Let’s talk about Mars and Ares. It’s common to think the Greek and Roman pantheons were identical and the gods and goddesses just had alternate names. This is not true. The Roman gods and goddesses personified civic virtues, whereas Greek mythology was largely philosophical.
I’ve been thinking about Carol Christ’s two excellent blogs about patriarchy and its connection to war and our so-called heroes. We read or watch the news today and learn about “our heroes” serving in the Middle East, about warriors who’ve come home and are suffering from deep wounds both physical and emotional. Yes, these men and women do indeed deserve our support…but, still, I ask, Why are people who are trained to kill other people called heroes? It’s a very thorny problem, and I must set it aside as I write this blog.
Carol wrote that patriarchy is a system of male dominance, rooted in the ethos of war which legitimates violence, sanctified by religious symbols. What does this mean? War gods. In their seminal book The Witches’ God, Janet and Stewart write that “the ability to be aggressive for the defense of the team (whether family, tribe or nation), has been a necessary element in our survival capacity” (p. 25).They describe the roles of Mars and Ares, then, toward the end of the chapter, add the following:
It must be admitted that the Hebrew god of the Old Testament, Yahweh, was a supreme example of the concept ‘Our cause is just and justifies any atrocity.’ Time and time again conquered cities were wiped out, together with every man, woman and child in them, and their riches looted in the Name of the Lord. Unhappily, in his later Christian form his name has been all too often abused in the same way. One feels that Jesus and Pallas Athene would have been equally furious over such blasphemy (p. 27).
So let’s talk about Mars and Ares. It’s common to think the Greek and Roman pantheons were identical and the gods and goddesses just had alternate names. This is not true. The Roman gods and goddesses were born among the early Latin tribes and adopted later by Rome, usually for political purposes. As the upstart republic in central Italy conquered Greece during the third and second centuries before the Common Era, the old Latin tribal deities were swallowed up by the Greek ones, who were older and grander. The Roman gods and goddesses personified civic virtues, whereas Greek mythology was largely philosophical.
Mars, after whom March was named, was originally Marspiter, Father Mars. Mar may mean “generative force” or “to shine,” and piter is the same as pater. He was an Etruscan and Sabine agricultural god, known to the early Romans as Mars Gradivus, grower, and Silvanus, who oversaw their herds of cattle. The wolf and the horse were also sacred to him. His mother was Juno, his father, a flower. After Mars fathered Romulus and Remus and moved to the city, the Romans built him a temple on the Palatine Hill. Mars became a god of defensive warfare because the Romans needed someone to defend their fields and their produce. Like his people, he was a farmer first; he took up arms later.
Ares, on the other hand, was a berserker and a bully. In Homer’s Iliad, Athena loathes him and Zeus calls him the “most odious” god” who enjoys “nothing but strife, war and battles.” His sons, Deimos (Fear) and Phobos (Fright), are horrifyingly destructive. Read the Iliad again. I’ve always rooted for the Trojans. If any war has good guys, the defenders of Troy were the good guys in that war. If you want to know what happened to the women after Troy fell, read the tragedy, The Trojan Woman, by Euripides or watch the stunning 1971 movie starring Katharine Hepburn as Hecuba (widow of Priam, King of Troy), Vanessa Redgrave as Andromache (Hector’s widow), Genevieve Bujold as Cassandra, and Irene Papas as Helen. The Getty Villa in Malibu is not only a gorgeous museum, but it also has a reproduction of a Greek theater. They do a Greek drama every year. When I saw The Trojan Women at the Getty in 2011, I felt Aristotle’s cathartic effect.
Our war gods can also be helpful, though. A few years ago, I lived in an apartment building whose owner was a nice old man. When I had cancer surgery in 2003, he let me make a couple partial payments on my rent. But while he saw it as his “Christian duty” (a difficult and ambiguous phrase) to bring succor to those in need, he also got suckered a few times. A man died in his bathroom with a needle in his arm. He hired two people to manage the building. One was a drug dealer he’d evicted a year earlier, the other, a defrocked nurse who had stolen blank prescription pads from physicians. I called them (out loud) what they were: criminals. They started doing things to get back at me.
So then, in my very real fear, I called upon Father Mars, the Latin god who protects his turf and his people. Remember—Mars and Ares were conflated, but they are not the same. I called upon Mars and asked him to take a look at my situation. I called upon this fierce and protective god, and he sent two Roman legionaries to hang out on my porch. No one but me could see them, of course, but the criminals stopped bothering me. So did some annoying neighbors, like the old man who once stood outside my screen door and delivered a symphony of vituperation (I called the owner and the police; the old man disappeared for a couple days) and Mr. Balls For Brains (don’t even ask). We pagans have a saying, “Ask the Goddess and do your homework.” That is, don’t just pray and expect a miracle. My homework? I set up wards (protective spells) around my apartment and then went out and got the “for rent” ads. A couple months later, I moved out of that building. The legionaries, whose names were Marcus and Vitellius, stayed with me until a month or two after the move. I thanked them, as I also thanked Father Mars, for coming to my aid.
It’s possible that there are some small corners of patriarchy that are good and useful. Our fathers can be kind and benevolent. They can speak out against war. They can protect their mothers, wives, and daughters. We can find honor, virtue, and nobility in Mars, but anyone who worships Ares must be out of his mind.
Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic. Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations. When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.