The place where the boats have eyes
Maltese boats have eyes.
Not real ones of course, but small wooden ones carved or painted on both sides of their prows. Eyes complete with blue pupils on a white eyeball and a thick black eyebrow. Mostly found on fishing boats, particularly luzzu boats which are to be seen in huge concentrations in fishing ports and harbours such as Marsaxlokk.
Observe them bobbing on the water and they look like sage marine creatures nodding calmly at you from their berth. See them from one side and they look inanimate, but look at them head-on and they really start looking like faces! Faces which actually look back at you in an almost sentient manner.
Like most idiosyncratic features prevailing in an insular community, the eyes’ origins are steeped in mystery. They are linked to luck and superstition: two very useful and powerful aids to fishermen plying their perilous trade, an activity which in spite of all the technological assistance provided by today’s meteorological services, remains fraught with risk and danger to this very day. Luck and superstition which were in greater demand in years past when the chances of meeting a nasty end at sea were much greater owing to the unpredictability of the mare nostrum which has the uncanny ability to transform itself from the calmest of seas to a raging maelstrom in a matter of minutes irrespective of the season or time of year.
The most popularly accepted legend is that the eyes date back to Phoenician times, from around two thousand two hundred years ago, when those great seafarers and traders established a Central Mediterranean trading-post on Malta. The Phoenicians in turn may have borrowed the eyes from the Egyptians who used a similar ocular symbol to represent protection, royal power and good health.
Besides the romanticised legends, however, I have also come across one alternative explanation from an old salt who spent most of his life aboard the eyed-boats of Malta. According to this explanation, the eyes have a more practical use which is more down to earth than the legends linking them to ancient superstitions. For this man claims that the primary function of the eyes is to scare-off and intimidate great-white sharks contemplating surfacing beneath the boat to overturn it! According to this particular explanation, nothing scares a lumbering great-white more than a pair of eyes peering hypnotically and nonchalantly at it from above!
Superstition or shark repellent? Both alternative explanations have their individual charm. A charm as strong as that of the bobbing luzzu and their staring eyes!