Child sacrifice

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1499, the Aztecs performing child sacrifice to appease the angry gods who had flooded Tenochtitlan

Child sacrifice is the ritualistic killing of children in order to please, propitiate or force a god or supernatural beings in order to achieve a desired result. As such, it is a form of human sacrifice. The practice has received considerable opposition throughout history, and it has often become a target for those engaged in criticism of religion. Child sacrifice is thought to be an extreme extension of the idea that, the more important the object of sacrifice, the more devout the person giving it up is.[1]

Pre-Columbian cultures[edit]

Aztec culture[edit]

Archeologists have found remains of 42 children. It is alleged that these remains were sacrificed to Tlaloc (and a few to Ehécatl, Quetzalcoatl and Huitzilopochtli) in the offerings of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan by the Aztecs of pre-Columbian Mexico. Human sacrifice was an everyday activity in Tenochtitlan and children were not exempt. They, in particular, were offered to Tláloc, the god of rain. Bernardino de Sahagún, a religious man left writings that describe such sacrifices, compiled from the first hand accounts of natives who had lived in Tenochtitlan in the times before it fell. Hernán Cortés himself also mentioned child sacrifices in his letters to Carlos V of Spain.

Inca culture[edit]

The Inca culture sacrificed children in a ritual called qhapaq hucha. Their frozen corpses have been discovered in the South American mountaintops. The first of these corpses, a female child who had died from a blow to the skull, was discovered in 1995 by Johan Reinhard.[2] Other methods of sacrifice included strangulation and simply leaving the children, who had been given an intoxicating drink, to lose consciousness in the extreme cold and low-oxygen conditions of the mountaintop, and to die of exposure.

Moche culture[edit]

The Moche of northern Peru practiced mass sacrifices of men and boys.[3]

Timoto-Cuica culture[edit]

The Timoto-Cuicas offered human sacrifices. Until colonial times children sacrifice persisted secretly in Laguna de Urao (Mérida). It were described by the chronicler Juan de Castellanos, who cited that feasts and human sacrifices were done in honour of Icaque, an Andean prehispanic goddess.[4][5]

Ancient Near East[edit]

Tanakh (Hebrew Bible)[edit]

References in the Tanakh point to an awareness of human sacrifice in the history of ancient Near Eastern practice. The king of Moab gives his firstborn son and heir as a whole burnt offering (olah, as used of the Temple sacrifice). In the book of the prophet Micah, one asks, 'Shall I give my firstborn for my sin, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?' (Micah 6:7), and receives a response, 'He has shown all you people what is good. And what does Yahweh require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.' (Micah 6:8) The Tanakh also implies that the Ammonites offered child sacrifices to Moloch.

Ban in Leviticus[edit]

In Leviticus 18:21, 20:3 and Deuteronomy 12:30-31, 18:10, the Torah contains a number of imprecations against and laws forbidding child sacrifice and human sacrifice in general. The Tanakh denounces human sacrifice as barbaric customs of Baal worshippers (e.g. Psalms 106:37). James Kugel argues that the Torah's specifically forbidding child sacrifice indicates that it happened in Israel as well.[6] Mark S. Smith argues that the mention of "Topeth" in Isaiah 30:27–33 indicates an acceptance of child sacrifice in the early Jerusalem practices, to which the law in Leviticus 20:2–5 forbidding child sacrifice is a response.[7] Some scholars have stated that at least some Israelites and Judahites believed child sacrifice was a legitimate religious practice.[8]

Near sacrifice of Isaac[edit]

Main article: Binding of Isaac

Genesis 22 relates the binding of Isaac, in which God tests Abraham by asking him to present his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah. No reason is given within the text. Abraham agrees to this command without arguing. The story ends with an angel stopping Abraham at the last minute and making Isaac's sacrifice unnecessary by providing a ram, caught in some nearby bushes, to be sacrificed instead. Francesca Stavrakopoulou has speculated that it is possible that the story "contains traces of a tradition in which Abraham does sacrifice Isaac". Rabbi A.I. Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Israel, stressed that the climax of the story, commanding Abraham not to sacrifice Isaac, is the whole point: to put an end to the ritual of child sacrifice, which contradicts the morality of a perfect and giving (not taking) monotheistic God.[9] According to Irving Greenberg the story of the binding of Isaac, symbolizes the prohibition to worship God by human sacrifices, at a time when human sacrifices were the norm worldwide.[10]

Gehenna and Tophet[edit]

Main article: Tophet

The most extensive accounts of child sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible refer to those carried out in Gehenna by two kings of Judah, Ahaz and Manasseh.[11]


Main article: Book of Judges

In the Book of Judges, the figure of Jephthah makes a vow to God, saying, "If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering" (as worded in the New International Version). Jephthah succeeds in winning an immense victory, devastating several enemy towns, but he returns to his home in Mizpah only to see his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels, outside. After allowing her two months preparation, Judges 11:39 states that Jephthah kept his vow. According to the commentators of the rabbinic Jewish tradition, Jepthah's daughter was not sacrificed, but was forbidden to marry and remained a spinster her entire life, fulfilling the vow that she would be devoted to the Lord.[12] The 1st-century CE Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, however, understood this to mean that Jephthah burned his daughter on Yahweh's altar,[13] whilst pseudo-Philo, late first century CE, wrote that Jephthah offered his daughter as a burnt offering because he could find no sage in Israel who would cancel his vow. In other words, this story of human sacrifice is not an order or requirement by God, but the punishment for those who vowed to sacrifice humans.[14][15]


In the Book of Ezekiel 20:25-26 God says that he gave the Israelites laws by which they could not live and that God defiled them through the sacrifice of their firstborns in order to fill them with horror thereby revealing himself as the Lord.[16][17][18] Ezekiel states that from the time the people of Israel were in the wilderness, the people of Judah had sacrificed their sons by fire, up until his day.[16] Child sacrifice is reaffirmed in the Book of Exodus 22:29 where God demands the firstborn of their sons, cattle and sheep.[17][19]

Phoenicia and Carthage[edit]

Carthage was notorious to its neighbors for child sacrifice. Plutarch (ca. 46–120 AD) mentions the practice, as do Tertullian, Orosius and Diodorus Siculus. However, 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.[citation needed]

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."(Bib. Hist. 20.14.6)

Sites within Carthage and other Phoenician centers revealed the remains of infants and children in large numbers; some historians[citation needed] interpret this as evidence for frequent and prominent child sacrifice to the god Baal-hamon.

The accuracy of such stories is disputed by some modern historians and archaeologists.[20] At Carthage, a large cemetery exists that combines the bodies of both very young children and small animals, and those who argue in favor of child sacrifice have argued that if the animals were sacrificed then so too were the children.[21] However, recent archaeological work has produced a detailed breakdown of the age of the buried children and based on this, and especially on the presence of pre natal individuals - that is still births, it is also argued that this site is consistent with the burial of children who had died from natural causes in a society that had a high infant mortality rate - as Carthage is assumed to have been. I.e. this data supports the view that Tophets were cemeteries for those who died shortly before or after birth, regardless of the cause.[21]

Greek, Roman and Israelite writers refer to Phoenician child sacrifice. However, some historians have disputed this interpretation, suggesting instead that these were resting places for children miscarried or who died in infancy.[citation needed] Skeptics suggest that the bodies of children found in Carthaginian and Phoenician cemeteries were merely the cremated remains of children that died naturally.[22] Sergio Ribichini has 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".[23] The few Carthaginian texts which have survived make absolutely no mention of child sacrifice, though most of them pertain to matters entirely unrelated to religion, such as the practice of agriculture.[citation needed]

According to Stager and Wolff, in 1984, there was a consensus among scholars that Carthaginian children were sacrificed by their parents, who would make a vow to kill the next child if the gods would grant them a favor: for instance that their shipment of goods were to arrive safely in a foreign port.[24] They placed their children alive in the arms of a bronze statue of:

Later commentators have compared the accounts of child sacrifice in the Old Testament with similar ones from Greek and Latin sources speaking of the offering of children by fire as sacrifices in the Punic city of Carthage, which was a Phoenician colony. Cleitarchus in his "Scholia" of Plato's Republic mentions the practice:

This reference also seems to clarify that the statue itself was not made to move by the flames, but rather the burnt and shriveled body of the victim was contorted by them.

Diodorus Siculus too references this practice:


Plutarch in De superstitione also mentions the practice in Carthage:


These all mention burning of children as an offering to Cronus or Saturn, that is to Ba'al Hammon, the chief god of Carthage (see Interpretatio graeca for clarification).

Claims concerning Moloch and child sacrifice may also have been created for negative effect.[citation needed] The Romans and Israelites describe child sacrifice as a practice of their 'evil' enemies. Some scholars think that after the Romans finally defeated Carthage and totally destroyed the city, they engaged in post-war propaganda to make their archenemies seem cruel and less civilized.[28] The topic of whether Phoenician child sacrifice was real or a myth continues to be discussed in academic circles, including the work of M'hamed Hassine Fantar[29] [30]

Pre-Islamic Arabia[edit]

The Quran documents pagan Arabians sacrificing their children to idols.[Quran 6:137]

Pre-Modern Europe[edit]

A young child was found buried with its skull split by a weapon at Woodhenge. This has been interpreted by the excavators as a child sacrifice,[31] as have other human remains.

The Ver Sacrum ("A Sacred Spring") was a custom by which a greco-roman city would devote and sacrifice everything born in the spring, whether animal or human, to a god, in order to relieve some calamity.[32]

South Africa[edit]

The murder of children for body parts with which to make muti, for purposes of witchcraft, remains common in South Africa. Muti murders occur throughout South Africa, and especially in rural areas. Traditional healers or witch doctors often grind up body parts and combine them with roots, herbs, seawater, animal parts and other ingredients to prepare potions and spells for their clients.[33]


In the early 21st century Uganda has experienced a revival of child sacrifice. In spite of government attempts to downplay the issue, an investigation by the BBC into human sacrifice in Uganda found that ritual killings of children are more common than Ugandan authorities admit.[34] There are many indicators that politicians and politically connected wealthy businessmen are involved in sacrificing children in practice of traditional religion, which has become a commercial enterprise.[35][36]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "LacusCurtius • Greek and Roman Sacrifices (Smith's Dictionary, 1875)". Retrieved 5 August 2015. 
  2. ^ - "Pre-Columbian Andean Sacrifices"
  3. ^ Channel article
  4. ^ De los timoto-cuicas a la invisibilidad del indigena andino y a su diversidad cultural
  5. ^ Timoto-Cuicas
  6. ^ " It was not just among Israel's neighbors that child sacrifice was countenanced, but apparently within Israeli itself. Why else would biblical law specifically forbid such things – and with such vehemence?" James Kugel (2008). How to Read the Bible , p. 131.
  7. ^ " Smith also cites Ezekiel 20:25-26 as an example of where Yahweh refers to "the sacrifice of every firstborn". These passages indicate that in the seventh century child sacrifice was a Judean practice performed in the name of YHWH...In Isaiah 30:27-33 there is no offense taken at the tophet, the precinct of child sacrifice. It would appear that the Jerusalemite cult included child sacrifice under Yahwistic patronage; it is this that Leviticus 20:2-5 deplores." Mark S. Smith (2002). The early history of God: Yahweh and the other deities in ancient Israel, pp. 172–178.
  8. ^
    • Susan Nidditch (1993). War in the Hebrew Bible: A Study in the Ethics of Violence, Oxford University Press, p. 47. "While there is considerable controversy about the matter, the consensus over the last decade concludes that child sacrifice was a part of ancient Israelite religion to large segments of Israelite communities of various periods."
    • Susan Ackerman (1992). Under Every Green Tree: Popular Religion in Sixth-Century Judah, Scholars Press, p. 137. "the cult of child sacrifice was felt in some circles to be a legitimate expression of Yawistic faith."
    • Francesca Stavrakopoulou (2004). "King Manasseh and Child Sacrifice: Biblical Distortions of Historical Realities', p283. "Though the Hebrew Bible portrays child sacrifice as a foreign practice, several texts indicates that it was a native element of Judahite deity-worship."
  9. ^ "Olat Reiya", p. 93.
  10. ^ Irving Greenberg. 1988. The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays. New York : Summit Books. p.195.
  11. ^ Christopher B. Hays Death in the Iron Age II & in First Isaiah 2011 p181 "Efforts to show that the Bible does not portray actual child sacrifice in the Molek cult, but rather dedication to the god by fire, have been convincingly disproved. Child sacrifice is well attested in the ancient world, especially in times of crisis."
  12. ^ Radak, Book of Judges 11:39; Metzudas Dovid ibid
  13. ^ Brenner, Athalya (1999). Judges: a feminist companion to the Bible. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 74. ISBN 978-1-84127-024-1. 
  14. ^ Carol Ann Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, Jacqueline E. Lapsley. Women's Bible Commentary. Westminster John Knox Press. p. 133. 
  15. ^ "הפולמוס העקיף בנושא העלאת קורבן אדם : בת יפתח (שופטים יא 40-29)". Retrieved 5 August 2015. 
  16. ^ a b "CHILD SACRIFICE IN ANCIENT ISRAEL". Retrieved 18 August 2015. 
  17. ^ a b "Child Sacrifice In The Bible". September 24, 2007. Retrieved 18 August 2015. 
  18. ^ "Ezekiel 20:26". Retrieved 5 August 2015. 
  19. ^ "Exodus 34:19". Retrieved 5 August 2015. 
  20. ^ Carthage tries to live down image as site of infanticide
  21. ^ a b Skeletal Remains from Punic Carthage Do Not Support Systematic Sacrifice of Infants
  22. ^ The Phoenicians. Retrieved 5 August 2015. 
  23. ^ Sergio Ribichini, "Beliefs and Religious Life" in Moscati, Sabatino (ed), The Phoenicians, 1988, p.141
  24. ^ Stager, Lawrence; Samuel. R. Wolff (1984). "Child sacrifice in Carthage: religious rite or population control?". Journal of Biblical Archeological Review. January: 31–46. 
  25. ^ Brown, Shelby (1991). Late Carthaginian Child Sacrifice and Sacrificial Monuments in their Mediterranean Context. Sheffield Academic Press. pp. 22–23. ISBN 1-85075-240-0. 
  26. ^ Mosca, Paul (1975). Child Sacrifice in Canaanite and Israelite Religion. Harvard University (PhD thesis). p. 22. 
  27. ^ a b "Sacrifices of children at Carthage – the sources at Roger Pearse". Roger Pearse. Retrieved 5 August 2015. 
  28. ^ "Dakotas CB Arena". Retrieved 5 August 2015. 
  29. ^ The Biblical Archaeology Society. "Were living Children Sacrificed to the Gods? No - The BAS Library". Retrieved 5 August 2015. 
  30. ^ "Adnkronos". Retrieved 5 August 2015. 
  31. ^ Ronald Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy, ISBN 0-631-18946-7, page 90.
  32. ^ "LacusCurtius • Ver Sacrum (Smith's Dictionary, 1875)". Retrieved 5 August 2015. 
  33. ^ Vincent, Louise (2008). "New magic for new times: muti murder in democratic South Africa" (PDF). Studies of Tribes and Tribals. Special Volume No. 2: 43–53. Retrieved 31 October 2015. 
  34. ^ Tim Whewell, "Witch-doctors reveal extent of child sacrifice in Uganda", BBC News, 7 January 2010
  35. ^ Rogers, Chris 2011. Where child sacrifice is a business, BBC News Africa (11 October):
  36. ^ ANPPCAN 2010. Child Sacrifice epidemic during festival and election period (16 December 2010):

External links[edit]