Moderator’s note: This marvelous FAR site has been running for 10 years and has had more than 3,500 posts in that time. There are so many treasures that have been posted in this decade that they tend to get lost in the archives. We are beginning this column so that we can all revisit some of these gems. Today’s blogpost was originally posted March 3, 2013. You can visit it here to see the original comments.
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 Farrar 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 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. (barbaraardinger.com), is the author of Secret Lives, a novel about crones and other magical folks, Pagan Every Day, a unique daybook of daily meditations, and other books. She really enjoys writing her monthly blogs for FAR. Her work has also been published in devotionals to Isis, Athena, and Brigid. Barbara’s day job is freelance editing for people who have good ideas but don’t want to embarrass themselves in print. To date, she has edited more than 300 books, both fiction and nonfiction, on a wide range of topics. She lives in Long Beach, California, with her rescued calico cat, Schroedinger.
7 thoughts on “From the Archives: Gods of War by Barbara Ardinger”
Oh, what an astonishing post – I had to read it twice. ” Why are people who are trained to kill other people called heroes? It’s a very thorny problem” – I’ll say, one I have never resolved. It’s biased me against the word ‘hero’.
I like the way you make it clear that the Greek and Roman gods had very different functions…and that the patriarchal male can behave in ways that are positive – Men who are primarily protectors fall into this category. And I actually know a couple of them. My first cousin is one.
I love your apartment story…and yes, sometimes we need to call up those protectors to help us… it’s hard to do this with a strong bias against patriarchy – or that has been my experience…I’m happy to report that my bias has softened a bit to allow the positive aspects of Father Mars in, for example –
I also love what you say here about loving the goddess, asking for help, AND the necessity of taking ACTION on your own behalf… I have been awfully slow getting this… as always thank you for this illuminating post.
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I agree with Sara on the impact of this line: “Why are people who are trained to kill other people called heroes?” Hard to fathom and yet its what we do in our society.
I like Marcus and Vitellius. Are they available for hire? I don’t have need at the moment but nice to be prepared. And I must say, very creative solution to your situation there.
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Marcus and Vitellius are real and are not, so far as I know, for hire. I needed help and prayed to Great Father Mars. He helped me. He defends his lands and people. You might approach him if you need the kind of help he can give. He is approachable, but only when we respect him.
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Sorry Mars (and Barbara), you are right these are heavy energies to be honored and respected. It is good to know that we have an opportunity to pray for them when necessary.
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Thanks for this great post. I hadn’t thought about the differences between the Greek and Roman deities this way, but you are right. This makes me think that we really need to redefine “warrior” to emphasize protection rather than killing, and that could be protection from, for example, the effects of fires and floods, injustice, poverty, etc. as well as people out to do harm. I think of the many absolutely fearless advocates for those who are frail, unhoused, survivors of domestic violence, and others whether they are social service workers, legal counselors, health care providers, activists, or in many other roles. They are definitely warriors, but in a good sense. I would also like to borrow Marcus and Vitellius when you and Janet are not in need of them – just occasionally. And I love your line “Ask the Goddess and do your homework.” Yes, yes, yes!
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Unfortunately, I am not in charge of Marcus and Vitellius. They were sent to help me, and they followed orders like good soldiers. Perhaps you could make friends with Mars and ask him for help.
I like your idea about redefining the warrior. People can indeed make war against discrimination and climate change and fires and disease. That’s a good kind of warriors, perhaps the kind we can all be from time to time. Thanks for your thoughts.
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I just want to stop and say a big thank you Barbara, you have taught me a big lesson with this post and your follow-up comments. Something I hadn’t really thought about before. That is that there are all kinds of energies about us and we can tap into what we need. That we need to do the work ourselves with respect and love for those energies even if, at first blush, they don’t feel like they are ones we connect with. Yes, even some corners of patriarchy (as you so aptly put it) can have meaning.
The 2nd tenet of Hawaiian Huna is “there are no limits.” I love that we can look to those aspects of creation we may not otherwise even pay attention to and find something important and nurturing for our own lives.
I am especially delighted that you found such support at a difficult time in your life.
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