The Chilling Ancient Practice of Infanticide Was Once Accepted as Normal
Today, the thought of infanticide – the intentional killing of infants – fills us with horror, but in many ancient societies, not only was this practice permitted, it was considered a regular fact of life. From escaping prophecies to avoiding shame, there were innumerable reasons why parents in the ancient world thought it necessary to kill their offspring or leave them to the elements to die a ‘natural’ death.
Infanticide in Mythology
Infanticide is a recurring motif in the mythology of ancient Greece. In Hesiod’s Theology, for instance, the Titan Cronus practises infanticide by devouring his children as soon as they were born. This was done so as to prevent the prophecy that he would one day be dethroned by his own children from coming true.
Cronus devours one of his sons by Peter Paul Rubens (public domain)
The association between prophecy and infanticide is also present in other Greek myths, for instance, those of Oedipus, the king of Thebes, and the hero Perseus. In the former, Oedipus’ father, Laius, the king of Thebes, was warned by an oracle that he would one day be killed by his own son, who would also marry his own mother. Therefore, when his wife, Jocasta, bore him a son, Oedipus, the king gave the baby to a servant to be abandoned on a nearby mountain. Oedipus, however, was rescued by a shepherd, and eventually fulfils the prophecy.
A similar plot is seen in the story of Perseus, in which his grandfather, Acrisius, the king of Argos, receives a prophecy from the oracle at Delphi that he would be killed by his daughter’s son. Although the king imprisons his daughter, she was impregnated by Zeus, and gives birth to Perseus. Acrisius places his daughter and infant grandson into a box, and casts them out into the sea, hoping that they would be killed. The box, however, washes up on an island, and Perseus and his mother are rescued by a fisherman. Like the myth of Oedipus, the prophecy received by Acrisius is also fulfilled.
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Danae and the infant Perseus cast out to sea by Acrisius (CC by SA 1.0)
The Sad Fate of the Sick or Deformed in Sparta
Infanticide is not only found in Greek mythology, but also practised by the Greeks themselves, though for different reasons. In Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus, the ancient writer reports that in Sparta, new-born babies would be taken to a place called Lesche, where they would be examined by the elders of the tribe. If the baby is found to be healthy, the father would be allowed to raise it. On the other hand, children found to be sickly or deformed would be sent to Mount Taygetos, where they were thrown into a chasm called the Apothetae (which means ‘Deposits’). By these means, the Spartans ensured that only healthy individuals had a place in their society.
Romans Accuse Carthaginians of Child Sacrifice
Infanticide for the purpose of child sacrifice is alleged to have been practised by the Carthaginians. According to Roman writers, as well as early Christian ones, the Carthaginians would regularly sacrifice infants to their gods by burning them alive. Archaeological excavations have revealed a special cemetery at the site of Carthage, known as the Tophet, where the urns containing the cremated remains of thousands of babies are held. The interpretation of the site, however, has divided archaeologists. Whilst some regard the Tophet as evidence that the Carthaginians did practise child sacrifice, others maintain that the cemetery was used for the burial not only of infants, but also of fetuses and stillborn individuals. Whether the Carthaginians really did sacrifice their children, or this was simply Roman propaganda is still up for debate.
Offering to Molech by throwing infants into the fire (public domain)
Infanticide in Asia
Infanticide was practiced in other parts of the ancient world as well. In traditional Chinese culture, for instance, female children are viewed as less desirable, as only sons could perpetuate the family line. In times of poverty and famine, female babies were even considered to be liabilities, thus leading to the practice of infanticide.
In traditional Indian culture, parents of girls are required to provide a suitable dowry when she marries. Therefore, female babies were considered to be financial burdens, which allowed them to justify their killing at birth. Discrimination against female infants is also reported to have occurred in pre-Islamic Arabia. It was normal at that time for female infants to be buried. This practice, however, was prohibited with the advent of Islam.
Burying babies in China (public domain)
In most societies today, infanticide is no longer considered acceptable, and is almost always illegal. Nevertheless, the killing of infants is still carried out in some parts of the world, especially in poorer areas, where an additional mouth to feed is regarded as a severe burden for the family.
Top image: François Joseph Navez, The Massacre of the Innocents, 1824 (Sharon Mollerus / Flickr) .
By Wu Mingren
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