From 600 BC until 146 BC Carthaginian civilization vied with Greco-Roman civilization to control the Mediterranean in a series of increasingly bitter wars. Ultimately Rome was completely victorious in the great contest: the Carthaginian territories in North Africa and Iberia became Roman territories and the city of Carthage was destroyed and the ground sowed with salt. Rome sat about effacing Carthaginian language, culture, and art from the world. To this day nobody can figure out what was actually normal in Carthaginian civilization and what was a crazy bitter smear campaign by the Romans.
But no matter how greatly the Romans tried, they could hardly destroy everything left over from a vast ancient civilization, and so we have actual Carthaginian artifacts and artworks today. In fact there are many of them, and they tend to be very bizarre and beautiful–but it is difficult to find consensus on what they represent and how they were used.
That is the loose background for these terracotta statues from the Iberian Peninsula from the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. Back then, Spain was not just Carthaginian territory–in fact it was the top secret source of most of Carthage’s vast wealth–which came from tin mines (tin was a raw material for the bronze which held classical antiquity together).
These statues seem to be the great goddess Tanit, the dark queen of the heavens. Tanit and her ram-god consort, Ba’al-Hamon, were the principal divinities of Carthaginian civilization. Tanit seems to have evolved from fierce warrior sky goddesses like Astarte (who once was Ishtar at the dawn of civilization) and especially the Ugaritic goddess Anat. Anat was a bloodthirsty and horrifying goddess—myths about her involve all sorts of impaled entities, seven-headed serpents, oceans of blood, fire, grinding up of bodies and such like dark elements (Ugarit was an ancient port in Syria).
Tanit seems to have been a dark goddess as well and she was probably the focus of Carthaginian child sacrifice, assuming such a thing existed and was not a Roman propaganda invention (scholars are fiercely divided about child sacrifice in Carthaginian culture, although I am inclined to side with the archaeologists who believe that it happened). You are beginning to see some of the historiographic problems that Carthaginian scholars and art historians face!
Whatever the case, the sculptures are magnificent and they certainly suit a dark enigmatic sky goddess who thirsts for blood. Look at Tanit’s crown of celestial vegetation and her almond Babylonian eyes! Sometimes when I fall into a strange humor I look at Carthaginian art online and try to grasp what it meant as I enjoy its sinuous lines, mocking smiles, and leonine power, but it always eludes me and ends up filed in my head as a near-eastern cypher. I’ll try to feature some more of it—you’ll quickly see what I mean. In the mean time enjoy (?) Tanit, bloodthirsty sky goddess.