Sacrificing Babies to the Fertility Gods

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We’ve had new escorts a couple of recent Saturdays at the clinic. They stopped by because things were slow at their regular clinic or came into town to help out during the 40 Days for Life, when we tend to get more protesters. Both times, Guitar Guy has decided to engage the new escorts.

Guitar Guy’s name is Jeff, as he’ll tell you if he wants to talk to you. He has a nickname like most of the protesters, however, because not all of us care to talk to them long enough to find out things like names. He’s Guitar Guy because he spent much of last summer and fall playing his limited repertoire of songs made up of his limited repertoire of chords outside the clinic. It’s currently too cold for the guitar, so he has his baby out with him now instead.

(This is fine, actually. Babies do just dandy at the temps this one has been out in. How they do later when they find out they were used as a prop for their parents is an open question, however.)

It’s only recently that Guitar Guy has tried to engage escorts for proselytization. The first time, he just started talking to the two new people at the door I was on while they carried on a conversation with each other. The second time, he asked. The second time, there was a man among the new escorts.

We’ll be discouraging escorts from engaging with Guitar Guy going forward. He’s been escalating, both in starting those two attempts to proselytize and over the course of them, and there’s no way to tell what he’s escalating to until he does it. It might just be more yelling. It might not. He says he’s there because he discovered the wonders of babies when he found out he was going to be a father, but that’s so far disconnected from “so now I go out and harass the people who don’t want one right now” that predicting any more of his behavior is iffy at best.

Making that recommendation has meant listening to Guitar Guy preach. I hear what he says so the new people can tune him out. It’s annoying, but I keep myself entertained by tweeting bits and pieces of it. He seems to fancy himself a scholar.

“The Bible says abortion clinics are Hell! Did you know ‘Gehenna’ is the Greek word for ‘Hell’?”

Why, yes, I did know that, and that’s a hell of a way to mix up your Old and New Testaments and Jewish folkloric traditions to get the answer you want, and we’ll come back to your premise shortly.

It’s fascinating watching the picking and choosing that is done to try to make it appear that reverence for prenatal life has always been considered highly valuable when it’s largely a product of modern medicine. That simply isn’t true. For these purposes, if you want to see the differences, look at how Exodus 21:22-23 has been interpreted historically by Jewish scholars, then compare that to what anti-abortion groups are telling us it “obviously” means today.

Even knowing that, however, I was completely confused the morning Guitar Guy told us “they” used to sacrifice babies to fertility gods. I…what? How does that make any sense? It was an ancient baby-exchange program?

So I had to look. I had to figure out who was teaching people this stuff and what it was supposed to do with abortion. Appropriately enough, I found what I was looking for at a site called Revisionist History. Yes, it is quite serious, both in this article and more generally in its anti-Semitism and conspiracy theorizing.

Baal and Molech Worship

“And they built the high places of Baal that are in the valley of Ben-Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire to Molech” (Jeremiah 32:35).

“They have built also the high places of Baal, to burn their sons as offering to Baal” (Jeremiah 19:5).

Here the Bible implies what modern archaeologists and anthropologists have recently discovered: that Molech and Baal represent the same pagan god. The wife of Baal is Asherah and the wife of Molech is Ashteroth. Asherah and Ashteroth represent the same fertility goddess. This demon was known to the Greeks as Aphrodite; to the Egyptians as Isis; and to the Phoenicians as Tanet.

The ancient city of Carthage was the capital of the Phoenician empire. Their civilization was advanced culturally and highly educated. But recent archaeological expeditions have revealed its most notable feature – the high incidence of child sacrifice. Archaeological relics have been uncovered, such as the altars on which children were sacrificed and stone markers, which marked the burial place of the remains. Stone carvings on the markers depict children who were sacrificed. Clay jars were used to hold the remains. Entire burial grounds full of these slaughtered children have been uncovered.

As barbaric as this sounds, we must remember that this is precisely what we do through abortion. With one obvious exception – today we don’t honor or bury the children we kill.

Archaeologists have established that the primary deity that they children were sacrificed to was the goddess Tanet, the name being a regional representation of the more universal Ashteroth.

The typical rationalist would attribute these rites to superstition and would suggest that science and intellectual advancement would cause this type of unfortunate behavior to lessen and finally cease. But archaeologists have discovered that over Carthage’s history, the incident of child sacrifice, even in the face of considerable intellectual advances, actually increased until it suddenly stopped.

And how did it stop? When God judged Carthage. Roman armies invaded and suddenly destroyed the entire civilization. The stark ruins of Carthage are a testimony that God is not mocked. We have to ask ourselves: How far are we from a judgment for our own abortion holocaust?

It even works in Gehenna (Gai Ben-Hinnom). There are other sites that refer to the supposed child sacrifice connection with fertility gods, but most of them are concerned with preaching the evils of Easter (poorly, but not so poorly as to keep the same claims out of Wikibooks). You can find apparent descendants of this page, each with their own emphasis, like “bisexual orgies“, but this seems to be the source for our protester.

Okay, so the claim comes from deep right-wing nonsense land, but is it true? Don’t laugh. It’s still worth asking, even though the fact that I find the claim at these sites in the top Google responses points to an answer. Still, let’s do this the hard way.

First of all, are Molech/Moloch and Ba’al the same god? That would be easier to answer if we knew whether Moloch were the name of a god. We don’t. It might be the name given to a god who demanded sacrifice or equipment for carrying out the sacrifice or the sacrifice itself.

There is some association, however, because “Ba’al” is a title rather than a name and one associated with several of the pagan gods of the region. The one directly tied to child sacrifice in Carthage is Ba’al Hammon, who is, in turn, paired with Tanit. But let’s stop here and talk about the bullshit that is the condensing of all these deities into two.

Some of that bullshit is distinctly Christian right wing. Moloch is married to Ashteroth? According to whom? I ask because the sources for that rely on the pre-existing ideas that Ba’al = Moloch and Ashteroth = Asherah = Astarte = all these other goddesses. Yet here those associations are being used to argue that the gods are one and the same. It’s a mess of circular assertion. Moreover, it doesn’t matter. We already have both Ba’al Hammon and moloch associated with child sacrifice.

Neither of those gods is a fertility god, however. That means that in order to know whether babies were sacrificed to fertility gods, we have to pay attention to the Tanit side of the equation. Here’s where things get a bit harder.

You see, you can find sources that equate Tanit with Astarte. You can find sources that say that, as a mother goddess, she was a fertility goddess. You can find both those claims on her Wikipedia page.

The problem is with the whole idea of one god or goddess being the “same” as another, particularly during the relevant time periods. What does that even mean?

It could mean that a particular god or goddess was all things to all people, that their characteristics and worship took form based on the needs of the people around a given temple. Dionysus is pubescent or mature depending on local preferences for male beauty, cat or bull depending on which animal is worshiped nearby, born to a human or a goddess depending on the general lay of local mythology. Sometimes he’s a mystery god.

Alternately, gods being the “same” could mean that borders have shifted or people have moved and pantheons–and deities–have merged. Isis was a perfectly normal goddess, minding her own business, until the expansion of her cult brought her into contact with the cult of Hathor. Then, suddenly, she started wearing cow horns on her head. People started to claim she had a son named Horus. There was one goddess where there had been two because the characteristics of the local were assigned to the interloper.

It could even be an overenthusiastic adoption of less-than-modern scholarship. If you’re thinking Joseph Campbell, you know what I’m talking about, though he’s far from the only person to have collapsed multiple deities into one based on overstatement of similarities or ignoring important differences. Those similarities can come from either or both of the mechanisms I already mentioned. The gods could be filling the same niche, they could have come out of the same root tradition and branched since then, or they could have been pushed into the same mythical roles over time.

Given all that, is Tanit = Ashtaroth = Isis = Aphrodite? No, she’s not. These are all goddesses with some overlapping characteristics, but they’re not the same.

For example, Tanit is often compared to Hera/Juno. As ruling mother goddesses, these comparisons make sense, though again, they don’t make the two the same goddess. Tanit was consort to Ba’al Hammon, who has been compared to Cronus, making things a bit awkward, since Cronus is Hera’s father, not husband. If they were the same goddess, they should have the same family history, at least on something as basic as that.

Still, the Hera/Juno/Tanit comparison is strong in terms of the roles each goddess plays, and that presents a problem for the idea that Tanit is Aphrodite. Hera is not Aphrodite. Neither of them is virginal, as Tanit sometimes is. Neither is a war goddess.

Astarte/Ashtaroth was a war goddess, however. Both she and Tanit share characteristics with the older goddess Anat, though Anat and Tanit were both at least sometimes virgin goddesses and Astarte was decidedly not. Oh, and Anat was married to a god more like Zeus than Cronus, and Astarte was married to…well, actually, there’s not a great equivalent to Ba’al Hadad. His myths contain elements we’d associate with Zeus, Dionysus, and the myth of Persephone.

Can I stop now? Can we take it as read from here that goddesses with similarities and overlaps are not one and the same in the sense that we can argue all share the characteristics of any one? Can we recognize that treating them as the same requires a pre-existing belief that there is some fundamental reality to these goddesses that gets distorted in the telling and the worshiping?

I hear no objections. I’m moving on.

This, of course, still doesn’t answer the question of whether babies were sacrificed to fertility gods. Getting the surrounding details wrong throws the central claim into doubt, but it doesn’t nullify it. Yes, even when that many details are wrong.

Photo of a symbol carved in relief on a small stone pillar. A rough skirted stick figure under a crescent and circle.
“Tophet Carthage.2” by Michel-georges bernard, CC BY 3.0

Given that Tanit was only sometimes a fertility goddess, when she wasn’t busy being a virgin, should she be considered such for these purposes? Probably. Tanit was a lunar goddess, and her symbol, which includes a lunar arc, is found in the graveyard where the children who are claimed to have been sacrificed are buried. The combination suggests a moon-menses-fertility connection was made locally. So call her a fertility goddess for these purposes.

Then we have to look at the question of sacrificing babies. Did it happen in Carthage? Maybe. Inscriptions in the same graveyard where Tanit’s symbol is found show the parents of the dead children likely thanking the gods for having answered their prayers. The burial of these children’s remains alongside the remains of sacrificial animals and under those inscriptions says something ritualistic was going on.

The open question still is whether the children were sacrificed while alive or dead. At least one researcher argues that they must have been alive because dead babies are a poor sacrifice. However, it wouldn’t be the first time gods have taken the poorer end of a sacrificial deal. Ultimately, we simply don’t know, though it’s hardly outside the realm of possibility.

What we do know is that, if babies were sacrificed to Tanit in Carthage, they were almost certainly not sacrificed for fertility. These were sacrifices in thanks, not supplication. In order for babies to have been sacrificed for fertility, someone would have had to pray to Tanit to have a baby, promising as the price to sacrifice that baby. I’ve been thinking about that for far too long, and I have yet to come up with anything that makes it work.

Yes, I have been thinking about this for too long, long enough that I’m annoyed to have been told this in the first place. I’m annoyed that Guitar Guy thinks he’s telling us something revelatory when he makes strong claims about unsettled history and that he throws out irrelevant details like fertility cults because they’re prurient and that he treats ancient mythology as though the gods were all real while insisting on monotheism.

I don’t even know which is worse. Is it the bad scholarship that gets to me the worst, or is it that he can’t even use it to make a decent argument against abortion? After all, telling me that pagan, infidel, heathen, demon-worshiping women used to sacrifice their babies for prosperity is both more likely than them sacrificing for fertility and a more appropriate parallel for modern abortion. If I didn’t think avoiding financial stress were a perfectly fine reason to say, “Get this thing out of me!”, I might even find it persuasive. So yeah, that part pisses me off too.

Oh, wait. Right. That bit about getting his information from anti-Semite conspiracy theorists? That’s the part I hate the most. If I hadn’t decided we shouldn’t engage him, I might even tell him so.

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Sacrificing Babies to the Fertility Gods
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6 thoughts on “Sacrificing Babies to the Fertility Gods

  1. 1

    Well, let’s put it like this: We all owe Guitar Guy (did you notice you can shorten it to GG?) this interesting post about ancient gods and goddesses.

    +++

    “They have built also the high places of Baal, to burn their sons as offering to Baal” (Jeremiah 19:5).

    Which is totally evil, unlike being willing to sacrifice your son to Jehova, which totally makes you one of the heroes of the OT and a shining example of religious obedience and morality shining out of your ass.

  2. 3

    In addition to all the stuff you’ve mentioned, if I was going to draw correlations between Egyptian and Greek gods, I’d link Isis to Demeter (due to their agricultural and underworld associations) or Hera (for the same reasons as the Tanit-Hera/Juno linkage) rather than Aphrodite.

    I am no classicist, mind you, so if I’m overlooking something, I’d love to know about it.

  3. 4

    Which is totally evil, unlike being willing to sacrifice your son to Jehova, which totally makes you one of the heroes of the OT and a shining example of religious obedience and morality shining out of your ass.

    I suspect that the horrible child sacrifices to “Moloch” (which is basically just a derivative of Melek, meaning “king”) that the bible decries are simply denunciations of a previous stratum of Hebrew religion.

    Basically, at one point, the people were worshiping their gods via child sacrifices; presumably the first born sons. Over time they noticed that this was very wasteful (probably in conjunction with them growing more isolationist) and instituted other rules. You could buy your son free with a substitute sacrifice of cattle (as mythically described in the Isaac story and more factually in Exodus 13) and/or circumcision (noted in Exodus 4, where Moses is impromptu circumcised as restitution for not giving his firstborn to God).
    Once this substitution had taken place, The Hebrews could now pretend that the god that those people worshiped was totally different from their own One, True God. The surrounding tribes were denounced as barbarians and this was further used to distinguish the Hebrews from their once-countrymen.

    In short, I think this is an artifact left over from when a group of Canaanites decided to become insular and monotheistic and invented their Hebrew identity.

    P.S.
    There’s an interesting parallel here to the final plague of Egypt: The death of all the first born. Note e.g. that the Hebrews avoid that plague by slaughtering lambs to paint their houses with blood; they buy the lives of their children by animal substitute.
    I’m not sure how that all ties together, but it’s a little too on the nose to ignore.

  4. 6

    IIRC, and I haven’t read up on Carthage in a while, the only literary source we have that states that the Carthaginians sacrificed babies was a Roman one, written /during the Punic Wars/, so it may well be propaganda or misinterpretation of something else that was going on there (and what the actual deal is with tophets is a hard fought over topic).

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