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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Massacre of the Innocents

Infanticide is the practice of someone intentionally causing the death of an infant. Often it is the mother who commits the act, but criminology recognises various forms of non-maternal child murder. In many past societies, certain forms of infanticide were considered permissible, whereas in most modern societies the practice is considered immoral and criminal. Nonetheless, it still takes place — in the Western world usually because of the parent's mental illness or violent behavior, and in some poor countries as a form of population control, sometimes with tacit societal acceptance. Female infanticide is more common than the killing of male babies.


History and pre-history

The practice of infanticide has taken many forms. Child sacrifice to supernatural figures or forces, such as the one practiced in ancient Carthage, may be only the most notorious example in the ancient world. Anthropologist Laila Williamson notes that "Infanticide has been practiced on every continent and by people on every level of cultural complexity, from hunter gatherers to high civilizations, including our own ancestors. Rather than being an exception, then, it has been the rule."

A frequent method of infanticide in ancient Europe and Asia was simply to abandon the infant, leaving it to die by exposure (i.e. hypothermia, hunger, thirst, or animal attack). Infant abandonment still occurs in modern societies.

In at least one island in Oceania, infanticide was carried out until the 20th century by suffocating the infant, while in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and in the Inca Empire it was carried out by sacrifice (see below).

Paleolithic and Neolithic

Many Neolithic groups routinely resorted to infanticide in order to control their numbers so that their lands could support them. Joseph Birdsell believed that infanticide rates in prehistoric times were between 15% and 50% of the total number of births, while Laila Williamson estimated a lower rate ranging from 15% to 20%. Both anthropologists believed that these high rates of infanticide persisted until the development of agriculture during the Neolithic Revolution. Comparative anthropologists have calculated that 50% of female newborn babies were killed by their parents during the Paleolithic era. Decapitated skeletons of hominid children have been found with evidence of cannibalism. The children were not necessarily actively killed, but neglect and intentional malnourishment may also have occurred, as proposed by Vicente Lull as an explanation for an apparent surplus of men and the below average height of women in prehistoric Menorca.

In ancient history

In the New World

Archaeologists have uncovered physical evidence of child sacrifice at several locations. Some of the best attested examples are the diverse rites which were part of the religious practices in Mesoamerica and the Inca Empire.

In the Old World

Three thousand bones of young children, with evidence of sacrificial rituals, have been found in Sardinia. Infants were offered to the Babylonian goddess Ishtar. Pelasgians offered a sacrifice of every tenth child during difficult times. Syrians sacrificed children to Jupiter and Juno. Many remains of children have been found in Gezer excavations with signs of sacrifice. Child skeletons with the marks of sacrifice have been found also in Egypt dating 950-720 BCE. In Carthage "[child] sacrifice in the ancient world reached its infamous zenith." Besides the Carthaginians, other Phoenicians, and the Canaanites, Moabites and Sepharvites offered their first-born as a sacrifice to their gods.

Ancient Egypt

In Egyptian households, at all social levels, children of both sexes were valued and there is no evidence of infanticide. The religion of the Ancient Egyptians forbade infanticide and during the Greco-Roman period they rescued abandoned babies from manure heaps, a common method of infanticide by Greeks or Romans, and were allowed to either adopt them as foundlings or raise them as slaves, often giving them names such as "copro -" to memorialise their rescue. Strabo considered it a peculiarity of the Egyptians that every child must be reared. Diodorus indicates infanticide was a punishable offence. Egypt was heavily dependent on the annual flooding of the Nile to irrigate the land and in years of low inundation severe famine could occur with breakdowns in social order resulting, notably between 930-1070 AD and 1180-1350 AD. Instances of cannibalism are recorded during these periods but it is unknown if this happened during the pharaonic era of Ancient Egypt. Beatrix Midant-Reynes describes human sacrifice as having occurred at Abydos in the early dynastic period (c. 3150-2850 BCE), while Jan Assmann asserts there is no clear evidence of human sacrifice ever happening in Ancient Egypt.


According to Shelby Brown, Carthaginians, descendants of the Phoenicians, sacrificed infants to their gods. Charred bones of hundreds of infants have been found in Carthaginian archaeological sites. One such area harbored as many as 20,000 burial urns. Skeptics suggest that the bodies of children found in Carthaginian and Phoenician cemeteries were merely the cremated remains of children that died naturally.

Plutarch (ca. 46–120 AD) mentions the practice, as do Tertullian, Orosius, Diodorus Siculus and Philo. The Hebrew Bible also mentions what appears to be child sacrifice practiced at a place called the Tophet (from the Hebrew taph or toph, to burn) by the Canaanites. Writing in the 3rd century BCE, Kleitarchos, one of the historians of Alexander the Great, described that the infants rolled into the flaming pit. Diodorus Siculus wrote that babies were roasted to death inside the burning pit of the god Baal Hamon, a bronze statue.

Greece and Rome

The historical Greeks considered the practice of adult and child sacrifice barbarous. However, exposure of newborns was widely practiced in ancient Greece. In Greece the decision to expose a child was typically the father's, although in Sparta the decision was made by a group of elders. Exposure was the preferred method of disposal, as that act in itself was not murder; moreover, the exposed child technically had a chance of being rescued by the gods or any passersby. This very situation was a recurring motif in Greek mythology.

To notify the neighbors of a birth of a child, a woolen strip was hung over the front door - this indicated a female baby. An olive branch indicated a boy had been born. Families did not always keep their new child. After a woman had a baby, she would show it to her husband. If the husband accepted it, it would live, but if he refused it, it would die. Babies would often be rejected if they were illegitimate, unhealthy or deformed, the wrong sex (female for example), or too great a burden on the family. These babies would not be directly killed, but put in a clay pot or jar and deserted outside the front door or on the roadway. In ancient Greek religion, this practice took the responsibility away from the parents because the child would die of natural causes, for example hunger, asphyxiation or exposure to the elements.

The practice was prevalent in ancient Rome, as well. Philo was the first philosopher to speak out against it. A letter from a Roman citizen to his wife, dating from 1 BCE, demonstrates the casual nature with which infanticide was often viewed:

"I am still in Alexandria. ... I beg and plead with you to take care of our little child, and as soon as we receive wages, I will send them to you. In the meantime, if (good fortune to you!) you give birth, if it is a boy, let it live; if it is a girl, expose it."

In some periods of Roman history it was traditional for a newborn to be brought to the pater familias, the family patriarch, who would then decide whether the child was to be kept and raised, or left to die by exposure. The Twelve Tables of Roman law obliged him to put to death a child that was visibly deformed. The concurrent practices of slavery and infanticide contributed to the "background noise" of the crises during the Republic.

Infanticide became a capital offense in Roman law in 374 AD, but offenders were rarely if ever prosecuted.

According to mythological legend, Romulus and Remus, twin infant sons of the war god, Mars, survived near-infanticide after being tossed into the Tiber River. According to the mythology, they were raised by wolves and later founded the city of Rome.


Judaism prohibits infanticide, and has for some time, dating back to at least early Common Era. Roman historians wrote about the ideas and customs of other peoples, which often diverged from their own. Tacitus recorded that the Jews "regard it as a crime to kill any late-born children." Josephus, whose works give an important insight into 1st-century Judaism, wrote that God "forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten, or to destroy it afterward."

Pagan European tribes

In his book Germania, Tacitus wrote that the ancient Germanic tribes enforced a similar prohibition. He found such mores remarkable and commented: "[The Germani] hold it shameful to kill any unwanted child." Modern scholarship differs. John Boswell believed that in ancient Germanic tribes unwanted children were exposed, usually in the forest. "It was the custom of the [Teutonic] pagans, that if they wanted to kill a son or daughter, they would be killed before they had been given any food." Usually children born out of wedlock were disposed that way.

In his highly influential Pre-historic Times, John Lubbock described burnt bones indicating the practice of child sacrifice in pagan Britain.

The last canto, Marjatan poika (Son of Marjatta), of Finnish national epic Kalevala describes an assumed infanticide. Väinämöinen orders the infant bastard son of Marjatta to be drowned in marsh.

The Íslendingabók, a main source for the early history of Iceland, recounts that on the Conversion of Iceland to Christianity in 1000 it was provided - in order to make the transition more palatable to Pagans - that "(...)the old laws allowing exposure of newborn children will remain in force". However, this provision - like other concessions made at the time to the Pagans - was abolished some years later.


Christianity rejects infanticide. The Teachings of the Apostles or Didache said "You shall not kill that which is born." The Epistle of Barnabas stated an identical command. Apologists Tertullian, Athenagoras, Minucius Felix, Justin Martyr and Lactantius also maintained that exposing a baby to death was a wicked act. In 318 AD, Constantine I considered infanticide a crime, and in 374 AD, Valentinian I mandated the rearing all children (exposing babies, especially girls, was still common). The Council of Constantinople declared that infanticide was homicide, and in 589 AD, the Third Council of Toledo took measures against the Spanish custom of killing their own children.

Middle Ages

Whereas theologians and clerics preached sparing their lives, newborn abandonment continued as registered in both the literature record and in legal documents. According to William L. Langer, exposure in the Middle Ages "was practiced on gigantic scale with absolute impunity, noticed by writers with most frigid indifference". At the end of the 12th century, notes Richard Trexler, Roman women threw their newborns into the Tiber river in daylight.

Unlike other European regions, in the Middle Ages the German mother had the right to expose the newborn. In Gotland, Sweden, children were also sacrificed.

In the High Middle Ages, abandoning unwanted children finally eclipsed infanticide. Unwanted children were left at the door of church or abbey, and the clergy was assumed to take care of their upbringing. This practice also gave rise to the first orphanages.


The pre-Islamic Arabian society practiced infanticide as a form of "post-partum birth control". Regarding the prevalence of this practice, we know it was "common enough among the pre-Islamic Arabs to be assigned a specific term, waʾd". Infanticide was practiced either out of destitution (thus practiced on males and females alike), or as sacrifices to gods, or as "disappointment and fear of social disgrace felt by a father upon the birth of a daughter".

Some authors believe that there is little evidence that infanticide was prevalent in pre-Islamic Arabia or early Muslim history, except for the case of the Tamim tribe, who practiced it during severe famine. Others state that "female infanticide was common all over Arabia during this period of time" (pre-Islamic Arabia), especially by burying alive a female newborn.

Infanticide is explicitly prohibited by the Qur'an. "And do not kill your children for fear of poverty; We give them sustenance and yourselves too; surely to kill them is a great wrong."

The Qur'an rejected the practice of infanticide. Together with polytheism and homicide, infanticide was regarded as a grave sin.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Infanticide" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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