Better the beasts you know | Stephan D. Mifsud

The beasts of Maltese folklore have finally been captured in a comprehensive volume. We speak to biologist Stephan D. Mifsud, author and illustrator of The Maltese Bestiary – out later this month from Merlin Publications

Dragonara Serpent
Dragonara Serpent
Gandlora Cave Bear
Gandlora Cave Bear

When did you first decide Malta needed a compendium of its folk beasts? What led you to get this project off the ground, as a consequence of that realization?

I have always been fascinated by bizarre plants and animals. A childhood interest evolved into my profession as a biologist. Farm animals and food bacteria are important in my normal work routine, but it’s still the more unusual flora and fauna of Malta, that I find particularly interesting. I have researched and published scientific articles about our palms and mosses, and have studied all sorts of unusual aquatic creatures. But even those have not been enough to fill my curiosity and so I have also enjoyed reading about all sorts of prehistoric beasts and the fantastic creatures of classic Greek and Egyptian mythology.

I have found the whole ecosystem described in Tolkien’s Middle Earth classics and the related Norse mythology to be particularly fascinating. Trolls, goblins, elves and dragons led me to question whether the Maltese had any equivalent mythical creatures of their own. I had heard a few sayings that involved ix-Xjafek, l-Għafrit and il-Gremxula ta’ Filfla but did not know if there were any others, and so in 2011 I decided to find out by asking a number of older relatives and friends, while reading a host of dust covered books about Maltese folklore.

Most of the latter were in Maltese and any published illustrations were usually intended for a very young audience or did not really appeal to me. I realised that there are probably many other like-minded people who do not normally read in Maltese (and so are unaware of much our folklore) who would also be interested in an illustrated modern bestiary in English. Since I could not find one on the bookshelves I decided to compile an illustrated book that appealed to me, and hopefully to others if published.

What kind of research did you need to undertake in order to put this book together? Was it challenging to collate all these creatures together?

Fr Emanuel Magri’s classic collection of folktales and legends was a particularly rich hunting ground for mythical creatures in forgotten times. His Précis de Mythologie Maltaise published in 1905 still forms the core of Maltese mythology. I have also searched in modern studies of folklore, old dictionaries, antique maps and books describing medicinal plants.

But it was not just the written word which I relied upon. Superstition is still quite alive in Malta, which through a number of friends and family has supplied me with another source of spirits, beings and demons most of which I had never heard of before. Maltese heraldry, prehistoric temple art and old stone carvings provided visual inspiration.

I classified the flora and fauna in a taxonomical system similar to the one we use in biology. My intention was to give the book some credence that was quite missing in many of our folktales. The humanoids (giants, men-beasts etc) and the supernatural beings (Jinn, Gods, and Guardians etc) were given their own chapter.

One problem was to see if and where to fit in the (evil) Eye. Given that many of the Guardians listed in the book were particularly intended to ward off this spirit, and that many Maltese still do have interesting local customs related to the Eye, I eventually decided to dedicate a whole chapter to just this entity.

Culturally speaking, what would you say are the predominant influences that come through in this book? Where, effectively, did we ‘pick’ our beasts from? Why?

Maltese culture is a blend of our past traditions and beliefs, most of which originate from the neighboring civilisations that have occupied these islands. These settlers would have in turn been influenced by cultures preceding them in their original homelands. Let’s take l-Għafrit for example, which is one of the jinn described in Islam; it may have entered our Maltese version of Arabic a thousand years ago with Arabic settlers or more recently with the Ottoman slaves inhabiting Malta during the rule of the knights.

Yet the belief in jinn predates Islam and Judaism in the Middle East. The belief in the evil eye (L-għajn), guardian spirits (ħares) and the power of olive trees is also widespread in the Mediterranean. You can find similar accounts in the pagan religions of ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt, and many have similar descriptions in the myths of Northern Europe albeit with different names.

The Norwegian mara, English nightmare, Latin succubus and our Ħeddiela are essentially the same creature, as are the English Changeling and our Mibdul. The Maltese Ħares, the English Hob and the ancient Roman Lares are also too similar to deny a cultural link. So although we probably derive most of our mythology directly from our North African and Sicilian neighbours, I believe that the geographical origin is probably one or more of the ancient civilisations that predate written history.  

Talk a bit about the rift between ‘fiction’ and ‘fact’ evident in this bestiary… and perhaps all 'modern' bestiaries. It’s a given that the creatures themselves – physically, biologically speaking – are fictional, but culturally significant. How did you manage to walk that balance between immersive wonder and necessary skepticism when crafting the book?

As a qualified biologist it was very hard for me to renounce my skepticism and describe the mythical flora and fauna as actual living organisms. I tried to resist the urge to explain away the myths with a prejudice that is characteristic of folklorists having a scientific background.

Giants and dragons are for example today considered by most to be the basic stuff of fantasy. There are however indications that in prehistoric times giant hominids and massive serpents did really exist. What was basic knowledge for our ancestors, first devolved into legend and is now just entertainment.

On the other hand many still consider some of the entities and the effects of some plants described in the bestiary as gospel truth. To state for example that, the viper that allegedly bit St Paul could not have lost its venom through a miracle, would be considered by many as tantamount to heresy. The evil eye, demon jinn and the opposing protective guardians and olive trees are still widespread beliefs, some may degrade as superstition but really verge on the religious. Who are we to decide what is fact and what is fiction?

You’re also responsible for the illustrations in the book. What made you decide that you wanted to illustrate the book yourself, and how did you decide on what visual approach to take on the creatures themselves?

My classmates at school still remind me of the drawings of dragons and mermaids that I left on my desk after some boring lecture. It was actually this interest in visual representations of mythical beats that really prompted me to research our mythology and eventually start the bestiary. My original intention was to paint the creatures using oils, which I had already used to depict scenes from the 1565 siege and the visit of Garibaldi in Malta, but these had taken me months to complete. Using oil paints to depict a hundred entities would have been a lifelong project, not something I was really keen on.

Secondly, I knew that publishing in colour would have been prohibitively expensive. Pencil drawing came to mind, but then decided to invest in a graphic tablet and teach myself digital painting so as to speed things up. Eventually the illustrations turned out to be collages of all the techniques; pencil, oil, digital painting and photographs of Maltese scenes.

Each illustration has its own story to tell, but what I find mysterious is how the supernatural creatures took on shape as I had never imagined them in my mind before I started the illustrations.

My intention was to produce realistic – though outlandish – images, hopefully in the same manner that Tolkien’s creatures were brought to life by fantasy artists such as Alan Lee. I’m not sure if I have succeeded as I tend to find flaws in my paintings many years later.

Do you think the study of supernatural creatures in Maltese folklore remains under-appreciated? What do you hope this book will really bring to the table?

I for one was never made aware of our mythological heritage in school, and I suppose few teachers actually have studied our lore. Perhaps many of the beings are countercurrent to the religious studies dished out in school, being pagan in origin and probably considered inappropriate standard education.

Most Maltese folklorists, such as Fr Magri, who list or describe the beings, simultaneously express disdain of the non-Catholic beliefs, and I am certain they left out much interesting material from their published material, due to their biased religious opinion. I am not aware of any recent folkloristic studies about the supernatural creatures of Maltese folklore.

The little that has been published is very crude, but it was enough for me to produce short descriptions to help me illustrate the entities. Perhaps there are some unpublished university studies that cover the subject but I admit that I did not search there as I already had enough fodder to work with.

If there are such studies I am sure that others like myself would be interested to hear about them. My Maltese Bestiary, I’m sure, is not the final say on the subject, in fact I really hope that it’s actually the beginning of a general renewed interest in our mythology.

The Maltese Bestiary will be launched during the National Book Festival, taking place at the Mediterranean Conference Centre from November 12 to 16. The book is published by Merlin Publishers.