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Il-GawGaw: The Obscure Origins & Influences Of This Beloved Christmas Maltese Folktale

by Karl Azzopardi

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Illustration by Joseph Bugeja for an exhibition titles Hotel Babaw in 2016
*Illustration by Joseph Bugeja (source: Il-Miklem)

Around this time of year, many locals tell the tale of the unfortunate Christmas Eve baby cursed to shapeshift into a meddling monster as the clock strikes midnight on their birthday for the rest of their adult life. This is the story of an infamous Maltese folklore creature known as il-GawGaw — if you haven't heard it already, you can find his story in one of our previous articles on some of Malta's most menacing folk creatures. 

However, much like Christmas is a Christianised version of pagan Winter Solstice Yule celebrations, il-GawGaw's tale which we tell today is a Christianised version of a concoction of folktales, pagan beliefs and ancient traditions.

yule celebration christmas

Illustration of an ancient Nordic yule festival by Die Gartenlaube (1880)

This comes as no surprise considering Malta's colonial history which undoubtedly brought influences from all over the world that not affected our language and cuisine, but also infiltrated Malta's folklore. So, let's explore some interesting facts that have been unearthed by folklore experts and historians over the years about this beloved 'Christmas' folktale.

A disclaimer before we start, as happens with oral storytelling, stories have been twisted, turned, stretched and manipulated over the years so you may read something you may not agree with or have a different opinion on and that's completely normal. This is simply our interpretation of what we know.

Winter's Call

In the Christianised version, il-GawGaw seems to come out for no real purpose but to torment anyone who dares stay up past midnight after the first mass on Christmas Eve. However, his appearance seems to be more closely linked to the start of the winter season when the land is being ploughed and tilled to plant seeds and let them germinate over the winter. 

This can be explained with some help from local historian Guze Gatt's article titled 'Il-GawGaw' on Il-Miklem, where he compiles information from Maltese folk canons and combines them with ancient traditions to give a more sound explanation of il-GawGaw.

Some locals use the name KawKaw to refer to il-GawGaw which isn't really accurate but not entirely out of context either.

KawKaw is the Maltese name for the star Canopus (aka Alpha Carinae), the second brightest star in our universe. It can be seen only from countries in the southern hemisphere and reaches its highest peak at midnight around Christmas time. Sounds familiar doesn't it? And there's more.

carina constellation gawgaw maltese folkore

Carina constellation as seen by the naked eye with Canopus shining the brightest

Canopus forms part of the Carina constellation which in Mesopotamian astrology is referred to as the 'Harrow' and symbolised by a minotaur holding a harrow. Just in case you forgot, il-GawGaw is described as a creature that screeches like an enraged bull while dragging a harrow behind him. Gatt is really onto something here!

If we delve deeper into the relationship between this star and il-GawGaw, we can see clear connections between il-GawGaw and the time of harvest considering the harrow is used to till the land.mesapotemian astrological chart

Mesopostmenian astrological chart showing the Harrow constellation (source: Il-Milkem)

One more interesting fact about KawKaw or Canopus is that its culmination lasts from late December until the start of February when hibernating animals begin to come out from their long rest. Locally, this time is known as il-Gandlora, more commonly known as Groundhog Day in America or Candlemas Day in the UK. 

According to Stephan D. Mifsud's 'The Maltese Bestiary', some locals believe that il-KawKaw (meaning il-GawGaw) makes another appearance during il-Gandlora and roams the village streets once again. However, instead of tormenting people with a harrow, he just comes out to check if winter is over. He does so by touching his moustache, if it's dry then winter is still at its peak but if they're wet, then the worst of winter is over. 

So, all things considered, it seems that il-GawGaw's appearance around Christmas time has more to do with scaring people into their cosy homes to prepare for the colder months until he reemerges on il-Gandlora to show them they can come back out.

Potential Arabic Roots

The legend states that for the GawGaw's curse to be lifted, he needs to stay counting all the holes of a wheat sieve throughout Christmas Eve night until the first Paternoster is sung on Christmas Day.  But why a sieve and not a prayer or holy blessing if this is a supposedly religious tale? 

This question comes from scientist turned anthropologist Samia al Azharia Jahn's main reflections in her 'Reflections about the old Maltese folk belief in the transformation of a person into a Gawgaw ghost on Christmas Eve'. She delves into the symbolism and rituals that sieves share with birth rites in ancient North-African traditions dating back to ancient Egypt. The god of the dead Anubis can be seen trundling a sieve to count the lifespan of a newborn royal in a scene found within the walls of the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut in Deir el-Bahari. 

One tradition that is still celebrated to this day is the Sibou', meaning the seventh day. When a baby is seven days old, family and friends gather together to celebrate the newborn and practice a ritual to grant them a long and happy life. They start by putting them in a large sieve and shaking it seven times with the baby still cradled in it. Then they place it on the ground and the mother of the child steps seven times over it. 

sebou sibou Egyptian birth rite traditions

A mother stepping over a baby cradled in a sieve during a Sibou' celebration (source: MadaMasr)

Samia also points out that a person who appears to have a happy disposition throughout their life is referred to as 'mugharbal' in certain parts of Egypt. This is a derivative of the Arabic word 'ghurbal', meaning sieve, which is where the Maltese word for sieve 'gharbil' comes from.

In her reflections she also mentions, the presence of sieves in Moroccan birth rites wherein, seven days after birth, an empty sieve is shaken over the newborn or filled with water henna and egg with the newborn placed over it. Through her research, she found that sieves are valued as an instrument of purification, which is a fitting description for its function of cleansing the man under il-GawGaw's curse.

Another cool fact from Samia's reflection which we also have to mention is the association between the name GawGaw and the Sudan-Arabic language. She describes a meeting she experienced with Sudan descendants in Zarzis, Tunisia who called themselves 'firqa al gougou', meaning the Gougou group, and staged performances for tourists coloured with pagan and Islamic elements. Upon further investigation of the name Gougou, she disco   vered that it is used to describe a troublemaker in the vernacular Arabic of Sudan. A fitting description for il-GawGaw's reputation for tormenting people, don't you think?

We could go on and on forever about the treasure trove of thought-provoking insights that the above-mentioned researchers unveiled through their work. We highly encourage you to explore them further if you want to learn more about il-GawGaw and delve deeper into the exhaustive world of Maltese folklore.

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About Karl Azzopardi

Karl is a content writer who loves getting lost in the natural beauties of this world as much as he does in the fictitious lands he finds while poring through his unending book pile.

If he's not stuffing his face with a new recipe, he's probably hanging out with his friends' cats or dancing alone on the roof to nothing in particular.