Child Sacrifice in ancient Carthage? (ca. 400 BC)

By: The Scribe on Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Tophet Stele from CarthageThey were filled with superstitious dread, for they believed they had neglected the honors of the gods that had been established by their fathers. In their zeal to make amends for their omission, they selected 200 of the noblest children and sacrificed them publicly; and others who were under suspicion sacrificed themselves voluntarily, in a number not less than 300. (Diodorus 20.14.1-7 ff).

There is a child cemetery at the site of ancient Carthage named ‘Tophet’, which means “place of burning” or “roaster”, where around 20,000 burial urns have been excavated by archaeologists. These were buried between ca. 400 and 200 BC. Though some people have speculated that these were simply infants who died young, recent archaeological study has become more accepting of this religious ritual, since the bones found do not show any wear or evidence for disease.

The urns contain the burnt bones of children anywhere from newborn to two years old, and in some cases even fetuses. Many ancient societies in the Near East believed that there was a direct relation between sacrifice and the gods providing the people with a good harvest, which may provide an explanation for why these children were killed.

As early as 800 BC, ancient sources report that children were being sacrificed to the gods Ba’al and Tanit, and though the Carthaginians did not particularly enjoy this practice, they began to purchase children from slave traders or take the children of their own slaves for the purpose of being sacrificed. However, when times were bad, only the best would do – up to 200 children of the higher classes could be slaughtered and thrown onto the burning funeral pyre to ask the gods for help.

Various methods of sacrifice may have included: slitting the child’s throat; asphyxiating a child in its burial clothes; or for babies, simply throwing them into the fire.

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