Religion in Carthage

Religion in Carthage

"See also Religions of the Ancient Near East"

The foundation of Carthage at the end of the ninth century B.C. encouraged the more permanent establishment in the Western Mediterranean of members of the Phoenician pantheon. No longer did merchants set up temporary trading posts, many of them going back to spend their old age in Tyre, where they had left their families. Now there was an aristocracy which had departed from the mother city never to return, trying to embed their homes and beliefs permanently in the colonies. For several centuries, however, the new capital's sphere of influence remained very restricted, and under the aegis of the Magonid dynasty the Carthaginians continued to look almost entirely seaward for the increase of their wealth.

Carthaginian religion was based on Phoenician religion. Phoenician religion was inspired by the powers and processes of nature. Many of the gods they worshiped, however, were localized and are now known only under their local names.


Phoenician Origins

Carthage derived the original core of its religion from Phoenicia. The Phoenician pantheon was presided over by the father of the gods, but a goddess was the principal figure in the Phoenician pantheon.

The system of gods and goddesses in Phoenician religion also influenced many other cultures. There are too many similarities to be overlooked. In some instances the names of gods underwent very little change when they were borrowed. Even the legends maintained major similarities. Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Persian and others had their influences on the Phoenician faith system as well as borrowed from it.

We are comparatively ill informed about the deities worshipped by the early Phoenicians when they came to Carthage from the East to set up trading posts, great and small, along the maritime highway which also took them as far as Caries in Spain. These sailors and salesmen must primarily have invoked the gods who could ensure them a safe voyage, permitting them to defy storms or to evade rocks, and to gain hospitable havens which would shelter them alike from the hostility of nature and of man. Such, doubtless, was the substance of the prayers they addressed to the god Resheph, whose statuette was recovered from the sea near Selinunte in 1961.

The Phoenicians worshipped a triad of deities, each having different names and attributes depending upon the city in which they were worshipped, although their basic nature remained the same. The primary god was El, protector of the universe, but often called Baal. The son, Baal or Melqart, symbolized the annual cycle of vegetation and was associated with the female deity Astarte in her role as the maternal goddess. She was called Asherar-yam, our lady of the sea, and in Byblos she was Baalat, our dear lady. Astarte was linked with mother goddesses of neighboring cultures, in her role as combined heavenly mother and earth mother. religious statues of Astarte in many different forms were left as votive offerings in shrines and sanctuaries as prayers for good harvest, for healthy children, and for protection and tranquillity in the home. The Phoenician triad was incorporated in varying degrees by their neighbors and Baal and Astarte eventually took on the look of other deities.

The supreme divine couple was that of Tanit and Ba'al Hammon. The goddess Astarte seems to have been popular in early times. At the height of its cosmopolitan era Carthage seems to have hosted a large array of divinities from the neighbouring civilizations of Greece, Egypt and the Etruscan city-states.

The Phoenician pantheon includes:

* Adon(is), the god of Youth Beauty and Regeneration (similar to Greek Adonis)
* Anath, the goddess of Love and War, the Maiden (similar to Greek Aphrodite)
* Asherah or Baalat Gubl, the Goddess of Byblos
* Astarte (or Ashtarte), the Queen of Heaven (similar to Greek Hera)
* Baal, El, the Ruler of the Universe, Son of Dagan, Rider of the Clouds, Almighty, Lord of the Earth (similar to Greek Zeus or Roman Jupiter)
* Baal-Hammon, the God of Fertility and Renewer of all energies in the Phoenician colonies of the Western Mediterranean (similar to Greek Kronos or, in some ways, Zeus)
* Eshmun or Baalat Asclepius, the God of Healing
* Kathirat, Goddesses of marriage and pregnancy
* Kothar, Hasis, the Skilled, God of Craftsmanship
* Melqarth (or Melqart), King of the Underworld and Cycle of Vegetation (similar to Greek Herakles)
* Mot, the God of Death
* Resheph and Shamash, Gods of Fire, Lightning, Plague, and Chaos
* Shahar, the God of Dawn
* Shalim, the God of Dusk
* Shapash, the Sun Goddess
* Tanit, Queen Goddess of Carthage, the Mother Goddess, Queen of Good Fortune and the Harvest
* Yamm, the God of the Sea (probable)
* Yarikh, the Moon God

This list is not all inclusive and the Carthaginians did not rank the gods in the same way that eastern Phoenicians did. Several Egyptian gods were also worshiped by Carthaginians, such as the little dwarf god Bes who wore a feather headdress.

Baal Hammon, Tanit, and Eshmun

The Carthaginian 'triad' of the most important gods included Baal Hammon, Tanit, and Eshmun. The word Baal (pronounced ba-al) meant "lord" in Phoenician and was the term used in the Old Testament to refer to any Canaanite god. (The Canaanites were cousins of the Hebrews and of the Phoenicians). The name Baal originally referred to several local deities, but by the 14th century B.C. was taken to mean the lord of the universe, according to the Ugarit tablets.

Baal (also known as El) had a number of other titles such as "the son of Dagan," although Dagan (biblical Dagon) does not appear as a player in the mythological texts. Baal also bears the titles "Rider of the Clouds," "Almighty," and "Lord of the Earth." He was the god of the thunderstorm, the most vigorous and aggressive of the gods, the one on whom mortals most immediately depend. Baal (Hadad to Phoenicians, Hammon to Carthaginians) was believed to reside on Mount Zaphon, north of Ugarit in Phoenicia, and is usually depicted holding a thunderbolt.

The Greeks thought that Baal Hammon most closely resembled their god Kronos (Saturn to the Romans). Baal Hammon may also be spelled Baal Ammon or Amun, and parallels the Egyptian god Amun-Ra. The ancient city of Ammonium in Egypt visited by Alexander the Great was the site of an important oracle of Baal Ammon.

Baal Hammon

In the temples of Baal Hammon there was normally a statue of the god with his arms outstretched in front, with the hands pointing down to the pit where his sacrificial victims were burned. The practice of sacrificing human victims to a god is revolting to modern minds, but was fairly commonplace in the ancient world. The Carthaginians often sacrificed their firstborn children to their gods, much as many cultures sacrificed the first fruits to gods. Even in the Old Testament you can find the tale of Abraham commanded by God to sacrifice his only son Isaac, stayed at the last moment by intercession of an angel. (Genesis 22.) Later in the history of Israel, the people are rebuked for adopting the practices of their Phoenician neighbors, causing children to "pass through the fire to Moloch" which is described in several passages as an "abomination to God." The practice of "holy prostitution" at such temples was also abhorrent to the Hebrews. Baal Hammon was not the most important deity to Carthaginians however, at least not after about 500 B.C. when the worship of Tanit (also spelled Tinith, Tinnit or Tint) grew popular.


The deity held to be the most important to Carthage was the goddess Tanit, who is depicted on many Carthaginian coins. Tanit was regarded as the patroness goddess of the city and was accorded special favor by her citizens. The Greeks identified her as approximating Diana, the Moon goddess, and Persephone or Kore, for the grain and harvest. To Carthaginians she was the goddess of good fortune, the harvest, and the Moon. Tanit is equivalent to the Phoenician goddess Astarte, the mother goddess. The symbol of Tanit is a truncated pyramid, topped with a rectangular bar, over which is depicted the Sun and the crescent Moon. The symbol of Tanit can be found on most of the grave markers in any Punic necropolis. Tanit also required sacrifice of human victims, but perhaps not as many as Baal Hammon. Her full title Pene Baal meant "(Tanit) Face of Baal," and she had precedence over Baal Hammon.


Eshmun was the god of healing and the healing arts. Eshmun is sometimes identified with Melqarth as well.


Another god held in high esteem by the Carthaginians was Melqart. The Greeks identified Melqart with Herakles. Melqart was originally a marine deity similar to Poseidon and was the "lord" of the mother city of Tyre. Some ancient Greek writers thought Herakles to have been originally a Phoenician god adopted by the Greeks, and historians such as Flavius Josephus use the terms Melqart and Herakles interchangeably.

During the period after the First Punic War (264-241 B.C.) and up to the beginning of the Second (218 B.C.), the Carthaginians adopted the Greek god of war, Ares, and he was depicted on bronze coins struck in Iberia of that period.

Caste of priests and acolytes

Surviving Punic texts are detailed enough to give a portrait of a very well organized caste of temple priests and acolytes performing different types of functions, for a variety of prices. Priests were clean shaven, unlike most of the population. In the first centuries of the city ritual celebrations included rhythmic dancing, derived from Phoenician traditions.


The temple typically occupied a dominating site in the city along with the palace. Like the palace, it had political, administrative, and economic functions, as well as its distinctive religious functions. It was staffed by priests, singers and other musicians, diviners, scribes, and other specialists.

The greatest triumph of the human intellect probably lies in the opening up of unlimited possibilities for the expression of abstract concepts in concrete form. This was achieved and brought to fruition in the East, where the Phoenicians discerned, through analysis, that a concept as abstract as thought expressed in the spoken word could ultimately be broken down into various elements. It could then be reconstituted and fixed by putting the elements together again, by virtue of the concrete images

The reverberation of this triumphant achievement echoed as far as Carthage, where the priests took the lead over the scribes in producing the symbol erroneously known to us as the "sign of Tanit". That sign, which an entire civilisation, abandoning its earthly preoccupations, used for more than a thousand years to express its hopes and beliefs. It appears that the primitive form of this sign was a trapezium closed by a horizontal line at the top and surmounted in the middle by a circle. The horizontal arm was often terminated either by two short upright lines at right angles to it or by hooks. In the course of time the trapezium often became an isosceles triangle. A stele from the sanctuary at Carthage bears an incised representation of the silhouette of a priest praying with up-raised arms and wearing a long robe on which the sign is inscribed.

Punic stelae

Cippi and stelae of limestone are characteristic monuments of Punic art and religion, and are found throughout the western Phoenician world in unbroken continuity, both historically and geographically. The majority was set up over urns containing the ashes of human sacrifices, which had been placed within open-air sanctuaries. Such sanctuaries constitute striking relics of the Western Mediterranean Phoenician or Punic civilisation.

Child sacrifice

Carthage was notorious to its neighbors for child sacrifice. Plutarch (ca. 46–120 AD) mentions the practice, as do Tertullian, Orosius, Diodorus Siculus and Philo. Livy and Polybius do not. The Hebrew Bible also mentions what appears to be child sacrifice practiced at a place called the Tophet ("roasting place") by the Canaanites, ancestors of the Carthaginians, and by some Israelites.

Some of these sources suggest that babies were roasted to death on a heated bronze statue. According to Diodorus Siculus, "There was in their city a bronze image of Cronus extending its hands, palms up and sloping toward the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire."

The accuracy of such stories is disputed by some modern historians and archaeologists [Fantar, M’Hamed Hassine. Archaeology Odyssey Nov/Dec 2000, pp. 28-31 ] . Nevertheless, several apparent "Tophets" have been identified, including a large one in Carthage.Fact|date=May 2008

Evidence from classical sources

The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (1st century B.C.) reports that once (in the year 310 B.C.) a great disaster was threatening the city of Carthage. The people ascribed their calamity to the anger of Cronos, to whom they once had sacrificed their best children, but then offered him only bought or weakly children. Thereupon the Carthaginians sacrificed two hundred children from the best families. A child was laid in the arms of a bronze statue of Cronos and would then roll off into a burning oven [Diodorus Siculus. Library XX, xiv] . Philo of Byblos, who wrote a History of the Phoenicians around A.D. 100, reports that child sacrifice was customary among the Phoenicians. In times of national danger, 'The Phoenicians sacrificed their dearest children in a mysterious fashion.' Carthage similarly has a reputation for the sacrificial burning of children sometimes, according to Diodorus even with a great scaffold in which a many-armed sculpture in the form of a god tipped the child sacrifices into a flaming pyre [Ranke-Heinmann 286, Smith R pp. 363, 374] .

Evidence from archaeology

Most archaeologists accept that some sacrifices did occur. Lawrence E. Stager, Professor of Archaeology of Israel and Director of the Semitic Museum at Harvard University, who directed the excavations of the Carthage Tophet in the 1970’s, takes the view based on ancient texts that infant sacrifice was practiced there. Stager is joined by Joseph Greene, Assistant Director of the Semitic Museum, a member of Stager’s team in the excavations of Carthage, and author of the American Schools of Oriental Research’s "Punic Project Excavations": "Child Sacrifice in the Context of Carthaginian Religion: Excavations in the Tophet"

According to these scholars, in the Carthage Tophet an estimated 20,000 urns were deposited between 400 BC and 200 BC, with the practice continuing until the early years of the Christian period. The urns contained the charred bones of newborns and in some cases the bones of fetuses and 2-year-olds. These double remains have been interpreted to mean that in the cases of stillborn babies, the parents would sacrifice their youngest child. There is a clear correlation between the frequency of sacrifice and the well-being of the city. In bad times (war, poor harvests) sacrifices became more frequent, indicating an increased assiduousness in seeking divine appeasement, or possibly a population controlling response to the reduction of available food in these bad times.

The area covered by the Tophet was probably over an acre and a half by the fourth century B.C., with nine different levels of burials. Archaeologists have also discovered evidence of child sacrifice in Sardinia and Sicily.

Animal remains, mostly sheep and goats, found inside some of the Tophet urns strongly suggest that this was not a burial ground for children who died prematurely. The animals were sacrificed to the gods, presumably in place of children (one surviving inscription refers to the animal as "a substitute"). It is conjectured that the children unlucky enough not to have substitutes were also sacrificed and then buried in the Tophet.

The Tophet

"Tophet" is a term derived from the Bible, used to refer to a site near Jerusalem in which Canaanites and Israelites sacrificed children. It is now used as a general term for all such sacred sites. In Carthage, it was the location of the temple of the goddess Tanit and the necropolis.

The Bible does not specify that the Israelite victims were buried, only burned, although the "place of burning" was probably adjacent to the place of burial. Indeed, soil in the Carthage Tophet was found to be full of olive wood charcoal, probably from the sacrificial pyres. We have no idea how the Phoenicians themselves referred to the places of burning or burial or to the practice itself, since no large body of Phoenician writing (no Phoenician "Bible," as it were) has come down to us.

Beginning at the founding of Carthage in about 814 B.C., mothers and fathers buried their children who had been sacrificed to Baal Hammon and Tanit there. The practice was apparently distasteful even to Carthaginians, and they began to buy children for the purpose of sacrifice or even to raise servant children instead of offering up their own. However, in times of crisis or calamity, like war, drought, or famine, their priests demanded the flower of their youth. Special ceremonies during extreme crisis saw up to 200 children of the most affluent and powerful families slain and tossed into the burning pyre. During the political crisis of 310 B.C., some 500 were killed. On a moonlit night, after the child was mercifully killed, the body was placed on the arms of the god, where it rolled into the fire pit. The sound of flutes, lyres, and tambourines helped to drown out the cries of the anguished parents. Later, the remains were collected and placed in special small urns. The urns were then buried in the Tophet.

Evidence for and against the practice of child sacrifice

Recently, doubts have been voiced about such reports of child sacrifice among the Phoenicians. Sabatino Moscati stresses that neither in cosmopolitan Carthage nor in the Phoenician city-states were the gods' favors courted by the systematic burning of children. Child corpses in the children's cemeteries (Tophets), which have often been viewed as sites of child sacrifice, showed no sign of violence. The skeletons were of fetuses, stillborn babies, or children dead from sickness who had been interred in the sacred precincts. Moscati thinks the reports of child sacrifice among the Phoenicians are hostile propaganda by Greek and Roman historians, at least as far as any regular sacrifice of children is concerned." [Ranke-Heinmann 1992 pp.286-288] .

It has been argued by some modern scholars that evidence of Carthaginian child sacrifice is sketchy at best and that it is far more likely to have been Roman blood libel against the Carthaginians to justify their conquest and destruction. M’Hamed Hassine Fantar, Director of Research at the Institute of National Cultural Heritage, Tunisia, argues that the Tophet at Carthage was a cemetery for stillborns and infants who had died of natural causes, and whose bodies were then cremated. Sergio Ribichini has also argued that the Tophet was "a child necropolis designed to receive the remains of infants who had died prematurely of sickness or other natural causes, and who for this reason were "offered" to specific deities and buried in a place different from the one reserved for the ordinary dead". He adds that this was probably part of "an effort to ensure the benevolent protection of the same deities for the survivors." [Sergio Ribichini, "Beliefs and Religious Life" in Moscati, Sabatino (ed), "The Pheonicians", 1988, p.141] The few Carthaginian texts which have survived make no mention of child sacrifice, though Carthaginian votive steles (several in Egyptian style) display a priest carrying a living-child, apparently to sacrifice.

Conversely, work at Motiya, an island off Sicily which was home to a large Phoenician colony, showed that the bones of children buried in the local Tophet belonged to male children under the age of five. There was no evidence of disease in these bones (which survived cremation). This argues against the theory that children buried in the Tophet died of random causes. As effective a tool of anti-Carthaginian propaganda child sacrifice may have been, the Motiyan investigation offered strong evidence to support the classical sources.

ee also

James B. Pritchard


* Brown, Shelby, "Late Carthaginian Child Sacrifice and Sacrificial Monuments in their Mediterranean Context" (JSOT/ASOR Monograph Series, vol. 3; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991), p.149.

* Fantar, M’Hamed Hassine. "Archaeology Odyssey" Nov/Dec 2000, pp. 28-31

* Lawrence E. Stager and Samuel R. Wolff, "Child Sacrifice at Carthage: Religious Rite or Population Control?" "Biblical Archaeology Review", January/February 1984.

* Joseph Greene, "Punic Project Excavations: Child Sacrifice in the Context of Carthaginian Religion: Excavations in the Tophet", American Schools of Oriental Research.


Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • CARTHAGE — CARTHAGE, ancient city in North Africa near the modern Tunis; founded in the 9th century B.C.E. by Phoenicians. There is no evidence of Jews in Carthage during the Punic period (before 146 B.C.E.); on the other hand, a number of modern scholars… …   Encyclopedia of Judaism

  • Carthage — • Founded by Phoenician colonists, and long the great opponent of Rome in the duel for supremacy, was destroyed by a Roman army, 146 B.C. A little more than a century later (44 B.C.), a new city composed of Roman colonists was founded on the site …   Catholic encyclopedia

  • Carthage — Infobox World Heritage Site Name = Site of Carthage infoboxwidth= 250px State Party = TUN Type = Cultural Criteria = ii, iii, vi ID = 37 Region = Arab States Year = 1979 Session = 3rdCarthage ( gr. Καρχηδών Karkhēdōn , la. Carthago, from the… …   Wikipedia

  • Religion in ancient Rome — Ancient Roman religion Marcus Aurelius (head covered) sacrificing at the Temple of Jupiter …   Wikipedia

  • Religion en Tunisie — Minaret de la mosquée Zitouna …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Religion médiévale — Moyen Âge La visite d un chantier de bâtisseurs. Le Moyen Âge …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Religion des Pères — Pères de l Église Depuis le XVIe siècle, l historiographie moderne appelle Pères de l Église les personnalités, généralement des évêques, dont les écrits, les actes et l exemple moral ont contribué à établir et à défendre la doctrine… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Tophet de Carthage — 36° 50′ 29″ N 10° 19′ 23″ E / 36.841507, 10.323069 …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Tophet de Salammbô (Carthage) — Tophet de Carthage Présentation actuelle du tophet : stèles et cippes de grès d’El Haouaria …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Histoire de Carthage — Masque carthaginois du VIIe VIe siècle av. J. C., musée du Louvre …   Wikipédia en Français

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”