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MHA - Albert Agius 17 March 2014Our Speaker for the month of March was Mr Albert Agius, a well-known personality within the Maltese Community in Melbourne. He acknowledged other learned researchers, in particular Ġużè Cassar Pullicino and Castagna before him, both of whom are strong pillars in the field of Maltese culture and folklore.

 He started off by talking about the superstitions and beliefs that our ancestors used to cherish.  The Maltese are not alone in believing certain superstitions.  Many people all over the world believe that  some misfortune will befall somebody who breaks a mirror or walks under a ladder.  Depending on the circumstances, something can be an omen of good luck as well as of bad luck.  

Pirates of the 19th century believed that if a black cat walks towards you, it’s a sign of bad luck, but good luck if it walks away from you. The Scottish believe that a strange black cat’s arrival to the home signifies prosperity, while in the English Midlands, a black cat as a wedding present is thought to bring good luck to the bride!

 Mr Agius then went on to explain many other Maltese superstitions, amongst which were:

1) The number 13 and Friday:

In some countries Friday the 13th brings fear in some people. This has a big financial impact.  We know that many people will refuse to fly, buy a house, or act on the stock exchange on Friday the 13th. This phobia has a strong connection with religion.  There were 13 people present at the Last Supper, so anything connected to the number 13 from then on was bad luck.

As for Friday, not only was Christ crucified on that day, but some biblical scholars believe that Eve tempted Adam with the forbidden fruit on a Friday. Perhaps the most significant is a belief that Abel was slain by his brother Cain on Friday the 13th.

Many people take great attention to not have thirteen people around a table for lunch/dinner because one of them would die within 24 hours!


2) Dreams and their meaning:

A person who goes to bed and manages to have a good sleep had better think about what he dreams. If his dream is about too much leisure and an easy life, it means that he will be unemployed for a long time and will therefore suffer hunger. If he dreams about the sea, it means that he will pass through a turbulent time. On the other hand, who dreams about fish should be glad because he would become lucky – obviously he must not dream about the fish in the sea (which means turbulence!). They say that people who dream about wheat will shed a lot of tears because of a tragedy that would befall him.

3) Pregnancy:

A pregnant woman often opens up a strong freakish appetite when she smells or sees food. She must be given some of the food to satisfy the craving because otherwise the baby will be born with a birth-mark. Some women take at least two bites just in case they were having twins. If the pregnant woman’s craving is not satisfied, they would often offer her some toasted bread or something with a very strong smell. Whoever  does not offer food to a pregnant woman with such craving will  have a stye (xgħira) grow around his eye.                            

A pregnant woman should not look at a dead person or the unborn child will have a tendency to swoon (tgħoxa) when it cried. The same would happen if a pregnant woman sees a deformed person. When this happened they would advise her to go and look at her reflection in the water in a basin (friskatur) and then wash her face with the same water.

In Maltese we have a proverb which states: ‘Sal-erbgħin il-qabar miftuħ’, which when translated means literally, ‘the coffin is open upto forty’. Nowadays this can be explained as meaning that a woman who has given birth should be careful because her health is at risk for 40 days after delivery.  In the old days, this had a different meaning. Canon Agius De Soldanis (1712-1770) explains that if, during the first forty days after delivery, the woman meets another mother who has just been through the same experience, one of them would die!

4) Some odd proverbs:

Some people used to believe that a male who is born on the feast of the Assumption (Santa Marija which is on the 15th of August) would very likely become a horse jockey later in life : Twelid f’Santa Marija jiġi msejjaħ għat-tiġrija. (Born on St Mary’s Feast he is called for the racing).

The second one is about girls. If a girl is born on a Friday, she must expect that some day she will be bitten by a dog on a Friday (Tifla titwieled nhar ta’ Ġimgħa fl-istess jum il-kelb jigdimha. (A girl born on Friday will be bitten by a dog on the same day)

5) The Evil eye:

The evil eye is a malevolent look that many cultures believe is able to cause injury or misfortune for the person at whom it is directed for reasons of envy or dislike. Not all people have the power of inflicting injury or bad luck by such an envious or ill-wishing look. The evil eye is usually given to others who remain unaware.

Everybody in Malta has his or her own interpretation of the Għajn or the evil eye  -  and everybody has a different experience to tell. The common belief is that a person can place a curse on you just by looking your way.  As weird as it may seem the evil eye (L-Ghajn) is commonly accepted as ‘a fact’ – even by the Church (according to some people). The belief in the evil eye in Malta is certainly very wide spread.

There are many different beliefs as to how to guard or protect against the evil eye. Some people believe, for example, that putting a line of salt on the floor behind your front door will prevent the evil eye from entering your house. There is a much stronger belief that a house can be cleansed of negative energies, by burning olive tree leaves while saying prayers. This is known in Maltese as ‘It-Tbaħħir’.

Many houses in Malta have cow-horns hanging from walls to protect the home from the evil eye.  In Malta (and in other countries such as Italy) it is believed that making the sign of the Qrun (direct translation is “bull’s horn”) will deflect such evil. The Qrun is done when you point your index finger and your little finger, and it is considered permissible to do such a sign behind your back to ward off any evil.

The funny thing is that people, especially children form this Qrun when wishing to curse others’ good luck by invoking the Bedudu such as when playing marbles for example.  So sometimes the Qrun made by the hand is made to protect against the bad luck and in some other instances used to wish bad luck on others.


Mr Agius then turned his attention to the Maltese Bogeyman.

There are a number of names given to various ‘spectres’ in Maltese mythology, amongst which one finds il-Fatat, il-Ħares and the Babaw or Gagaw.

The Kaw Kaw (or Gaw-Gaw or Babaw) is a 'slimy greyish bogey man' who strolls the streets at night. He could uncannily smell the breath of naughty boys and he would stretch his snail-like body until he reaches the windows on the first floor, and he would then infiltrate himself through any crack or fissure, ventilator or other opening. Once inside the room he would grin with his toothless gaping mouth and frighten the naughty boy out of his wits or, worse still, make him have the most horrid dreams and wake up screaming with fear and sweating cold. 

Other people have a totally different understanding of the Gaw Gaw. For example, Peter Paul Castagna (1827-1907) said that all those who were born on Christmas Eve would, during their sleep, change and become a phantom on their birthday. They would go and roam the streets and with their baying like wild dogs, frighten everyone. Before dawn they would then return home to their beds exhausted and take back their human form as they wake up. This activity was said to be  a punishment because Jesus did not wish anybody to be born at the same time as he did!

It is said that many women used to go and check on their husbands and their children to ensure that they were still asleep in their bed during the night.  Some other silly people used to say that in order to get rid of this weird situation, one had to take a sieve (għarbiel or passatur) in their hands and stay up all night from eleven until the Pater Noster (6 am) counting the number of holes in the sieve !!

Mr Agius said that he was convinced that at some stage during our childhood in Malta we were all intimidated by the BABAW. When we were naughty our parents often used to make us behave by mentioning this kind of goblin that would bring some evil to us. He would punish us in some way for our misbehaviour. Most children certainly became aware of, and  believed in, the existence of such a being. Most probably everyone  had a different image of what the Babaw was.

Some parents used to scare their children by telling them that if they persisted in their misdemeanour, they would be put in a sack by someone and taken away from the family. More often than not, the man in question would be ‘Tal-Ħabbgħażiż’, one of the men of North African origin who used to roam the streets hawking their wares, mostly Oriental sweets and seeds or nuts.  

Mr Agius then spoke about the ‘Hares’ and the ‘Fatat’. He admitted that he was not sure whether he knew the difference between Il-Fatat  and Il-Ħares. To him both were some sort of phantom mentioned in old wives’ tales.

Accordingly, he looked up the dictionaries in an effort to find out the difference between them.  According to Erin Serracino Inglott, ‘Il-Fatat’ is a shadow of a dead person, or even somebody imagined which generally appears at night. It is like a soul or a spirit which through some magic, one imagines seeing in front of him especially in a house where the spectre used to inhabit.

Regarding ‘Il-Ħares’ Serracino Inglott says that the old meaning referred to a phantom which used to be found in old houses to protect the tenants from trouble. It was a phantom that did not do any damage. Castagna confirms that the Ħares takes the form of a serpent and that he protects the house. He also brings good fortune to any babies born in the house.

It is for this reason that serpents should not be killed, because if they are they bring bad luck to the family. 

Although the majority of people believe that the Ħares does not do any damage and does not bring harm to the family, many people still choose to not go and live in a haunted house.

After the lecture many in the audience participated in a discussion mainly in relation to the ‘spectres’. There was a difference of opinion as to what a ‘fatat’ was. One suggestion was a ‘Fairy-like’ creature to the other extreme of a ‘poltergeist’.  Equally an opinion was expressed that the word babaw originated from Venice (the word is Bauta, meaning the mask and cape worn by carnival revellers in Venice). Other spectres were mentioned such as the Belliegha and  Wahx. Others had their own family name for such notions. Maybe this subject should be researched in greater detail for a future talk.

An excellent presentation.

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