Malta’s Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum: Provoking traces of Oracles, dream incubation, and neolithic sound technology

Hello beloveds!  It has been a long long time since I have written a blog because I do all of this over on Patreon these days! However I feel a change coming and I will be doing a lot more writing.  I want you to know that music is my heart and soul,  AND I feel a call to go to graduate school!  This was my writing sample in applying for a Ph.D. in Depth Psychology … I haven’t heard if I’ve been accepted yet,  however, this paper was a joy and fascination to write.  Whether or not I’m accepted at this particular school,  I’m happy to have sat here and researched this. 

In spring of 2022,  Tara Cindy Sherman and I brought two small groups of women over to Malta on retreat,  “Journey to the Ancient Mother Goddesses of Malta and Gozo.”  We are just about to embark on our third retreat on Malta (leaving on Tuesday)!  I thought I would share something of this fascinating place with any who may be interested.  Please note that I am not a scholar (yet!) and this was my first attempt at academic writing in 20 years.  I hope you enjoy it and can imagine the magic of the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum and all the potent energy it possesses.  Maybe you’ll travel there someday,  maybe with us! 


Mary in Malta! Photo by Tara Cindy Sherman

Malta’s Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum: Provoking traces of Oracles,  dream incubation, and neolithic sound technology ~ Mary Bue – April 17th 2023

Imagine that you are living in ancient times, around 3000 BC.  One of your kin has died.   You and your family have descended below the dusty roads of your city into a temple tomb.  The walls are flickering with torchlight,  illuminating the spiral and animal motifs painted in red ochre on the walls. You descend lower and lower into a labyrinthine spiral of elongated chambers,  three floors beneath the ground into a space that reflects or “reverses” the architecture of above-ground temples.  You crowd into an open room,  “The Holiest of Holies” as a booming voice begins to resonate into the dim, cavernous chamber.  The voice comes not from someone near you but from somewhere behind the scenes in this dark,  moist cavern.  We will never know what the voice reveals to those who have gathered,  perhaps words to offer respect,  to console the living in their time of loss, instructions for animal sacrifice, or a chant to offer to the Earth Mother Goddess or other divine power.  Drumming, mourning, meditation, chanting, trance are all distinct ritual possibilities. 

On the windswept Mediterranean island of Malta,  eleven meters below the surface of the city of Paola,  is a superbly preserved underground structure.  Both tomb and temple,  the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum was re-discovered in 1902 during boom times of port activity and burgeoning commerce as a cistern was being dug during a housing development project.   If one visits the UNESCO Heritage site in person today, one’ll find that the well is closed off,  however,  the foundation planks of the houses which were built on top of the Hypogeum can still be observed.

Exterior of Hypogeum (no photos allowed inside)

Shortly after its re-discovery, the site was inspected in 1902 by Dr. A.A. Caruana,  Malta’s chief librarian and antiquarian who declared the site was worth preserving.  The years to come attracted much scholarly attention,  followed by tourists.  It served as a morbid playground and hang-out as well as a bomb shelter during World War II times.  It was closed to the public from 1991-2000 to undergo renovations to preserve it for future generations incorporating controlled lighting to save the ochre paintings,  stairs, and handrails so guests don’t have to touch the limestone walls for safety upon descent.  Speculatively hewn by Neolithic people with stone picks and antler horns for carving,  this and other temples on Malta and the neighboring island of Gozo provide numerous marvels of a theocratic society demonstrating the worship of a feminine deity.  


Tucked in the rubble amongst piles of bones and burial offerings, a small clay figurine was found.   This sculpture/murti/work of art has come to be known as “The Sleeping Lady.”  Tinged with red ochre as decorates the walls of this subterranean temple-tomb,  our lady rests rather luxuriously on her right side,  thick thighs stacked,  a pleated dress gathering around her ankles,  ample naked breasts,  a slab-like pillow to support her head.  This resting posture hints at a deep sleep state,  or potentially laid to rest in death.  Is she simply carved out of admiration by the musing sculptor?  Or is she crafted in reverence for her powers of incubation — an ancient practice in which she may sleep in a crypt or sacred space to receive messages,  knowledge,  or healing in dreams from the spirit of an ancestor or the gods? 


Amongst the excavation of bones of nearly 7000 humans,  pottery,  jewelry,  and animal bones for sacrifice, the existence of an underground temple tomb is curious.  The act of descending below ground for ceremony, funeral,  and ritual calls to mind the dark night of the soul,  the descent of Inanna to her sister Erishkegal,  Persephone lured by Hades.   Traveling downwards into the great body of the earth,  returning to the source.  

According to Gimbutas (2001), the subterranean tombs of Malta as well as Sicily and Sardinia are usually feminine/anthropomorphic,  uterine, or egg-shaped.  In megalithic tombs across Western Europe,  giant tombstones were often shaped in the body of the Goddess in awe-inspiring ways.  Often described as “cruciform” or “double-oval,” these tombs are remarkably human-shaped and share curves similar to the many Goddess figurines that have been discovered. 

In the second level of the Hypogeum exists a room commonly called the “Oracle Room.”  Within its apses,  arches,  and dome-like structure is a carved niche/hole which,  when spoken into,  reverberates into all of the chambers.  The implications of ancient sound technology are fascinating to the modern mind.  The architecture features a curved projection near the Oracle Hole which could act as a sounding board.  The sounds which are spoken or performed into this hole resonate and echo for a 7-8 second duration after the sound has been struck and could offer quite a powerful booming quality for those gathered in other chambers.  There is a separate entrance for the one who speaks into this Oracle hole,  keeping their identity secretive and anonymous.  

While archaeology has focused largely on found objects,  bones,  and visual appearances,  and ethnomusicology studies music and the social and cultural aspects of those who make it,  in the recent interdisciplinary field of archeaoacoustics,  ancient sites are explored with measures to understand the value of sound in the past and the technologies that may have been employed to amplify and influence the emotional sphere of human beings,  as Pera, Aurel et al.  (2015) said particularly in the way that ritual architecture/design can impact human brain activity. 

In this exciting new multidisciplinary field of experimental psychoarcheoacoustics,  combining psychology,  physics,  archeaology,  sociology, and neuroscience,  researchers attempt to understand the impacts of sound on emotion and perception in sacred spaces,  often where rock art is found (i.e cave paintings,  river canyons,  rock ledges, as well as human-made structures such as neolithic temples and hypogea) with the assumption that ritual and ceremony took place in proximity to the rock art.  Sound,  chanting,  drumming are a powerful tools to alter perception.  Methodical and repetitive drumming has been studied to achieve entrainment. 

In the work of Stupacher et al. (2016) entrainment is visible when we tap our feet or snap our fingers to the pulse of music –  a fusion of rhythm,  beat perception and movement.  Drumming has been used in war since ancient times as a method of signaling, boosting morale,  and potentially inducing trance states to carry out violent means. This is a powerful example of the power of sound to harm or heal. In Archeoacoustics, experiments involve testing multiple instruments, ideally replicas of ancient times,  voices of different pitches,  and of course drums.  Perhaps the echoing and reverberating in the canyon,  cave,  rock ledge,  or hypogea made the rock paintings come alive,  and perhaps in a ritual state,  it may appear that these painted symbols take on a hallucinogenic quality. 

Tarxian Temple

Rock art researchers have been looking at the reasons behind the relationship between sound and ritual. Some propose the existence of universals to explain the importance of acoustics as a way of facilitating the connection between humans and spiritual beings and/or ancestors (Pera, Aurel, 2016). 

Many have taken on the task of studying the acoustic properties of the Hypogeum.  One such researcher is the Maltese composer Ruben Zahra.  Zahra and a research team from Italy found that sound resonates at 110 Hz within the “Oracle Room” chamber.  This frequency closely matches the frequency found in ancient chambers in Newgrange in Ireland,  and others around the world.  This may be due to the dimensions of the room,  or the type of stone (the Hypogeum is hewn from globigerina limestone) of which can determine the pitch of this “echo behaviour” according to Dr. Robert Jahn from Princeton University. 

Perhaps the very structure of the chamber was created in a way to alter the perception of those who enter its depths.  Maybe the construction was considered to enhance mystical experiences during rituals,  promoting altered states.  This is a theory from Debertolis and Bisconti of the Univeristy of Triests and Siena respectively. 

These Italian researchers sought to study the resonant quality of sound within the structure of the Hypogeum,  and whether or not this resonance was equal to the so-called “Holy Frequency”  – a range between 90Hz – 120Hz.  At 110Hz,  brain activity is “associated with the half-awake/half-asleep hypnologic state with vivid mental imagery and auditory hallucinations.” (Coimbra, 2015).  When the brain activity is monitored by EEG when exposed to 110 Hz resonance,   it has has also been studied by Dr. Ian Cook from UCLA and colleagues that prefrontal cortex activity changes rather abruptly,  the language center of the brain goes offline, and a shift from left (more linear) to right-sided (emotional) dominance occurs, however not found in other frequencies. 

Bringing a variety of instruments and vocal ranges, high-tech microphones, frequency measuring devices, and recording equipment,  Debertolis and Bisconti wanted to find out what sounds could create the “Holy Frequency” hypothesized to resonate within the temple walls,  a frequency similar to the resonant sounds that are found to be present in other Neolithic structures studied in Europe (England, Ireland,  Italy,  and Malta).  In this state,  it can be assumed that ancient communities could attain altered states of consciousness using sound,  without the use of chemical substances, sound which potentially enhanced the ritual experiences of our historic Hypogeum guests.  

As we have witnessed in the EEG experiments at 110 Hz,  Sound can have profound and impactful effects on the body as well as emotions.  Perhaps we have all experienced the shaking of a house as a train rumbles by,  or the iconic opera singer shattering a wine glass with their voice.  Ultrasound technology is used to produce images of our unborn babies or to send healing waves into an injury,  stimulating circulation,  as well as ablating or breaking up tissue.   There may be songs we turn to for catharsis while in emotional distress,  or to raise our energy for a workout or dancing.  We may turn to music collectively for spiritual or religious purposes,  chanting in Sanskrit, or singing hymns in a church choir.  The growing popularity of “healing sound baths” is a testament to the potentially soothing and relaxing quality of particular sound vibrations,  with amplified assumed positive benefits from practicing in a group, communal setting.   In the latter examples, the sound is used as a point of focus or a meditative anchor.  One intention of chanting, choral singing,  or sound bathing is to go internal and connect with an object of meditation whether it be to a higher power,  to pray for peace and healing,  or to bring about relaxation,  soothing, and comfort. 

With the presence of the “Sleeping Lady,”  we could speculate this descent into sleep and dream as well.  Was our lady practicing incubation in this sacred place? Calling on the underground energy,  the resonance of the damp, moist earth and womb-like cave,  surrounded by bones and the egregore of worshippers and mourners,  was she intending to listen for a teaching,  a cure,  divinely inspired wisdom with which to disperse into the Oracle Hole to her people? 

Gozo Museum of Archaeology ~ Victoria

In conclusion,  exploring the ancient ruins of a Goddess-centered society,  uncovering their relics, and speculating about their rituals,  community, and alignment with the cycles of nature,  seasons,  and the moon is a balm to the modern dis-ease and detriment of patriarchy.  In modern times where the choices and rhythms of feminine bodies are being more and more controlled and regulated,  where,  in historic traces of neolithic times,  fertility was revered and awed,  the return to this reverence is honorable and deeply needed for the healing of society.   To enter into the earthen womb tomb,  with ears wide open,  a quieting of the chatter of the mind to be able to listen deeply to whatever ancient stories were embedded in the depths of this incredible earthen gem.  A descent into the mystery,  alight with treasures like The Sleeping Lady,  and the wonder of neolithic people understanding the potency and hypnotic quality of acoustics and sound.  Perhaps this reverence of ceremony, dream time,  and death ritual can offer us deep medicine as we venture forth into the frontiers of AI and technology.  Staying in touch with fecundity,  the softness of the body,  the mystery & knowing of the dream realm,  reverence for death and the altered states of communal ritual may keep us grounded,  and in touch with the heart of what it means to connect,  love,  and embody the gifts of our human birthright. 

Thank you kindly for reading this post!  If you enjoy my music,  yoga,  writing,  poetry,  I’d be so grateful if you checked out my Patreon for exclusive content,  recorded yoga sessions,  weekly song downloads and more.  Big love!  Mary 

Works Cited

Coimbra, Fernando Augusto. “(PDF) Archaeoacoustic Analysis of the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum in Malta.” ResearchGate, June 2015, Accessed 17 April 2023.

Dobrzynski, Judith H. “A Powerful Symbol of a Lost Civilization.” The Wall Street Journal, 15 September 2017, Accessed 26 March 2023.

Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess: Unearthing the Hidden Symbols of Western Civilization. Thames & Hudson, 2001.

Pera, Aurel. “Psychology Meets Archaeology: Psychoarchaeoacoustics for Understanding Ancient Minds and Their Relationship to the Sacred.” Frontiers, Accessed 17 April 2023.

Jan Stupacher, “Neural Entrainment in Drum Rhythms with Silent Breaks: Evidence from Steady-state Evoked and Event-related Potentials.” PubMed, December 2016 Accessed 17 April 2023.

“The World’s Oldest Underground Temple Resonates at a Frequency That Has a Profound Effect on the Brain.” Earthly Mission, Accessed 17 April 2023.