In Praise of Tanit
by Rohase Piercy
Tanit, chief deity of the Phoenician colony of Carthage, is a Goddess surrounded by speculation and controversy. For one thing, there are widely differing theories as to the meaning of her name: is it of Berber or Semitic origin? If the latter, does it arise from the root for ‘serpent’, ‘lament’, or ‘count/assign’? Is it merely co-incidental that Ta-nit means ‘Land of Neith’ in Egyptian?
Was she originally a separate Goddess from Phoenician Astarte, or simply her Punic equivalent? Is her Canaanite counterpart Asherah or Anat? Why did the Romans equate her with Juno Coelestis? Then there is the debate surrounding the burial site unearthed at Carthage, apparently dedicated to Tanit and her consort Baal Hammon, containing the cremated remains of over twenty thousand children, mostly foetuses or new-born babies. Were these children sacrificed to appease the Gods, as horrified Roman and Hebrew sources claimed? Or were they stillbirths, miscarriages and neo-natal deaths returned to the care of a loving Mother Goddess?
I shall be discussing both of these questions in the course of this article, but firstly I would like to present a general overview of the offices, titles and iconography associated with Tanit and her counterparts within the Classical and Ancient Near Eastern pantheons.
The collection of city-states known as Phoenicia (modern-day Lebanon) was a major Bronze Age maritime power, establishing colonies all around the Mediterranean. Carthage, in modern-day Tunisia, was founded circa 814 BCE by Phoenicians from Tyre, and eventually grew to become an Empire in its own right, declaring independence from Tyre in the 5th century BCE and going on to become the dominant power of the Western Mediterranean. The great Phoenician Goddess Astarte was originally honoured alongside her Punic counterpart Tanit, but eventually the two merged; Tanit became the ‘Carthaginian Astarte’, worshipped in a dual cult with her consort Baal Hammon – a title that has been variously translated ‘Lord of Hammon’ (an area near ancient Tyre), ‘Lord of Mount Amanus’ (a mountain on the Syrian border), or ‘Lord of the Brazier’ (from the Semitic root hamman). Tanit’s title in the context of this dual cult was Tanit Pene Baal – Tanit, Face of Baal – similar to Astarte’s title Shem Baal, ‘Name of Baal’. She was also addressed as Rabat, ‘Lady’, an epithet of the Canaanite Goddess Asherah, from whom Phoenician Astarte evolved. Tanit’s profile, elaborately coiffed, appears on the coinage of Carthage from the 4th century BCE onwards: by this time she had taken precedence over Baal Hammon to become the chief deity of the city state. Evidence of her cult has been found in every Punic outpost including Malta, Sicily, Sardinia, Ibiza, Cadiz, and even Britain - the eminent linguist Dr Theo Vennemann believes that the Isle of Thanet, Easternmost promontory of Kent, was named for her.
Like Astarte, Tanit combined the functions of Mother Goddess, city-state protectress, and ‘Dea Coelestis’, Queen of Heaven. Like Astarte also, she was particularly associated with the moon and the sea; but she has correlations with other Classical and Ancient Near Eastern Goddesses as well. Wherever Tanit’s cult was established, we find her iconography carved into votive stelae or sacred ‘betyl’ pillars: as ‘Dea Coelestis’ she is often represented by the lunar crescent and solar disc – symbols she shares with Sumerian Inanna, Mesopotamian Ishtar, and Egyptian Hathor. When represented with the crown and sceptre of a ‘City-Goddess’, she resembles Greek Hera and Roman Juno, both also ‘Queens of Heaven’. The caduceus (two snakes entwined around a rod), a symbol thought to have derived from the eponymous ‘asherah’ pole or ‘tree of life’ associated with the Canaanite Dea Coelestis, often accompanies her. Fertility symbols of the Mother Goddess such as the pomegranate, palm branch and cornucopia surround her; the dolphin and the dove, both sacred also to Atargatis of Syria and Aphrodite of Greece, are depicted beneath and beside her. Occasionally she appears lion-headed, like the Great Mothers Cybele, Rhea and Asherah; her cult on Ibiza includes winged images, like Egyptian Isis. The ‘open hand’ symbol, possibly echoing Hera’s title Hyperkheiria, ‘She Whose Hand is Above Us’, also forms part of Tanit’s iconography - this symbol has passed into Islamic culture as the ‘Hamza’ or ‘Hand of Fatima’, worn as an amulet to give protection against the Evil Eye.
But there is one symbol that is peculiarly Tanit’s, shared by no other Goddess, and which has accordingly been dubbed the ‘Sign of Tanit’. In its simplest form it has been compared to the Egyptian life-symbol, the Ankh: a triangle or trapezoid surmounted by a bar topped by a disc. It resembles a stylised skirted figure, possibly representing the Goddess herself. Often the ‘arms’ of the figure are upraised at the elbow, sometimes with crescent-shaped hooks attached, or holding a caduceus/asherah or a palm branch. An upturned lunar crescent and a solar disc – the latter often in ‘rosette’ form, like Sumerian Inanna’s symbol - are frequently depicted above, with the dolphin, cornucopia, etc, alongside and beneath.
Nowhere is the ‘Sign of Tanit’ more prevalent than at the hotly debated children’s burial site unearthed at Carthage, which archaeologists have dubbed the ‘Tophet’. Tophet is a Hebrew word meaning ‘place of burning’, used in the Hebrew Bible to describe a site in the Valley of Ben-Hinnom outside Jerusalem where the Canaanites, according to Israelite polemic, ‘burned their sons and daughters in the fire as an offering to Moloch’ (2 Kings 23:10; Jeremiah 7:30-32). The assumption is that the cremated infant remains found at Carthage are evidence of a similar practice, as described by the Roman historian Diodorus Siculus (1st century BCE). So vivid and gruesome is Diodorus’ description, involving a ’bronze image of Chronos’ (Baal Hammon’s Greek counterpart) into whose sloping hands the sacrificed child was placed before rolling down into a fire pit below, that it was quoted as fact by the Greek historian Plutarch (1st century CE) and the early Church Fathers Tertullian and Orosius.
The posited linguistic link between Baal-Hammon’s name and the Hebrew root for ‘brazier’ would certainly seem to add weight to Diodorus’ account; but scholarly opinion remains divided over this issue, as does archaeological opinion over the Tophet’s history and purpose. Lawrence E Stager and Joseph A Greene of Harvard University believe that the archaeological evidence supports child sacrifice, citing votive inscriptions placed above the burial urns: ‘To our Lady, Tanit, and to our Lord, Baal Hammon, that which was vowed’; ‘Life for life, blood for blood, a lamb for a substitute’ (several of the burial urns contained the remains of young animals). The anthropologist Jeffrey Schwartz on the other hand believes that given the paucity of infant remains in any other burial site at Carthage, it is much more likely that the ‘Tophet’ was a cemetery reserved for very young children who died of natural causes. M’hammed Hassine Fantar of the Tunisian Institute of National Cultural Heritage points out that Diodorus Siculus’ accusation was part of a polemical piece written to justify the Roman conquest of Carthage, and that the historian Polybius, who was actually present at the city’s destruction in 146 BCE, makes no such claim; neither does Diodorus’ more reliable and well-informed contemporary, Livy. Professor Piero Bartoloni of the University of Sassari cites the fact that seven out of ten children were likely to die in their first year in ancient times, and asks ‘is it reasonable that with such a high level of infant mortality, these people killed their own children?’
The great Carthaginian general Hannibal equated his native Tanit with Juno Lucina, the aspect of the Roman Dea Coelestis invoked by pregnant women for a successful and easy delivery. A beautiful stela unearthed at Lillibeum in Sicily depicts a pregnant woman with one hand on her belly standing in an attitude of worship before a caduceus/asherah with the Sign of Tanit above. The association between the pregnant state of the worshipper and the protection offered by the deity could not be clearer. Would a deity responsible for ‘bringing children into the light’ be likely also to demand their sacrifice? It would be very unusual if that were the case. It seems to me that if hostile Roman and Hebrew polemic is discounted, the archaeological and cultural evidence surrounding the ‘Tophet’ points to a children’s cemetery, possibly within the precincts of a sanctuary, where miscarried foetuses, stillborn babies and children who died very young were returned to the care of the Mother Goddess and her consort. The votive inscription ‘that which was vowed’ – the vow pertaining to burial within the sanctuary – remains perfectly apt in this context, as does the cremation and dedication of a young animal ‘as a substitute’ if the body of the infant could not be recovered for some reason.
I would like now to discuss Tanit’s name – rendered simply by its consonants, t-n-t, in Punic - and the various theories as to its origin. I do not think the cultural evidence supports a link with the similarly-sounding Goddess Anat, the Canaanite Warrior-Maiden; Tanit’s Canaanite counterpart is surely Asherah, with whom she shares her heavenly, maritime and fertility functions as well as much of her iconography. Nor do I think that the translation of her name into Egyptian as ‘Land of Neith’ is particularly significant; there are some similarities with the Goddess Neith certainly, but many more with Hathor/Isis, and linguistically the connection is dubious. In Hamito-Semitic, the indigenous Libyan language of the area of Carthage, the feminisation of a word involved placing a ‘t’ both before and after the root, and this fits perfectly with Tanit’s name; it then becomes a case of identifying the root, which given the Phoenician origins of Carthage, most scholars agree to be Semitic.
Frank Moore Cross gives the interpretation ‘Serpent Lady’, based on the Hebrew word tanniyn, and points to her caduceus-like symbol; however the Hebrew word for snake/serpent (as in the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden, for example) is nachash; tanniyn describes a mythological sea-dragon. Given Tanit’s maritime connections, surely such a creature would appear frequently within her iconography if it bore reference to her name – but it is nowhere to be found.
Edouard Lipinski posits a connection to a Semitic root t-n-y, ‘to lament’, giving her name the meaning ‘She Who Weeps’; from this he reasons that her epithet Tanit Pene Baal should rightly be translated ‘She Who Weeps Before Baal’. However, once again this theory is based on an obscure word: as Robert M Kerr points out, the t-n-y root is only attested twice in the Old Testament, and in both cases it can equally mean ‘to repeat’ or ‘to recite’.
A more recent theory, posited by Dr Theo Vennemann, connects Tanit’s name to the Semitic root m-n-h and the word manah, meaning ‘to count, reckon, or assign’, enclosed between the Hamito-Semitic ‘t-feminisation’. He cites the associated Near Eastern deities Manat (Arabic), Meni (Hebrew) and Ishtar Menutum (Mesopotamian), all Goddesses of Fortune encompassing both destiny and wealth, as being named from the same linguistic root. Vennemann further points out that Tanit’s face on the coinage of Carthage corresponds to that of Juno Moneta on the currency of Rome. The epithet Moneta has generally been associated with the Latin verb monere, to warn or advise, but Vennemann suggests a Semitic origin – manah - from which, he argues, the words money/mint and month/moon can also be traced. This would sit well with the role of Dea Coelestis, shared by both Tanit and Juno, encompassing as it does the measuring of solar days and lunar months, the fertility cycles of women, and the prosperity and fortunes of the city-state.
I find this theory more convincing than any other, particularly in light of the fact that the dual cult of Tanit and Baal-Hammon was continued in Roman Carthage not as Juno-with-Jupiter as might be expected – most Gods with the epithet ‘Baal’ being equated with Zeus - but as Juno-with-Saturn/Chronos – in other words, with Old Father Time himself! Hera’s self-description in the Iliad as ‘The Eldest Daughter of Time’ would therefore be echoed in the very name of her Punic counterpart Tanit.
The Roman writer Macrobius (5th century CE) records in his Saturnalia how the following Evocatio or ‘calling out’ of the Gods of Carthage was chanted when the city finally fell to Rome in 146 BCE : ‘O Thou, whether God or Goddess, under whose protection the people and city of Carthage are; and Thou, O Greatest One, who has taken under thy protection this city and its people – I pray and entreat that you desert the people and the city of Carthage … come ye to Rome, to me and my people … I vow that temples and games will be established in your honour.’ Thus was Tanit of Carthage invited to transfer her protection to Rome – a procedure incidentally with which her Roman counterpart Juno was herself familiar, having been ‘called out’ of the Etruscan City of Veii where she was originally worshipped as Uni. As Juno Coelestis, Tanit presided over major sanctuaries in Carthage and Malta, and eventually the Emperor Elagabalus (218-222 CE) built a shrine for her under her Punic name in Rome itself, on the Capitoline Hill next to that of Juno Moneta. During the Christian Age, Tanit bequeathed her sanctuary on Malta to the Blessed Virgin Mary; and her name, if Vennemann’s theory is correct, to the Patron Saint of Married Women, St Monica - mother of St Augustine and a native of Roman Carthage.
The post-Christian Age of Aquarius which we are now entering seems beset with challenges and contradictions for the modern woman. The economic role is at loggerheads with the maternal; the successful businesswoman is expected to subjugate her nurturing instincts whatever the cost; the status of motherhood and the rights of the unborn child are both matters of heated debate; and the pace of life is driven by the mantra ‘Time is Money’. Surely if any Goddess can help and guide us right now, it is Tanit of Carthage. Are we ready to embrace her in all her complexity, and see where she leads us?
- Prof. Pietro Bartoloni, interview in Archeologia Viva, May 2007
- Pierre Cintas, The Sign of Tanit – Interpretations of a Symbol, online printout from http://phoenicia.org accessed March 2012
- Robert M Kerr, Latino-Punic Epigraphy, publ. Mohr Seibeck, 2012
- Edouard Lipinski, ‘Tanit’ – Dictionnaire de la Civilisation phenicien et punique, 1992
- Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, publ. Harvard University Press, 1973
- Jeffrey H Schwartz, What The Bones Tell Us, publ. John Macrae Holt, 1993
- Lawrence E Stager, Joseph E Greene and M-hamed Hassine Fantar, Arguments For and Against the Claim that Punic Phoenicians Practised Child Sacrifice, online printout from http://phoenicia.org accessed May 2012
- Johanna Stuckey, Tanit of Carthage, in MatriFocus, Lammas 2009
- Theo Vennemann, Munze, Mint and Money – an etymology for Latin ‘Moneta’ with appendices on Carthaginian ‘Tanit’ and the Indo-European ‘Month’ Word, in ‘Evidence and Counter Evidence – Essays in Honour of Frederik Kortlandt’, 2006
- Theo Vennemann, The Name of the Isle of Thanet, in ‘Language and Text: Current Perspectives on English & Germanic Historical Linguistics & Philology’, 2006
Rohase is an eclectic Pagan with a special interest in the Deities of the Ancient Near East and the Classical era. She still lives in Brighton with her husband Leslie, and she has two grown-up daughters, Morgana and Pip.