All of this use of the temple sites for rituals of initiation, death, fertility, rebirth and life finds a direct echo underground at the site of the Hypogeum near the Tarxien temple on Malta, and its ‘twin’ site, the Brochtorff Hypogeum at Xaghra, near the Ggantija temple on Gozo. The Brochtorff site was earlier, dating from 4,000 BCE and in use for some 1,500 years. It is probable that the Malta Hypogeum was modelled on it. The Brocktorff site consisted of a series of interlocking natural caves [diagram in GA2 p.15], while the Malta Hypogeum was carved out of the living rock, but both sites were obviously sacred shrines for rites concerning the dead and their connection with the Goddess. At both places there is a link between the underground site and a nearby above-ground temple site: Brocktorff & Ggantija on Gozo and the Hypogeum & Tarxien on Malta.
At the Brochtorff Hypogeum the dead were placed in collective chambers that were either in caves or in tombs cut into the rocks. A variety of gifts were interred with the dead, including pottery, bone and stone beads and pendants, stone axes, shell pendants, and shell and bead necklaces. Red ochre, used to denote life and rebirth, was spread lavishly over the grave goods and over the dry white bones of the dead. At the entrance to one of the chambers stood a small upright standing stone with a carved face guarding the doorway. Later, a circle of stones was constructed above the site, while below more small niches were created for the deposition of the bones of the dead. Grave goods included carefully modelled ceramic figurines of the Goddess, or priestesses of the cult site.
One unique twin-figured figurine [below] shows a beautifully carved and painted pair of females, one holding what may be a baby in her lap, the other a cup, both symbols of fertility and rebirth. This was not simply a place for the dead, but for the living to connect with the dead, and for the dead to come to the afterlife and to rebirth and regeneration.
The same can be said for the Hypogeum on Malta. This amazing place was begun in 3,600 BCE and not completed until 2,500 BCE. It covers an area of 34 sq metres and consists of at least 34 interconnected chambers on at least 3 levels, carved directly out of limestone. The Hypogeum reproduces a temple underground, since its main hall looks like the facades of the aboveground Maltese temples, and it has the domed roof that the aboveground temples originally had.
Of its three levels, the upper one seems to have been the ‘temple’ site (most of which has now been destroyed); the middle one, which consists of egg-shaped chambers, was the level for initiation and prophecy for living participants; and the lower one was for the dead, housing thousands of bones which were deposited here in a disarticulated fashion, having first been excarnated outside. This indicates that the site had a ritual rather than simply a burial function.
The entrance of the site faces NNW, the direction of the midwinter solstice sunset, the time of death and rebirth. It has also been observed that the time of year when the light best penetrates the interior is around the summer solstice, which is the opposite point of the year from the winter solstice alignment. It is as if the two pivotal points in the year’s cycle were harmonized in a ritual interplay between darkness and death and light and rebirth.
In addition, the two lower levels were decorated with red ochre, symbol of the blood of life contained within the darkness. There were also interlacing spiral carvings on the walls and ceilings, symbolising the Tree of Life pregnant with the fruit of new life. About this site Marija Gimbutas says:
“The Hypogeum… represents the Goddess’ regenerative womb. This image of the tomb-as-womb, combined with symbols of regeneration, add further testimony that the hypogea and burial tombs of Malta were sacred ceremonial sites for ritual participation in the great round of death and rebirth”.
Rock-cut chambers in the Hypogeum
So what did these ceremonies consist of? There are plenty of clues to help us. Firstly, the central chamber of the Hypogeum is almost exactly circular, with niches dug out of the side just the right size for people to curl up into the foetal position. These were probably dream incubation chambers. Having ingested drugs, or having been brought to a state of trance, the participants would go into the chambers to dream. “To sleep within the Goddess’ womb was to die and come to life anew”. Joe Bezzina has also suggested that pregnant women went to sleep there so that the souls of their ancestors could enter the foetus in order to re-incarnate. The participants would then make an offering to the Goddess. Next to the large chamber was a deep pit, at the bottom of which was found statuettes, such as the exquisite ‘Sleeping Lady’, plus another similar statuette of a woman sleeping on her front. Both these statuettes are now in a special room at the Archaeological Museum in Valetta, where subdued lighting ensures that they can still continue their sleep undisturbed!
After waking from their death-like sleep, the participants could have had their dreams interpreted. Down the end of a short corridor from the dream incubation chamber is a small room with an opening, known as the Oracle Hole.
A deep voice speaking into this hole reverberates through the whole Hypogeum, and would have been an impressive and dramatic way for a priest/ess to ‘carry’ the voice of the Goddess to the waiting participant. The hole here is the same size, carved at the same angle, and is at the same distance from the floor as in the above-ground temples.
All of this points to the Hypogeum providing a deeply spiritual and chthonic experience for the participants who came here to connect with the world of the dead, the spirits and the Goddess. Marija Gimbutas sums it up:
“The oval architecture, life and energy symbols painted in red, votive offerings of miniature sleeping women, a fish on a dish-like support, vases decorated with eggs and crescent-horned bulls – all inform us that the Hypogeum was not merely a necropolis, but a place of sacred mysteries concerning dying and rebirth”.
Furthermore, the placing of amulets and figurines in such subterranean tombs perhaps indicates a belief in the strengthening of life power at the moment of death. At any rate, we have here in the Hypogeum the incredible fusion of some of the features from the Temple sites taken underground into the world of the dead.
But to these people, the dead were only an extension of the living. The living and the dead interacted together through the world of spirit, and were both aspects of the same Goddess. The Maltese Temple and Hypogeum sites tell us about a people to whom life, death and rebirth were all part of the same continuum, and who accessed that world through ritual, ceremony, offerings, oracles, dreams and prophecy. Over 5,000 years ago these people had a spirituality we can only begin to reach out to and strive for today.
Part 1 of this article appeared in GA! 17.