The Sea Traders
Of Gods, Priests and Sacrifices
Ugarit, that ancient Canaanite city up the coast from Byblos, was sacked and leveled by invading sea people or by pirates in about 1234 B.C., probably within a few decades of the fall of Troy. It could even be called an unsung Troy because Ugarit had neither a Homer nor a later history; it was never reoccupied or rebuilt. Rich as it was, it might never have been remembered at all except as a mound of earth-covered rubble had it not been excavated by the archeologist Claude Schaeffer in 1929.
What Schaeffer found at Ugarit was by far the largest collection yet discovered of proto-Phoenician clay tablets dealing with religion and myths. Scholars argue over whether the Ugaritic texts properly can be called Phoenician. They do not argue over the many insights these valuable texts gave into what the Phoenicians believed.
An important fact that the Ugaritic texts help confirm is the connection between many of the religions of that time and that part of the world. Whether Canaanite, Assyrian, Babylonian or primitive Greek, the general structure of the pantheon was the same, although the names of the gods and goddesses-and some of their specific attributes-changed from place to place. Thus, though it cannot be established for certain that the cults that emerged in the various Phoenician cities are descended directly from those described in the Ugaritic texts, it is clear that the cults are closely related. It can be assumed that they had a common Canaanite origin and diverged increasingly through the passage of time. With this model in - mind, the Phoenician pantheon can be described.
Its head was a male deity called El in Ugarit. His name meant simply "god," and he seems to have incorporated within himself the widest aspects of a universal deity. He was called "the father of the gods," "the creator of creators." For all this, he seems to have been a rather passive deity who continued to exist as a shadowy father figure for the other gods and goddesses in the later pantheons of the many Phoenician cities.
active role was taken by Baal, the god of storms. It is Baal's identification
with strength, violence, youth, dynamism that characterizes his position as
the leading male god throughout Phoenicia, 13aa1 has come down to us as the
Phoenician god, the one who personified for the Hebrew prophets a faith that
was all too competitive with their own. The Bible is full of thunderous declamations
against the evils of Baal. He represents, by extension, the entire non-Hebrew
Semitic pantheon, with all its trappings of multigods, infant sacrifice, idol
worship and so on.
Actually there was a great deal more to the Phoenician religion than Baal. It had a basic structure similar to those of a number of contemporary faiths, based on a very old myth that attempted to explain the mystery of the cycle of the seasons. El had a consort, the mother goddess, Asherah-of-the-Sea, whose son died each year to symbolize the cutting of the harvest and the drying up of the land. The son was then reborn to signal the return of spring and a new crop.
Elaborations on this myth are varied and interesting. In the Ugaritic texts Baal, who is associated with rain and life-bringing water, is the young god who dies: I-Ie disappears underground. There Baal's sister Anat comes to his rescue, finds his body and retrieves it. In another text, cited by the Canaanite scholar J: Gray, Baa1 himself fights with Mot:
They glare at each other like glowing coals: Mot is strong, Baal is strong:
They thrust at each other like wild oxen; Mot is strong, Baal is strong;
They bite like serpents;
Mot is strong, Baal is strong; They kick like stallions;
Mot is down, Baal is down on top of him.
The symbolism of the text is clear. The earth has managed to survive death and
drought. The young god will appear, alive and healthy, at the time of the sprouting
of the new crop in the spring.
In addition to these gods and goddesses, the Phoenician pantheon had a large number of others, some in charge of specific activities, like the Sidonian Eshmun, whose particular province was healing. Another, Dagon, was associated with wheat; still another, Reshef, with plague, and so on. To complicate matters further, identities were not stable. El and Baal, for example, assumed different names and somewhat different characteristics from city to city. In Tyre Baal became Melqart, and as such was duly exported to Carthage. The name derives from "mlk," meaning king, and "qrt," meaning city. But the god inside the new name was the same old Baal, active lord of storms, the presiding deity in most Phoenician cities. The leading female deity was the fertility goddess Astarie. Her name varies from country to country, even froin one Phoenician city to another. In the Bible she is known as Ashtoret; in Babylon, Ishtar; in ancient Greece, Aphrodite. But in Byblos she was known as Baalat, or simply "lady," clearly the feminine form - of Baal, which means "lord."
An important characteristic the Phoenician faith had in common with others of
its day was sacrifice. The ceremonies had two purposes. The simpler and more
direct intention was to appease the god, make him think well of you, smile on
your hopes, temper his wrath. The second purpose of the rites was the strengthening
of the god himself. Giving up something to him, particularly something that
was extremely valuable to you, enhanced his own worth and ultimately his power.
Failure to honor the god regularly aAd properly not only weakened his desire
to do well by you but also weakened his ability to do so.
The Phoenicians-it must be admitted of them practiced the ultimate in sacrifice: human lives. Other faiths succeeded in getting away from human sacrifice, as did the Phoenicians eventually. But they were late to do so. The Hebrews knew they practiced it and were revolted. Even after Phoenicia East apparently abandoned human sacrifice, it continued in Carthage-and revolted the Romans.
For evidence of human sacrifice in Phoenicia East we have only a couple of references in the Old Testament. For Phoenicia West the evidence is irrefutable: hard evidence dug out of the earth. There is an old burial ground in Carthage from which thousands of small clay pots containing the remains of babies and young children have been recovered. Mixed with - these urns are others containing the remains of young animals: kids, lambs, kittens, puppies. Clearly the Carthaginians had been making infant sacrifices but were also using substitutes in the form of those young animals. But-and here is the interesting and compelling part-the substitutes were deemed ineffective. As late as about 320 B.C. noble families who had fallen into the habit of substituting young slaves, or perhaps animals, for their own children were blamed for a military disaster that had overtaken them. Since they had slighted the gods, they were forced to make restitution, and 500 infants from the best families were offered up.
By that time religious sacrifice in Carthage had been going on for about 400 years. Infants were brought to the Tophet, a sacred place containing an idol or a very old and holy stone, and killed there. As in the case of other contemporary faiths, sacrifice of flesh was accompanied by burning. This accounts for the many references to fiery furnaces, to "passing through the flames." Apparently the tiny child was brought to the idol, calmed by a priest and its throat cut. It was then placed in the arms of a bronze statue that had a furnace or grate beneath it. There are hints that the arms of the god may have been operated mechanically in such a way as to drop the dead infant into the flames.
Certainly devices of one kind or another were used to heighten the awe of the worshipers and their belief that the deity was responding to acts of piety. In the case of a hollow statue of one goddess (page 128), holes were bored in her breasts, then plugged with wax. At an appropriate point in the rite, the wax would melt under the influence of heat, and milk, which had previously been poured into the statue, would then begin to flow miraculously from the holes.
In a harsh faith, interpreted to fearful people only by priests, the priestly power was obviously very great. Priests were numerous and divided into a hierarchy, with a high priest in charge of each temple
and other subordinate priests under him. In addition the temples had scribes, butchers for cutting up sacrificial animals, lamp-tenders, barbers whose job it was to shave the heads of high priests, plus great numbers of general workers, temple assistants, gardeners, craftsmen and slaves.
The preoccupation of the Phoenicians with their faith was enormous. As a result, the priesthood had great financial as well as political and religious clout. Offerings were served up constantly: wine, perfume, incense, animals and sometimes simply fruits or vegetables. (Humans were reserved for special occasions or dire calamities.) The priests maintained lists of the tariffs imposed for each type of sacrifice. They prescribed the proper offering to expunge a particular offense, also the fee that went to the priest for accepting the offering and for performing the ritual that went with if.
One such listing provided that for every ox sacrificed the priest would get a fee of 10 pieces of silver, and if the sacrifice were being made to relieve a sin (rather than being a mere expression of devotion to the god) a portion of the ox would also go to the priest. By such customs both temples and priests became wealthy, and the office of high priest became a plum jealously secured by certain noble families.
The size of the priestly hierarchy and its varied duties suggest
that temples were large and elaborate places, This is not necessarily so. Indeed
there is evidence that much Phoenician worship took place at small open-air
shrines, which very often were simply designed. A rock or altar or small enclosure
located in some exposed "high place" served very well. "Place"
was important since divine powers were attributed to specific waters (springs
or rivers), groves of trees and stones. The oldest-known shrine at Carthage
is a small square space cut into a rock. Devoted to the goddess Tanit, the shrine
is scarcely a yard wide. Like many another Phoenician holy place, it drew its
strength from its age and quite possibly from the sacred objects on or near
the site. It may be, of course, that the unusually small size of this shrine
reflects only the extreme poverty of those who first settled in Carthage.
A slightly larger shrine, recently discovered by James Pritchard at his exciting new dig at Sarepta, is in the form of a small oblong building with a raised altar at the back. Running around the inside perimeter of this building is a stone bench or platform with a plastered top. It juts from the wall like a low counter on which worshipers set out their offerings to the god. In addition to the foods and incenses that they regularly put down, the Sareptans also left a great number of small clay statuettes. Such little figurines have been found in a number of Phoenician sites, and were undoubtedly votive offerings of some kind. Whether they were actual images of the gods themselves is not easily answered. One of the figurines is nude, and that fact eliminates it as a god or goddess; in the long tradition of Semitic religions gods and goddesses were always represented fully clothed in rich garments appropriate to their station.
Even the clothed figurines may not be gods. Some of them are very full-breasted, others have swollen bellies-clearly they represent pregnant women. These features suggest that the little figurines were statues representing the petitioners, not the gods. They were carrying messages to the gods, pleas for answers to prayers. "Make me fertile," they seem to say; "ensure the safe delivery of my child."
Once placed in a shrine and dedicated to a god, a clay figurine became a holy object, the property of the god. It could not be destroyed. Over many decades-perhaps centuries-the pile-up in a small shrine must have been extremely awkward. How some of the figurines were disposed of at Sarepta was discovered by Pritchard when his team dug through the plaster floor of the shrine. There, carefully buried in a rectangular excavation, were nearly 30 of them-three-dimensional prayers, one might almost call them, preserved for some 2,500 years.
Sarepta may also hold the answer to another important question about Phoenician religious life: the nature of Phoenician temples. There are indications that a far larger structure-as yet unexcavated-lies alongside the little shrine just described. Pritchard can scarcely wait to get at this larger building, for up to now knowledge of Phoenician temples has been meager. Elsewhere in Phoenicia several temple sites have been discovered, but all of them exist only as foundation outlines, their walls nowhere more than a few feet high. But they do follow so regular a pattern that it begins to be possible to describe the floor plan of a "typical" Phoenician temple.
It was an oblong building with three rooms: first a small anteroom, then a large main hall, finally a small holy-of-holies at the back. The latter was reached by a short flight of steps and contained an altar and an idol, or whatever object was worshiped there. Sometimes it was simply a sacred stone called a betyl. Pritchard's small shrine at Sarepta apparently had a betyl standing directly before the altar; there is a place for it there in the floor, but the stone has long since been wrenched out and carted away.
l1 Phoenician temple probably was a rather high, narrow; boxlike building with a tall entrance door. Steps went up to this door, which was flanked on either side by a free-standing column of wood, stone or bronze. The columns seem to have had names and distinct personalities of their own, and conceivably godlike properties.
The most detailed description of a Phoenician temple is in the Bible. It is not a direct piece of evidence since it describes a building commissioned by Solomon in Jerusalem and intended for Hebrew worship. Nevertheless, it was designed by Tyrian architects and built by Tyrian craftsmen. It fits the overall three room -model, even to the flights of steps and the columns at the front door, and adds many other details of a distinctly Phoenician flavor. It was made of heavy blocks of dressed stone, finished off inside with cedar, to which a good deal of gold ornamentation was added. It had large wooden doors, whose flanking columns were made of bronze by a Tyrian metalworker who also fabricated a number of bronze water troughs and other containers for use both inside and outside the temple. Despite fundamental differences in the two faiths, the similarities of some of the temple details are remarkable.
An important aspect of the Phoenician religion was belief in an afterlife. Evidence to this effect is abundant and varied and shows strong Egyptian influences. The Egyptians took great care to preserve the bodies of the dead. They became master embalmers, employing methods and materials that are not entirely understood today. Embalmed bodies were sometimes put in wooden mummy cases shaped like human bodies and with the owners' faces painted on them-; sometimes in bulky coffins hollowed out of solid blacks of stone, which were also body-shaped andhad faces carved on their lids. Archeologists call the body-shaped cases "anthropoid" coffins.
At some point in their history the Phoenicians, who had previously been using large clay burial urns or tombs built up of brick or stone, began adapting the anthropoid models of the Egyptians. A few have shown up in Phoenicia East, notably a superb black basalt coffin that was used for the burial of the Sidonian king Tabnit. It was discovered, along with some other extraordinary finds, in a burial ground outside Sidon in 1887, The find was unusual because it had not been broken into previously and looted by grave robbers.
For more than 2,000 years Sidon has been plagued by tomb robbers. Worse in a way, local vandalism and the need for handy blocks of stone to build houses, walls, sheds for animals, even to pave roads and make gutters has done irreparable damage to a vast honeycomb of underground tombs that was a thousand years abuilding. So rich was the store of dressed stone buried in the ground that local farmers had long made a practice of renting out their fields to anyone who wanted to come and quarry them.
Sidon was a city as old and rich as Tyre. Through a good part of its later history its prominent people were using two kinds of coffins. One was roughly house-shaped and was supposed to provide a domicile for the corpse after death. The other, an anthropoid coffin, was a substitute body in case the one inside decomposed completely. Efforts to prevent decomposition were taken by borrowing embalming methods from the Egyptians. Since the Phoenicians had long been supplying the Egyptians with cedar oil for embalming purposes, it is a near certainty that they were thoroughly familiar with Egyptian tech-
niques. However, no method of embalming could be depended upon to counteract the dampness of the coastal climate in Phoenicia and the slow seepage of water into a tomb and, finally, through its cracks into the coffin itself. The few Phoenician mummies so far recovered are, with one exception, badly decomposed, and the linen bands that they were wrapped in have almost entirely rotted away. What bits of bone or cloth have been found are all from stone sarcophagi. If [he coffin was made of wood-and many probably were-then coffin, along with body, disappeared long since.
At Sidon the cemeteries were in the low hills surrounding the city. There shafts were sunk into the ground and chambers for the coffins led off from them. Sometimes these chambers were vaulted with stone blocks, sometimes cut from the mother rock. Often several were connected to a single shaft, branching off at different levels. Steps were cut into the sides of the shafts so that the grave workers could get up and down. When a sarcophagus was finally in place, the chamber was walled off and the shaft sealed at its entrance with stone and then completely covered with earth.
The Sidonian stone sarcophagus that came into being about the Fifth Century B.C. was an extraordinary object. It took the Egyptian anthropoid shape, with a human face carved on the lid, but that face was in the Greek style. The result was a unique form of sculpture, not limited solely to Sidon but nevertheless peculiarly and characteristically Sidonian. Of the few score recovered from throughout the Phoenician world and now in museums in Europe and the Near East, nearly every one comes from Sidon.
Clues to the nature of Sidonian burial practices began to surface in the middle of the last century. At the time Sidon, like other coastal Lebanese cities, had resident foreigners. Many of them were amateur archeologists, and there was a lively clandestine traffic in grave objects and statuary not only among some of the foreigners but also between local dealers and collectors in Europe. I say ``clandestine" because the graves were nominally the property of Turkey. What is now Lebanon was then part of Turkey-the once great Ottoman Empire in the last stages of imperial decay: Places like Sidon were of little interest to the corrupt and listless sultans rotting in their capital at Constantinople (now Istanbul) some 600 miles north. The sultans were either powerless to hinder the steady despoilment of Sidonian treasures or unconcerned by it. As early as 1860 this indifference began to frustrate European archeologists working in the area. One, the Frenchman Ernest Renan,- explored more than a hundred tombs at one necropolis, only to find that all had been looted, their sarcophagi smashed and their carved stone ornaments hacked off and carted away. Within seven years the necropolis itself had been totally vandalized, with most of the stones that made up its vaults showing up in new buildings in downtown Sidon. A fascinating historical site had disappeared.
In that same year an American missionary and antiquarian, William Eddy, was sitting at his home- in Sidon one evening when local workmen burst in to tell him of a stunning discovery, a number of extralarge and beautifully ornamented sarcophagi in a series of connected chambers at the bottom of a shaft that was a full 20 feet across. Eddy went immediately to the site, had himself lowered down the shaft and by the light of a lantern examined the coffins.
Poking about in mud and dripping water, and nearly asphyxiated by bad air, he was able to explore five separate chambers with no less than seven sarcophagi in them. One was a black Egyptian design, a couple were of the Phoenician anthropoid type. But the others were of Hellenic design, far outstripping in richness of detail anything previously found at Sidon. They were large marble caskets, their sides richly decorated with figures in high relief.
After recording as careful a description of them as he could under the circumstances, Eddy was hauled up again and a message sent to Constantinople. Luckily, the director of antiquities for the museum there was a French- educated, honorable official named Hamdy Bey. Instead of allowing the finds to be broken up and trickle into the black market, he went immediately to Sidon; posted round-the-clock guards and in the name of the sultan took possession of everything at the site. Eventually all the sarcophagi found a safe resting place in the Imperial (or Topkapi) Museum at Istanbul, where they may be examined by scholars today.
The superb Hellenic-style coffins represent the last gasp of Phoenician art as it surrendered to the overpowering influence of Greek esthetics. As to who commissioned them or who ultimately occupied them there can be only -conjecture. They date from about 300 13.C, and were obviously made for very important -people, perhaps for the local dynasts or governors who inherited this part of Alexander's empire after his death. They are made of Pentelic and Parian marble of the -highest quality, the former imported from mainland Greece, the latter from one of the Aegean Islands: But they probably were carved on the spot by Phoenician craftsmen. As in everything else they came in contact with, the Phoenicians down to their very last days were still adapting either the materials or the artistic innovations of others-sometimes both-and turning them to their own use.
Getting the sarcophagi out of their underground chambers was a difficult job because of the delicacy of their carvings and their great size and weight, One -now known as the Sarcophagus of Alexander because its friezes show the Macedonian king in combat and on a lion hunt-is 11 feet long and weighs 15 tons. Hamdy Bey solved the problem of removal by digging a slanting tunnel into the hillside and hauling out the sarcophagi on rollers, one at a time. While he was underground supervising this work he happened to glance at the ceiling of one of the chambers and noticed that some time in the past a small hole had been cut there by tomb robbers. Forcing his way up through the hole, he found himself in another chamber at the bottom of a second and entirely unsuspected tomb shaft about 2.0 feet away from the other larger one. This was not as deep as the other and was entirely unconnected to it. It, too, had its separate burial chambers. The one that Hamdy Bey had crawled into was empty; tomb robbers had cleaned it out. But by some fluke they had not noticed that one of the walls had been bricked up. Hamdy Bey ordered the bricks removed and found another room with a floor made of thick, close-fitting flagstones. He ordered them pried up, only to find another layer of flagstones and beneath them a third layer. Below it was a great stone slab. Apparently somebody--or his heirs-had taken great pains to make sure he would not be disturbed.
That somebody turned out to be a Sidonian king. When the last slab was removed and Hamdy Bey was able to shine a lantern into yet another chamber, he found himself staring at the black basalt face of an Egyptian anthropoid sarcophagus. When it was taken out of the vault, it proved to have carved on it a long inscription in the Phoenician language. It identified itself immediately:
"I, Tabnit, priest o f Astarte, King o f Sidon, the son o f Eshmunazar (who was also) priest o f Astarte and King o f Sidon, am lying in this (coffin). Whoever you are who might find this (coffin), don't, don't open it and don't disturb me, for no silver has been given me, no gold, no jewelry whatever has been given me. Only I myself am lying in this (coffin).
"Do not open it, do not open it, do not disturb me, for such a thing would be an abomination to Astarte. But i f you do open it and i f you do disturb me, may you not (have any descendants) among the living under the sun, nor any rest (with the dead)."
This inscription recalls others that have been taken from Phoenician tombs and coffins. It is clear from the sorry record of Phoenician tomb desecration that such a curse almost never worked. But in this case it did. When Tabnit's sarcophagus was opened, there lay King Tabnit inside. He was stretched out, almost intact, on his back on top of a sycamore board with a depression carved in it as a resting place for his head. His body had been strapped to this board with rope laced through six silver rings attached to the board. Two of the rings were still in place and there were bits of rope still in the coffin. Both body and board were floating in an oily brownish liquid.
Here, at last, was a chance to learn something firsthand about the secrets of Egyptian and Phoenician embalming, for Tabnit was extraordinarily well preserved. He was a slender but strongly muscled man about five feet five inches tall. His skin was still intact, soft to the touch, and revealed that he had had smallpox. He had a large aquiline nose, a prominent chin and wavy reddish-brown hair that showed signs of having been tinted. An incision had been made in his chest to remove his stomach. The eyes were missing. Otherwise, except for bits of his nose, lips and chest that had been exposed to the air, his body was in remarkably good shape, Even more surprising, the organs were also in good condition. That strange oily fluid, plus a quantity of fine sand in which Tabnit's body was partially embedded, had done a good job of preservation.
Hamdy Bey supervised the careful rolling-out of Tabnit's sarcophagus through the tunnel he had dug, then wont off to lunch. While he was gone some overzealous members of the work crew succeeded in upsetting the coffin. All the fluid ran out onto the ground and was lost. With it went the secret of Tabnit's preservation.
Tabnit was the son of the Sidonian king Eshmunazar-his coffin inscription makes that clear. He was also the father of another Eshmunazar who was buried nearby in another black basalt sarcophagus that is now in the Louvre. The sarcophagus of the second Eshmunazar has a very long inscription on it that confirms descent from his father, Tabnit. It also contains the interesting information that his mother, Tabnit's wife, was also Tabnit's sister, a priestess of Astarte. Here again is that strong suggestion of the close linkage between priestly and royal power in Phoenicia, and of the attempts to keep as much as possible of both in the hands of a single family.
Two Eshmunazars and a Tabnit. Three names are added to the list of Sidonian kings, bringing the known total to 18. But they are sprinkled over a thousand-year span and show once again how sparse our knowledge is of the details of Phoenician city history. The typical Sidonian anthropoid coffin-that marble object with an Egyptian shape and a Greek face-is of no help in enriching that history, for it never carried any inscription at all. It was simply an oblong block of marble, vaguely body-shaped and with a removable lid. It was turned up at the foot, Egyptian style, and in some instances actual feet were carved there. Usually the face was stylized to a certain degree but, as the examples on page 116 show, attempts were made at portraiture.
Looking at those calm, smooth countenances with their staring eyes, we do get glimpses of the individuals who lay beneath them. And that individuality and a sense of lifelikeness were once far stronger than they are now, for the Phoenicians-again following Greek tradition-carefully painted the statues. Traces of color remain on many of them. One in particular, dug up at Sidon, has its paint extraordinarily well preserved. The hair is dark red, a pale flesh tint has been given the face and the lips are red. The eyes have been done with great care: brown iris and black pupil, very pale blue for the white of the eye, a dot of red in the corner, and individual eyelashes-painstakingly painted in. This sarcophagus was jarringly lifelike when found and was the gem among a memorable hoard of 11 anthropoid coffins unearthed in a network of two tomb shafts near Sidon in 1901. Although work has continued sporadically at Sidon ever since and many further finds have been made, nothing compares to this single haul or to the spectacular Tabnit-Alexander finds of 1887.
A curious fact revealed by the excavations at Sidon is that the Phoenicians were expert dentists. The upper jaw of a woman found in one sarcophagus had two teeth from another individual neatly fastened to her own with gold wire. Whether the dental work was for cosmetic purposes (the new ones were front teeth) or to give her something to bite with is not clear, But in the case of a man found in another sarcophagus the utilitarian nature of his dental work is obvious (page 219). He was suffering from pyorrhea and was faced with the loosening or loss of six of his teeth. All these were held in place with a single strand of gold wire woven most dexterously among and around adjacent firmer ones. Their owner wore this device for years, for the teeth are well worn down, showing extended use.
Although the fashion for anthropoid coffins flourished in the east, it never caught on in Carthage and other western Phoenician cities. Only a few scattered examples have been found in these places. What Carthage did do was to take the tomb shaft west and develop it. Some shafts in burial grounds in and around Carthage are as much as 100 feet deep and reflect the efforts to which people went to keep their graves from being disturbed. There usually are only three or four coffin chambers in each of these monster shafts, indicating that accommodation of large numbers of corpses was not their purpose.
Where and when the Phoenicians first turned to cremation-as a substitute for regular burial, or inhumation-is not clear. The older coastal Canaanite practice, strongly influenced by the Egyptians, was interment. Cremation seems to have crept in during the upheavals and invasions of the 12th Century B.C., for isolated instances of it crop up here and there
throughout the Levant after that time. The practice probably was carried west to Carthage and there strengthened by contact with local North African custom, because there is a great deal more evidence of cremation in Phoenicia West than there ever was in burial sites in Phoenicia East.
Though the westerners may have lagged as makers of sarcophagi, they were very active makers of gravestones, or steles. Steles are known throughout Phoenicia East and reflect a long tradition of erecting votive shafts or commemorative stones of one kind or another. In Phoenicia West they are enormously abundant. Motya alone has produced hundreds of them; Carthage, thousands. Steles come in a great variety of sizes and shapes, but a typical one is a rough oblong of sandstone or limestone, sometimes with a pointed top, usually with some decorative elements crudely carved on its face. Many a Carthaginian stele bears the symbol of the goddess Tanit: a triangle topped by a horizontal bar and with a circle over that (page 131). These three elements easily combine to suggest a human figure dressed in a skirt. Tanit apparently also had some lunar connection, for her symbol is often surmounted by a crescent moon.
Just who Tanit was, or how she crept into the Carthaginian pantheon, is something of a mystery. When the Tyrian princess Elissa fled to found Carthage, she took with her a high priest of the goddess of Astarte and 80 young maidens. Thereafter Astarte's cult, with local modifications to absorb the names and traits of Greek and Roman gods that make the Phoenician pantheon so confusing, persisted in one way or another throughout the history of Carthage.
Tanit may even have made her way back east and into the pantheon of the eastern cities. In 1971 a car go of small clay Tanit figurines was found scattered over the sea bottom only a mile off the coast of Israel near the ancient Phoenician city of-Akka. The ship that carried them had vanished. The Israeli archeologists who made this find think that the vessel was traveling east-perhaps from Carthage, the heart of Tanit worship-and was swamped in a storm just before it could make it into a safe harbor. If it had been going west to Carthage, the archeologists reason, it would not have sunk so near the point of departure; its captain never would have left home port in the teeth of a storm.
Baal himself was carried from the east to Carthage, but emerged there with the name Baal Hammon, or "lord of the perfume altar," reflecting the great amount of incense offered up in his rites. His exact status in Carthagc; is muddled, for the chief male god of the mother city Tyre was Melqart, who also was transported to Carthage and worshiped there for many centuries. Indeed, in the early years of Carthaginian history a devout contingent reportedly went back to Tyre every year on a state visit for the express purpose of paying Carthage's respects to Melqart at his temple there.
Melqart; then, represents ties with the old regime back home and is thus an expression of political conservatism in the new western city. He was the patron god of the old noble families in Carthage, particularly of the Barcids, from whom a succession of brilliant generals descended: Hamilc;ar Barca, two Hasdrubals, a Hannibal and a Mago. We get faint echoes of political struggles within Carthage, of class against class, in the ups and downs of the gods in whose names the various factions fought with each other. In the long run the older pair-Melqart and Astarte-losl popularity to 'Baal Hammon and Tanit.
They also lost something in function. In time Tanit took the place of Astarte as earth mother to the Carthaginians. She became the consort of Baal Hammon in the familiar Phoenician trinity of father, mother and son. According to Gilberi: and Colette CharlesPicard, Tanit's sudden surge to supremacy can be traced to a catastrophic defeat the Carthaginians suffered at I-limera in 4(i0 B.C., when they tried to drive the Greeks out of Sicily. This repulse turned Carthage inward, more and more toward Oriental and African things. In that atmosphere Tanit sprang to prominence. Some scholars believe that she had African origins and that her rise to supremacy reflects Carthage's own geographical position: a small Phoenician enclave, set down in the midst of a large native population of Libyans, Numidians and Berbers, and inevitably affected by both intermarriage and exposure to local beliefs.
However that may be, the great number of votive - stones dedicated to the holy Tanit found in Carlhage after about 500 B.C. attests to her supremacy from [hat time on. But she, in turn, had her day. Though the Carthaginian p.riests were determined to keep the purity and distinctiveness of their religion (not to mention their own authority), they were forced by circumstance to give ground gradually to Greek and Roman gods, who were not only overpoweringly attractive in themselves but who also bore the standards of a more progressive, more flexible and more interesting society, with livelier art forms and a more enlightened policy with respect to manufacturing and trade-and finally, in the case of the Roman gods, an overwhelming army.
In the east the Phoenician gods and the Phoenician way of life were rapidly cannibalized by Greek gods and Greek ways. By Alexander's time Melqart was already half a Heracles, as he was in Carthage too. Baal Hammon, the last of the cruel idols to whom babies were sacrificed, was absorbed into the Romans' Saturn. Mother Tanit became Mother Juno. After the fall of Carthage in 146 B.C, its priests still hung on for a few generations, turning their attentions more and more to an African constituency. They kept their language alive for a while among the Numidians, but only for a while. The great god Baal, who had spoken with a brazen clang in many cities for a thousand years, toppled. His retinue of priests faded into anonymity. The tongue in which he had been worshiped fell to a whisper, then into silence.