European Pagan Memory Day

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"There was a bronze statue of Chronos, and it has hands with palm facing upward and inclined towards the ground, so that the child put on them rolled down and fell in a pit full of fire".

So Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian, says about the alleged habit of Phoenicians, especially of Carthaginians, to sacrifice their own children to a god identified with the Greek Chronos (who devoured his own children to prevent them from dethroning him, until Rhea gave him a stone in place of the newborn Zeus). Plutarch confirms the news too, while other historians, like Herodotus, Tacitus, Polybius and Livy, donít deal with it, though they belonged to cultures struggling against Carthage. Because of this struggling, Graeco-roman statements about Carthaginian cults should be considered with proper prudence. But this didnít happen, and still today many historic sources say that Carthaginians were used to sacrifice their own children.

Ancient populations already deplored human sacrifices as a habit, and their real extension could have been overemphasized by the ancient writer itself to make more clear how their present society was improved: in many myths a civilizer hero, like Hercules, make a population abandon the practice of human sacrifices. Itís a way to say that people evolved, that they are no more wild as they used to be, but became civilized. Sometimes, Itís also a way to demonstrate how civilized they were if compared to populations that were still "barbarians": so the legend according to with Phoenicians sacrificed their children to Baal was born. In fact, what can be more dishonourable than killing children, especially your own? Itís a serious charge and so very useful for propaganda because it provokes an instinctual horror, from the most primordial parts of human minds.

The most serious thing of all is that generations of archaeologists based on Diodorus Siculus and Plutarch and on the bible ("They have built the high-places of Topheth in the valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire" Jeremiah 7:31 and "They have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as offerings to Baal" Jeremiah 19:5) their demonstration of the reality of these sacrifices. They gave to the cinerary deposits the biblic name of "Tophets" (places for burning, in Hebraic) and believed they found the evidences of sacrifices, since the ashes belonged to children and animals.

Before the work of Sabatino Moscati, archaeologists didnít quite consider some discrepancies that should have led to reconsider the problem of sacrifices. The first is certainly the unreliability of witnesses coming from people hostile to Carthaginians. The second is the stratification of the ashes, that shows the high frequency of depositions: if they were sacrifices, they must be very frequent, but this would have been a problem in a society that had also a high infant mortality. If infant mortality was high and the deposition in tophets was for sacrificed children only, we should have found other graves of children: but these werenít found in necropolis. This implies that, because of sacrifices and natural death together, Carthaginian should have fade away in a few generation. Moreover, the 80% of ashes belonged to foetuses or some day old children; some archaeologists, refusing to abandon the sacrifice hypothesis, thought about aborts made just in order to sacrifice, but this is another practice that would have led to the weakening of the population and we couldnít understand how Carthage could become a powerful city. The 20% of the ashes found belonged to animals and rarely to children up to four year old. The distribution of age percentage corresponds enough to the percentage of mortality per age. Probably most all of these children died for natural causes, diseases or accidents and so were made sacred to the god, to which they were committed, maybe to augur new births. Animal offerings, like offerings of many objects, were common to all ancient cults, so they not necessarily substituted a child sacrifice.

Now we should look at the dedicatee deity of all these "sacrifices": dedications on urns are made not only to a male god, Baal, but also to a goddess, Tanith, and this fact enforces the relation between the rite and the desire to have children. Defaming propaganda remained silent about this detail, so children sacrifices have been related to male gods, because it was more culturally proper. But both Baal and Tanith are related to fertility and abundance and Baal, though he was traditionally compared with the Greek god Chronos, was believed to be a well-disposed god towards men.

The "defamation" of Phoenician paganism has continued for a very long time, and still continues on school books and on internet, though most of the scholars know that we canít anymore talk about a similar practice as a frequent one, even though they are still reluctant to fully abandon the human sacrifice hypothesis (but they should first of all describe what they found and make distinctions between human sacrifice, ritual killing and ritual burial). Besides, the hebraic verb that is used in Jeremiah is usually translated thinking about sacrifices, but it simply means "pass through the fire", referring probably to a very common practice of healing or initiation, a rite performed among all ancient European peoples. It seems that Phoenicians practiced the passage through the fire for children initiation, meaning their entrance, at the age of four-five, in society.

Manuela Simeoni

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