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SOME POSSIBLE GENETIC IMPLICATIONS OF CARTHAGINIAN CHILD SACRIFICE NATHANIEL WEYL* When visiting Carthage in October, 1967, I was intrigued by the evidences of infant sacrifice and was tempted to speculate concerning the possible biogenetic implications ofthis gruesome institution. The evidence that the Carthaginians periodically sacrificed their very young children in vast autos-da-fé to their chief god, Baal Hammon, and later to the goddess Tanit comes from a variety of classical sources and is quite explicit . The most detailed account is that ofDiodorus ofSicily, who wrote around 20 b.c., or more than a century after the destruction ofCarthage, but who may have relied on earlier sources. In his novel Salammbô, Gustave Flaubert faithfully copied Diodorus' account of a holocaust of neonates in which hundreds of the children of the leading Carthaginian families were incinerated. For this, he was taken to task by contemporary archeologists and historians who asserted that the accounts of this event by Greek and Roman writers should be dismissed as psychological warfare. Excavations in 1921, however, fully vindicated Diodorus and his popularizer , Flaubert. In the tophet, or sanctuary, near the ancient harbor of Carthage where, according to legend, Queen Dido first beached her galleys and later immolated herself on her funeral pyre, crude stelae were discovered. Under these were urns containing the charred bones ofthousands of very young children. That this practice was general to Carthaginian civilization and not peculiar to the city of Carthage (KartHadasht , or New City) soon became apparent. Thus, since 1963 a cemetery of three thousand sacrificed children from one month to four years old has been under excavation in Sardinia, an area of Punic conquest and settlement. The inscriptions on the stelae and burial urns identify the * 4201 South Ocean Boulevard, Delray Beach, Florida 33444. 69 victims as the first-born sons of noble families and state that they were first strangled and then burned as offerings to Tanit. Nature ofthe Sacrifices The Carthaginians demanded sacrifice of the first-born of the best families apparently on the theory that human blood was necessary to maintain the supernatural powers of the gods. As a nation of traders, they seem also to have believed that the more valuable the offering, the greater would be the gratitude oftheir deities. Accordingly, this was not a device for population control or a means ofculling the less viable infants , but a practice which must have winnowed out much of the best in the Carthaginian gene pool and operated as a dysgenic factor. Unfortunately, we lack either statistics or detailed records concerning the extent of child sacrifice, the way the victims were chosen, or the size ofthe population from which they were drawn. In at least one instance, a deaf and mute child was offered to the gods in return for the gift of a normal child, but sacrifice of the afflicted seems to have been the exception . As to the scope ofthe practice, we are informed that, when the city was threatened by Agathocles, who invaded Africa in 310 b.c., the priests blamed the calamity on impiety. Many of the leading families had been secretly substituting the children ofslaves for their own first-born in the sacrificial holocausts, and there had also been delinquency in payment of tribute to Melkart. Accordingly, five hundred children of the upper classes were put to death in a single auto-da-fé. Thus, the power of the gods was not deemed absolute, for the Punic nobility had dared to deceive them, but it was considered sufficiently great for them to atone by surrendering their own children. From how large a population were these victims drawn? Strabo estimated that the city had 700,000 inhabitants, but the writers of antiquity were notoriously inaccurate in dealing with large figures. On the basis ofthe area ofthe town and the carrying capacity ofthe surrounding agricultural land, Gilbert Charles-Picard, who headed the excavations at Carthage and directed the Tunisian Department ofAntiquities for many years, concluded that the city itselfnever had more than 100,000 inhabitants and the environs at most another 100,000. If we assume 200,000 for the greater city and make the generous assumption that the "leading families" comprised 5...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 69-78
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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