Ancient History & Civilisation

CHILD SACRIFICE AND THE TOPHET

The same autonomous character is also seen in the religious life of the city. Religious ritual lay at the heart of Carthage’s developing identity, not least because it provided a vital tool for elite political control. As in the Near East, the temples were Carthage’s greatest and wealthiest institutions, and it was members of the elite who constituted the chief-priesthoods that governed them. The larger temples employed considerable numbers of specialist staff. The scribes, choristers, musicians, light attendants, barbers and butchers were needed to ensure the correct performance of the sacred rites due to the deity whose dwelling it was. Such was the level of organization that tariff lists were issued setting out the cost of particular sacrifices, with offerings banded into different price categories. Such documents not only guaranteed the livelihoods of the legion of Carthaginian priests and temple workers, but also provided some consumer protection to supplicants, as they gave notice of the fines that could be levied against those priests who abused the pricing structure.42 Not only did members of the elite oversee these sprawling organizations and their vast resources, but the temples also served as the venues for the dining clubs with ritualistic functions to which they belonged.

Melqart, despite his pre-eminence in the Tyrian pantheon, and in other major western Phoenician colonies such as Gades and Lixus, never held the same dominant position in Carthage, although he remained a senior member of the gods, with his own temple in the city, and priests who practised the sacred rite of egersis.43 Instead, the two most significant deities in Carthage were Baal Hammon and his consort, Tanit. The latter, although often referred to as the ‘Face of Baal’ on Carthaginian inscriptions, does not appear to have played a junior role to her husband. The distinctive sign of Tanit–an outstretched stylized figure–is found on many of the steles in Carthage, and she was often represented as the patroness and protector of the city, a significant promotion for a goddess who had previously been a minor deity in Phoenicia.44 In contrast, Baal Hammon, who was often represented by a crescent moon, was a major god in the Levant. The term ‘Baal’ was a title or prefix meaning ‘Lord’ or ‘Master’, and was given to a number of different gods. The meaning of ‘Hammon’ is less clear. It may come from the Phoenician linguistic root hmm, meaning ‘hot’ or ‘burning being’, indicating that he was ‘Lord of the Furnaces’.45

The separate development of Carthage is demonstrated not only in the promotion of a new celestial order distinct from that of Tyre, but also in the ways in which that order was honoured. From the third millennium BC onward Near Eastern texts allude to the practice of molk (mlk), which simply meant ‘gift’ or ‘offering’. The word was often used for the sacrifice of firstborn children to appease the gods when communities were facing a particularly calamitous situation. The Old Testament provides a number of examples of molk. In the Book of Exodus the Israelites are given the command that ‘the firstborn of thy sons shalt thou give unto me’. The sacrifice of sons by two Judaean kings is also referred to, as is a Jewish backlash against the (supposedly) foreign practice.46

Some rather dubious later Greek sources claimed that the Phoenicians, in times of grave peril, had also resorted to the sacrifice of the sons of princes by beheading them in honour of their god El, in pious emulation of the deity himself, who had offered up his only son, Ieud, to save his land from disaster.47 In terms of archaeological evidence, however, only one confirmed tophet–the name given by modern scholars to the sacred enclosures where these sacrifices are supposed to have taken place–has so far been discovered in the Levant, and only one stele that alludes to a molksacrifice.48 In the Book of Genesis, Abraham, after being tested by God, was allowed to sacrifice a ram as substitute for his son Isaac, and scholars have thus argued that in most instances young animals were sacrificed in place of human children. Indeed, it appears that the practice of molksacrifice had completely died out in Phoenicia by the seventh century BC.

Nevertheless, a number of ancient Greek references to the Carthaginian practice of child sacrifice have survived.49 The fullest and most dramatic description comes from the pen of the Sicilian historian Diodorus: ‘There was in their city a bronze image of Cronus [the Greek equivalent of Baal Hammon], extending its hands, palms up and sloping towards the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereupon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire.’50 The third-century-BC philosopher and biographer Cleitarchus also evoked the ghastly image of the limbs of the children contracting and their open mouths looking as if they were laughing as they were consumed by the fire.51 According to the first-century-AD Greek writer Plutarch’s On Superstition, parents avoided sacrificing their own infants by replacing them with purchased street children, whose mothers would lose the fee they had been paid if they cried or mourned for their lost offspring. Loud music was also played at the sacrificial area to drown out the victims’ screams.52

These accusations might have been put down to nothing more than Greek slurs if it had not been for the determined sleuthing of two minor French colonial officials, François Icard and Paul Gielly, in the 1920s. Icard and Gielly had become increasingly suspicious of a Tunisian stone-dealer who kept on appearing with very fine Punic steles. One example had particularly grabbed their imaginations. It was engraved with the image of a man wearing the cloak and headdress of a priest, his right hand raised in supplication and his left cradling a swaddled infant. The inscription bore the letters MLK. Had the stone-dealer stumbled across the sacred precinct where the Carthaginians had continued the macabre traditions of their Phoenician ancestors? One night, acting on a tip-off, the two Frenchmen surprised their quarry digging up steles in a field not far from the site of the great rectangular harbour. After coercing the owner of the land into selling them the plot, the two men set to work. What they found further fuelled their suspicions: a series of votive offerings, each consisting of a stele listing dedications to Baal Hammon and Tanit, and usually accompanied by a terracotta urn containing calcified bones and sometimes jewels and amulets. When the contents of the urns were analysed, it was ascertained that virtually every one contained the burnt remains of young children. The tophet had been found. Later French excavations confirmed this as one of the oldest areas of Phoenician Carthage.53

Further analysis showed that the tophet at Carthage had been in use since at least the mid eighth century BC. It was also clear that the western Phoenicians had continued with molk sacrifice long after their Levantine cousins. There had been three distinct phases of activity at the site. The first dated from around 730 to 600 BC and was marked by increasingly elaborate votive monuments, which eventually included crude obelisks and L-shaped throne monuments called cippi. Analysis of the contents of the urns and others found later showed that they contained the burnt remains of both young humans and animals.54

The tophet at Carthage has been so badly disturbed by the generations of archaeologists who have worked there that it is almost impossible to re-create the physical environment in which the rites took place. Other tophets elsewhere in the western Mediterranean are much better preserved. For example, the tophet at Sulcis off the coast of Sardinia consisted of a large rectangular enclosure delineated by massive blocks of the local trachyte on a rocky outcrop. With its thick walls and water cistern, it appears that this tophet also doubled up as a defensive refuge for the inhabitants of Sulcis in times of trouble.

Analysis of the human bones and burnt remains at Carthage has shown that the vast majority come from either stillborn or newborn infants, which is strongly suggestive of death by natural causes. These findings have been backed up at the tophet of Tharros on the island of Sardinia, where only 2 per cent of the children were more than a few months old.55 One suggested explanation is that the molk sacrifice involved not human sacrifice per se but rather the substitution of the dead for living victims, and that when none of the former was available a bird or animal was sacrificed instead.

Those who are sceptical of claims that the Carthaginians and other western Phoenicians practised child sacrifice also point to the supposed lack of children’s graves found in cemeteries during this period (of more than 2,000 graves so far discovered, only about 100 have contained the bones of infants)–odd when one considers that infant mortality rates in this period have been calculated at as high as 30 to 40 per cent. These objections lead to the theory that the tophet was in fact a place of burial for those who had not reached the age of a fully fledged member of the community. The customary placing of tophets at the fringes of the city suggests that the victims were considered to be on the fringes of society. The molk ceremony would therefore have acted as an introduction of the dead child to the god or goddess, rather than as a sacrifice.

Although such conclusions correlate with the material from the early phases of activity at the Carthaginian tophet, they work far less well with later evidence. When the contents of the urns from the fourth and third centuries BC were analysed, they were shown to contain a much higher ratio of human young. Furthermore, whereas the human remains from the seventh and sixth centuries BC tended to be of premature or newborn babies, the single interments from the later period were of older children (aged between one and three years). Some urns from this phase even contained the bones of two or three children–usually one elder child of two to four years, and one or two newborn or premature infants. The age difference between them (up to two years) suggests that they may have been siblings. One possible explanation is that neither stillborn children nor animal substitutes were now considered enough to appease Baal or Tanit, and that an elder child had to be sacrificed as a substitute when a particular infant promised to the deity was stillborn. In inscriptions incised on to the steles, Carthaginian fathers would routinely use the reflexive possessive pronoun BNT or BT to underline the fact that their sacrificial offering was not some mere substitute, but a child of their own flesh. One of many such examples from the Carthaginian tophet makes the nature of the sacrifice explicit: ‘It was to the Lady Tanit Face of Baal and to Baal Hammon that Bomilcar son of Hanno, grandson of Milkiathon, vowed this son of his own flesh. Bless him you!’56

The argument that the tophet was some kind of cemetery for children is undermined by the fact that the ratio of children’s burials found in cemeteries in Punic Carthage correlates well with comparative evidence from elsewhere in the ancient world. In fact, the lack of recorded remains may well be the result of archaeologists simply not recording small and often badly preserved children’s bones. Contemporary Greek writers thought that the Carthaginians were performing child sacrifice, and the archaeological evidence means that their claims cannot merely be brushed aside as anti-Punic slander.

The conclusion to be drawn is that during periods of great crisis the Carthaginians and other western Phoenicians did sacrifice their own children for the benefit of their families and community. The archaeological evidence also clearly shows that the tophet was no dark secret but a symbol of western Phoenician prestige. The possession of a tophet was a mark of great distinction, limited to the largest and wealthiest settlements, and the children who were offered up for sacrifice were mostly the offspring of the elite.57 The rites that took place in the tophet were, however, considered central to the continued well-being of the whole community, and were officially sanctioned by the public authorities.58

The continuing significance of the tophet in Carthage and in other western Phoenician settlements shows the continuing importance of Levantine heritage to their citizens, but at the same time the growing political and cultural cleavage between the new and old communities. The fact that the tophet thrived as a religious institution in the West, centuries after it had become defunct in the Levant, was more than a mere reflection of the innate conservatism of immigrant communities. Indeed, it was a symbol of the vibrancy and coherency of a western Phoenician world that was beginning to emerge from the shadow of its beleaguered Levantine cousins.

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