With over 7,000 years of history behind it, it’s hardly surprising that Malta has birthed the odd legend or two along the way. Malta and its islands on the Maltese archipelago have logged appearances in Homer’s Odyssey and The Bible, and the mainland itself has even been proposed as the site of Atlantis. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that history can be traced back further here than almost anywhere else – even Egypt – with some of the oldest and best-preserved Megalithic temples found on the island. Whatever the reason for the proliferation of Maltese myths and legends, one thing’s for sure – they’re not going to fade any time soon. From St Paul’s Shipwreck to the island of Ogygia and the Il-Maqluba sinkhole, here are some of the most enduring yarns Malta has to tell.
Located just 80 metres off the coast of Mellieħa is Selmunett, also known as St Paul’s Island. According to The Bible, in 60 AD Paul the Apostle – who stood accused of religious rebellion – was on the way to Rome to appeal to Caesar when his ship was caught in a storm. The ship was wrecked on the Maltese island and Paul was able to swim to safety. According to the story, it was Paul and his missionaries who brought Christianity to Malta, and there is some supporting evidence for this – it was one of the first Roman colonies to convert.
It is often posited that Gozo is the legendary Ogygia, the island home of the nymph Calypso. In Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, this is where Odysseus was shipwrecked and ultimately held captive by Calypso for seven years. A widely held local legend, a number of historians also seem to back up the assertion, including Greek historian Callimachus. The cave where Odysseus is thought to have been held captive is known as Calypso’s Cave, and it overlooks the Ramla l-Ħamra beach.
Neither Biblical, nor classical in origin, the Maltese myth attributed to the il-Maqluba sinkhole is nonetheless a compelling one. Il-Maqluba, meaning the upside down, or upturned, is a geographical wonder with a perimeter of 300 meters, said to have been caused by a storm that struck in 1343, when the underlying limestone strata, or doline, collapsed. So far, so scientific. However, according to legend, it was the site of a village where residents lived unholy lives – with only one devout woman being spared when the ground opened up. It’s now renowned for being an area of natural beauty with a number of rare plants, trees and fungi.
One of the most enduring Maltese myths on the island is that of St Paul and The Viper. In the Book of Acts it is claimed that while Paul was collecting firewood, a snake bit him on the hand. The Maltese locals were sure that he would die from such a bite, but instead, Paul suffered no ill affects. Proof, they believed, that he was indeed a god, although many have debated the species of the viper since.
First described by Plato, the sunken city of Atlantis has exerted a strong hold over the popular imagination. For some, this myth is just that, to others (including amateur archaeologists and theorists), the actual geographical location is something worthy of serious investigation. While there’s no firm consensus on where it was – although it’s agreed that it certainly isn’t under water – Malta remains a strong contender. The reason? The island is home to some incredibly ancient structures, including the Ġgantija temples, the Ta’ Ħaġrat Temples and the Skorba Temples. The oldest of which date back to 3600 BC, making them some of the oldest ruins in the world. Are these really the remnants of Atlantis’ lost civilization? Who knows, but they certainly look impressive.