I saw an article this week, which I won’t link to, that described the Norse god Thor yet again as a warrior god. Thor does engage in warfare with the giants in the sagas, but I want to go beneath the patriarchal overlay and discuss what this god is really about and how he gets the hammer that he wields in legends of warfare.
Thor is a woodpecker deity. That’s how he got his red hair. His hammer came from drilling into trees. The sound of this drilling is his “thunder,” another of his attributes.
It makes sense that the woodpecker god would be associated with the spear, as Mars undoubtedly is, on account of his sharp beak. But spears are not exclusively instruments of war—more commonly, they have been used for hunting large animals. The affinity between Mars and battle speaks more of the high regard the Romans had for this deity combined with their positive view of warfare. Ever-increasing territorial expansion was the source of Roman opulence as well as, ultimately, the seeds of the Empire’s destruction. In the same vein, the Greeks, who saw war as an instrument of economic collapse, assigned warfare as the purview of a Thracian deity, Ares, whom they wished to malign. That Mars was not exclusively seen as a warrior deity even at the height of the Roman Empire is illustrated by the British and Continental Celtic gods who were syncretized with Mars, often more closely associated with grain or healing than with war.
I will add that the first planters did not use a plow but a sharpened stick like a spear. A tiny hole was dug with the stick and the seed was placed in the hole. This mimicked the motion of the Green Woodpecker, who often hunts for ants on the ground by digging his beak in the soil.
People tend to take their gods into battle with them. That’s why we have so many “warrior deities.” We need to look critically at the warrior god/goddess phenomenon and not accept it unthinkingly.
Her name sounds like “January,” and this Celtic goddess may well have been syncretized with the Roman god Janus after whom the month is named. Her shrine was located near Beire-le-Chatel in Burgundy, France.Richard Stillwell notes that the sanctuary’s “Walls were razed,” which is another way of saying that the Christians were particularly thorough in their destruction of this temple complex. From the multiple pieces of statues among the rubble, it looks like many deities were worshiped, and that the walls were erected to partition outdoor shrines.There are two intact inscriptions, one to Ianauria and another to the Matrones. Ianauria’s dedication depicts a curly-haired child playing the pipes. Votive offerings to a Celtic equivalent of the Roman god Mars were often statues of children holding doves. The Celtic Mars deity is unrelated to the martial aspect of Roman Mars, and could possibly be related to Mars as a nurturing bird deity. See my earlier article on Mars as the Roman woodpecker god.There were at least four large doves at the Beire-le-Chatel complex. The Celts, like the people in the pre-Indo-European cultures they assimilated, were primarily animal worshipers, with anthropomorphism of animal deities a by-product of Greco-Roman influence. Continental Celts probably worshiped a dove deity that became romanized as Mars or a feminine version of Janus. Since Turtledoves are usually conceptualized in pairs, it’s interesting that the god Mars is the father of twins and Janus has two faces. Note from the video below that the simple turr turr turr of the Turtledove would be easy to replicate on even a primitive flute.SourcesGreen, Miranda. Animals in Celtic Life and Myth. London: Routledge, 1992.Stillwell, Richard. The Princeton Encylopedia of Classical Sites. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976. Accessed at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0006:entry=beire-le-chatel
While there are many longstanding Pagan holidays observed in the beginning of February, the Christian holiday of Candlemas grew out of a specific Roman Pagan observance. February was an important festival month on the Roman calendar and thus began with a purification ceremony known as Juno Februa, Juno the Purifier. The most prominent of the Roman matriarchal deities, Juno is essentially the goddess of essence itself. She is thought of as a moon goddess, since her worship originally revolved around the lunar cycle, but this only partially explains her. She is the state of Being, illustrated by the waxing white moon appearing out of the black void. The Romans saw not only plants, animals, and inanimate objects such as rocks or mountains as having spirit, but core truths or principles as well. Thus the month of vital ceremonies required not simply purification practices, but the calling up of the essence of purification herself. Some say Juno Februa occurred at the second full moon following the winter solstice before Rome adopted a solar calendar, but by the start of the common era the date of the festival was fixed at forty days past the (also static) December 25th date of the winter soltice festivities.Under Christian rule, Juno Februa became a celebration of the purification of the Virgin Mary following the birth of Jesus. The mass was celebrated with a procession involving a great many candles like the earlier Roman holiday. Mary took on not only the ritual date and its association with purification, but Juno’s white lily. The lily became a symbol of Mary’s renewed purity. The goddess Juno, though like Mary also a mother, needed no such purification because the idea of pollution in childbirth was foreign to her cult. She came to bestow purification, not to partake of it, and would give birth a full month later to her own son, the god Mars. The birth of Mars was also a virgin birth: Juno conceived him through the fragrance of the white lily, the white lily being a form of Juno herself. In other words, Juno impregnated herself and her white lily symbolizes self generation.Some attribute the instigation of Candlemas to Pope Gelasius I in the fifth century, but it appears that he was railing against the climactic February festival of Lupercalia, which eventually became St. Valentine’s day. Gelasius may have been successful at driving Lupercalia underground, where it began its own long transformation, but people continued to openly celebrate the Juno rite. In 684 Pope Sergius I officially instituted the mass of the Purification of the Virgin Mary at February 2nd on the church calendar. From the start many theologians protested the event, arguing that Mary would have needed no purification since she was impregnated not through sexual intercourse but by the Holy Spirit. Within the logic of Christianity they were right, but as time wore on the church had conflicts at Candlemas not only with remnants of the Roman pagan cult but with propitiation to weather deities and and fire goddesses elsewhere. The tension between theological purists and synergistic forces was eventually satisfied by fixing the time of the presentation of Jesus at the temple, which is referenced in scripture, at forty days following his birth, or February 2nd. The focus on Mary on this day remained popular with the masses, however, so the celebration of the purification of the Virgin, while declining in emphasis, never totally went away.Today among witches and many other Pagans February 2nd is a time for vows and initiations. There are many reasons for this having to do with Celtic and Germanic beliefs, but the Roman observation of Juno Februa also fits nicely with this understanding of the holy day. During this time of commitment intentions need to be unassailable, informed by the essence of purity Herself.SourcesDurdin-Robertson, Lawrence. The Year of the Goddess: A Perpetual Calender of Festivals. Wellborough, UK: Aquarian Press, 1990.Hazlitt, William Carew and John Brand. Faiths and folklore of the British Isles. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1905. http://books.google.com/books/about/Faiths_and_folklore_of_the_British_Isles.html?id=JDXYAAAAMAAJMonaghan, Patricia. The Book of Goddesses and Heroines. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1990.Perowne, Stewart. Roman Mythology. London: Paul Hamlin, 1969.Walsh, William Shepard. Curiosities of Popular Customs and of Rites, Ceremonies, Observances. 1898. Detroit: Gale Research Company. 1966 Reprint. http://books.google.com/books?id=VKwYAAAAIAAJ&dq=Candlemas+Pope+Innocent+XII&source=gbs_navlinks_sWalker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988.
How much do you know about the winged companions of the Goddess? If you’ve been following this blog for awhile you’ll recognize many of these. Match the bird in the left column with the European or Middle Eastern goddess (or god) she is frequently associated with.
One of the most startling experiences for people new to the Sonora Desert is the loud metallic rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat that rattles the early mornings. It sounds like a machine gun. It’s made by Mars, the god of war, in his woodpecker form.When I first moved to the desert, the earliest thought that would enter my drowsy morning brain was, “Those stupid woodpeckers. They don’t know the difference between a tree and a heating vent.” But when you decide people or animals are doing something because they’re stupid, it’s usually because you yourself are ignorant. Desert Gilded Woodpeckers love those aluminium roof vents because they make a loud noise. Mars is also the god of metal. And they’re not looking for battle; they’re showing off for the girls. Woodpeckers make noises to signal that they’re looking for a mate. Or they’re defining territory. Or they’re drumming for some other reason, but at any rate the whole purpose is to make the biggest racket possible. They think that’s really cool. In time the rattling becomes like the coyote chorus: one of those familiar comforting sounds of the desert.Mars was not, originally, the god of war. He was the father-god who brought bread to the divine Roman twins while their wolf-mother nursed them. Male woodpeckers do most of the work scraping out the family home, and they help incubate eggs and care for the young. A woodpecker god would naturally be the archetype for the nurturing male.Robert Graves agrees that Mars was not originally a war god, calling him a “Spring-Dionysus” figure. During the Greco-Roman era, Mars became conflated with the Greek Ares, who according to Graves was originally a Thracian god given the hateful “war god” moniker as a reflection of Athenian attitudes toward the Thracians. Classical Greeks had a more ambivalent attitude toward war than Romans of the early Common Era, viewing war as a threat to prosperity rather than a means of sustaining it.Properly speaking, no deity is a war deity, or else they all are. When people go to war, they invoke their protective deity to aid them in the battle, be it Athena or Mars or Andraste. I’ve seen pictures of rebels with the Virgin Mary painted on their rifle butts, and we certainly wouldn’t call her a warrior goddess. In glossaries a good three-quarters of the Celtic goddesses are identified as warrior goddesses, but this mostly reflects the understanding of the Romans, who focused their studies on the behavior of their Celtic adversaries in war.After Mars became conflated with Ares, he gained a great deal of prominence as a war deity in a culture that was by this time centered (and dependent) on military prowess. Still, Mars was also invoked as father and civic leader, reflecting an importance among the Latin tribes that long preceded Rome’s ascendance as a military power. That he was not necessarily seen as a war deity is reflected in the other gods he became conflated with, such as Mars Nodens (for the Celtic healing god Nodens) or Mars Silvanus (for the Roman–possibly Etruscan–god of the countryside).The modern strict association of Mars with war has affected how we view the planet Mars, the astrological sign of Aries (ruled by Mars), and even the beginning of spring. Michael Jordan says that March is named for the god Mars because of “its violent weather.” We do think of March as violent, but is it really, compared to say, November, when harsh weather begins, or February, when bitter cold can claim toes and noses? Was the March weather violent in Italy 3,000 years ago? When we think of Mars as woodpecker rather than warrior, the association with the first month of spring doesn’t take a lot of thought or empirical data. This is when woodpeckers are dating–and making a lot of racket in the process.We think of Aries people as combative, but are they really? Do people view Aries, and do Aries view themselves, as combative due to the warrior reputation of Mars? Comparing Aries to woodpeckers, would aggression be interpreted as defense of territory and protection of vulnerable dependents?We think of the planet Mars as bloody, because it’s red, but is Mars stained with bloodshed or red like the throat, head or wings of the various woodpecker species?Mars is now retrograde, a phenomenon that only happens every couple of years. For me, retrogrades are times when we review, reflect and re-examine things. Perhaps this is a good time to be rethinking Mars.SourcesRobert Graves. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin Books, 1960.Michael Jordan. Encyclopedia of Gods. New York: Facts on File, 1993.For another unconventional look at Aries, see my post from 2009 from Yellow Birch School.Why would anyone provide acoustic support for woodpeckers? The folks at this site have a blueprint if you’re interested.