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Religious Beliefs and Rituals
The ancient city of Carthage was located at the upper eastern side of Africa, along the Mediterranean Sea. Its location was ideal for sea voyages that brought about many new ideas, beliefs, and rituals from foreign locations. The Carthaginians intentionally adopted certain deities from the Phoenicians, the Egyptians, and the Greeks. Archaeologists have been able to unearth a few temples that were dedicated to specific deities, such as Tanit and Ba’al Hammon. Although many of the archaeological sites were destroyed when the Muslims took over North Africa, archaeologists were able to uncover and restore some of the temples. Some of their ritualistic activities were derived from their ancient ancestors, the Canaanites. The archaeological evidence suggests that the goddess Tanit and the god Ba’al Hammon were revered by the Carthaginian society due to their roles in society, the child sacrifices done on their behalf, and their individual temples.
Tanit was the most important goddess at Carthage. In many of her depictions on stone clay, she is represented holding palm trees, grapes, doves, and/or a crescent moon. Those specific symbols, especially the palm trees and grapes, have assisted archaeologists in detecting the aspect of life that she controlled. Tanit was the goddess of harvest, good fortune, and fertility. The Carthaginians prayed to her in times of drought and if their prayers were not answered promptly, they sacrificed their first-born children in her name. Renaud states, “…religious practices have received much attention, due especially to the child sacrifices to ensure the health and well being of the community”(1 Renaud). Like many ancient societies, pleasing the gods at any cost was always the priority in order to guarantee their survival.
Clay tablets with carvings of Tanit are located in the majority of the gravesites especially in the sites that date to the Punic era. Since more tablets of Tanit are located during the Punic era, one may assume that she was more popular and/or that it was a time of turmoil so more Carthaginians turned to her in their times of need. The child sacrifices may have been made to bring good fortune to the soldiers who were fighting in the Punic Wars.
Ba’al Hammon was considered to be the Master God or the Supreme God to the Carthaginian people. His name also refers to the Egyptian god; Amun- Ra. Ba’al Hammon was usually depicted as a large male statue in the center of most temples. Since he was the Supreme God, many more sacrifices were made to him on a regular bases. If there were no needs for child sacrifices, the Carthaginians would sacrifice valuable animals instead. Although, when there were hardships, the Carthaginians would have their first-born children, usually under the age of four, pass through “the fire of Moloch” as a special sacrifice to Ba’al Hammon. Once again there is the repetition of child sacrifice in a communal time of need. Holy prostitution usually occurred in the temples of Ba’al Hammon when women were not able to conceive. The belief at the time was that the women as well as the men became more fertile when they were in the presence of Ba’al Hammon.
Funeral Stele at Tophet
Tophet was a revered district of Carthage that contained the temple of the goddess Tanit. It was founded at the beginning of Carthage, around 814 B.C.E. In recent archaeological digs, many urns filled with children’s remnants were uncovered. Decker stated, “During the political crisis of 310 B.C.E., some 500 were killed” (3 Decker). He noticed the large amounts of child fatalities through the specific strata that they were located in and by associating them with historical records from the era. Many funeral steles are found at the site of Tophet. Decker exclaims, “Special ceremonies during extreme crisis saw up to 200 children of the most affluent and powerful families slain and tossed in a burning pyre” (3 Decker). Many people have the misconception that the children who were sacrificed were that of the lower classes’ when in fact, in most societies, they would offer the most elite to their gods on behalf of their entire communities. The steles located at Tophet show symbols of the crescent moon, the symbol for Tanit and fertility. Simple symbols like those found on the steles help archaeologists distinguish Tanit from the other gods and associate her with specific sacrifices.
Temple A, on the akropolis
When the Muslims invaded North Africa, about thirteen centuries ago, they destroyed the vast majority of what was once ancient Carthage. Archaeologists have been able to unearth a few of the temples that were dedicated to the goddess Tanit and the Supreme God, Ba’al Hammon. Most of the temples are built with the same floor plan as a normal Carthaginian house. The only difference was that it was more spacious in the center, it had an alter, and it was usually decorated with a major deity. Temple A, one of the few temples, is located on the acropolis and was specifically dedicated to the goddess Tanit. Archaeologists have found stick figure carvings of her holding palm trees and other types of agriculture on the stonewalls. One can assume that child sacrifice did occur in Temple A because of certain artifacts that were located in specific sections around the temple. The New York Times did an article on the artifacts and stated “religious paraphernalia for sacrificing children by fire, as well as a replica section of the sinister Precinct of Tanit” (1 Browne). A small cemetery is located outside of Temple A that contains thousands of urns that are filled with the remains of children. It is possible that this particular precinct of ancient Carthage may have had many hardships or just one serious hardship that threatened the Carthaginian community. The ancient people did not want to suffer and wanted to guarantee their existence and there fore sacrificed their children to please Tanit. Temple B is also located on the acropolis and archaeologists as well as historians believe it is dedicated to Ba’al Hammon. Very few artifacts were able to be recovered from the site since it suffered more damage due to weather and invasion. They believe it may have been Ba’al Hammon’s temple because the located part of a statue with its arms out stretched and few carvings that appears to be of a male deity. Temple B is also built as Carthaginian house except with more space in the center. Only the outline and very little wall of the temple survive today. By looking at the outline archaeologists can attempt to make assumptions about the usages of each room but without certain artifacts to associate them with, it is difficult to make any conclusions.
Based on the current evidence that archaeologists have made available, one can conclude that the Carthaginians were faithful servants to their most favored gods, Tanit and Ba’al Hammon. There is sufficient evidence to support the hypothesis of child sacrifice being the center of the Carthaginian religion. Tanit was the goddess of fertility, agriculture, and good fortune. When the Carthaginians went through unfortunate times, such as dry spells and wars, they would sacrifice their most purest and important people for the good of their society. Archaeologists have found hundreds of urns at the site at Tophet. A majority of the urns contain the remains of children of noble status. There noble status is noticeable through the style of the urns and items that were placed in the urns. The temples also suggest that child sacrifices occurred in them. Temple A, located in the acropolis, contained paraphernalia that was used to burn children as sacrifices to Tanit. It is logical to assume that child sacrifices played a major role in religious ceremonies and during hard times but they were only done when the Carthaginian community could not find any other solution to please their gods.
Written By: Kristin Aubrey Cortina
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