'oracle hole' which, when used as a speaking tube, makes an unusually deep and resonant sound that echoes throughout the structure. Spiral carvings can be seen on the roofs of some chambers, and in the main 'hall', pillars, carved in relief and resembling megaliths, turn the space into temple. One writer has suggested that:

The Hypogeum offers us a rare glimpse at the prehistoric synthesis of funerary, sun-worship and shamanic traditions. The central chamber has several small rounded cubicles carved into the walls which, it is currently suggested, were originally intended for 'living' people as part of a ritual, in which they would have had to lie inside in a foetal position (out of necessity). It is perhaps relevant that traces of 'ergot' have been found in the chamber called the 'cistern', and that one of the physical effects of ergot is to constrict bodily muscles, resulting in a forced foetal position. Furthermore, it is reported that from within these small cubicles, echoes from the 'speaking' chamber reverberate into a rhythm that is similar to the human heartbeat.9

Links between this underground structure and above-ground megalithic temples are suggested by the depiction of two-dimensional megalith-shaped pillars, trilithons and 'doorways' carved into doorways and walls which closely resemble the style in which many structures within the islands stone temples were built. It was also the place where the famous terracotta figure called the 'Sleeping Lady' (see picture) was found which echo the larger-scale statues of Venus figures, which were sometimes incorporated into the temple structures such as Haga Qim for example.

This reverence for the earth, shown by interring the dead and conducting ceremonies underground, does not necessarily exclude a veneration for the heavens. Nor do we have to envisage a matricarchal cult competing with a patriarchal one, necesarily, in terms of the way we interpret the Venus statues of prehistory. Instead, both feminine and masculine should be seen as part of a larger worldview in which heaven and earth are considered to be related. This was equally true for the inventors of astrology, the Mesopotamians, who initially did not privlege sky omens above terrestrial ones. Any agricultural society is going to see a link between the two - the stars and weather omens telling farmers when to plant crops, amongst other things. As Michael Hoskin has pointed out, the heliacal risings and settings of constellations to 'mark the stages of the agrcultural year' has long been a part of traditional folk-lore:

In written form this goes back to the eighth century BC, when the Greek poet Hesiod incorporated such a calendar in his poem, Works and Days. When 'rosy-fingered dawn gazes on Arturus', for example, the grapes should be cut. Clearly Hesiod did not invent this calendar: he was availng himself of the wisdom acquired by farmers through long centuries of experience.10

Of course, at certain stages within a culture, one aspect may start to take on more importance, or be more emphasized than another. But this does not mean that the corresponding element is not considered to exist or have importance. I think this notion is borne out of our current default perspective, which is dualistic. I rather suspect that the ancients were more holistic in their cosmology, a worldview which I have been attempting to recover, particularly within the realm of astrology.

This aside, mining was equally important to many of prehistoric cultures. Mining by early humans seems to date back at least 300,000 years 11 and is therefore even older than farming, which is thought to have originated in the Middle East about 7000 years ago.

Given that minerals were located underground, or within the bowels of the earth, and therefore within the domain of an earth god or goddess, it is not hard to see how mines, caves and underground spaces may have also been considered sacred, and an excellent place to bury the dead - not just as a a way of enriching the soil for agricultural purpoes, but also as a way of ritually returning the individual to the womb of a mother goddess, or perhaps even as an offering to the presiding god or goddess of the underworld.

The act of removing precious metals from the ground may well have been considered a sacred act, judging by the votive offerings found in many ancient mining sites, including Egypt. Could some ancient cultural ideas concerning the sacred qualities and magical properties of certain minerals have been passed into alchemy. I wonder? Again, I have been at pains to point out the connection between alchemy and astrology, plants and minerals, partcularly in the hermetic tradition.

Naturally, one cannot make sweeping generalisations and universalizing statements that apply to all cultures everywhere, but is interesting that many similar, dare I say archetypal themes, do pop up in religions and cultures all over the globe. The common denominator - humans. Although I refuse to accept arguments based solely in biology as the reason for this cultural cross-over, though no doubt it does play a part.

On the whole, though, perhaps because of my studies into the ancient cosmologies of the Near East and Graeco-Roman Europe, I do choose to interpret the ancient megalithic sites of Malta in much the same way that Albrecht does:

Using the main structure of the temples which refers to circular sites, it can be shown that the temple builders belonged in the tradition of megalithic cultures where circular enclosures were used for determining the seasons and for performing annual rituals. Such monuments are found all over Europe. The sun played a central role in this. The temple itself is an image of the earth, a symbolic fusion of the human figure with the globe. It is the decorated stones and those female figures which additionally symbolise their religious ideas. Court and temple represented the opposing pair of sky and earth. With the relationship between Mother Earth Goddess on the one hand, and Father Sky God on the other, we have in the ancient Maltese religion a dual conception of the world which is complete in itself and archetypal, and which in its basic structure has lived on today in the various religions.

Notes and References

[1] Hoskin, 2001, pp. 27-29

[2] See: Ruggles et al at:>

[3] See:

[4] Clausen, Ole Einicke & Per Kjærgaard, Acta Archaeologica vol. 79, 2008, pp 216-229

[5] See Heath on the origins of the megalithic yard at:

[6] Gibraltar Museum,

[7] See Parker-Pearson’s summary of his current research projects at: In their own interpretation, the mummies are compared to Peruvian mummification techniques, which would imply even wider global contact between peoples if later proven to be a solid connection. See:

[8] See section on 1985 Malta Conference at:

[9] See:

[10] Hoskin, 2001, Tombs, Temples & their Orientation, p. 35

[11] See:

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Post-writing come-down

I've just handed in my dissertation after what can only be called four years of gruelling but exhilarating initiation at the University of Kent in Canterbury. It's been a long hard slog with lots of pitfalls along the way but I hope that all that angst and really heart-felt graft will prove worth it in the end.

The end product is not half as good as I would have hoped - it's such a poor reflection of all that it means to me or what I've learnt in the process of engaging with it. But I suppose everyone say that about their work.

In 'The Wounded Researcher', Robert Romanyshyn writes about the process of actively engaging with a topic and of the difficulty of giving voice to one’s intuitions, and of the failure to grasp the essence of a subtle world whose ‘presence is a space carved out by the absence of words.’

Which is exactly how I felt writing everything up. Despite over a year's worth of reading and thinking and having time to formulate my ideas, I feel as though I've only just scratched the surface of all the riches and wisdom that my topic had to offer and hope that in future I will get the opportunity to carry on that work.

Even during the process of writing, I felt my relationship with the material constantly changing. It's like an unfolding or unveiling of something that you sensed was there but couldn't quite grasp, like a delicious secret tanatalising you with veiled hints and clues, revealing itself to you bit by precious bit, but never enough to form solid ground from where you feel confident enough to say with confidence that you now understand and know anything with certainty. In trying to pin it down and give it substance and structure, you realise how poor your grasp of the whole thing has been and how much you have still to learn.

Yet the process is not without its rewards. In creating a space for it, and in giving it a voice, you suddenly find that it has a life and logic of its own and all you're really trying to do is listen to it and repeat what it is telling you that it wants to say. And that journey of discovery can be utterly thrilling and inspiring - you feel like you're on fire, alive, hyper-aware and in touch with a source of wisdom that is enchanting, powerful but also very old - an intelligence that has always been there, just waiting for you to see it's majesty and exquisite form.

Joseph Joubert wrote that 'Imagination is the Eye of the Soul' and, having spent so much with time with the work of Henry Corbin over the last few years, I am beginning to see what he meant.

In a way, writing for me is like divination. It is about listening as well as speaking, about letting something speak through you and acting as a medium for that message as best you can.

I am hoping that this space will allow me to refine myself as a writing instrument and provide a forum to share thoughts and ideas on topics that are dear to my heart, and that I hope will resonate with others too.

The title I have chosen for my blog is inspired by images used in the poetry of William Butler Yeats, a man who also seemed to have an interest in metaphysics and who. amongst other things, experimented with automatic writing and claimed that many of his metaphors, including the ascending spiral or gyre, which he used in poems such as 'The Second Coming.' I like the image because it suggests both a circular and a progressive image of time and growth - a movement that is both upward, in the case of a spire or tower, reaching heavenwards, (or downwards into the earth - I am not one to priviledge transcendence over immanence!) and cyclical. It offers a combination of the movement of nature, which moves in cycles, and a sense of growth, progression or movement during successive phases or repeats of this cycle until some sort of union or resolution is achieved.

As Ian McKea puts it, the gyre is 'a symbol of our unchanging silent origins, of nature, proud and noble, which like its offspring, art, outlives the human tragedy.'