Burning the Brats: Did Ancient Heathens sacrifice their own children?

In the movie “I Dacii” they show the proto-Romanian king forced to sacrifice his own son because of (hopefully) the superstition that it is necessary to win the favor of the gods.

I remember in Durant’s “Story of Civilization”, in his writing on Carthage, that they sacrificed their *own *children in fire as an offering.

I have seen other references to this behavior: First burial shroud carbon dated to time of Christ's crucifixion found in caves near Jerusalem | Daily Mail Online

“In ancient times, pagan tribes burned children alive there as offerings to the god Moloch”
So how true is this? It seems to violate the senses that this would be done. Even the Aztecs killed others not their own. I also remember a sacrifice of a slave in Achebe’s Things fall apart but again, it was from another tribe. It seems pretty whack and against human nature to sacrifice one’s own children.

Referring to their own children in particular, are these accusations merely anti-heathen propoganda by monotheists, or was this really the way it was?

Someday, I’m going to get a doctorate in Anthropology so that whenever I see a question that starts out like, "Did people in ancient times really …? I can answer it and cite myself. Until then, I’ll bide my time.

Why? Infanticide and abandonment of unwanted infants has been much more the rule than the exception in human history. People still do those things even though they’re illegal in modern societies and considered a heinous crime today. If some people are willing to kill their children even with the force of law and public opinion totally against it, it shouldn’t be surprising that some people would be willing to kill their children if their law and religion encouraged it.

There’s some pretty good evidence that worshipers in Canaan, Phoenicia, and Carthage) sacrificed their children, at least. We have Jewish sources saying that was part of worship in Canaan and Phoenecia, and Greek and Roman sources saying it was done in Carthage, as well as some, admittedly ambiguous, archeological evidence from Carthage supporting it.

There’s also evidence suggesting that the Aztec, the Inca, and the Moche in America sacrificed their children.

Besides, if you’re going to sacrifice to a god, what’s more precious to you, and therefore more pleasing to the gods, than your own child?

No ancient civilization sacrificed their own babies, but every ancient civilization’s enemies did.

That is to say, there are plenty of accounts of this happening, but the accounts are always told about the writer’s enemies, never about the writer’s own civilization. So either those civilizations that didn’t practice this were precisely those civilizations that left records, and the civilizations that did sacrifice their children are the ones we’ve never recovered any writings from, or it was all just slander.

Nitpick: libel since it’s a written record

I thought there was some pretty solid evidence (including mummies and depictions in art and stone carvings) that high status children were indeed sacrificed by several of the Meso-American peoples. Are you saying there isn’t any evidence of this at all, except from sources that are essentially ‘the next valley over are full of cannibals’ type accusations?


I can’t believe no one has mentioned the story of Abraham and Isaac

At least, I’ve never seen any record of one’s own people doing so, but then, I’m not an archaeologist. If there is such evidence, I’d like to see it.

Me either…my knowledge of archeology consists of classes taken in college 20+ years ago and watching Science Channel/NatGeo/History/etc…not exactly solid sources. I found this Wiki article on child sacrifice, which seems to indicate that there is some solid evidence for it.


Sure, that’s why there are no modern Heathens! :wink:

I know at least one case: Homer, a Greek, owned up to the Greek king Agamemnon sacrificing his own daughter Iphigenia to the gods.

As has been pointed out, infanticide is known the world over. But infanticide as holy ritual is probably a good deal less common.

While suggestive of the society they lived in, we can’t really take that at face value, insomuch as the odds of both of those individuals being at least semi-mythological is pretty high.

There have been a number of finds of the naturally mummified bodies of children from Incan times found up on mountains in Peru. They were clad in elaborate clothing, possibly drugged, and then killed (e.g., by strangulation) or left to freeze to death on the mountain slopes. There are also numerous “bog bodies” from Northern Europe, many of whom were clearly killed before being sunk in the bogs (i.e., they still have ropes around their necks); it’s debated whether they were human sacrifices, or were executed for various crimes. I believe depictions of human sacrifices have been unearthed from Mesoamerican sites.

I would define “Homer” as “the writer of the Iliad”, and since the Iliad was most assuredly written, the person so defined must also surely have existed. By what standard can he be considered semi-mythological?

In any event, so long as one stipulates that “Homer” was Greek, he’s certainly attributing filial sacrifice to his own culture (even if Agamemnon was purely mythical). I rescind the absoluteness of my statement.

MEBuckner, those may well be examples of human sacrifice, but it still doesn’t show that the ones doing the sacrificing were the children’s parents.

I don’t have a problem seeing parents giving up their kids, in a certain context. You have 3 and they’re all gonna starve if the famine goes on, you have 2 but ones pretty sickly, you have more than you can support (WTF is welfare) and the priests lay out a compensation package. Plus by every authority you know it’s a reasonable thing to do, you may even be putting them in the first class seats of the afterlife express. Plus kids are dying all around you, all the time, far more than today.

We have honor killings today, I had a girl in the ER that gave up her baby to a drug dealer. Jehova’s witnesses will let their baby bleed out to save it. I don’t know if it happened, of how much, or how badly performed, but it doesn’t step outside the range of know human behaviour, IMHO

But that could have just made for a good story. Homer wasn’t writing a newspaper article or a historical account, he was writing epic poetry. Sacrificing one’s daughter is more dramatc than sending her to bed without her herbed lamb.

Or persons. My understanding is that the scholarly consensus is that there is no scholarly consensus ;), but that the Iliad/Odyssey show signs of having been compiled from oral history over an extended period of time. To quote wiki: According to Martin West, “Homer” is “not the name of a historical poet, but a fictitious or constructed name.”

Given that “he” had “his” own cult at one point, yet may have never really existed, I think semi-mythological is a close enough descriptor. He might be real, just as some have speculated that Agamemnon might be as well ( the Hittite sourced Akagamunas ), but it’s hard to tell at our remove.

The thing is, as Shibboleth notes, it may just represent a literary trope of the father sacrificing the daughter as an element of dramatic tragedy or some such, rather than an actual regular occurrence. It is suggestive, but I’d be wary of citing it as hard proof.

From the wikipedia article on Carthage:

I have heard of a similar child cemetary being found at either Numeira or Bab edh-Dhra, and similar speculation about whether it might or might not be evidence of child sacrifice among the Canaanites.

It is unclear whether the case of the Inca whether the children sacrificed where handed over by their parents willingly or not, but it seems likely that this was a case of sacrifice of children from within the same culture at least.

This description makes the handing over of children for sacrifice appear as a form of taxation.