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Guze Cassar Pullicino

HarirFebruary 10, marking the shipwreck of St Paul on our shores is observed as a public holiday in Malta and Gozo. Since olden times the Maltese Islands have looked up to St Paul as their patron saint, and around the figure of this great Apostle have risen a number of traditions that have served to keep alive the memory of St Pauls stay in these islands.

These traditions are often tied to the surroundings in which they arise, enshrined in colourful legends and beliefs which give a popular version of St Paul's shipwreck and the conversion of these islands to Christianity.

The following examples, which include the interpretation given by the folk to explain certain place-names, illustrate the peoples basic belief in the shipwreck of St Paul as recounted by St Luke in The Acts of the Apostles (Chapters 27 & 28).

From time immemorial St Paul's Bay has been pointed out as the bay in which the shipwreck occurred. St Paul's Islets, at the entrance of the bay, are believed to mark the place where the ship bearing the Apostle actually struck. Ghajn Razul (The Apostles Fountain) is the name of a spring opposite the Veccia Restaurant in the bay. It is said that St Paul first caused the water to gush forth from the rock and then baptised the people with its waters. Another version tells us that the Apostle made the water come forth in order to give to his fellow sailors to drink as they were thirsty after the storm and the shipwreck.

According to tradition it was at San Pawl Milqghi that the Apostle was met and received (from the Maltese milqugh) by Publius, the chief man of the island, whose father "lay sick of a fever and a bloody flux".

The people of Nxxar believe that they were the first to go the aid of the shipwrecked men. They derive their village name, Naxxar, from the Maltese naxar, "to hang clothes to dry". In this context it commemorates the place where the Apostle and his friends refreshed themselves after the storm. As if to confirm the belief that St Paul was first received at Naxxar, the coat-of-arms of this village bears the words Prior credidi - "I was the first to believe".

Other traditions refer to statues, churches or places visited by the Apostle. Near today's Gillieru Restaurant in St Paul's Bay there is a small church - the third one to be erected on this site. Folk memory recalls that in olden days people referred to the church as Tal-Huggiega (of the bonfire), because it was believed to mark the place where the Maltese kindled a fire to warm the shipwrecked company, as described by St Luke in the Acts.

St Paul's Grotto in Rabat is held to be the cave in which the Apostle lived and prayed during his three months stay on the island. As for the Cathedral Church at Mdina, it has been handed down by tradition that this church was erected on the original site of the palace of Publius.

A small church at Birkirkara, dedicated to St Paul, marks the place where, according to tradition, the Apostle stopped to preach to the people.

Another small church, at Marsalforn in Gozo, figures in a tradition that St Paul during his stay paid a visit to Gozo and landed at Marsalforn, where this small church was erected to his memory. Another tradition in Gozo states that St Paul was heard, preaching from Malta, at Mgarr ix-Xini, near Xewkija.

Folk memory recalls that the statue of the Apostle in front of the small church at San Pawl tat-Targa, on the outskirts of Naxxar, is situated on the spot where St Paul used to preach and from where his voice was heard even in Gozo.

It is commonly held in these islands that venomous snakes cannot exist here, as St Paul has taken the poison out of their bite and that, even if a poisonous snake were to be brought here, it would be rendered harmless as soon as it reaches land. This belief is based on the account of the viper given by St Luke in the Acts.

The Apostle figures in a historical legend relating how, in 1470, our island was invaded by the Moors. For three days thay laid preparations for the final assault on Mdina, when St Paul was seen riding a beautiful horse, dressed in a starry garb, wielding a sword and attacking the Moorish camp. The arrows aimed against St Paul returned upon the Moors and put them to flight.

Some of these legends linger on as learned traditions or survive among old villagers and peasants, while others are no longer heard. Their inclusion here provides an insight into the Maltese popular mind.

(Courtesy: AL4LTA - This Month, Feb. 97, Advantage Advertising Ltd., Republic Street, Valletta, Malta)




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