First I want to say that I am by no means an expert in the cult and myth of Ares. Certainly there are folks, such as Pete Helms at Aspis of Ares, who are a bit more qualified due to their heavy dedication and studies, to talk about Ares more affluently. However, when I, as a feminist, see feminist literature that takes pot shots at my gods, well I have a problem with it. And so it is in that spirit that I wanted to discuss how feminists can appreciate Ares, and how he is not some evil maniacal patriarchal overlord god bent on destroying all life (my summarization of what a feminist article on Ares more or less said about Ares). The article I am giving commentary about can be found here.
The primary assertion of said article seems to have been that Mars is preferable to Ares (and the author said that anyone who worships Ares is out of their mind) due to agricultural roots associated with the cult of Mars. This of course presumes that Ares may not have evolved along similar premises of protection of the land, however, because we have known epithets for Mars that speaks towards crop protection it is assumed that Ares has none of these historic traits. Of course in feminist pagan literature this would be an important differential between an otherwise beneficial god associated with nature (as is played up in this article regarding Mars) who takes up arms out of necessity….and therefore playing on ideals common in feminist paganism that “matriarchal” society is naturally benevolent and non-violent. That females are compassionate, empathic nurturers. Effectively placing warfare and violence firmly in the domain of male dominance inherent in patriarchy. Of course this ideal is a load of crap quite frankly. As a woman, as a feminist, and as an observer of human nature who has seen how violently insane women can get, the idea of the matriarchal utopia is no more likely under female dominance than utopia is under male dominance. Therefore the idea that a god is one worthy of feminist attention is one that doesn’t have an inherently violent nature is also crap, because this brutality and violence is just as much a part of female nature as it is a part of male nature. The number of women we have in armed forces, not as national guard, which would play more in the idea of defense of the homeland, but part of our offensive military action certainly a big indicator, as is female gang activity.
In fact, if you take a look at many of the goddesses worshiped by feminist pagans, you would probably notice a large number of them who have rather brutal myths and violent natures too. Artemis is a great example. After over a decade in service to Artemis as her devotee in my youth before being claimed by Apollon, I am under no illusions about the goddess as she is portrayed in her myth and cults throughout Hellas. Everything that Ares is condemned for in brutality, rage, violence is just as present with Artemis. Yet with Artemis it is almost glorified as some kind of sacred female power. The acceptance of power for females and stripping it away from males is, in my mind, just as grievous as the reverse happening. I have said before that our males need strong male deities as much as women need strong female deities, but I will go one further and say that women also need strong male deities. A strong male deity doesn’t undercut the strength of a woman, and certainly this isn’t the case for Ares, who is the father of the legendary Amazons, the epitome of female strength and independence, as well as the ideal thought of by feminists in regards of matriarchal society. Ares support of his mother, Hera, continues the idea in which Ares supports female strength, as well as being the idealized male strength as marital hymns likened the bridegroom to Ares. Certainly this would be more than about just manliness, but also to the purpose of men in their self identification as protectors of their families. This protectiveness is a trait of Ares which we see characterized in myth in which Ares slew the rapist of his daughter.
Therefore the juxtaposition that is placed in the article between Mars, as a protective deity, and Ares as nothing more than a divine bully, is rather inaccurate. I would also go as far as to say that the idea of Ares being divorced from the land is also incorrect. I say this for two reasons. One, is that there is a strong reference to the weapons of war associated with the tools of agriculture in the Orphic Hymn to Ares. The association between weapons of war and agricultural tools is one that is rather apparent. I recall once watching a documentary which discussed and portrayed archaic imagery of Perseus slaying Medusa shows the action being carried out, not by a sword, but rather a scythe, which scholars believe may have been a common weapon in the archaic period. The similarity between the bull-goad (as seen in the picture to the left)and a common spear is also quite noteworthy.
The question then becomes that if Ares, as the Orphic hymns notes, is a god associated with agricultural tools and is also petitioned to bring peace and cease war, then how does this account for poetic descriptions of Ares as the most loathsome of gods. I would say that this has more to do with his domain. The brutal savagery that is part of life comes in the strife and battles that we engage in. Growth is a messy, violent affair typically, as is spiritual growth. More than one person has spoken of confronting their own private demons to resolve their problems and grow as a person. Struggle is a part of mortal life, it is not pretty but it is necessary regardless if one is a man or a woman. In such messy struggles it is helpful to have a god who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty so to speak…who gets right in with the muck and mess of mortal struggles, and takes pleasure in doing so. Perhaps his rather robust pleasure in battles may shock tender sensibilities, especially of those who wish to ignore this elemental part of nature. Life is as much pain and struggle as it is the good moments that you keep to your heart like precious jewels. In a manner he is part of the very primal principles of life. The contests over territory and potential mates that can turn even good friends into bitter opponents. Granted such natural displays of violence and aggression seldom lead to death, but it is there at the root of Ares in the cosmos. He is the conflict of energies that encourages life, just as much as he is beside us in every battle we undergo. And he favors none over another, but rather just fights on all sides for his purpose.
It is perhaps his lack of loyalty to “sides” that makes him loathsome, for even the Thebans in Seven Against Thebes bemoaned Ares, acknowledging him as a most horrific deity, who had deserted his children, his city, to bring down their walls. This nature of Ares may be loathsome to mankind, and a good reason why in some areas, such as at Sparta, Ares was shackled to keep him there with the city (much in the same way as other city states shackled gods such as Victory). Yet for him to be loathsome to the gods as per Homer, I suspect has less to do with his changeability in battle, and more to do with his association with the seedy underbelly that makes up all manner of strife and battles. The gods themselves, are more or less above such things. There are few great battles among the gods. One is the War of the Titans in which Kronos was overthrown, and another was the War of the Giants. Both cases seem to have more to do with cosmic order and preservation of such. And then there is the war of the gods in the Iliad, a short-lived war as the gods took the sides of their favored (the Greeks or the Trojans) or whatever side they were designated to. That the gods did not typical engage in battles between each other, and such would have been seen as beneath them we can hazard from the conversation between Poseidon and Apollon, as the latter god deigns to not strike his uncle for the sake of mortal conflict (although he is not adverse in leading the Trojans against the Greeks at Zeus’ bidding, playing his part in the mortal drama). As such it often seems that warfare is more of a spectator’s sport among the gods in which they may temporarily step in to give some counsel to one they favor, but are otherwise unengaged directly in battle…with the exception of Ares. While Athena is darting in with prudent counsel, Ares is up to his armpits in the muck, ever present in the rush of endorphins that give rise to the flight or fight instincts. He is up close and personal with our struggles and battles in a very unique way. What he does is not pretty, not desirable, and not loved, but it is necessary.
His presence can therefore be a positive thing for a feminist as much as anyone else. He gives us strength, and is our champion in our battles (even if he is not so much a knight in shining armor, rather said armor is a bit rusty, dinged and gore-stained…but that is reality, shining armor is armor than never did anything). He is present whenever a woman finds the strength to defend herself, or loved ones, against great odds against an attacker of greater strength. He is there when we learn how we can effectively protect ourselves from an assailant and potential rape and abuse. He is there when we rally together to wage battle for the common good. He is there when we fight our internal battles, just as he is there in our public battles. He is a loathsome god because it is necessary for him to be so, to do what he does. But this does not make him an unfeeling god, nor does it make him a bully. He is a father god with the weight of mortal life in all its unpleasantness and ugliness all around him….and he cares for and protects us through it all, even if sometimes he stands against us to force us to grow, even if he must be the master that cuts his pupil down to make him stronger.
Those who worship Ares are not out of their mind as the author of the aforementioned article says. Rather we worship Ares out of acknowledgement of his necessity in life, in the cosmos, and in thanks for the things that he does for us…even if we aren’t always appreciative at the time (after all as selfish creatures we are more inclined to avoid pain and discomfort even if it is necessary and beneficial to us…..and to seek out pleasure even if it gives no spiritual reward…for good and bad are often based on perception of how they impact us in terms of pain or pleasure). We are thankful to Ares and recognize the positive place he has in his domain.