|The Trophet of Carthage|
One of the most notorious of “facts” concerning the ancient Carthaginians is that they indulged in mass sacrifice of children.
This is because of mass burials of very young children found at the so-called ‘Trophet” or sacred enclosures at various Carthaginian sites, including the site of Carthage itself.1 Because of the sheer mass of children’s cremated bones found in this “Trophet” many have been inclined to think that the practice of infant sacrifice was widespread in ancient Carthage. This seems to be a mistake.
It cannot be disputed that the Carthaginians did in fact engage in child sacrifice, a practice that also existed among the Phoenician ancestors of the Carthaginians. In fact the Bible mentions the practice on several occasions. For example:
And [King Josiah of Judah] defiled Topeth which is in the valley of the children of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or daughter to pass through the fire to Molech. (2 Kings, ch. 23, 10. All quotes from King James Bible.)
[Inhabitants of the kingdom of Judah]…have built the high places of tophet which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and daughters in the fire, which [God] commanded them not. (Jeremiah, ch. 7, 31)
They [Inhabitants of Judah] have also built high places od Baal to burn their sons with fire for burnt offerings to Baal, which I commanded not…therefore behold the days shall come, saith the Lord, that this place shall no more called Trophet, nor the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of slaughter. (Jeremiah ch. 19, 5-6.)
Further there are accounts in the Greek and Roman sources. The following accounts. From the Greek writer Kleitarchos, whose account was paraphrased later we have:
Out of reverence for Kronos [the Greek equivalent of Ba‘al Hammon] the Phoenicians, and especially the Carthaginians, whenever they seek to obtain some great favor, vow one of their children, burning it as a sacrifice to the deity, if they are especially eager to gain success. There stands in their midst a bronze statue of Kronos, its hands extended over a bronze brazier, the flames of which engulf the child. When the flames fall upon the body, the limbs contract and the open mouth seems almost to be laughing, until the contracted [body] slips quietly into the brazier. Thus it is that the ‘grin’ is known as ‘sardonic. laughter,’ since they die laughing.2
Other information appears in the works of Diodorus:
Himilcar, on seeing how the throng was beset with superstitious fear, first of all put a stop to the destruction of the monuments, and then he supplicated the gods after the custom of his people by sacrificing a young boy to Cronus and a multitude of cattle to Poseidon by drowning them in the sea.
Therefore the Carthaginians, believing that the misfortune had come to them from the gods, betook themselves to every manner of supplication of the divine powers; and, because they believed that Heracles, who was worshipped in their mother city, was exceedingly angry with them, they sent a large sum of money and many of the most expensive offerings to Tyre. Since they had come as colonists from that city, it had been their custom in the earlier period to send to the god a tenth of all that was paid into the public revenue; but later, when they had acquired great wealth and were receiving more considerable revenues, they sent very little indeed, holding the divinity of little account. But turning to repentance because of this misfortune, they bethought them of all the gods of Tyre. They even sent from their temples in supplication the golden shrines with their images, believing that they would better appease the wrath of the god if the offerings were sent for the sake of winning forgiveness. They also alleged that Cronus had turned against them inasmuch as in former times they had been accustomed to sacrifice to this god the noblest of their sons, but more recently, secretly buying and nurturing children, they had sent these to the sacrifice; and when an investigation was made, some of those who had been sacrificed were discovered to have been supposititious. When they had given thought to these things and saw their enemy encamped before their walls, they were filled with superstitious dread, for they believed that they had neglected the honours of the gods that had been established by their fathers. In their zeal to make amends for their omission, they selected two hundred of the noblest children and sacrificed them publicly; and others who were under suspicion sacrificed themselves voluntarily, in number not less than three hundred. There was in their city a bronze image of Cronus, extending its hands, palms up and sloping toward the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire. It is probable that it was from this that Euripides has drawn the mythical story found in his works about the sacrifice in Tauris, in which he presents Iphigeneia being asked by Orestes: “But what tomb shall receive me when I die? A sacred fire within, and earth's broad rift.”3
The Greek Roman writer Plutarch says:
Would it not then have been better for those Gauls and Scythians to have had absolutely no conception, no vision, no tradition, regarding the gods, than to believe in the existence of gods who take delight in the blood of human sacrifice and hold this to be the most perfect offering and holy rite? Again, would it not have been far better for the Carthaginians to have taken Critias or Diagoras to draw up their law-code at the very beginning, and so not to believe in any divine power or god, rather than to offer such sacrifices as they used to offer to Cronos? These were not in the manner that Empedocles describes in his attack on those who sacrifice living creatures: “Changed in form is the son beloved of his father so pious, Who on the altar lays him and slays him. What folly!”
No, but with full knowledge and understanding they themselves offered up their own children, and those who had no children would buy little ones from poor people and cut their throats as if they were so many lambs or young birds; meanwhile the mother stood by without a tear or moan; but should she utter a single moan or let fall a single tear, she had to forfeit the money, and her child was sacrificed nevertheless; and the whole area before the statue was filled with a loud noise of flutes and drums took the cries of wailing should not reach the ears of the people. Yet, if Typhons or Giants were ruling over us after they had expelled the gods, with what sort of sacrifices would they be pleased, or what other holy rites would they require? Amestris, the wife of Xerxes, caused twelve human beings to be buried alive as an offering in her behalf to propitiate Hades, of whom Plato says that it is because he is humane and wise and rich, and controls the souls of the dead by persuasion and reason, that he has come to be called by this name. Xenophanes, the natural philosopher, seeing the Egyptians beating their breasts and wailing at their festivals, gave them a very proper suggestion: "If these beings are gods," said he, "do not bewail them; and if they are men, do not offer sacrifices to them."
Also the story passed down among the Greeks from ancient myth that Cronus did away with his own children appears to have been kept in mind among the Carthaginians through this observance.4
Finally we have the Christian writer Tertullian who says:
That I may refute more thoroughly these charges, I will show that in part openly, in part secretly, practices prevail among you which have led you perhaps to credit similar things about us. Children were openly sacrificed in Africa to Saturn as lately as the proconsulship of Tiberius, who exposed to public gaze the priests suspended on the sacred trees overshadowing their temple— so many crosses on which the punishment which justice craved overtook their crimes, as the soldiers of our country still can testify who did that very work for that proconsul. And even now that sacred crime still continues to be done in secret. It is not only Christians, you see, who despise you; for all that you do there is neither any crime thoroughly and abidingly eradicated, nor does any of your gods reform his ways. When Saturn did not spare his own children, he was not likely to spare the children of others; whom indeed the very parents themselves were in the habit of offering, gladly responding to the call which was made on them, and keeping the little ones pleased on the occasion, that they might not die in tears. At the same time, there is a vast difference between homicide and parricide.5
Those quotes make it abundantly clear that at least some of the time the Carthaginians did indeed sacrifice children to their gods and in a particularly brutal manner. The sacrifices were made to the goddess Tanit, a mother earth goddess, and most often to the god Ba’al Hammon who was identified by the Greeks and Romans with the god Cronus / Saturn.. Ba’al Hammon was both a sun god and a sky god and his sign was a crescent above a sphere.6
Regarding the passages from the Bible regarding sacrifices to Molech they may instead refer to the practice of dedicating a child to the god Molech by symbolically passing a child through a fire. A practice regarded as idolatry by the Hebrew prophets. Frankly this idea while interesting seems to contradict, if not the literal meaning than the implied sense of some biblical passages.7
It is of interest that to note that the term Molech in the bible which is traditionally thought to refer to a god may not in fact do so it may instead refer to a sacrifice and is neither a name nor a title.8
In the Trophet were found various inscriptions and stela’s that have various symbols associated with the god Ba’al Hammon or Tanit.. There were two types of grave markers found in the Trophet. There were thin stones which looked like obelisks and more substantial ones called Cippi. There were generally images of one or both od the deities on the Cippi, but no inscriptions unlike the obelisk style markers. In both cases just one side of the marker was engraved or carved.
The inscriptions on the markers gave the name and ancestry of the dedicators, and gave the name of the God to whom it is made out along with a vow by the dedicator(s).9
The bodies in the Trophet of Carthage number c. 20,000 and where after being cremated were buried in clay urns that were then sealed with clay stoppers and lids. It is unclear about whether or not the bodies had been de-fleshed before cremation, although the historical record indicates that bodies would be burned whole.
The completeness of the cremation varied from burial to burial, although in most cases bones were left that could be analyzed. Teeth would be of course most resistant to burning and would give a fairly good indication of the age of death. The bones frequently show signs of damage post-mortum, which would apparently indicate rough handling of the bodies during the cremation. Once the cremated remains were cool apparently they were wrapped in cloth, and buried in the urns with amulets and other offerings. Also in the Trophet were sacrificed lambs and goat kids in great numbers.10
Analysis of the remains found in the Trophet of Carthage indicate that 55% of the burials were of single persons and about 25% were of two. The rest three or more individuals represented c. 20% of the burials.11
In fact one estimate is that 81% of the individuals analysed in the Trophet, based on cranial and long bone measurements were late third trimester foetuses! Even if more conservative criteria is used the percentage of late third trimester foetuses is reduced to only 54% or 70%.12
In other words it is indisputable tat the majority of those buried in the Trophet and “dedicated” to the Gods Tanit and Ba’al Hammon were natural deaths not child sacrifices.
To this is linked the fact that compared to the burials in the Trophet, burials of young children are comparatively rare in Carthage during this time period. In fact of the c. 2000 non Trophet graves found at Carthage and dating to this time period c. 95% are of older children, adults and juveniles. In an age of very high infant mortality that is a staggering statistic. So just how were the deaths of very young children dealt with? It appears such children and late trimester fetuses who died were buried in the Trophet.
In fact 90% of the a sample from the Trophet were infants 6 months of age or younger. And of those at least 50% were late trimester foetuses. It also appears that has the population of Carthage increased the number of animal sacrifices in the Trophet decreased and the number of infant burials increased. Since it is probably the case that the most likely victims of sacrifice would be infants more than 6 months of age it appears that at most 10% of the Trophet burials would be deliberate human sacrifice.13 It is said that:
… this still leaves approximately 90 percent that represent stillbirths, spontaneous abortions and neonatal victims of natural deaths.14
That this is quite believable in a situation of very high rates of infant death and “natural” abortion that existed in ancient times. The Carthaginians treated those infants who died prematurely as infants or during pregnancy differently from those who died later. They were apparently buried after being cremated, in the Trophet and dedicated to the gods. Certainly the extremely high rate of burials of the remains of those who had never even been born does indicate that those at least had not been sacrificed. And if those had not been sacrificed than perhaps many of the rest had not been. Certainly the great lack of remains of those over six months of age would appear to indicate that they at least had not been sacrificed.15
What this goes to show is not that child sacrifice at Carthage is a myth, but that modern portrayals of the practice has widespread in Carthaginian society are very over drawn. It appears that the classical portrayal of the practice as an occasional practice of the wealthy and some times practiced en-mass during a serious crisis for the state. There is also an indication that those who sought divine favour from time to time sacrificed their own children or a child. It is of interest to note that such sacrifice was not always by fire it could also be by drowning or by the knife.
Certainly the examples given in the classical quotations above would appear to indicate an occasional practice and one done en-mass only in extremis. Still pretty ghastly but the image of widespread child sacrifice throughout Carthaginian society appears to be quite wrong.
1. Warmington, B. H., Carthage, Penguin Books, London, 1960, pp. 158-161, Harden, Donald, The Phoenicians, Penguin Books, London, 1962, pp. 94-96.
2. Kleitarchos, quoted in Stager, Lawrence E., Wolff, Samuel R.. Child Sacrifice at Carthage—Religious Rite or Population Control? Biblical Archaeology Review, Jan/Feb 1984. Here, (accessed 12/5/2007). Also in Schwartz, Jeffrey H., What the Bones Tell Us, Henry Holt and Co., New York NY, 1993, pp. 31-32.
3. Diodorus, Library of History, Lacus Curtius Here Book 13, s. 86, Diodorus, Book 20, s. 14, Here. See also Schwatz, pp. 32-33.
4. Plutarch, On Superstition, Lacus Curtius Here. 13. See Schwatz, p. 33.
5. Tertullian, Apology, s. 9, New Advent Here.
6. Schwatz, p. 35.
7. IBID, p. 37. See also a discussion of “passing” children through fire as a rite of purification that does not involve sacrificing said children at all, in Gaster, Theodor H., Myth, Legend and Custom in the Old Testament, v. 2, Harper and Row, New York, 1969, pp. 586-588.
8. Schwatrz, pp. 37-38.
9, IBID, pp. 34-36, Stager.
10. Schwatz, pp. 45-51, 54.
11. IBID, p. 52.
12. IBID, pp. 52-53.
13. IBID, pp. 54-56.
14. IBID, p. 56.
15. IBID, pp. 56-57.