Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Fighting With Gods

Thor vs. the Fire Trolls, Howard David Johnson
War. What is it good for?

Well, it produces some rather entertaining gods. Ares very kindly volunteered to be the butt monkey for the entire Greek pantheon. Thor's tempers are quite literally the stuff of legend. Durga, created to defend the world from a rampaging demon, trounces Mahishasura in what had to be the best show ever seen on the face of the earth. Nothing draws the eye quite like a war god out to make a point.

The really militant cultures understandably put the most thought into their war gods. Ares might get trapped in a jug and run screaming from the plain of Troy, but he does also have Terror and Fear pulling his chariot. And his affair with Aphrodite points up the seductive appeal of war in a culture based on fighting. Eighteen-armed Durga also represents the force of compassion; joined with fierce fighting energy, her very existence makes a fascinating argument for humanity in warfare. The Mithras cult, a favorite of Roman soldiers, provided a forum for sworn brotherhood; the god's very name might come from the Sanskrit word mitra, meaning friendship. Hachiman isn't just an ancient Japanese war god, he's the patron and teacher of warriors, as well as the particular god of an entire clan. These aren't just creatures of bloodlust - they're complicated deities with lots of responsibilities, both in their stories and symbolically.

Inanna, Luis Royo
And that's not even getting into the war goddesses. The Mesopotamians, one of the most bloodthirsty ancient cultures out there, had Inanna, goddess of sex and war. (She saw no reason not to mix the two; mythical humans rejected her as a lover at risk of their lives.) Freya has been bastardized down to the goddess of beauty, but in her day she got first pick of the battlefield dead, to take to her own halls. Athena combines wisdom and warfare, much like Durga; Bastet's most familiar manifestation, as a cat, means that she's also one of the patron goddesses of the pharaohs. Even Aphrodite enters the fray when she's needed, and is quite capable of rescuing a son here and there.

In short, we're ambivalent about war. Even in cultures that glorify strife and battle, war gods come with a mitigating circumstance built into their worship. You can pray to Thor as a thunder god, not just as a death-dealer, and if it's glory you're after, you might be better off talking to Tyr or Odin anyway. Nobody is quite easy with letting a god represent only the savagery of the field.

Ares, j-art
And that savagery is there in spades. Ares never goes anywhere without the goddess of discord; all three aspects of the Morrigan are intimately identified with death and killing; Hathor, who represents beauty and music, gets so angry at one point that she turns into Sekhmet, the lion-headed war goddess, and goes so out of control that Ra has to trick her into thinking beer is blood. Thor, the main Norse war god, is not in charge of honor or victory, only of the act of war itself.

So what creates this very real concern with war? We're not afraid of glorifying it; if we were, we wouldn't be the kind of life form that creates war gods. It could just be a storyteller's reluctance to let a perfectly good god be one-use-only. It's easy to make the leap from thunder god to war god, from sexually voracious to aggressively combative. If Inanna stories are popular, why not expand her mythos?

It could also be the up-close nature of these cultures' relation to war.

The Battle on the Ice, Boris Olshansky
If we're still talking about an ancient culture, you can bet anything they had lots of personal encounters with war. (Their enemies - the ones we've forgotten about - might not have had so many war gods.) A Norse berserker, coming off the high of a battle frenzy while surrounded by corpses, might well draw a distinct line between war and honor. The path from doer to teacher is a perfectly logical one; since Hachiman started out as the patron of fishermen, it's not hard to see how he might have become a patient instructor rather than a battlefield threat. Wisdom and compassion are very desirable things to have tempering bloodlust, especially for people who saw little of either. (Let's not forget the Iliad's massive death lists, or the straight-up anti-war sentiments of Lysistrata and The Trojan Women.) And while you'd definitely want your war gods aggressive, you'd probably prefer that the protector of your king be rational Bastet, consort of levelheaded Anubis, rather than kill-crazy Sekhmet.

Humans know it's easy to lose control when emotions are running high. But we want our gods to be better than us. We want there to be a reason to need their help. It makes sense, for whatever reason, that we'd create war gods with other things on their minds. If they can maintain control, maybe they can show us how. If they could devote themselves to other aspects of life, maybe ancient worshippers who didn't like the people that they became in war could hold out hope that there was still a better side to themselves. Either way, it shows us that even in highly war-based cultures, people still wanted their gods to have something to fight for.


  1. The fairly generous gender split is fascinating.

    I think also that the war gods are so divided - that one god of war might also represent compassion, while another god presides over only one aspect of war - probably has to do with the fact that wars can go either way. Odin may or may not favor your army this day. To an individual foot soldier, a god of war must seem fickle, sometimes merciful, sometimes horrendous. It seems a logical conclusion that either more than one god is at work on the battlefield, or that one god has multiple motivations.

    either way, war is certainly a complicated human experience. It's never an individual thing but a national, cultural thing, with lots of people feeling and thinking a broad spectrum of things about any given fight. And always, when one side wins, another side loses.

    1. Oh, I love that. It makes total sense to have more than one war god operating on any given battlefield. I have nothing to add. You're brilliant.