The horrific practice of child sacrifice in Phoenician colonies in the Mediterranean as well as being practiced in Carthage. Although scholars have tried to ‘downplay’ this custom or even deny its existence, it is evident that it was widely practised. For this article, I wish to explore the history and significance of child sacrifice using the largest tophet (where the sacrifices took place), located just south of Carthage at Salammbo.
In Carthage as many as 20,000 urns with infant and animal bones were buried in the tophet (this is the biblical word for such sanctuaries) over 600 years. A number of urns contained only animal bones; the rest contained children or animals and children. All had been cremated.
In or near the tophet, a small wooden pyre was on a flat rock or in a shallow vessel of some sort. An infant or very young child (sometimes around age two) would be positioned exactly on top of the pyre on its back. The child was wrapped in a linen piece of clothing closed with hooks that was adequately secure to confine the child’s limbs if the infant was still alive. The pyre was then ignited. The brazier was not stirred; rather the embers were fanned to guarantee complete burning. When the calcinations was judged satisfactorily complete, a handful of dirt or sand was flung on the embers to put them out (Vance, p.117-118).
One of our major literary sources regarding the practice of child sacrifice is Philo of Byblos, who composed, in the late first or early second century CE, his The Phoenician History. The material includes a cosmology; a history of culture; a history of Kronos; and some accounts of later rulers, of human sacrifice, and of serpents (Clifford, p.278). The deities appeased by this custom were Baal and Tanit, native Phoenician deitiesHowever, there are other classical, Hebrew and Biblical authors who support this tradition.
According to Stager and Wolff in 1984, the practice of sacrificing children began primarily with the higher stratum of Carthaginian society. Later, it became more and more popular, infiltrating the lower segments of the people. In addition, the practice of substituting animals for the vowed child was more prevalent earlier and lessened dramatically in the later periods (Vance, p.117).
Historical and sociological data from elsewhere in the ancient world suggest that Phoenician infant sacrifice was not simply a religious rite but a mechanism of population control; animal substitution became less frequent with the increase of the Carthaginian population.
One revisionist argument, based on the disproportionately small number of infant burials in the regular cemeteries of Carthage, is that the tophet was a regular infant cemetery; that theory is effectively refuted by the fact that the same disproportion is characteristic of ancient cemeteries elsewhere. Indeed, there is evidence to support the theory that child sacrifice was performed in times of emergency and crisis.
Although to our modern sensibilities, the practice of child sacrifice is horrific and should never have been practiced, this custom was not only attributed to the Phoenicians; other Mediterranean cultures practiced this. Despite its repellent nature, the study of Phoenician child sacrifice can offer us insight into the social, religious and political distinctions in and around the Mediterranean.
Alcock, Susan E. & Cherry, John F. (2005) The Human Past – The Mediterranean World, Thames & Hudson, London.
Clifford, Richard J. (1990) Phoenician Religion, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, The American Schools of Oriental Research.
Vance, Donald R. (1994) Literary Sources for the History of Palestine and Syria: The Phoenician Inscriptions, The Biblical Archaeologist, The American Schools of Oriental Research.