Condemned by biblical prophets and Roman senators alike, few pagan deities were as reviled as Moloch, a god whose bronze body was a furnace used for sacrificing children.
Child sacrifice is non-existent today — hopefully — but that hasn’t always been the case. In ancient times, it was commonly associated with people hoping for greater fertility for either a person or the land but one cult stands out from the rest: the cult of Moloch, the Canaanite god of child sacrifice.
The cult of Moloch — who is also called Molech — is said to have boiled children alive in the bowels of a big, bronze statue with the body of a man and the head of a bull. Offerings, at least according to the Hebrew Bible, were to be reaped through either fire or war — and devotees can still be found today.
Who Is Moloch?
The religion of the Canaanites was a hodgepodge of ancient Semitic faiths. Practiced by the people of the Levant region from at least the early Bronze Age, the cult of Moloch was still active into the first few centuries of the Common Era.
Moloch’s name derives from the Hebrew word mlk, which usually stands for melek, or “king.” As this is vocalized as molek in the Masoretic text — the authoritative text for Rabbinic Judaism — the pronunciation has become its traditional name.
The Masoretic text dates to the Middle Ages but references to a Molock appear in Ancient Greek translations of old Judaic texts as well. The distinction dates back to the Second Temple period between 516 B.C. and 70 C.E. — when the Second Temple of Jerusalem stood prior to its destruction by the Romans.
Moloch’s anthropomorphized bull figure was typically pictured in Rabbinic Judaic texts as a bronze statue internally heated by a fire. It was inside this construct that priests or parents placed their children to be consumed by fire as a sacrificial offering.
Ancient Greek and Roman authors wrote tales of this practice, with the earliest being stories of child sacrifices to Baal — or Master — Hammon in Carthage. He was their chief god, responsible for the weather and fertile agriculture.
In the Bible, children were sacrificed in a Tophet, a shrine reserved for child sacrifice, outside of Jerusalem to Moloch’s satisfaction. While certainly well-documented in religious texts, the historical and archaeological communities still debate Moloch’s identity and just how active its cult was.
Medieval French rabbi Schlomo Yitzchaki, otherwise known as Rashi, wrote an extensive commentary on the Talmud in the 12th century. His analysis of Book of Jeremiah 7:31 painted a vivid picture of the sacraments of Moloch’s worship as related in the Hebrew texts:
“Topheth is Moloch, which was made of brass; and they heated him from his lower parts; and his hands being stretched out, and made hot, they put the child between his hands, and it was burnt; when it vehemently cried out; but the priests beat a drum, that the father might not hear the voice of his son, and his heart might not be moved.”
Archaeological excavations in the 1920s then discovered primary evidence of child sacrifice in the region and researchers also found the term MLK inscribed on numerous artifacts.
Child sacrifice in Carthage, meanwhile, appears to have been common enough that it even contained a sacred grove and a temple dedicated to its cult of Baal Hammon.
Though the Biblical account describes children being “passed through the fire” to Moloch in a Tophet, a ritual site of sacrifice in ancient Judaism, Hebrew prophets are universal in their condemnation of the practice — suggesting that such sacrifices might have been made to the Abrahamic God by some cult but were condemned and cast out of the orthodox faith as anathema.
Scholars also still debate whether or not the Carthaginian practice of child sacrifice differed from the cult of Moloch. It’s generally understood that Carthage only sacrificed children when it was absolutely necessary — like an especially bad draught — whereas the cult of Moloch were much more regular in their sacrifices.
Some researchers even argue that these cults didn’t sacrifice children at all and that “passing through the fire” is a poetic term — a common feature of religious texts — that most likely referred to initiation rites that may have been painful, but not deadly. After all, the Christian term “born again” is not meant to be taken literally to mean passing out of your mother’s womb a second time, something Jesus points out himself.
From Ancient Times To Medieval Ones: Moloch In Art
Moloch is most frequently referred to in Leviticus:
Scholars have compared these Biblical references to Greek and Latin accounts which spoke of fire-centric child sacrifices in the Carthaginian city of Punic. Plutarch, for instance, wrote of burning children as an offering Baal Hammon, though they mistakenly attribute these sacrifices to the Roman gods Chronos and Saturn.
Complicating matters is that there is every reason to believe these accounts were exaggerated by the Romans to make the Carthaginians appear crueler and more primitive than they were — they were the bitter enemies of Rome, after all.
Depictions In Modern Culture
The ancient practice of child sacrifice found renewed footing with medieval and modern interpretations that influence our culture to this day.
“First MOLOCH, horrid King besmear’d with blood
Of human sacrifice, and parents tears,
Though, for the noyse of Drums and Timbrels loud,
Their children’s cries unheard that passed through fire.” — John Milton, Paradise Lost
English poet John Milton’s 1667 masterpiece, Paradise Lost, describes Moloch as one of Satan’s chief warriors and one of the greatest fallen angels the Devil has on his side. He is given a speech at Hell’s parliament where he advocates for immediate war against God and is then revered on Earth as a pagan god, much to God’s chagrin.
Gustave Flaubert’s 1862 novel about Carthage, Salammbô depicted the purportedly historical process of Carthaginian child sacrifice in poetic detail:
“The victims, when scarcely at the edge of the opening, disappeared like a drop of water on a red-hot plate, and white smoke rose amid the great scarlet colour. Nevertheless, the appetite of the god was not appeased. He ever wished for more. In order to furnish him with a larger supply, the victims were piled up on his hands with a big chain above them which kept them in their place.”
Italian director Giovanni Pastrone’s 1914 film Cabiria was based on the novel by Gustave Flaubert, and presented this deadly boiling pot as Flaubert described in his book. From Allen Ginsberg’s Howl to Robin Hardy’s 1975 horror classic The Wicker Man — varying depictions of this cult practice abound.
Most recently, an exhibit celebrating ancient Carthage popped up in Rome. A golden statue of Moloch was placed outside of the Roman Colosseum in November 2019 as a memorial of sorts to the defeated enemy of the Roman Republic and the version of Moloch used was purportedly based on the one Pastrone used in his film — down to the bronze furnace in its chest.
While conspiracy theorists have claimed this is yet another perversion of the culture — a reviled occult symbol of child sacrifice being forced upon unsuspecting citizens — the truth may be less dramatic. The history of humanity is riddled with horror, true, but at the same time, it is also littered with strange modern art.
After learning about Moloch the Canaanite god of child sacrifice, read about human sacrifice in the pre-Columbian Americas and separate fact from fiction. Then, learn about the dark history of Mormonism — from child brides to mass murder.