Numinous statuettes of Malta from the late Neolithic (3200-2500 B.C.) are one of the unique expressions of the mysterious culture of megalithic builders who abruptly appeared and lived on the Island between 3800 and 2500 BC., scattering around it over twenty constructions, today referred to as temples (Biaggi 1986:131; Magli 2009:49). For this reason the period between around 3500-2500 BC. in Malta is usually “referred to as the Temple Period, during which this small and arid archipelago, composed of Malta, the nearby Gozo, and tiny Comino, [yet by] 3400 BC. [had already witnessed] one of the greatest architectural marvels of all human history, the Ggantija Temple, [believed by academics to be the second oldest temple in the world (just after Göbekli Tepe)]” (Magli 2009:47).
What is surprising, the activity of those megalithic masters living in Malta can be archeologically observed merely for one millennium; after this period they disappeared as unexpectedly and mysteriously as they came into being (Ibid.:48). As it is not possible to surely identify a real purpose of the megalithic ‘temples’ erected in Malta, it is not either likely to fully understand the idea of carved figures left in various sacred areas between the megaliths.
Females of prehistory
After Cristina Biaggi (1986:131) prototypes of Maltese figures either belong to the Palaeolithic or the Mediterranean Early Neolithic. Consequently, most of these statuettes are believed to represent females, who are additionally called deities, goddesses or women ascribed of divine powers or a high importance and status (Ibid.:131-138).
“[Some] figures are nude, other clothed, some do not show primary sexual traits, and all are obese” (Ibid.:131). Although each group shares certain characteristics and there are differences between them, their peculiar style of the carving is distinctive of Malta, for no other statuette looking like them has ever been found elsewhere in the Mediterranean (Ibid.:131).
The earliest women in Malta
Female figures of the so-called Grey and Red Skorba Phases represent the earliest Maltese female statues made of clay; they are naked and feature strongly emphasised sexual characteristics (Biaggi 1986:137). They do not look obese as later representations and usually measure up to ten centimetres in height.
With time, Maltese “[depictions] of the numinous tend to increase in size and elaboration or stylisation when a religion becomes entrenched in a society” (Biaggi 1986:137).
Among them, opulent but rather sexless representations of the Maltese divine womanhood probably look like legendary Maltese giantesses, who may have once dragged megalithic stones on their backs (Ibid. 131-137). They were either naked or partially clothed, and carved in various positions: standing, squatting or seated with their legs folded (Ibid.:131-132). Although not numerous, some of those ladies could reach almost three metres in height (Ibid.:132). They all are carved from Globigerina limestone, the local stone commonly used also for constructing the megalithic temples in Malta (Ibid.:131). Yet some figurines were also manufactured of alabaster-like stone, which was definitively imported, possibly from the mainland of modern Italy (Pace 2004:22). Such materials from beyond the archipelago may have had a special significance and value, and so did the objects made of it (Ibid.:22).
Refined sculpture of terracotta
Another group of statues, different in style but contemporary to the ‘giantesses’, are much smaller in size and made of clay; moreover, their physical appearance and attire clearly define females (Biaggi 1986:137). Similarly to the larger statues, they are also either naked or dressed (Ibid.:137). Although the Maltese type of female figures phased various metamorphoses, most of their representations were covered in paint of red ochre (Ibid.:131). Red ochre, “which may have been menstrual blood in its earliest manifestation, is the [colour] of fertility, death and rebirth – the [colour] of the [goddess]” (Ibid.:136).
Lying on a coach in the underworld
“About thirty of [those various] figures, ranging in [style and] size from [ten centimetres] to about [three metres] have been found in the […] Maltese temples and in the Hypogeum” (Biaggi 1986:131; see Maltese History in the Negative).
Among other Maltese statuettes and carvings, three particular figures have been found in the Hypogeum of Ħal Saflieni (Pace 2004:22). The statues belong to the group of smaller representations and are made of pottery (Biaggi 1986:137; Pace 2004:22). All the three statues are depicted while lying on a couch, possibly covered with a rush grass mattress (Pace 2004:22; Haughton 2009:163). The presence of such a coach seems to be symbolic as it also appears among the other type of female representations (Pace 2004:22). Although it today escapes a clear understanding, in all three cases, the base of the coach is rendered in a refined manner as an arrangement of framework (Pace 2004:22; Information boards in the National Museum Of Archaeology of Malta (Valetta) 2017). One of the carvings depicts something that looks like a fish, whereas the two others show definitely female figures (Information boards in the National Museum Of Archaeology of Malta (Valetta) 2017).
The first one, partially damaged in her lower part, reveals traces of red ochre; the woman is headless or decapitated, and she is lying face down on a coach (Pace 2004:22). The whole carving measures four centimetres height, nine centimetres length and almost six centimetres width (Ibid.:22). In turn, the second female statue has been preserved nearly complete, except some damage made in the area of her breast (Pace 2004:22; Haughton 2009:163). Also the left corner of the couch she is lying on is slightly broken and its shape is more oval in comparison to the previous two, which are more squared. The whole sculpture is seven centimetres high, twelve centimetres long and almost seven centimetres wide (Pace 2004:22). Slight traces of red ochre are also visible on it (Haughton 2009:163). The female figure is depicted in a lying posture similar to the ‘counched’ burial position, typical of an arrangement of the body in prehistoric graves (Pace 2004:22). She looks as if she was peacefully asleep. Thus the sculpture is widely known as Sleeping Lady or Sleeping Beauty. Nowadays, this female statue is also the symbol of the Neolithic ideal of femininity in Malta.
Face to face with mystery
Currently all the three terracotta statues are part of the exhibition in the National Museum Of Archaeology in La Valetta, Malta, where I have had an opportunity to study them, among other Maltese artefacts from the Temple Period. Whereas the two former figures, including the fish-like creature and a woman, lying down on her face, are exposed together in one display glass case, the Sleeping Lady, as the most privileged of all, not only has been provided with her own display case but also with a special room filled only with dimmed light, as if in fear of disturbing her dreams.
Fat but graceful
The Sleeping Lady is a highly refine representation of the reclining, excessively opulent but graceful woman (Pace 2004:22); she is lying on her right side on top of a couch, resting her head probably on a pillow that is slightly sagging under the weight of her head. While her right hand is delicately gripping the pillow, her left hand is resting on the corpulent forearm of her right hand. Like many other female Maltese statues, she is dressed in a bell-shaped skirt with fringes or pleating at the bottom, reaching halfway down the legs (Biaggi 1986:132).
The Lady’s opulent legs seem to be slightly bent at the knees, so the skirt only reveals their small lower part that looks like two hewn pegs instead of the feet, visible at the edge of the couch. The upper part of the woman’s body is naked, with a rather opulent abdomen in the form of a single roll of fat with a noticeable navel. Her large and full breasts are partially covered with her left arm. In proportion to the Lady’s enormously obese body, especially her excessively modelled bulbous arms, thighs and huge buttocks, whose details are discretely hidden under the material of the skirt, the figure’s hands and head seem extremely minuscule, as if they did not belong to the same person (Ibid.:132). Her face is oval with delicate features: two small horizontal lines resemble closed eyes, “the nose wide with a definite ridge, the mouth [tiny and barely visible]” (Ibid.:132). Her hair is close to the head but long, reaching her arms (Ibid.:132).
Natural and artificial obesity
Obesity of the Maltese statues from the Temples Period, which is also evident in the case of the Sleeping Lady, seems to have been really important as it appears in all contemporary types of female figurines, either clothed or nude, including those with rather asexual characteristics (Biaggi 1986:137-138).
It possibly “implied power, sanctity, [and] strengthened their [aesthetic-symbolic] connection with the temples, which they resembled in shape”. (Ibid.:138). Following “the law of mimetic magic, [obesity may also] have had a magical function to [favour] fecundity, [for example], the growth of vegetation” (Ibid.:138). Nevertheless, Cristina Biaggi (1986:138) assumes that in contract to natural obesity, the artificial overweightness, possibly represented by a far-reaching stylisation of sculpted female representations was “a product of patriarchal culture because it presupposes the loss of woman’s control over her own body, which is not a characteristic of early Goddess worshipping cultures” (Ibid.: 138).
Lady of the Temple Period
Like other Maltese figures, the Sleeping Lady “dates back to the island’s [mysterious] prehistory, specifically to the thousand-year span, [between circa 3500 to 2500 BC.]” (Magli 2009:47). Due to the high quality of the sculpture, and the belief that its image expresses the numinous of an already well-established religion, it is believed to date back to a later period, that is, between 3000 and 2500 BC. (Biaggi 1986:137; Haughton 2009:163). The fact is, however, that the exact date of the figure is unknown and provided dating is merely modern guessing.
The final resting place of the ‘Sleeping Lady’
As mentioned above, “[this remarkable] gem [of Malta] was unearthed in one of the world’s most singular and enigmatic places, the Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni” (Magli 2009:47). Precisely, the statuette was found either in one of the niches of the Hypogeum’s Main Chamber (Zone A) or, more likely, in a nearby deep pit or a cavity (Zone B), also referred to as the Snake Pit (Pace 2004:39,48; Haughton 2009:163) or “the final resting place of the ‘Sleeping Lady’” (Pace 2004:48). The pit is one of numerous examples of a high quality of craftsmanship applied in the Hypogeum (Ibid.:48). The discovery of the Sleeping Lady in that cavity would suggest it “may have once served as a repository of votive offerings” (Ibid.:48). Moreover, alongside the pit, between two decorated pillars, there is a shaft leading to the most mysterious place of the construction, the Third Level (possibly the deepest in the Hypogeum), where visitors are not allowed to descend (Ibid.:48). The ceiling of the elliptical chamber, where the pit is located, is additionally covered in abstract paintings, representing spirals, polygons and plant-like patterns, all made with red ochre (Ibid.:48). Such a decoration equally evokes a rather religious purpose of the site (Ibid.:48). In such circumstances, the terracotta statue may have been deposited in the pit as a burial offering possibly representing death seen as an eternal dream or the afterlife (Pace 2004: 22 Haughton 2009:164).
In the Hypogeum, which is usually interpreted as the subterranean temple of the dead and the necropolis, the deceased were buried accompanied by offerings of significant and religious funerary objects, which also included sophisticated artworks, such as the Sleeping Lady (Pace 2004:22). The meaning of the funerary custom of deposing valuable offerings alongside the dead is unknown but, likewise in other ancient cultures, as Egypt, they were definitely to accompany the deceased in their way to the afterlife and to reveal their high social status in front of their mysterious deities (Ibid.:22).
Is it the Mother Goddess or a priestess?
Along with other figurines from the Mediterranean region, the Sleeping Lady has sometimes been used as a testimony to support the theory of the universalism of the Mother Goddess or the Great Peacemaker Goddess who was worshiped in prehistory (Haughton 2009:163-164). It is a theory advocated by researchers such as Marija Gimbutas and Vicki Noble (Ibid.:164; see Noble 2000). It is the fact that “[the] worship of the Great Goddess was universal from the upper Paleolithic to the late Neolithic in Europe and the Near East, [and the] Maltese goddess figures represented the very stylised visual manifestation of that worship in Malta” (Biaggi 1986:137).
However, apart from female figurines, there is no other evidence of the universality of this peaceful matriarchy cult, and the finds of weapons and fortifications dating back to the same period weaken the argument reinforced by the contemporary female sculpture (Haughton 2009:164). Moreover, Cristina Biaggi (1986:137) claims that the Sleeping Lady, as much as the other female lying on her face, does not represent a goddess but a priestess “engaged in dream incubation [or] an adept in giving oracles, interpreting dreams, or suggesting cures for illness” (also see: Krzak 2007:85).
Entering an incubation dream
The whole religious rite of falling into an incubation dream may have consisted in the fact that priestesses or priests, or both, went to the tomb, or to a cave or temple, and during their sleep they would obtain divinations from deities or ancestors, or seize their vital forces (Krzak 2007:85). This was considered in classical times in Greece and Rome, where such practices were certified as early as in the second century AD. (Ibid.:85). Aristotle, Diodorus and Pausanias all testify in writing about such cult dreams (Ibid.:85). Apart from Malta, the incubation also played a special role in North Africa, Libya and Sardinia (Ibid.:85). To this day, similar beliefs are found among Berbers in Maghreb and among people in Ireland (Ibid.:85).
This interesting theory tells that the Sleeping Lady – a goddess or not, a sleeping woman or in a trance – possibly points to a place in the Hypogeum, where dreams or visions were interpreted by means of incubation rituals (Haughton 2009:164). Such a dark area underground would be ideal for stimulating similar states and for inducing dreams and visions (Ibid.:164).
But who modelled the figurine? “No one knows if the sculptor who carved [the Sleeping Lady] was inspired by his own beloved or was simply following an established model of an idealised female form” (Magli 2009:47). Giulio Magli (2009:47) “[leans] towards the first hypothesis, because, [as he claims] the sculpture is a masterpiece, the infusion of the creative soul into [hardly twelve] centimetres of [terracotta] statuette”.
Featured image: The clay figure of a reclining lady (Sleeping Lady) was found in one of the pits of the Hypogeum in Hal Saflieni in Malta. It has traces of red ochre paint. Temple Period, 4000 – 2500 BC. National Museum of Archaeology in Malta. Photo by Jvdc (2009). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo by Jvdc (2009). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “National Museum of Archaeology, Malta” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.
“National Museum of Archaeology, Malta” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3uXG194>. [Accessed on 4th March, 2021].
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Magli G. (2009). Mysteries and Discoveries of Archaeoastronomy: From Giza to Easter Island. Praxis Publishing. Ltd.
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Vicki N. (2003) The Double Goddess. Women Sharing Power. Rochester, Vermont: Bear & Compony.