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Cotsen Friday Seminar Series

by cquinto — last modified April 19, 2012 01:17 PM

Guilty as Charged? Accusations of Phoenician Child Sacrifice and the Question of Infanticide at Phoenician Carthage Joseph A. Greene, Semitic Museum, Harvard University

What Friday Seminar
When May 21, 2012
from 04:00 pm to 06:00 pm
Where Fowler Museum Bldg., Room A222
Contact Name Catherine Pratt
Contact Email
Contact Phone 310-825-4169
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Phoenician Child Sacrifice

Greek historians like Kleitarchos and Diodorus, and church fathers like Tertullian, all condemn the Phoenicians for practicing child sacrifice. Some add lurid but unverifiable details—distraught mothers present at sacrificial ceremonies, human offerings received in the outstretched arms of a gigantic brazen statue, grimacing victims consumed by flames. On one point, however, these sources agree: the Phoenicians sacrificed their offspring to their supreme deities.


The archaeological and epigraphic evidence adduced to support these accusations is open to interpretation, however. Urn burial cemeteries (called ‘tophets” following Biblical usage) have been excavated at Carthage and at Phoenician sites on Sicily and Sardinia. Tophets are also known from Amathus on Cyprus and Tyre in the Phoenician homeland. Tophet urns have been found to contain the charred remains of children apparently cremated as described in the sources, but nothing about the bones betrays how the victims died. Inscribed funerary stelae often set up to mark tophet burials mention vows to Phoenician deities, Tanit and Baal Hammon; but none of the inscriptions explicitly mention child sacrifice. Lacking also is any connected account of Phoenician religion from the Phoenicians themselves, a Phoenician “Bible,” so to speak.


The ambiguity of the evidence has led to denial of the charge that the Phoenicians practiced child sacrifice. The classical texts are dismissed as tendentious or misinformed, and the urn cemeteries are reinterpreted as the final resting places for victims of the naturally high rate of infant mortality in antiquity. Lines of the debate are clearly drawn between those who advocate the child sacrifice interpretation and those who deny it.


Two important elements are missing from the debate, however. One is an attempt to understand this alleged practice in the context of infanticide as documented in other human societies (S. B. Hrdy, Mother Nature, 1999). The other is an attempt to compare of tophet-style cemeteries with the available evidence for infant interment in the ancient Mediterranean region (E. Scott, Archaeology of Infancy and Infant Death, 1999). This paper introduces these elements in order to demonstrate that the phenomenon described as “Phoenician child sacrifice” is more complex than previously suspected.


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