Malta Diary Did Malta’s Neolithic inhabitants prefer to worship Astarte rather than Tanit? Were sacrifices of babies and children carried out?
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Worship of the Goddess-Deity TANIT stretched back to Neolithic times and filtered down to the Phoenician (now modern-day Lebanon) and Punic cultures. The Phoenicians spread the cult to Carthage (now modern-day Tunisia) as well as Malta and Sicily. Further far-reaching it spread to the roaming desert nomads the Berbers, throughout North Africa and into Spain.
All these areas have remnants of Tanit effigies and depictions. She was a Fertility Goddess rivalling the Moon Goddess Astarte but there are also links that tie her to the sacrifice of babies and children.
Strangely enough, she is not so well-known and also goes under the name Tinnit, Tannou and Tangou and was the Chief Deity of the Carthaginians. Her consort was Baal-Hamon. Her influence was widespread in Ancient Greece and the Roman era. In Carthage, in times of drought, she was invoked to bring rain and was thus referred to as Omek Tannou (Omm in Semitic being “mother” – as it is also in modern-day Maltese. Omek means Your Mother – in Maltese, Ommok).
One question that draws a paradox; if Tanit was a fertility Goddess it is absurd she would also be appeased by baby-child sacrifices. Malta’s Neolithic symbol of fertility is the corpulent lady statue that was discovered at the Hypogeum. Was this based on a belief in Tanit as a child-bearer?
The Carthaginian – Roman conflict put Malta on the front of the conflict. There is a belief in some quarters that Hannibal of the Alps, the man who dragged elephants over the Alps to attack Rome, was actually born in Malta because his father was a General in the Carthage military.
However, as with such eras all this is speculation and falls under the “is it possible/ it’s not possible/maybe/who knows” mantle.
The importance of Tanit is significant and there is a strong theme of belief that her Deity symbols were later incorporated into Christianity, were used by the early Christians to secretly identify each other and eventually were the structure that led to the Crucifix being used as a universal Christian symbol. Again, possible/not possible?
Traces of the Tanit Cult in Malta are somewhat obscure leading to beliefs that the Neolithic inhabitants worshipped Astarte rather than Tanit. The Neolithic Temples at Hagar Qim, Mnajdra and Ggantija in Gozo were all equipped with sacrificial altars and sacrifices were obviously carried out.
However, were those sacrificed babies, children and people or were these used for animal sacrifices? The strong evidence of the importance of fertility in Malta strongly point to a denial that child sacrifices ever took place.
A landmark sanctuary at Ras il-Wardija in Gozo on the religious map of the ancient Mediterranean was excavated by an Italian Archaeological Mission between 1964 and 1967. Excavations at this sanctuary did not yield any statuettes, leading to the theory that this cult using the sanctuary did not adore images.
However, a symbol of the Tanit Cult was found sculpted into the rock-face and was subsequently stolen later by a French film crew working at the site. This was recovered some 20 years later and is now at the Gozo Archaeology Museum!
A nearby fresh water spring and fertile soils could explain why this site remained active right through to medieval times when it was used by hermits, similar to the Ras ir-Raħeb (headland of the hermit) complex flanking Fomm ir-Riħ Bay in Baħrija in Malta,
Whatever happened in the mists of time remains highly mysterious. However, there is no doubt the Phoenician presence in Malta is manifest everywhere, including the Hypogeum and a number of other catacombs and there is no doubt the Phoenicians had a high influence on the population at the time, including the language influence which remains present unto this day.
“Between the onion and its peel”
Significant of a strong relationship, so close, as close to be an onion and its outer peel.