Religion in Carthage

Adorned Statue of the Punic Goddess Tanit, 5th-3rd centuries BC, from the necropolis of Puig des Molins, Ibiza (Spain), now housed in the Archaeology Museum of Catalonia (Barcelona)

The religion of Carthage in North Africa was a direct continuation of the Phoenician variety of the polytheistic ancient Canaanite religion with significant local modifications. Controversy prevails regarding the possible existence and practice of propitiatory child sacrifice in the religion of Carthage. However, a recent study of archeological evidence confirms child sacrifice in ancient Carthage.[1]


Stele from the Tophet of Salammbó showing a Tanit symbol

Phoenician origins

Carthage derived the original core of its religion from Phoenicia. The Phoenician pantheon was presided over by the father of the gods, but a goddess was the principal figure in the Phoenician pantheon. The system of gods and goddesses in Phoenician religion also influenced many other cultures.

The supreme divine couple was that of Tanit and Baal Hammon. The goddess Astarte seems to have been popular in early times. At the height of its cosmopolitan era, Carthage seems to have hosted a large array of divinities from the neighbouring civilizations of ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt and the Etruscan civilization.

Caste of priests and acolytes

Surviving Punic texts portray an organized caste of temple priests and acolytes performing different types of functions for a variety of prices. Priests were cleanshaven, unlike most other people. In the first centuries of the city, ritual celebrations included rhythmic dancing, derived from Phoenician traditions.

Punic stelae

Cippi and steles of limestone are characteristic monuments of the art and religion of the Punics and are found throughout the western Phoenician colonial world in unbroken continuity, both historically and geographically. The majority were set up over urns containing the ashes of sacrifices which had been placed within open-air sanctuaries. Some Carthaginian votive steles (several in Egyptian style) display a priest carrying a child; at least one has been interpreted as a living child for sacrifice. The identification of this child as living has been questioned.

Animal sacrifice

A Carthaginian shekel, dated 237-227 BC, depicting the Punic god Melqart (equivalent of Hercules/Heracles), most likely with the features of Hamilcar Barca, father of Hannibal Barca; on the reverse is a man riding a war elephant
A c.300 BC Carthaginian shekel bearing the wreathed head of the goddess Tanit and a standing horse.

One of the most important stelae is the Marseilles Tariff, found in the port of Marseille but originally from the temple of Baal-Saphon in Carthage. The tariff regulated the payments to the priests for performing sacrifices and described the nature of the victims.[2] All victims are male animals, and females are not mentioned. Porphyry (philosopher), De Abst. 2.11, states that the Phoenicians did not sacrifice or eat females.[3]

Child sacrifice

Most archaeologists accept that infant sacrifices occurred. Lawrence E. Stager, who directed the excavations of the Carthage Tophet in the 1970s, believes that infant sacrifice was practiced there. Paolo Xella of the National Research Council in Rome summarized the textual, epigraphical, and archaeological evidence for Carthaginian infant sacrifice.[4] Some modern scholars argue that evidence of Carthaginian child sacrifice is sketchy at best and that these reports are more likely to have been a Roman libel against the Carthaginians to justify their conquest and destruction.

Literary accounts

Accounts of child sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible have been compared with similar ones from Greek and Latin sources, speaking of the offering of children by fire as sacrifices in the city of Carthage. Plutarch (ca. 46–120 CE) mentions the practice, as do Tertullian, Orosius, Diodorus Siculus and Philo. However, Livy and Polybius do not. Diodorus (c.90-60 BCE) states:

In former times they (the Carthaginians) 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.[5]

Tertullian, about 200 CE, states that although the priests who sacrificed children had been crucified by a Roman procurator, "that holy crime persists in secret".[6]

Cleitarchus, Diodorus Siculus and Plutarch all mention burning of children as an offering to Cronus or Saturn, that is to Bal Ammūn, the chief god of Carthage. According to Justin, the Carthaginians accepted the Achaemenid Empire's instructions to stop sacrificing children (and eating dogs).[7]

Some of these sources suggest that babies were roasted to death on a heated bronze statue. According to Diodorus Siculus, "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."[5] They placed their children alive in the arms of a bronze statue of the lady Tanit:

The hands of the statue extended over a brazier into which the child fell once the flames had caused the limbs to contract and its mouth to open... . The child was alive and conscious when burned... Philo specified that the sacrificed child was best-loved.[8]

According to Stager and Wolff, there is a consensus among scholars that Carthaginian children were sacrificed by their parents, who would make a vow to kill the next child if the gods would grant them a favor: for instance, their shipment of goods were to arrive safely in a foreign port.[9]

However, some historians have disputed that child sacrifice occurred,[10][11] suggesting instead that the tophets were resting places for the cremated remains of children that died naturally.[12] Sergio Ribichini has argued that the Tophet was "a child necropolis designed to receive the remains of infants who had died prematurely of sickness or other natural causes, and who for this reason were "offered" to specific deities and buried in a place different from the one reserved for the ordinary dead".[13] The few Carthaginian texts which have survived make no mention of child sacrifice (very few mention religion at all).

Child sacrifice may also have been overemphasized for effect; after the Romans finally defeated Carthage and totally destroyed the city, they engaged in postwar propaganda to make their archenemies seem cruel and less civilized.[14]

Archaeological evidence

Stelae in the Tophet of Salammbó covered by a vault built in the Roman period

"Tophet" is a term derived from the Bible, used to refer to a site near Jerusalem in which Canaanites and Israelites sacrificed children. It is now used as a general term for all such sites with cremated human and animal remains. The Hebrew Bible does not specify that the Israelite victims were buried, only burned although the "place of burning" was probably adjacent to the place of burial. It is not at all known how the Phoenicians themselves referred to the places of burning or burial or to the practice itself.

Several apparent "Tophets" have been identified, chiefly a large one in Carthage, dubbed the "Tophet of Salammbô" after the neighbourhood where it was unearthed in 1921.[15] Soil in the Tophet of Salammbó was found to be full of olive wood charcoal, probably from the sacrificial pyres. It was the location of the temple of the goddess Tanit and the necropolis. Animal remains, mostly sheep and goats, found inside some of the Tophet urns strongly suggest that this was not a burial ground for children who died prematurely. The animals were sacrificed to the gods, presumably in place of children (one surviving inscription refers to the animal as "a substitute"). It is conjectured that the children unlucky enough not to have substitutes were also sacrificed and then buried in the Tophet. The remains include the bodies of both very young children and small animals, and those who argue in favor of child sacrifice have argued that if the animals were sacrificed, then so too were the children.[16] The area covered by the Tophet in Carthage was probably over an acre and a half by the fourth century BCE,[17] with nine different levels of burials. About 20,000 urns were deposited between 400 BCE and 200 BCE,[17] with the practice continuing until the early years of the Christian period. The urns contained the charred bones of newborns and in some cases the bones of fetuses and 2-year-olds. These double remains have been interpreted to mean that in the cases of stillborn babies, the parents would sacrifice their youngest child.[18]

There is a clear correlation between the frequency of deposition of child remains and the well-being of the city. In bad times (war, poor harvests) sacrifices may have become more frequent, indicating an increased assiduousness in seeking divine appeasement or possibly a population-controlling response to the reduction of available food[9] or perhaps increased child mortality from famine or disease.

A detailed breakdown of the age of the buried children includes pre-natal individuals, stillbirths. It is also argued that the age distribution of remains at this site is consistent with the burial of children who died of natural causes, shortly before or after birth.[16][19] Sergio Ribichini has argued that the Tophet was "a child necropolis designed to receive the remains of infants who had died prematurely of sickness or other natural causes, and who for this reason were "offered" to specific deities and buried in a place different from the one reserved for the ordinary dead". He adds that this was probably part of "an effort to ensure the benevolent protection of the same deities for the survivors."[20] However, that analysis is disputed; Patricia Smith and colleagues from the Hebrew University and Harvard University show from the teeth and skeletal analysis at the Carthage Tophet that infant ages at death (about two months) do not correlate with the expected ages of natural mortality (perinatal).[21]

Sites within Carthage and other Phoenician centres such as Motya, near Sicily, revealed the remains of male children under the age of five. There was no evidence of disease in the bones that survived cremation.

See also


  1. Carthaginians sacrificed own children, archaeologists say accessed 4 February 2016
  2. Perdue, Leo (2001). The Blackwell Companion to the Hebrew Bible. Wiley-Blackwell, p. 157. ISBN 0-631-21071-7
  3. Houston, Walter (1993). Purity and Monotheism: Clean and Unclean Animals in Biblical Law. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 978-0-567-07190-3., p. 153.
  4. Paolo Xella, Josephine Quinn, Valentina Melchiorri and Peter van Dommelen. Phoenician bones of contention. Volume: 87 Number: 338 Page: 1199–1207. accessed 17 February 2014
  5. 1 2 Diodorus Siculus. Library XX, xiv
  6. Tertullian, Apologeticus de spectaculis IX, accessed 18 June 2014
  7. Marcus Junianus Justinus. "Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus.". FORUM ROMANUM. Henry G. Bohn. Retrieved 18 April 2014. During the course of these transactions, ambassadors came to Carthage from Darius king of Persia, bringing an edict, by which the Carthaginians were forbidden to offer human sacrifices, or to eat dog’s flesh, and were commanded to burn the bodies of the dead rather than bury them in the earth
  8. Brown 1991, p. 22–23.
  9. 1 2 Stager, Lawrence; Samuel. R. Wolff (1984). "Child sacrifice in Carthage: religious rite or population control?". Journal of Biblical Archeological Review. January: 31–46.
  10. Fantar 2000, p. 28-31.
  11. Carthage tries to live down image as site of infanticide
  12. The Phoenicians. Elsa Marston. p55
  13. Sergio Ribichini, "Beliefs and Religious Life" in Moscati, Sabatino (ed), The Phoenicians, 1988, p.141
  14. J.H. Schwartz, F.D. Houghton, L. Bondioli and R. Macchiarelli. Volume: 86 Number: 333 Page: 738-745
  15. Briand-Ponsart, Claude and Crogiez, Sylvie (2002). L'Afrique du nord antique et médievale: mémoire, identité et imaginaire. Publication Univ Rouen Havre, p. 13. ISBN 2-87775-325-5. (French)
  16. 1 2 Skeletal Remains from Punic Carthage Do Not Support Systematic Sacrifice of Infants
  17. 1 2 Stager 1980, p. 3.
  18. Stager 1980, p. 6.
  19. Jeffrey H. Schwartz, Frank Houghton, Roberto Macchiarelli, Luca Bondioli. Skeletal Remains from Punic Carthage Do Not Support Systematic Sacrifice of Infants. PLOS One. Published: 17 February 2010. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0009177 accessed 23 January 2014
  20. Ribichini 1988, p. 141.
  21. Patricia Smith, Lawrence E. Stager, Joseph A. Greene and Gal Avishai. Archaeology. Volume: 87 Number: 338 Page: 1191–1199. Age estimations attest to infant sacrifice at the Carthage Tophet. accessed 23 January 2014


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