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Home arrow History arrow A Global History of Child Death: Mortality, Burial, and Parental Attitudes


Sacrifice and Infanticide in the Ancient World

Not all ancient civilization revered children, living or dead. The Phoenicians exhibited the most notorious example of child sacrifice. In Carthage between the years 800 BC to 146 BC, when the Romans destroyed the city-state now known as Tunisia, large numbers of children were sacrificed by fire in order to ensure military and financial success. Often parents chose their best-loved child, many times infants only a few weeks old, to be sacrificed in order to appease the god Baal so that they would be the recipients of good fortune; a successful shipment of goods for example. Children were placed in the arms of a bronze statue where they then fell into a brazier. Music was performed in order to drown out the sounds of crying mothers. In the kingdom of Sheba infants were sacrificed and cannibalized as well. Sacrifices of both children and adults were made to the planet gods. An example of the cruelty that occurred included an infant who was “boiled and deboned.. .rolled in flour, oil, saffron, raisins, and spices and then oven-baked... [then] eaten by the priests during the ceremony to Shemal.”30 In many of these societies infanticide and human sacrifice were practiced in preparation for war. The burial grounds where these infants were laid to rest were called tophets, and can be found in other regions of the world such as Marsala, Sicily.31

Additionally, Plutarch reported that the Carthaginians, presumably the wealthy or those who had no children, purchased babies from the poor and cut their throats. A mother could not or did not cry out lest she lose the fee she was paid for relinquishing her child for sacrifice.32 In ancient Rome parents were paid to keep children alive (that is, to not commit infanticide), the Christians, accused by the Romans of dealing in child sacrifice, noted the hypocrisy: “How many, do you suppose, of those here present who stand panting for the blood of Christians -how many, even, of you magistrates who are so righteous against us-want me to touch their consciences for putting their own offspring to death”.33

As noted previously, the ancients were fearful and superstitious when it came to burial of the dead. For example, some societies practiced foundation sacrifice, where the remains of a dead child were buried within the foundation of a new building as a means of (spiritual) fortification. While it is believed that these types of sacrifices often only included the remains of miscarried or premature infants, Egyptians were also reported to have buried children alive when a parent or caregiver passed away so that the parent could care for the child in the afterlife.34

In ancient Greece and Rome there were no laws against abandonment until the fourth century. Some ancient scholars believed that men should be able to do whatever they wanted with their children, others, like Seneca and Aristotle expressed that infanticide should be reserved for the deformed or sick. Infanticide and abortion were used as birth control, the former being the preference, as the latter could put the mother at risk and often failed. Infanticide of this nature was not considered a crime, since a child did not “exist” until his father accepted him.35 Despite what appears to be general acceptance of exposure and infanticide, several writings from the ancient have been found which speak against these practices. Musonius Rufus, who wrote Should Every Child That is Born be Raised?, stated that brothers are useful and should be spared. Justin Martyr, like many religious figures, lamented against exposure and infanticide and expressed that children should be seen as gifts from god. Finally, among the Trojans, Hadrian appointed a superintendent of child welfare in order to revoke the long held right of father’s to expose children he did not want. As a result of Hadrian’s appointment the sale of children and castration was also prohibited.36

In Ancient India infanticide was practiced due to the difficulty of marrying daughters to good families, among other reasons. If a family did not want a female child, after the infant was delivered the mother might put opium on her nipple, which the infant would inhale while nursing, causing it to die.

While infanticide was very common in early China (discussed further in Chapter 11), particularly during the Han dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD), certain death rites were attributed to children and infants. It was commonly believed that the dead came back to “haunt” the living. For example, evidence from an excavation at Shuihudi indicates that bamboo strips were used to exorcise dead children.37

In China respect for parents (filial piety) who were deceased was displayed by the abstention of procreation, and more generally intercourse. Therefore, babies who were conceived during mourning were sometimes abandoned. Though during the Han dynasty taking the life of one’s children was prohibited (unless it were born “deformed”), some parents may have justified the killing of an infant as delayed birth control, preventing the child from living a life of deprivation or suffering. There appeared to be ambivalence towards children due to the economic distress experienced by many families.

In ancient China, abandonment of infants was common, particularly after the birth of triplets, illegitimate birth, or if the child was born in the same month as the father. Newborns were left isolated, unfed and unnamed for three days after birth. The child and his or her mother were kept from the father for three months. If the father did not “lift up” and accepted the baby, he or she was abandoned. The rejected child was either exposed to the elements or was killed directly. Stillborn children were roasted or dismembered in order to eliminate a perceived dark spirit.38

To illustrate the extent to which female infanticide was performed in ancient China, the Taipin jing, a religious text which condemned the practice, states “Now under Heaven, all families kill girls; and under Heaven, how many hundreds of thousands of families are there? There are even some families that have killed more than ten girls.” Of many reasons for killing baby girls was that parents had to pay out dowries upon their daughters’ marriages. Other reasons were less practical: some texts such as Sheng (“Births”) gave advice such as “whenever one gives birth on a jisi day, do not raise [the child]. It will be disadvantageous to its parents.” Advice in these texts also included counsel against raising children who were born on the fifth day of the fifth month or with unusual physical characteristics.

Due to power struggles during early Imperial China, particularly during the Han and Qing dynasties, the killing of the emperor’s children was fairly common, whether by the emperor himself or by those attempting to thwart the powers of the ruler. Empresses too would kill children of the emperor’s concubines. In one example during the Han dynasty a long line of child murder began with Gaozu in 202 BC. The road to the throne was paved with the bodies of the emperors’ sons (and their mothers) produced by his many concubines as well as his wife. The violence began when the empress killed the sons of the concubines in order to keep her own son and herself in power, as the favored sons of concubines could be put ahead of those born from the empress. In total, of the thirteen emperors of the Han dynasty, only three reigns were not tainted with child murder, although one of those three emperors attempted to murder his child unsuccessfully. Emperors, such as Chengdi, felt that they could always produce more sons, “a confidence that clearly figured in his decision to kill these infants”; consistent with the view of children in early China that children were replaceable and could be sacrificed for “greater glory of the patriline”.39

The Buddhist religion stated that Nirvana was not available to those under the age of seven, thus a child’s life was not valued until that point.40 Because of this belief, Alexander the Great, during his conquests, noted widespread practice of infanticide in India. For example in the kingdom of Sophytes, who ruled along the Indus River, medical officers decided which children were to be raised and which were to be disposed of, based on defects real or imagined.41

One of the first efforts in the Eastern hemisphere to put an end to female infanticide was in 1789 by the British government. When the female population became so low as to be a burden, steps were taken to discontinue the practice. When men began to marry their own sisters and cousins due to the lack of females, or when the female population fell below twenty-five percent, female infanticide was discouraged.

Despite the widespread practice of infanticide, it was commonly believed among many societies that those not receiving a proper burial, children who died prematurely or victims of suicide, died what were deemed “a bad death” and the soul remained with the body; the younger the child at death, the greater the unused energy. This unused energy was said to be channeled into wrath or instability and thus induced more fear from the spirit of the child.42

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