Tophet (mentioned in Second Kings Chapter 23, verse 10, and Isaiah, Chapter 30, verse 31) was a high place designated for the sacrifice of children to pagan gods such as Moloch, whose victims were ritually slain and burnt. Since the sacrifice of the community's most important asset to appease angry deities in times of crisis was deemed necessary in Western Semitic paganism, tophets (places set aside for human sacrifice) are found not only in Israel and Lebanon, but even in Phoenician colonies such as Carthage. One famous tophet was located at Gehenna, near Jerusalem. In the valley of Hinnon children were compelled "to pass through the fire of Molech" (II Kings 23, 10), the Ammonite deity who, according to John Milton in Paradise Lost I, 392-8, was worshipped in Rabba, Argob, Basan, and at the stream of Arnon.

The word tophet, which originally denoted a specific place associated with horror and defilement, later became used as a synonym for "Hell." It may also mean "a place to be cursed and spat upon," or simply "a place of burning." Moloch may figuratively mean any force that demands human lives or seems to take from us what we hold most precious. Hence, during the French Revolution, the guillotine was referred to as a "Moloch."

Carlyle characteristically used the word as a metaphor for the infernal disorder created by evil. In discussing The French Revolution, Chris Vanden Bossche quotes a typical use of the term:

Carlyle ultimately distinguishes . . . knowledge of human need from knowledge of how to justly satisfy human need. While both kinds of knowledge require that one look beyond the surface, an action that the existing aristocracy was incapable of performing, the sansculottes do not discover the transcendental, but the "dread foundations" and "subterranean deeps" of "Madness and Tophet." Since the people would never be anything more than an anarchic mass, France needed a leader with transcendental authority. [source]

Like Ruskin and many Victorians, Carlyle often used scriptural imagery both as a means of establishing his credibility or ethos with an Evangelical audience and as a way of placing historical events within a religious context — and he did so long after he himself had lost all semblance of orthodox Christian belief. (See the discussion of Carlyle's use of Exodus imagery in his political writings for examples of his skillful use of this kind of allusion.)

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Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, ed. Ivor H. Evans. New York: Haper & Row, 1981.

Dennis, Rabbi Geoffrey W. "Tophet." Encyclopedia Mythica. Created 31 August 2002. Accessed 20 August 2004.

Last modified 20 August 2004