Malta and Monotheism: A Response to Freud’s Moses and Monotheism

By Richard G. Ll. Kendall


Moses was Maltese

You land at around noon. The airport is small and undistinguished, and an hour’s walk, or so your phone tells you, from the capital city. You decide to try it out; ill-prepared, as would soon become clear, for Mediterranean roadsides or, indeed, for Mediterranean drivers. You cling to the barriers with the cars careering past as you begin to understand the ubiquity of Catholic shrines on the buildings you pass. It’s not a nice walk. Even on safer ground you find yourself uneasy; the houses are dilapidated, and the Maltese language you see around you seems designed to test and expose the limitations of the Latin script. It’s over two hours before you reach Valetta, your concern for bodily safety imposing a circuitous route to your phone’s chagrin. The landscape has improved; the grand Victoria Gate greets you as you arrive, and the untidy and clustered high-rises begin to give way to bright-white arcades and boulevards as you approach the capital proper.

Inside the walls it is a different country. Caravaggio contends with the Templar for tourists’ attention, and the steep passages and cobbled streets transport you back in time just as the guidebook prophesied. You grab a Coke from a kiosk opposite a WWII memorial; you buy an ice cream, and sit on medieval steps in the shadow of a Roman temple. Everything you can see is very precisely History, with dates and people and faces, and as you wander through the churches and monuments you can ingest and forget them all as quickly as you have your fast-melted treat. It seems almost unnecessary to visit the National Museum in the city; but it’s there, so you do.

You go in expecting more dates and Great Men to follow. You prime yourself for long captions that explain to you in stuttering English the contents of a cloudy Perspex box of old bullets and bayonets. You think you will learn about the skirmishes and conversion of a country whose primary interest to you before today had been its £12.99 return flight. That’s what you’re there for, that’s what you want; a museum to tick off the itinerary, a space to walk through and depart.

But pagan deities were capricious and unmindful of their people, and the passage of time has made them no more amenable to our terms. And so it is that you find not texts, nor dates, or names; nor are there maps to be stared at and misunderstood; nor even Great Men to root for or against. It is instead a woman that confronts you as you enter the gallery: a huge, fatty faceless woman in stone towering above you like a great flame. She must be eight-foot high, and five-foot wide, unlike any being of this earth; and her featureless face confronts you with an enigmatic demand that you cannot decipher. The guidebook is of little help.

You stand and you gawp for several minutes at the sculpture, as the initial guttural shock cools into the detachment of modern authority. A fertility goddess, of course, you remark, mentally jotting it down as your eyes pass over her gargantuan breasts. Clothed from the waist down, you observe, noting the decoration on the hem as if you were shopping for a partner. But it is no use; you are unable to compartmentalise this… encounter. How you long for the Perspex glass!

As you turn yourself from the enormous woman, you see her again repeated in miniature in every direction around you. There she sits on a couch, only half a foot high; there she reclines on a bed, only a few inches or so long, lying down as though on the verge of explaining some childhood trauma to Dr Freud, or to be painted by his grandson. You begin to see too the swirling patterns of her dress in the architectural fragments on display; the never-ending circles of untold age repeating themselves over and over again, and morphing slowly into the guise of deer and cows. The great curves of the woman’s numerous bodies seem suddenly to expand out into the small gallery, pressing in upon you some inarticulate truth. You escape, your breath heavy; your mind a whirling cipher of thoughts, images and emotions you cannot hope to untangle in a thousand lifetimes. You buy a postcard for €0.69 and a pencil with a little plastic Templar Knight on the end from the gift shop before you go to settle yourself into some godawful Maltese trattoria and pull out your holiday reading.

If Moses was Maltese…

As should now be clear, Moses was an émigré not, as has previously been supposed, from the court of the Pharaoh Akhenaten (to whom history has erroneously attached the invention of monotheism), but of that far older societal collapse: the end of the temple period of Maltese prehistory. We shall briefly relay our reasons for this, before considering the implications of this recognition on our understanding of Judaism, and of its offspring Christianity. 

Firstly, of course, the onomastic evidence of both Moses himself and the name he gave his son by Zipporah, Gershom. The name of Moses, the father and the greater man, has an undeniable phonetic resemblance to the name of the main island of Malta (both start with the same Hebrew character מ); while his son’s name alludes very strongly to Gozo, the smaller of the two major islands that comprise the modern state. That Gershom’s name is explained in the Torah as meaning ‘foreigner there’, for Moses states ‘I have become a foreigner in a foreign land’, only underlines the clarity of this evidence. 

Second is the proof of Moses’ foreign origin that, admittedly, others have highlighted. His natal myth of being drawn out of the water has already been deduced by all respected scholars to be a cover for the prophet’s true origins, but rarely has it been considered that the reason for the aquatic element in this tale is a direct link to his background from an island community. His slowness of speech, moreover, has been commented on as an indication of his poor proficiency in Hebrew, which was to be expected in one brought up far to the west of the lands of the Israelites. However, equally, it is true that in history certain cycles repeat themselves. There exists a rhythmical flow to the passing of cultures; and I believe it to be a not-unwarranted inference to claim that the later colonisation of the islands of Malta by the Phoenicians, or – as earlier scholarship more correctly referred to them – the Canaanites, in the eighth century BC, demonstrates the common pattern of contact between the cultures of Malta and the Levant, stretching back to the period of Moses’ migration. Indeed, if we were to posit that the cause of the societal collapse on the islands of Malta was – as has been convincingly argued – the result of colonisation by an invading army likely from the Near East, we may see in the Israelites’ later animosity to the Canaanites a residual bitterness for the treatment of their founder’s homeland by the latest iteration of peoples in the area.

Finally, we may observe that the subsequent narrative of the exodus makes little to no sense without the narratological balance provided by the historical truth of Moses’ migration across sea. As many have noted, in both learned and belligerent terminology, it simply isn’t far enough from Egypt to Jerusalem to warrant a forty-year hike; no one can be that bad at directions. Rather, this absurd extension of the timescale of the exodus serves to counterbalance the indeed extended period which Moses, escaping from Malta, must have endured across sea before washing up on Egypt’s shore. Fortunately, of this we have literary testimony, though the Greeks, a race whose brilliance was matched only by their kleptomania, in hearing of this legendary voyage translated it into their own mythological language, renaming the hero after their own Odysseus, and staging the fight in Troy rather than the more accurate location of the Maltese islands. Indeed, a shame-faced recognition of their cultural vandalism is found in the poet’s location of the realm of Calypso, where the protagonist spends seven of his ten years at sea based, on the island of Ogygia, i.e. Gozo, where Calypso’s Cave can be visited to this very day. St. Paul later, in constructing his own literary sea-voyage epic, also includes an otherwise inexplicable sojourn in Malta in the narrative; alike Odysseus, he finds himself shipwrecked and finds sanctuary among the people. As to whether these pleasing and rosy-coloured fictive accounts of Maltese life have served to placate the Maltese for the millennia-long appropriation of their favoured son Moses’ actual trials at sea, I cannot say; but it is perhaps refreshing that even at the birth of the new religion, Paul sought to pay due reverence to the true origin of its (grand)father faith.

We can thus present at last a reasonably clear account of the series of events that led to the exodus and subsequent founding of the Jewish religion. Moses, exiled from a homeland in which he had served as priest to the Great Mother Goddess, sailed for several years at sea before arriving in Egypt. Once there, however, he quickly moved up the ranks of the Egyptian society, relaying his faith in the one true Goddess to the people. This huge woman was transformed, over time, into the conception of the circular sun to which Akhenaten paid homage. In Moses’ time, though, the transformation was more immediate: blessed by an abundant harvest the likes of which was beyond the imaginings of a youth of the harsh Maltese soil, surrogate figures for the rotund Mother Goddess were found everywhere in Egypt, most frequent – of course – in the slow-witted communes of the peasants, for whom an ancient fidelity to the customs of hunter-gatherer society had bred a sloth in their women unknown in human history until the coming of our own indolent age. Such was the cause for the decision, so momentous in later times, to no longer expend time and effort on the construction of great statues and icons of the Goddess, but to worship her aniconically, manifest (and then some) in the portly wives of the laboring class. Of course this was later misunderstood as an expression of divine formlessness; an understandable, but foolish, misinterpretation of the core of their faith by a coterie of early rabbis and Church Fathers whose acumen in archaeological and historiographic endeavour is far inferior to our own. It was only with the coming of famine – one narratively assigned in later tradition to the time of Joseph (an invented character who took over many aspects – the journey into exile, the high position in the Egyptian court, the leadership through the famine — from the historical Moses) — that there was need to leave the lands of Egypt and settle in that more fertile crescent to the east. This journey, which served as a terrestrial counterbalance in the original narrative to his extended tribulations at sea, saw Moses and his followers walk across the desert; that they eventually resolved to settle, and thus set upon, the Canaan homeland of those who had earlier attacked the Malta of his birth should not surprise us: Moses, like the deity he bequeathed, was always one to nurse a grudge.

What does this revelation mean for our understanding of Judaism, Christianity, and contemporary Monotheism overall? How does it relate to our clear picture of the Great Father murdered by his sons, from which we know all humans descend? I am afraid at this juncture we must indulge in conjecture.

Let us recount what we know to be true. We are sure in our knowledge of the transition from the rule of the Great Father to the matriarchy that followed. In brief, the Great Father was a man with absolute authority in the earliest human society, to whom all others paid homage. In particular, he was known to fiercely guard the women of the community, hoarding all wives and daughters and neglecting the needs of his sons in that direction, who were expected merely to demonstrate filial piety. These sons, hateful and fearful of the Father, were initially split by private motivations; but once these were relegated in favour of the communal need, they worked as one to kill him. His corpse they subsequently ate. Empowered, but appalled, by what they had done, these sons fell into unshakable and paralysing guilt, and spurned the pleasures of mother and sister that had first driven the act. Thus came into being the taboo of incest. Into this power vacuum, caused by the shame-filled renunciation by the patricides of their new-won power, stepped female figures, the wives and sisters of the men, who exercised matriarchal control over the humbled sons for a number of generations.

It is at this point that our interpretation differs from the ‘conventional’ account. For others, though correctly following the synopsis written above, another transition later occurred wherein the sons did succeed to the throne and the rule of the women was ended. It is notable that this transition is pointedly less clearly identified than the circumstances that saw the matriarchy rise. An otherwise outspoken Viennese doctor, for example, pleads happily for this fact to be merely accepted in a 1939 work:

‘Under the influence of external conditions which we need not follow up here and which in part are also not sufficiently known it happened that the matriarchal structure of society was replaced by a patriarchal one.’

He fails, however, to convince. Nor does his subsequent reading of the creation of Judeo-Christian Monotheism as a return to the primeval worship of the capricious father hold much water in the face of historical reality. For if, as I propose, it was from Malta that this belief system ultimately originated, there is no need whatsoever to associate this figure with a male deity. Rather, the Maltese tradition that Moses brought to the people of Egypt and those he led into Canaan is pointedly from the matriarchal period of societal development. Depicted in the limestone sculptures that Moses would eventually renounce, it was an enormous female deity that ruled all in prehistory and was fated, as we have seen, to evolve in exile into the all-encompassing conception of monotheistic worship that the became for the Jews their defining characteristic. 

For the later Christians, moreover, there is no reason to follow the aforementioned doctor in his reading of the story of the Christ as a staging of that primordial defeat of the all-powerful Father by his own filius (or, more accurately, filii). Those Doctors of the Church are right in so far that the Son and Father are of the same substance (ὁμοούσιον), but they failed to recognise the implications of this discovery. In the original defeat of the Father in prehistory, it was precisely their bonds of filiality and blood – their shared substance – that made the crime of the sons so atrocious: the petrifying shock of the patricidal act. We remember it was through this paralysis that the age of the matriarchy was initiated. We must thus most logically witness in the Passion not the commencement of a new age in theological thought (that where the Son is able to overcome the act of murder to rule alone), but the repetition of precisely the act that opened the door to the second – and current – age of matriarchal dominance by the mothers and sisters (and, we must not forget, desired wives) of the sons. Into this reading can be slotted with absolute exactitude the Four Gospels, for they speak, do they not, of the presence of women – and women alone – at the crucifixion and burial of Jesus: that is, precisely primed for the assumption of the power, in the vacuum left by the twin deaths of the father and the son. That Matthew (27.61), John (19.25) and Mark (15.47) mention specifically both Mary the mother of Jesus and his sister/wife Mary Magdalen, can only be taken as distinctly unsubtle nods to the forthcoming world of matriarchal domination. Thus it is that we can read the weekly sacrament, in which we triumphantly confirm the defeat of the masculine in the consumption of his body and blood, before affirming the life and power of the matriarch in our address to the Virgin Mary at the conclusion of the service, as the ultimate re-consecration of the patriarchal sublimation to the victorious feminine.

Where does this understanding lead us? It is difficult to say. What is clear is that mankind has failed to advance from a primitive stage in the development of religious thought: we still are unable to comprehend the enormity of the murder-guilt, and remain led by those who took no part in the act. Indeed, the subsequent reiterations of the matriarchal assumption of power in the face of masculine impotence have arguably taken society further from the essential truth of the act itself. We have instead constructed a grand edifice over our past, re-appropriating the terms of Father and Son to hide the indigestible trauma that has caused our lives to be led in the comforting shadows of the Platonic Cave. We have looked to Moses to provide a direction out of this morass but he was its staunchest advocate; the greatest of all worshippers at the shrine of the Mother Goddess. Thus we are forced to confront the fact that our societal development, in sum and without exception, has been lived, studied and unpacked from the primitive position of a stunted and traumatised neurotic. This is not a comforting recognition, to be sure, but it is nevertheless vital that we see this societal paralysis for what it is, and begin at last to turn our heads back and confront what our forefathers have done.

In the Knowledge that Moses is Maltese

You set down the book and acknowledge that an obscure 1952 response to an unremembered work of Freud might have been an ill-considered choice of reading material for a three-day jaunt to the Mediterranean. All memory of your encounter with the Mother Goddess has been mollified by the combined effects of the book and the light Italian lager you are already on your third of. You look across the bay and see Comino, and chuckle to yourself. The author forgot that one, you think, wondering what absurd onomastic contortion he’d have assumed to link that island back to Moses had he remembered. He also forgot Filfla, last evidence of the cursed community of ingrates God punished with a flood, flinging their remains out into the sea and creating that jagged skerry that the birds all shit on. But you don’t know about that island, it doesn’t make it into the guidebook. A shame, really, as that would have fit quite well. But it’s no bother.

Richard is currently studying for a PhD in Classics at the University of Edinburgh, specialising in the ancient Greek sites of modern Ukraine. Before this, he studied Classical Archaeology at UCL and Oxford, and Ancient History at the University of Birmingham, where he also taught. He has also worked professionally in the charity sector and in museum posts.



Human-headed Bird, Egyptian, Ptolemaic Period

3286, Freud Museum London 

The Sleeping Lady of Ħal Saflieni

Hal Saflieni, Malta

Temple Period, 4000 - 2500 BC

National Museum of Archaeology, Valletta