In the sixteenth century the Island of Malta was vastly different from what it is today. It was sparsely populated and the only fortified city was the city of Mdina where people found refuge in times of trouble. Most of the population lived in villages which dotted the island. These villages were frequently the target of corsair raids which in those days were common in the Mediterranean Sea. These pirates usually found a secluded bay where to anchor, usually at dawn and then attack the nearest village or hamlet.
The purpose of these raids was to carry off as much booty as possible before the Militia was alerted and counter attacked. And the pirates also carried away all the people they could find to sell as slaves. It is perhaps interesting to know that during one such raid the entire population on the sister island of Gozo, which was around 5,000 was carried away as slaves. Needless to say, these times were indeed times of terror to the Maltese who never knew when the next raid would suddenly come from.
The legend originated from the village of Mosta, which lies to the North-west of the Island. Mosta boasts of one of the largest churches in the world. However, at the time of the story, this huge church had not yet been built.
The area around the valley was surrounded by fields and grasslands over which flocks of goats grazed. Sadly, only a remnant of its former beauty can now be seen. Much of it has been lost for ever. On the outskirts of this village there is a long valley, a rift in the rocks which goes down to the sea. This valley is called “Wied il-Ghasel” (The Valley of Honey).
On one side of this valley there is a small cave. Through the iron bars of the gate one can see a statue of a young girl praying to Our Lady. Built on this cave there is a chapel, erected by the villagers more that two centuries ago. The cave under the church and the girl of the statue gave birth to one of the most famous legends in Maltese folklore.
The cave where the legend is said to have happened is situated behind the lighted candles.
The legend says that a girl from the village of Mosta called Maria, used to help her father on the farm by grazing his goats in the valley. In those days one could not simply buy a carton of milk from the grocer’s. Maria’s father used to do the rounds of the village with his herd of goats in tow, and sell milk to the many women who would be waiting for him on their doorstep.
The story says that one day Maria was alone in the valley, grazing her father’s goats when suddenly, in the distance she saw a group of men approaching. From their garb she realised that they were not Maltese and moreover, to her horror, she realised that they were pirates. In the distance she could see their ship, which they had anchored in the bay of Salina.
Maria was terrified. She knew that if captured she would suffer a fate worse than death. So she began to run down the valley, hoping that she would reach the village before the pirates could capture her.
Turning a sharp corner the poor girl saw a cave in the side of the valley and she rushed inside. The cave was deep enough for her to hide but she knew that the pirates would not give up and begin to search inside the cave. She knelt down on the rough ground and began to pray for help. “Mother of God, save me from these pirates. Do not let me fall into their hands. If you save me I promise that I will build a chapel on this place in your honour. Save me please. Do not let them take me.” And just at that moment a most incredible thing happened: a miracle
Just at that moment a spider began to weave her web at the entrance of the cave. Working with incredible speed she spun the delicate threads across the mouth of the cave, until in a very short time, it had spun a complete web across the cave entrance. When the pirates arrived they were surprised that Maria was nowhere to be seen. They searched the area and one of them attempted to go into the cave. His companions however, stopped him and said, “Are you a fool? Can’t you see the spider’s web across the entrance? If she had gone in she would have broken the web.” At that moment the militia appeared and the pirates gave up the search and ran towards their ship.
When Maria heard Maltese words she realised that her friends were near and she left the cave, thankful to Mary, Mother of God, who had saved her in such a miraculous way. True to her word she started going round the village to collect funds and in due time the Chapel of Hope was built over the cave were Mary had performed her miracle.
The people of Mosta have great respect for this chapel. It was started in August, 1760, and the building was completed in eleven months.
Over the years the chapel was added to and embellished in various ways, and today it is one of the best kept churches or chapels which abound in Maltese countryside.