This is Part II of our three-part series on human sacrifice and extreme debauchery in the ancient world. See Part I: “Rome’s Own Version of an ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ Cult: Bacchanalia Runs Amok“; and Part III: “Cult Ritual Killings in Ancient Rome.”
One the main purposes of examining hidden histories such as the Roman Bacchic outbreak of 188-186 B.C. or Sabbatean Frankism of the 17th and 18th centuries is to illustrate the pajama-person nature of many of the historical scholars involved. Just as they dismissed Roman historian Livy’s Bacchanalia revelations, they also dismissed Phoenican-Cannanite-Israeli-Carthage accounts of child sacrifice.
Greco-Roman sources have always reported that the Carthaginians burned their children as offerings to Baʿal Hammon. The skeptics opined that this was Roman black propaganda.
But French-led excavations at Carthage in 1921 and 1923 uncovered a large quantity of urns containing a mixture of bones of animals and children. René Dussaud identified a 4th-century B.C. stela found in Carthage as depicting a child sacrifice. In a single child cemetery, called the Tophet by archaeologists, an estimated 20,000 urns were deposited.
“Tophet” is a term derived from the Bible, used to refer to a site near Jerusalem in which Canaanites and Israelites sacrificed children on alters.
At last, with the evidence mounting in 2014, a number of key researchers swung back to the child-sacrifice view. In a paper published in the journal “Antiquity,” Dr. Josephine Quinn of Oxford University’s Faculty of Classics and author wrote: “It’s becoming increasingly clear that the stories about Carthaginian child sacrifices are true.”
Sites within Carthage and other Phoenician centers revealed the remains of young children in large numbers. Other Phoenician colonies conducted the practice. Sites within Carthage and other Phoenician centers, such as Motya near Sicily, revealed the remains of male children under the age of 5. There was no evidence of disease in the bones that survived cremation.
Tophets have been also found in Sardinia at Sulci, Nora, Monte Sirai, Tharros and Bithia. Since 1963, a cemetery of 3,000 sacrificed children from 1 month to 4 years old has been under excavation in Sardinia, an area of Punic conquest and settlement.
The city-state of ancient Carthage was a Phoenician colony located in what is now Tunisia. It operated from around 800 B.C. until 146 B.C., when it was destroyed by the Romans. Carthage itself was destroyed and 150,000 to 200,000 were put to the sword. The remaining 50,000 were sold into slavery. However, Rome had spared seven satellite cities of Carthage that had sided with Rome and did little to interfere with sacrifice practices with its allies.
Carthage was a racial mix of the Numidians and Libyans who were among the ancestors of modern Berbers and the Semitic Phoenicans.
It was another 50 years, according to Pliny the Elder, until human sacrifice in ancient Rome was abolished by a senatorial decree, in 97 BCE. Although the Romans called human sacrifice barbaric, there is ample evidence that Rome often looked the other way when human sacrifice was practiced in its domains.
If one counts the Tyre, Phoenician and the Canaanite history of the religion, it was ingrained for a millennium. Did it just totally fizzle out? Doubtful. It would merely go more underground to be practiced by secretive societies and cults. Stay tuned for a future article on Roman and post-Roman era ritual killings.
Saturn and the Carthaginian god Ba’al Hammūn are interchangeable. The Roman form of Ba’al was an African Saturn (Hammon or Amunus in Philo‘s work), and it was also a fertility god. The prevailing theory was that human blood was necessary to maintain the supernatural powers of the gods.
Carthage derived the original core of its religion from Phoenicia. The system of gods and goddesses in Phoenician religion also influenced many other cultures throughout the Levant. In interpretatio graeca, the Phoenician god was identified with Cronus due to the parallel theme of Cronus devouring his children. The painting at right is illustrative.
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” (Bib. Hist. 20.14.6).
Cleitarchus in his “Scholia” of Plato’s Republic mentions the practice:
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.
Plutarch in De superstitione also mentions the practice in Carthage:
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.
The Phoenicans derive from the Canaanites. The evidence for child sacrifice in Greco-Roman and Biblical tradition is also associated with the Canaanite god Ba’al Hammon — which, in addition to a male fertility god, was also associated with the owl and a Minotaur with head of a bull. He is also known as Moloch. Baʿal Hammon was especially associated with the ram and was worshiped also as Baʿal Qarnaim (“Lord of Two Horns”). Ba’al can also be interpreted as “master” or “Lord Master.”
In the Levant in the early 20th century, scholarly opinion on the topic begins to be informed by the results of archaeological excavations in the Near East, notably those by R. A. S. Macalister at Gezer from 1902 to 1909. Macalister reported evidence of child sacrifice in the Late Bronze Age Canaan. Consensus has shifted toward the assumption of widespread child sacrifice in Canaan. Motifs from the era and region are undeniable.
There is ample discussion in the Old Testament about the practice among the ancient Israelis, with the text ultimately condemning the practice. It seems that they were dealing with this issue. It was a regional practice.
Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”
Wisdom 14:21-23 RSV
Afterward it was not enough for them to err about the knowledge of God, but they live in great strife due to ignorance, and they call such great evils peace. For whether they kill children in their initiations, or celebrate secret mysteries, or hold frenzied revels with strange customs …
1 Kings 13:1-2 NLT
At the LORD’s command, a man of God from Judah went to Bethel, and he arrived there just as Jeroboam was approaching the altar to offer a sacrifice. Then at the LORD’s command, he shouted, “O altar, altar! This is what the LORD says: A child named Josiah will be born into the dynasty of David. On you he will sacrifice the priests from the pagan shrines who come here to burn incense, and human bones will be burned on you.“
2 Samuel 21:1-11 (KJV)
- Then there was a famine in the days of David three years, year after year; and David enquired of the LORD. And the LORD answered, It is for Saul, and for his bloody house, because he slew the Gibeonites.
- And the king called the Gibeonites, and said unto them; (now the Gibeonites were not of the children of Israel, but of the remnant of the Amorites; and the children of Israel had sworn unto them: and Saul sought to slay them in his zeal to the children of Israel and Judah.)
- Wherefore David said unto the Gibeonites, What shall I do for you? and wherewith shall I make the atonement, that ye may bless the inheritance of the LORD?
- And the Gibeonites said unto him, We will have no silver nor gold of Saul, nor of his house; neither for us shalt thou kill any man in Israel. And he said, What ye shall say, that will I do for you.
- And they answered the king, The man that consumed us, and that devised against us that we should be destroyed from remaining in any of the coasts of Israel,
- Let seven men of his sons be delivered unto us, and we will hang them up unto the LORD in Gibeah of Saul, whom the LORD did choose. And the king said, I will give them.
- But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan the son of Saul, because of the LORD’s oath that was between them, between David and Jonathan the son of Saul.
- But the king took the two sons of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, whom she bare unto Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Michal the daughter of Saul, whom she brought up for Adriel the son of Barzillai the Meholathite:
- And he delivered them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they hanged them in the hill before the LORD: and they fell all seven together, and were put to death in the days of harvest, in the first days, in the beginning of barley harvest.
The Talmud goes so far as to put guidelines on Molach sacrifice to be passable in some form. Why are they even having this conversation at all?
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 64a
MISHNAH. HE WHO GIVES OF HIS SEED TO MOLECH INCURS NO PUNISHMENT UNLESS HE DELIVERS IT TO MOLECH AND CAUSES IT TO PASS THROUGH THE FIRE. IF HE GAVE IT TO MOLECH BUT DID NOT CAUSE IT TO PASS THROUGH THE FIRE, OR THE REVERSE, HE INCURS NO PENALTY, UNLESS HE DOES BOTH.
Later, in Deuteronomy 18:9-12 and in Leviticus, dealing with the issue?
When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire … Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD, and because of these detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you.
Leviticus 18:21 (ESV)
You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.