Home History A Global History of Child Death: Mortality, Burial, and Parental Attitudes
Infant and Child Sacrifice
Children were often selected over adults for sacrifice as they were deemed more pure and free from sin, thus closer to god. Reasons for sacrifice included appeasing war gods to salve illness, or to overcome illness or infertility. A child’s blood was considered “magic milk”. While in both hemispheres of the earth infanticide was regularly practiced regardless of the legitimacy of a child, in many societies it went unpunished or undetected; in comparison some scholars contend that child sacrifice was relatively rare.24
Sacrifice is not a direct reflection of a parent’s love for a child. Rather it is an expression of deeply held beliefs. In fact many victims of sacrifice were the best-loved children. Among the Phoenicians, for example, mothers could be heard wailing for their babies as they were incinerated. Some women were paid to sacrifice their children in place of those originally selected. Sacrifice victims were usually infants, male, and could be rich or poor, depending upon whether it was the dedicant’s child or one bought expressly for sacrifice. Sacrifice often required considerable planning and assistance. Carthaginian parents added their names to markers indicating that they had fulfilled their responsibility to their deity.25
Modern societies might deem sacrifice as cruel or as evidence of detachment from one’s children. It is not just the killing of children, but the “dispos[al] of infants and young children who had been fully accepted into what they saw as the social and legal unit of the family” that is disturbing to people. While there is a temptation to judge sacrificial acts by modern standards or even by those of ancient or Christian Rome, it is important to consider what these rituals meant at the time. It was the suffering of the families who offered their children that was the gift that would mollify the gods. Sacrifice also “binds the family to the state’ through the family’s loss and the state’s gain”, indicating that children did not belong to their parents but to the community and the gods. The practices of Spartan parents illustrates this link between family and state: at the age of seven Spartans sent their boys to state-run houses to prepare to be warriors, although Spartan infants were only killed if they were deemed unable to live up to the state’s physical demands.26
Later, animals were increasingly used in addition to or in lieu of infants; however, other researchers note that as the Phoenicians urbanized, child sacrifice actually increased. In the tophets, the ritual burial spaces where infants were sacrificed until Rome destroyed Carthage during the last Punic War in 146 BC, 20,000 burial urns were found. While this number sounds like an exceedingly high amount of children, it represents an average of about two sacrifices per week (or one hundred per year). Compared to the Aztecs, who sacrificed 20,000 people per year, this relatively small number does not indicate mass sacrifice, but a Phoenician ritual to regularly fulfill a vow to the gods. Appeasement of the god Molech by child sacrifice is indicated by the name mlk ba’al on a child’s stelae, while the inscription of the word mlk ’mr was used when an animal was sacrificed. Some researchers argue as to whether these tophets really do indicate sacrifice, but others point out that children were found to be buried in shallow graves in non-sacrificial cemeteries, while infants buried in tophets were cremated and placed in non-funerary pottery.27 As noted in Chapter 3, research published in 2013 confirms that these tophets were evidence of sacrifice.
Among the Inca in Peru capacocha (human sacrifice) was practiced with young children, but not with infants. Usually children who were sacrificed were buried with miniature animals molded from precious metals. Death was a metaphor for planting seeds. Therefore, the sacrifice of children is connected to fertility and production. Older children were chosen for sacrifice as they were considered old enough to talk to dead ancestors so that they might ask for qualities such as strength for the community.
Unlike the Inca, the Moche, an earlier culture of the north coast of Peru, appeared to have sacrificed infants in a plaza of the Huaca de la Luna, a ceremonial center for the Moche. In one instance, three infants were found underneath a large group of sacrificed men who had been captured in battle and killed during el Nino weather events (such as heavy rains and flooding). This indicated that the ritual killing of the infants preceded that of the adults. Like other excavations that appear to be sacrificial sites, it is possible that the burial of the children, whose skeletons were missing their heads, might be reflective of an enactment of a scene from Moche pottery. The pottery illustrates the decapitation of an infant as it is born from a whistling woman. Therefore, the infants might have died naturally and been buried in this sacrificial space because they were considered to have special qualities. Further, the babies did not have the same knife marks on their vertebrae that the decapitated adults had. Additionally, perhaps to reflect the Moche whistling woman, one of the infants was found with a whistle in each hand. Whether the children themselves were sacrificed or not, they were buried in a sacrificial context as part of a larger gift to the gods to protect them from the effects of el Nino.
Infants found at the Roman Empire temple at Springhead, Kent in Britain provide strong evidence of sacrifice when compared to infants buried elsewhere in the site. Two infants, one of which was decapitated, were found buried in opposite corners in the foundation of a building. The six month old babies were placed on their sides in a flexed (as opposed to a more natural fetal) position. Beneath these two infants were two more children (where, again, only one infant was decapitated) of the same age, which appeared to be ceremonially buried about ten years previously. The decapitation indicates a “link with the Roman-Celtic ritual of separation of the head from the whole” which was typically expressed through sculpture or animals. Some historians have argued that perhaps the infants were physically deformed or otherwise unwanted children. Malformed children, typically candidates for infanticide in some cultures, might have been diverted toward the purpose of sacrifice instead. Conversely, these may have been best loved children offered up for sacrifice.28
In India children were killed for economic and spiritual reasons. Bathing in a child’s blood was considered a remedy for disease. If a woman was having difficulty becoming pregnant, or in order to produce a healthy child after the loss of an ill child, she was directed to bathe in the blood of a murdered child. In another example, in order to bless their journey, the Banjarilu, travelling traders of southern India, would bury a small child to his shoulders in the sand, and then traders would drive their bullocks over the child until he was dead. They believed that the amount of success they had on their journey was commensurate with the thoroughness of the trampling. Sacrifice was performed until 1800 in Saugor when the governor put an end to the practice, despite the objections of Brahmin priests. Near this city young men would throw themselves from the hills on to the rocks below in order to fulfill their mothers’ vows to the god of destruction. Ironically, this vow was made in order to overcome barrenness.29
The prevalence of infanticide and sacrifice troubles many historians when making the connection between loving attitudes towards children and the high incidence of infant mortality. Mark Golden notes that modern studies of women who have chosen to have an abortion at some time in their lives revealed that many of those women planned to have children in the future. Thus, he makes the connection between infanticide and failed attempts at birth control; infant exposure and infanticide in ancient or pre-modern history do not necessarily emanate from hostility toward children.30
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