Tanit, or Tanith, is the Great Goddess of Carthage, worshipped
there as its chief Deity. She is a Sky Goddess who ruled over the Sun, Stars,
and Moon; and as a Mother Goddess She was invoked for fertility. The palm tree
is Hers, as the desert version of the Tree of Life; and as symbolic of the life-force
of the Earth the serpent is Hers as wellin fact Her name means "Serpent
Lady". She is identified with both Ashtart
(Astarte) and Athirat,
and Her other symbols include the dove, grapes and the pomegranate (both symbolic
of fruitfulness and fertility), the crescent moon, and, like Ashtart, the lion.
Carthage was a city of the Phoenician colony in northern Africa,
not far from the modern city of Tunis in Tunisia. Carthage, the Roman rendition
of the Phoenician name Karthadasht, which means "New Town",
was founded in around the 9th century BCE, by Dido ("Giver" or "Grantor
[of prayers]", or alternately "Wanderer") or Elissa (from the
Phoenician Elishat), the daughter of the King of Tyre in Roman legend. Dido,
however, being also used as an epithet of the Phoenician Moon-Goddess, is probably
to be considered an aspect of or alternate name for Tanit, the patron Goddess
of Carthage. Worship of Tanit dates to the 5th century BCE, and it is unsure
whether Tanit was a local deity adapted by the Phoenician colonists or a version
of Ashtart/Athirat they had brought with them from Phoenicia.
Tanit was the highest Deity of that city, called "the Lady
of Carthage". With Her consort Ba'al-Hammon, the God of the Sky, She watched
over and protected Carthage. As a protective Deity She had some martial aspects,
and like Ashtart could be depicted riding a lion holding a spear or long sceptre.
In Carthage She was said to have an Oracle; perhaps this is connected to Her
role as Star-Goddess.
Tanit has Her own abstract symbol, peculiarly Hers (and accordingly
called the "symbol of Tanit"): a triangle with a circle at the top,
with a horizontal line between the two; sometimes two additional vertical bars
come from the ends of the horizontal. This has been interpreted as either a
stylization of an altar, or a woman or Goddess in a long dress, Her arms upraised
in an attitude of worship or blessing. Some stelae do show a more realistic
depiction of the Goddess in this attitude, so my money is on it as an abstract
depiction of a woman. This symbol is found all over Carthage, though there is
only one example of it in Phoenicia itself.
Carthage was at once time the great enemy of Rome, and three
bitter wars were fought between the two powers over the course of more than
a hundred years in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE. The Romans eventually were
the victors, and in their hatred utterly destroyed the city; according to tradition
the city was razed and the site plowed with salt so that nothing would ever
grow there again.
The utter destruction of the city notwithstanding, remains of
a sanctuary to Tanit and Ba'al-Hammon have been found, with a children's cemetery
adjacent. The Carthaginians and Phoenicians had a reputation for the sacrifice
of children, though many of the accounts of it come from peoples who were not
unbiased, such as the Hebrews or the Romans. In Phoenicia, the Hebrews claimed
that the Phoenicians burned children to their God "Moloch" (of whom
there is little to no other evidence) by burning them alive. In Carthage, the
great children's cemetery has been taken as indication of child sacrifice to
both Ba'al-Hammon and Tanit, for many of the stelae above the remains are inscribed
to those Deities. The cemetery was named in modern times the Tophet, from a
Biblical word for "Hell", referring to the place in Jerusalem where
the children were allegedly given to Moloch. Much of the evidence for infanticide
among the Phoenicians is questionable at best; the accounts from the Bible and
Rabbinical tradition especially are subject to mistranslations and biases. Among
other ancient writers the idea of child sacrifice among the Phoenicians is not
mentioned, even though some of them were avowed enemies of Phoenicia. This issue
is still being debated on both sides; my take on it (which is of course subject
to my own bias) is to seriously doubt that children were sacrificed, and to
attribute most of the stories to propaganda, repeated by different enemy cultures
(especially the Romans). Why would people sacrifice children to an otherwise
benevolent Mother Goddess? And given the number of remains that have been found20,000
urns dating from 400-200 BCEwhat civilization is going to kill that many
of its own children? I suspect that the graves found in the so-called "Tophet"
of Carthage are simply the remains of children who died naturally in a time
when infant mortality was much higher than in modern times, and during which
several wars were foughttough times when it might be expected less children
would survive. That the stelae are inscribed to Tanit and Ba'al-Hammon is not
surprising; it does not mean that they were sacrificed to those Deities, rather
that they were committed to the safekeeping of the Goddess and God after death.
The Romans, despite their hatred for the Carthaginians, identified
Tanit with their Juno Lucina,
an aspect of their Great Goddess as Mother and Patroness of Childbirth, a Light-Goddess
who brings forth children into the day. As Tanit was also a Goddess of the Sky,
the Romans named Her Dea Caelestis, "the Heavenly Goddess", or Virgo
Caelestis, "the Heavenly Virgin". On coins of the 4th and 3rd centuries
BCE She is occasionally depicted riding a lion and holding a lance; generally
She is shown in portrait form wearing a diadem or crown, with wheat sheaves
bound in Her hair as a wreath, the crescent moon behind.
In Roman legend, Hannibal, the great general of Carthage, raided
a temple of Juno Lacinia
near Crotona, a city in southern Italy originally founded by the Greeks (therefore
technically the temple is to Hera Lacinia). This temple was famous for having
a column of solid gold; Hannibal, to test the story, drilled into the column.
Finding that it was indeed solid, he decided he would take it as plunder. That
night, however, he dreamt that the Goddess warned him not to despoil Her temple,
telling him that She'd destroy his remaining eye if he did. In Juno Lacinia
Hannibal recognized his own hometown Goddess, Tanit, so left the column unmolested
in the temple. From the filings of the column he had a golden cow cast, which
was then placed on the top of the column.
Tanit's worship was spread from Carthage to Spain, Malta and
Sardinia, especially by soldiers. The temple on the acropolis of Selinus in
Sicily may be Hers, for examples of Her symbol have been found there. Under
Her name Virgo Caelestis, Tanit/Juno had a shrine in Rome on the north side
of the Capitoline Hill.
Tanit's statue was brought to Rome by the young Emperor Elagabalus,
who reigned 218-222 CE, and who was notoriously reviled as a depraved pervert
(he was quite obviously gay, though who knows how much of his legend is true
and how much is exaggerated). He was murdered at age 18 in a latrine, his body
dragged through the streets before being thrown into the Tiber like a common
criminal. He was, however, also a big fan of the eastern Deities, and gets his
name from his worship of the Sun-God Elagabal. He had a great temple to Elagabal
built in Rome, and installed the statue of Tanit there, calling Her Caelestis.
Also called: Tanith, Tent, Thinit, Tinnit, Rat-tanit; Tanis is
the Greek version of Her name. She was called "Lady of Carthage",
"Lady of the Sanctuary", and "the Face of Ba'al". The Romans
called Her Dea Caelestis, "the Heavenly Goddess", Virgo Caelestis
"the Heavenly Virgin", and Caelestis Afrorum Dea, "the African/Carthaginian
Heavenly Goddess", as well as the assimilated name Juno Caelestis.
She was identified with Aphrodite,
Demeter, and Artemis by the Greeks and with
Juno by the Romans, especially
their Juno Lucina, Goddess of Light and Childbirth. The Romans also associated
Her with the Magna Mater, the Great Mother, Rhea