by Alexis Martin Faaberg, PhD student, CIIS
In my view, the Xaghra Twins figurine found on the Maltese island of Gozo epitomizes a belief system steeped in gender equality that fostered a harmony with nature to create a sustainable regenerative environment. The items left with the dead, including red ocher, some small stone objects, and figurines, as well as myths of corpulent women are some of the elements that scholars are using to interpret the past on Malta. The Xaghra Circle was in use between 4,100 and 2,800 BC and archaeologists estimate that it held over 800 burials.
The Xaghra Twins
Careful study of the Xaghra Twins figurine, including its context, refutes the claims of some scholars who disregard the worship of the regenerative power of the female body as merely a depiction of a “fat lady.” These images provide a wealth of information Neolithic cultures are difficult to recreate due to the lack of written data; however, these sites often provide a wealth of artistic language that allows modern scholars to glimpse the past. Unfortunately, there is a tendency in academia to retrofit the symbols of the past to resemble our modern societies. Although the analysis of a single figurine may seem trivial, it is in fact crucial in terms of today’s concern over patriarchal attitudes towards women and the ecocide being waged against the very earth that sustains us. Ultimately, what is at stake within modern archeology is that if women, or their representations, are disregarded in our known history then modern women will be disregarded as well.
The archeologist Caroline Malone claims that very few of the figurines from Malta can be designated as female because “no systematic study has ever been undertaken where the material has been examined in detail” and has concluded that “the traditional ‘Fat Lady’ or goddess figurine, that is, the classic image of prehistoric Malta, is in fact no more female than it is male.” There is a major problem with the current academic circles denying goddess images based on their own inward prejudices or lack of knowledge. Esteemed archeologist Marija Gimbutas has done extensive work on identifying the language of goddess figurines, which clearly identifies gender in prehistoric art.
Xaghra Twins figurine
Analysis of the Xaghra Twins Figurine
The Xaghra Circle (sometimes referred to as the Broctorff Circle) is the most recently excavated site in Malta. Unfortunately, the site was poorly excavated and many archeologists have called into question the validity of the finds there due to their haphazard discovery. Later more systematic digging resulted in much more informative data. The most famous find is the Xaghra Twins statue, which depicts two skirted human figures. There is currently a debate about whether this image is male or female. The many fleshy female figurines found in Malta have led many to believe that the people worshiped a fertility goddess, which they connect to the culture’s lack of weapons for war. Some scholars have seized on the lack of a clear male deity to try to disregard theories of a Goddess cult on the islands by naming the faith of the prehistoric people as one of folly. In the article “The Death Cults of Prehistoric Malta” the authors suggest that the
worship of fertility may well have been a component of the prehistoric religion. But the recent findings argue that it would be a mistake to concentrate exclusively on any one facet or historical period: the prehistoric religion of Malta was not only an infatuation of fat females
These authors overlook what I consider an important point about the Neolithic religion: that when viewed as a whole, the Xaghra Twins point to more than a gendered female deity, but also to entirely different concepts of gender equality and fertility which consequently led to a sustainable egalitarian society.
Caroline Malone, and others, disagree with “some archeologists [who] have hypothesized that Maltese society may have been a powerful matriarchy dominated by priestesses, female leaders and mother goddesses,” because they believe this is some sort of overzealous feminism. The scholars who believe that many of the figurines from Malta are female also recognize many phallic images from the island as well. It is ironic that archeologists like Malone only question the validity of the female images, leading some to the conclusion that there is an unspoken gender bias within academia to only discover male artifacts. The artifacts, on the other hand, are unbiased. At Tarxien there is an abundance of female, phallus, plant, and animal imagery. Sharon Sultana, author of the Malta Insight Heritage Guides, states that some statues are considered to be “earth mothers” and acknowledges that there are male counterparts as well. She asserts, “There is the possibility that both sexes were venerated contemporarily.” This gender variety indicates a holistic worldview where all people were represented.
The symbolism imprinted on the Xaghra Twins figurine points to a society that was invested in the regenerative powers of the land and the female body. The figurine was found among the collective burial of the dead. The early Maltese were deliberate in their care of the deceased and appeared to show great reverence to death as a process. British archaeologist David H. Trump states, “early depositions were pushed back or ejected to make room for later [bodies]. This seems to indicate the widely-held view that personality remained with the bodies only so long as they were clothed in flesh.” The bodies were kept in rounded tombs and were built near above ground temples. Once the flesh decayed from the body and all of its nutrients had seeped into the soil the body was believed to have given life back to the earth through decomposition. Interestingly, this structure is mirrored in the shape design of both the tombs and the temples, indicating that their purpose was related. Trump seems to follow this claim by highlighting the value of red ocher, which the Maltese would have had to import. He says, “Hinting at strong religious beliefs, the bones were freely sprinkled with red ochre. This was used almost world-wide symbolically for blood, and so life.” The combination of the value placed on the decomposition as a way to nurture life and the use of red ocher to sprinkle new life onto the bodies of the dead points to a belief system focused on the preservation of the entire life cycle: birth, death and regeneration. The early Maltese seem to have believed that they could intensify the process through their death rituals and, thus, enhance the presence of life above ground.
Marija Gimbutas asserts the
Maltese temples were used for specific religious functions, particularly for rituals of death and regeneration. Maltese temples intriguingly occur in pairs […] representing death and regeneration, maturity and youth, or winter and spring.
Gimbutas references many reasons for these beliefs, but the most striking is that the bodies were often buried in a fetal position, as if being put back into the womb of the earth to be reborn. The Xaghra Twins may be reflecting the above ground temple structures and may possess similar religious significance. Ggantija, a large Neolithic Maltese temple, is situated near the Xaghra Circle where the twin figurine was found and has the same double goddess structure. Gimbutas explains the double goddess temple structure:
The alignment here is significant and we may suppose the larger temple to be the mother and the smaller the daughter of the divine family, or we may see them as a pair of sisters […] Still another possibility is that the representation is of two different aspects of the same Goddess, symbolizing youth and maturity, or death and regeneration
Gimbutas asserts that these figurines are extremely complex and cannot be classified as merely fertility figures or Venuses. The egg-shaped apses of the temple resemble the egg-shaped rounded burial tombs below ground. The temples and burial tombs likely worked in conjunction to enact the regenerative properties of the Maltese religious system to promote regenerative life.
Gimbutas also comments on the Xaghra Twins directly, saying that it “quite likely symbolizes reemerging new life.” Archaeology is evolving to incorporate the language of Neolithic art and understand the religion of the past without a modern overlay. In the introduction to her revolutionary work Language of the Goddess, Gimbutas asserts these ancient cultures “can best be understood on their own planes of reference, grouped according to their inner coherence. They constitute a complex system in which every unit is interlocked with every other.” The particular language of the Xaghra Twins, and the surrounding archeological finds, point to a belief system that is steeped in a co-creative process emphasizing regenerative life. The following paragraphs will illuminate the artistic language of the statue and its implications of the larger culture.
Xaghra Twins figurine
The Symbolism of the Xaghra Twin Figurine
In my view, the symbolic language of the Xaghra Twin figurine is an invocation for fertility and abundance. The most striking element of the statue is that there are two individuals, linked together by a pleated skirt. Gimbutas asserts that doubles equal intensification, which denotes potency or abundance. The doubling of the figures indicates that the symbolism of the figurine must have been of great importance to the culture that created it.
The second most striking symbol is the steaopygia, which is a further intensification symbol, but of fertility. Thus, the imagery of the statue can be viewed as a physical prayer to bring forth fertility and abundance. However, some scholars have argued that the Malta figurines are not purely steatopygous because their fat is distributed throughout their bodies. I concede that the larger statues are rounded throughout their bodies; however, the majority of the weight is situated around the buttocks and, therefore, should be acknowledged as having steaopygia.
Xaghra Twins figurine