Gods of War by Barbara Ardinger


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.

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.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.

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Categories: Abuse of Power, General, God, Patriarchy, power

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21 replies

  1. Barbara I am just now re-reading the Iliad again. I found a good dissection of it in Harris and Platzner’s, “Classical Mythology”. They wrote a few good paras on Menelaus’ family and the relationship between Hector and Andromache. I’ve always been on the side of the Trojans too..I believed them to represent the ideal loving family – but seeing it from the woman’s point of view as pointed out in this text i can see now what they do represent is a loyalty to the paternal line. When Andromache appeals to Hector to not fight to keep their family whole, to stay and be a father to his son – he still chooses battle. Her appeals are disregarded, she is not taken seriously at all. Being a hero in battle is more important than being a family man and merely pleasing a woman. Love is foolish and for the fool hearted (Paris). Soldiers of war who made rank may have been glorified but the life of a general soldier was harsh and cruel. I suspect tales such as the Iliad were also told as a form of propaganda – to make men want to fight for country and home, much like any war we have seen in our own times. If hector had chosen to stay with his family he would have ultimately betrayed the patriarchal system. I haven’t read Trojan women, I endeavour to do so.

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    • A well-known fragment from Sappho’s poetry. It shows at least what a woman or a poet’s attitude might have been toward war in ancient Greece:

      “Some say a host of cavalry,
      others of infantry, and others of ships,
      is the most beautiful thing on the black earth,
      but I say it is whomever a person loves.”

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  2. I learned much from this. It is enriching to know the deeper meanings of Mars whom I had always thought was a simple copy of Ares.I wish we could trace the origins of the war god Ares from the early horse riding invaders of Neolithic Greece and find out what male gods he may have replaced. I loved meeting the earlier Cretan Zeus through Carol Christs tour of Minoan Crete and finding him to be more of a green man – a dying and rising God reflecting fertility and seasonal change instead of the later lascivious sky god who became the modern Greek Zeus. I also very much appreciated the window into your world and how you protected yourself and welcomed your legionaries support. It is good to have these possibilities at hand when one feels threatened.

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  3. Just to get back into the argument about the Bible. First the Bible is a STORY. It’s a STORY written by many hands over the centuries. Yes it has lots of bloodthirsty tales in it. There are many despicable doings. But there are also voices condemning those deeds and doings and that male patriarchy. Then the Bible gets to the woman Mary, who, by her society’s laws, should have been stoned for carrying an illegitimate child. And she has a husband to be who makes a decision that saves her (at least here is one understanding male). Mary bears a child, who judging by the textual evidence is likely gay. Jesus grows up. Does he preach war. No he talks about women, the poor, the sick, the dispossessed, the lowly, and children. Jesus stands up to the established patriarchal religion of the day. According to Fiorenza there was once a passage in the Bible that Jesus was crucified “for leading women and children astray” and I have translated textual evidence of that (that has been obscured by other translation decisions.). Might not the characterization of Jesus portray some of the attributes one would wish for in a male? Might not people have sympathy for a man reviled, and yes, crucified for his being and cause? Think of the gay man dragged to his death behind a car some years ago in Texas. Try to look upon the Bible as a STORY depicting both the bad and the good in humanity – and begin the work of rescuing that STORY from the hands that would use the Bible to promote their own interests. You wouldn’t do that with the Iliad, would you – I.e. the “Church of the Iliad” that preaches how everyone must be?

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  4. Thank you for this Barbara. I confess to not having spent much time with the Roman gods and goddesses. As you described the differences between Mars and Ares – I now want to look into others who are compared between the two cultures! And I have put The Trojan Woman in my queue at Netflix!

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  5. Thank you, Barbara, for this illuminating post, especially tracing the origin of the Roman Gods. I could use a little help from Mars right now. Thanks for inspiration.

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  6. Elizabeth, invoke Mars on Tuesday, his sacred day. Be Very Polite. He’s proud, and in my experience not very loveable. Explain your situation and ask for his help.

    French uses the names of the Roman gods to name the days of the week:
    Lundi (Monday–moonday) – the moon
    Mardi – Mars
    Mercredi – Mercury
    Jeudi – Jupiter (I have DVDs of Offenbach operettas; they call him Jupie)
    Venredi – Venus
    Samedi – Saturn
    Dimanche – Sunday–here they turn Christian: “day of the Lord”

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  7. Barbara —

    It’s amazing that you posted this today. We must be on the same wavelenght. I’ve just been writing about some of the “small corners of patriarchy” that are useful in an article that will be published in the next SageWoman (but writing more about the wide swaths of woman-dominated religion that are good). I agree that protection from a threatening situation is one of those possibilities. Brava!

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    • Thanks, Nancy. I think it’s important to distinguish between the good men–or gods–in our lives and the kinds of men and the history that Carol’s describing in her series. We who love the Goddess do not hate all men at all times and in all places. There are small, good corners of patriarchy. I’ll be interested to read your SW piece.

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  8. Hi, I’m Italian from Rome and I work with the God Mars and I think you had see the real face of him. He is different by Ares and have a lot of quality like god of Agriculture and cycles. Thaks for you article I’ve appreciate it a lot. Kiss from Rome

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  9. So good to hear from an Italian! You no doubt know ten times more than I do about Mars and his agricultural connections. I’m sending that kiss back to you.

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  10. As a Hellenic, Ares as one of the 12 Olympians plays a vital function as he hold dominion over the struggles that we go through (many of which are necessary, even if they are unpleasant and can be rather loathsome, and as far as I am concerned he aids us even as he aided Troy that you are so fond of). The Orphic hymn to Ares also suggests that the weapons of the battlefield are given by Ares to the art of Demeter (keeping in mind that the scythe which cuts grain was also an archaic weapon that early examples of Perseus killing Medusa is evident). Myth also shows that Ares as a protective father to his daughters, and is often in a positive relationship with women, especially his mother Hera. That he exemplifies the strengths of men to protect their homes and families can be found too in that the bridegroom was identified with having the qualities of Ares. In short summing Ares up by a few lines from the Iliad hardly does him justice, especially given his many mythic roles to which he serves a vital function.

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  11. Also, as someone who spent a decade as a devout follower of Artemis before being claimed by her twin Apollon, I think it is a shame how whitewashed she is. Ares gets a beating in this article, and yet mythically and cultically Artemis is nearly just as brutal, savage and bloody as her elder brother here…and yet the traits for which Ares is openly reviled, Artemis is adored for. So whereas I am insulted that you would say that anyone who worships Ares is out of his mind (because I do worship the 12 with great devotion in my home), I can’t imagine that you would say the same of Artemis who also performs a necessary, though not always pretty or pleasant, function in the cosmos. This seems like an all too common double standard.

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  12. Huh. Well, I guess I’m out of my mind then.

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  13. Apparently I must be out of my mind, too.

    To suggest that Ares is somehow anti-women is to claim that women can’t be warriors. I find that claim absurd and insulting. Ares is a protector of innocents. He is an upholder of civic order. He protects the city-state from invasion — much like His role in the Trojan War; apparently you and I read two very different Iliads for you to have missed the fact that He defended the city of the very women you love so much!

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  14. I think Zeus is far more of an anti-feminist monster than Ares could ever be. At least Ares has respect for his female family members.

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  15. I’m pretty much with you there. Zeus was a male chauvinist pig-rapist. I’m not sure, however, it was altogether his fault. Like Yahveh, he was carried in by his tribes from the Caucasus region. Lots of testosterone in those warrior tribes. (Just look at the area today! Never since the days of Alexander the so-called Great has Afghanistan been conquered.) So the tribes brought their god in and, in Greece, married him to the Great Goddess, Hera, who was then diminished to housewife. If I had a husband like Zeus, I’d be bitchy, too.

    Thanks to all who comment. This blog seems to have a struck a chord. Thanks for coming to the FAR site. Be sure to read the blogs by women who are more serious than I am.

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    • I am having a hard time understanding where you are getting your information. Zeus is attested by the Cretans and is found in Linear B, and the mysteries of his birth are very important in one of the oldest mystery programs in Hellas (those at Samothrake), not to mention that Arkadia has very prominent myths recorded by Pausanias regarding his rearing on Mount Lykaion where he takes an appearance very similar to Dionysos. Many of the Hellenic deities have syncretic cults in Asia Minor and in other places due to the colonizing of Hellenes in Ionia and abroad elsewhere and exchange of ideas between cultures. I also think you are misconstruing what rape implies, first in taking in literally in terms of the myth that the god sexually forced himself upon a girl….after all in ancient Hellas rape could also have been applied to many sexual scenarios which occurred without parental permission. Second, there is a purpose to Zeus’ fathering of heroes something which is important in the mysteries of Hellas that has nothing to do with him being a “chauvinist rapist-pig” ( a term which I find insulting again being applied to one of my gods). Also if you look at the cult of Hera, rather than the myths which when taken not literally shows her as a goddess who submits trials to the sons of Zeus for their own growth and development and eventually deification, after all Herakles is the glory of Hera by his name), you will find that she is not viewed in that matter, especially not in her important cult in Argos where Io (another maiden who was “raped” by Zeus) was somewhat venerated too. Hera has a very great and esteemed position just as much as Zeus does if you read some of the hymns to her, and their marriage (as well as some mystery texts which also refers to them as twins) is one that is vastly important in the vitality and generation of the cosmos.

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  16. Dear Learned Commenters: many thanks for reading my blog and taking the time to comment. But, hey, friends, lighten up! Reading your comments is getting to be like listening to those nice people who come to my front door with pamphlets. I wrote the blog not as a scholarly document but just to explain how a Dianic Witch appealed to a god and how that god helped her. Thanks again for reading.

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    • I am sure that those of us learned commenters probably would have taken it that if you had kept it to that rather than insulting our gods. When someone makes erroneously public statements about ones gods (and delivers unwarranted insult) it is a certain thing that it is going to cause a reaction. It is not about sitting on your front door with a pamphlet but rather correcting a grievous misconception that is out there in the public domain where folks are going to take such statements at face value. I am sorry if seems that we are lacking good humor on this.

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