B: San Pawl Magnus

According to legend, around two thousand years ago Saint Paul (in Maltese: San Pawl) was shipwrecked on the island of Melita, where he survived a snakebite before supposedly extracting the venom of snakes to plant it in women’s tongues. A by-product of this legend was terra sigillata melitensis, powdered rock from St. Paul’s grotto that apparently had magical, anti-poison prop- erties; it became an important export to medieval marketplaces. San Pawl in his glory survived in the unbridled love of his followers, who work and decorate enthusiastically over months to create a most splendid and beautiful festa, celebrated on February 10, one of Malta’s national public holidays. Yearlong preparations can at any moment be literally blown away by a storm—after all, celebrating San Pawl is also the celebration of a shipwreck.

While some in Malta still like to interpret San Pawl’s ad- vent as the arrival of Christianity in Malta, the exact details of Christianization remain largely in the dark. That said, the saint’s presumed universal healing powers are obliquely compa- rable to the emphatic universality of his message, which, for the philosopher Alain Badiou, offers an alternative to current vari- ants of relativism. For Badiou, Paul announces a truth that lies beyond the identity logic of citizens and noncitizens: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28). A question one might ask in the Maltese context is whether Paul’s significance as a national or patron saint of Malta has led to political models that resist discrimination even when this resistance is not com- mercially viable.

Joe Sacco, image from The Unwanted, published in the Virginia
Quarterly Review in two parts in the winter 2010 and spring 2010
issues. Courtesy the artist
The Unwanted is about African migration in Malta, a story in
forty-eight pages. This image shows the last page, with St. Paul,
perhaps Malta’s most famous immigrant, being shipwrecked
on the island. About this work, Sacco has written: “Few peoples,
I’m afraid, are up to the challenge of absorbing large and sudden
influxes of outsiders, especially those of a different colour.
My own people are no better than anyone else.” (J. Sacco,
Journalism [London: Jonathan Cape, 2002], 157)

Small polychrome statue of St. Paul with snake.
National Museum of Natural History, Mdina, Malta.
Photo: Alexandra Pace. Courtesy Heritage Malta

From left, clockwise: Fossilized tooth of great white shark (known as
St. Paul’s tongue), fossils of Cidaris sea urchins (known as St. Paul’s
nipple), Cidaris spine (known as St. Paul’s rod), fossil of sea urchin
(known as devil’s footprint). National Museum of Natural History,
Mdina, Malta. Photo: Alexandra Pace. Courtesy Heritage Malta