Friday, September 17, 2021

Ba'al Hammon and the Unitarian List of Suggestions

Folks: I let my old web site lapse,; got tired of paying for something nobody visited. I am going to repost my favorite old writing here, so it will live on. Starting with this:

In 300 BC Carthage was attacked by the Syracusans under their tyrant Agathocles. According to the Greek historian Diodorus, the Carthaginians

were filled with superstitious dread, for they believed that they had neglected the honors of the gods that had been established by their fathers. In their zeal to make amends for their omission, they selected 200 of the noblest children and sacrificed them publicly.... There was in their city of bronze image of Cronus (as the Greeks called Ba'al Hammon), extending its hands, palms up and sloping toward the ground, so that each of the children when placed on the arms rolled down and fell into a gaping pit filled with fire.
Other sources speak of an annual ritual in which one or more children were chosen by lot from among all those of eligible age for sacrifice. The mother was required to stand by without weeping, for her tears would dishonor the gods.

Some enlightenment historians pooh-poohed stories of infant sacrifice in Carthage, calling them Greek or Roman propaganda. But when archaeologists excavated in the tophet, the sacred precinct of Carthage, they found there thousands of tiny burned skeletons, placed in urns and capped with grave stones that described these children as offerings to Ba'al Hammon and Tanit, king and queen of the Carthaginian gods. Many of the grave stelae were carved with the solar disk of Ba'al Hammon and crescent moon of Tanit, giving them an eerie resemblance to new age post cards. Most of the victims were less than six months old, but some were as old as three years. In only one way did the archaeology mitigate the harsh picture of frequent baby sacrifice drawn by the Greek and Romans: forensic study of the few well-preserved bones showed that the infants had been dead when they were burned. Most likely, their throats were cut, like lambs, before they were consigned to the sacred flames.

What on earth were the Carthaginians doing? Were they insane? What kind of religion requires such barbarities? Consider, by way of comparison, a little pamphlet I have here in front of me from the Unitarian Universalist Association. The Unitarians do not really have a creed; instead, they have a list of beliefs which members "covenant to affirm and promote." There is in this list nothing that I, a rational agnostic, find in any way objectionable. Indeed, we would probably have to turn to hard-core fundamentalists, or Chinese communists, to find anyone who would object to them. The Unitarians believe in
  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person.
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. (Note that Unitarians don't have to commit to a world community now; instead, they just have to subscribe to it as an eventual goal. Immediate implementation might be controversial as well as impractical.) 
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process, within our congregations and in society at large.
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which are a part.

Perhaps the most distinctive thing about the Unitarian faith is their openness to ideas from "many sources." They draw on direct mystical experience of "the forces which create and uphold life", the teachings of prophets, "Wisdom from the world's religions", and even "humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit."

According to my pamphlet, the Unitarians are "grateful for the religious pluralism that enriches and ennobles our faith," but I doubt many of them would feel enriched or ennobled by Carthaginian sacrificial practice. Casting babies into the sacred fire challenges the tolerance of the most liberal-minded Universalist—and, through its very extremity, raises the question of what might be missing from the reasonable, compassionate approach to the world.

Unitarianism is, well, sensible. Yet it seems to me that the most important thing about the world, from the religious point of view, is that it does not make sense. The world is not just a place of reason and compassion, nor is it conveniently divided between people who strive for good and evil empires they can struggle against. The world is full of evil, terror, and disaster, much of it randomly distributed. Why? If God is as reasonable and compassionate as his Unitarian worshippers, why is there so much pain? Why does a good God like that of the Christians turn his back on suffering? Say what you will about Carthaginian religion, they had an answer. Their gods were as terrible as their world, as capricious, as mysterious. Toward their gods they felt the combination of fear and wonder that we call "awe", and their religion was awful in the true sense of the word.

The Carthaginians were not inhuman. They loved their children, and in our sparse sources we can glimpse the struggles they went through, their lapses, the years when times were good and the required sacrifices were forgotten. But then would come the disaster: a plague, a war, a terrible fire. The cry would go up that the Gods were angry, and parents would feel the sick sense of dread and impending loss. Who knows what motivated the ones who volunteered their babies? Perhaps they had already lost other children to disease, or their home towns had just been sacked and half their families snuffed out. Others faced the holy lottery, all of life in a concentrated moment: the worst fear, followed by either the most terrible loss or the greatest relief. They gambled with what they held dearest, and sometimes they lost. But don't we all? And doesn't the Carthaginians' acknowledgment of life's terror make their religion, in a sense, more honest than the sweet reason of modern Christianity, or the cool compassion of the Unitarians?

February 2, 2001


pootrsox said...

Ah, but many Unitarians do not worship *any* gods! It's a wonderful place for humanists of all flavors, including atheists, who relish the beauty of communal "worship" without needing to worship any sort of divinity.

Some UUs are definitely more god-oriented than others; the UU in Newport RI has explicitly Christian iconography. OTOH, the Unitarian Society of New Haven (of which I was a member for some years) was starkly modern with, at the time, a determinedly *non-"religious"* decor. We sang "Forward through the Ages" to the tune of "Onward Christian Soldiers," "Morning Has Broken," another whose lyrics are gone to the tune of "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," and many other wonderful melodies with non-god lyrics. (We had a superb choir and instrumentalists. My all-time favorite was the choral setting of "The Road Not Taken." )

Having no creed allows this wide-ranging gathering, truly a congregational "out of many, one."

David said...


I remember this post, and I share your fascination with the sacred awe and intoxicating mysteries aspects of archaic religion. But I wonder, in practice, how much were/are such religions really about cool-ass mysteries, and how much are they about mean old men getting their way? Contemporary mullahs, brahmins, and orthodox rabbis often come across to me more as small-minded scolds than as guardians of intoxicating mystery.