Mars – God of War and…Agriculture?

One of the things that fascinates me the most about studying the ancient world is the vast array of gods and goddesses. They all played an important role in the day-to-day lives of ancient Greeks, Romans, Celts and others.

There were many deities associated with agriculture in ancient Rome, Ceres and Saturn, for example. Many gods and goddesses, major and minor, could affect crops, agricultural endeavours and the subsequent harvests.

When you hear the name of Mars, agriculture is not the first thing that comes to mind. When I think of the Roman god, Mars, I think of one thing.

WAR.

The Roman God of War was second to none other than Jupiter himself in the Roman Pantheon.

The Romans were a warlike people after all, and so Mars always figured prominently.

Octavian (later the Emperor Augustus) vowed to build a temple to Mars in 42 B.C. during the battle of Philippi in which he, Mark Antony and Lepidus finally defeated the murderers of Julius Caesar. When Augustus built his forum in 20 B.C. the Temple of Mars Ultor (the Avenger) was the centrepiece.

“On my own ground I built the temple of Mars Ultor and the Augustan Forum from the spoils of war.” (Res Gestae Divi Augusti)

Artist impression of temple of Mars Ultor (the ‘Avenger’)

People often think that Mars was the Roman name given to Ares, the Greek God of War, as was the case with many other gods in Roman religion. This is not exactly true.

In the Greek Pantheon, Ares was simply God of War, brutal, dangerous and unforgiving. To give oneself over to Ares was to give in to savagery and the animalistic side of war. Fear and Terror were his companions. Most Greeks preferred Athena as Goddess of War, Strategy and Wisdom.

Mars was a very different god from Ares. He was a uniquely Roman god. He was the father of the Roman people.

Mars was the God of War, true, but he was also a god of agriculture.

Just as he protected the Roman people in battle, so too did Mars guard their crops, their flocks, and their lands.

War and agriculture were closely linked in the Roman Republic. Most Romans who fought in the early legions were farmers who had set aside their plows and scythes to pick up their gladii and scuta when called upon to defend their lands. One of the most cited examples of this is Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (519 BC – 430 BC), one of the early Patrician heroes of Rome.

In his work De Agri Cultura, Marcus Porcius Cato (234 BC– 149 BC) speaks at length about the tradition of the suovetaurilia, a sacrifice that was made roughly every five years and occasionally at other times. This ceremony was a form of purification, a lustratio.

Relief of a Suovetaurilia ceremony

The highly sacred suovetaurilia was dedicated to Mars with the intent of blessing and purifying lands.

It involved the sacrifice of a pig, a sheep, and a bull – all to Mars.

The sacrifice was done after the animals were led around the land while asking the god to purify the farm and land.

Cato describes the prayer that is uttered to Mars once the sacrifices have been made:

Father Mars, I pray and beseech thee that thou be gracious and merciful to me, my house, and my household; to which intent I have bidden this suovetaurilia to be led around my land, my ground, my farm; that thou keep away, ward off, and remove sickness, seen and unseen, barrenness and destruction, ruin and unseasonable influence; and that thou permit my harvests, my grain, my vineyards, and my plantations to flourish and to come to good issue, preserve in health my shepherds and my flocks, and give good health and strength to me, my house, and my household. To this intent, to the intent of purifying my farm, my land, my ground, and of making an expiation, as I have said, deign to accept the offering of these suckling victims; Father Mars…

(Cato the Elder; De Agri Cultura)

Cato the Elder

This is not a prayer to the bloodthirsty god of war that Ares was.

The words and actions above evoke a wish from a child to a supreme father and protector. We see the fears that would have occupied the minds of the Roman people. No matter how mighty in war they may have been, if crops failed and disease spread, they would have been lost.

Romans prayed to Ceres and Saturn for the success of their crops, for abundance.

But the prayer above was to Mars, he who held Rome’s enemies, the enemies of its lands, at bay.

In war and in peace, Mars was always the guardian of his people.

Thank you for reading

If you want a clearer understanding of the suovetaurilia ceremony, and the meaning of this interesting Latin compound word, here is a very short presentation: https://youtu.be/pz1KiILdW2s

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Harvest Time – From Eleusis to Avalon

Wheat

The Autumn Equinox has come and gone, and a giant ‘Blood Moon’ made its round of the earth. From the photos I’ve seen, it was spectacular.

Harvest time is here.

However, in the city, it’s a bit difficult to feel a connection to harvest, our rural roots having been eclipsed long ago by fast, urban living.

In a small effort to reconnect with the earth and our western ancestors who were bound to it, I thought I’d mention a couple of traditions around what has been, for thousands of years, an extremely sacred time of year.

Of course, this is the time of year for Thanksgiving (earlier in Canada than in the USA) when we sit around the table en-famille and stuff ourselves like the turkeys that grace our tables. And wine, oh yes, and lots of it for the oenophiles among us.

blood moon

But where does all this come from? Not the pilgrims, I can tell you that.

Apart from this being the time of year when summer gives way to fall, when the length of days is equal to that of nights, this time of year is when crops were harvested and preparations made for the coming winter.

In ancient Greece it was the month of Beodromion and the festival Apollo, and the time for one of the most sacred rites: The Eleusinian Mysteries. The Mysteries were of course, in honour of the Goddess Demeter who was associated with crops, fertility, harvest and the protection of marriage. The Mysteries also honoured Persephone, Demeter’s daughter who would go to spend half the year in the Underworld with Hades. The time of harvest is associated with the death of agriculture and Persephone’s time away from her mother, the time Demeter would weep, wintertime.

Demetra (Elefsina museum)

The Goddess Demeter – Eleusina Museum

“Queenly Demeter, bringer of seasons and giver of
good gifts, what god of heaven or what mortal man has rapt away
Persephone and pierced with sorrow your dear heart?  For I heard
her voice, yet saw not with my eyes who it was.  But I tell you
truly and shortly all I know…

(from Hesiod’s Hymn to Demeter – Hecate to Demeter)

…But grief yet more terrible and savage came into the
heart of Demeter, and thereafter she was so angered with the
dark-clouded Son of Cronos that she avoided the gathering of the
gods and high Olympus, and went to the towns and rich fields of
men, disfiguring her form a long while.”

(from Hesiod’s Hymn to Demeter)

The cult of Demeter and Persephone existed for over one thousand years and Eleusis, one of the most sacred places of ancient Greece, was where the highly secretive ceremonies would take place in September and October. Sparse details about the ceremonies include bathing in the sea, sacrificing a piglet (not a turkey!), various sacred, secret objects, and a procession from Athens to Eleusis.

Symbols of the Harvest at Eleusis

Symbols of the Harvest at Eleusis

The site of Eleusis is itself an amazing archaeological site that is well worth the visit if ever you have the opportunity. Apart from the vast complex of temples, and other remains, you can see the cave where Persephone supposedly descended into the Underworld, a door to Hades’ realm. Facing the dark entrance is a well, known as the “Tears of Demeter”, thus named because of the goddess’ weeping in that spot. It’s a very moving place.

The 'Gate to Hades' at Eleusis

The ‘Gate to Hades’ at Eleusis

Let us not dwell too long in ancient Greece however, for our Celtic ancestors in Europe also revered this time of year. To the Celts, harvest time was also known as Alban Elfed (Welsh for ‘Light of Autumn’), and the Feast of Avalon (Feast of Apples) among other names.

apples

To the Celts, this was the time of year when the acorns fell from the sacred oaks and the last sheaf of wheat was cut by a young maiden. It was a time of reverence and thanks for the Earth’s bounty, a time to harvest once more, and to slaughter animals before the onset of winter. An offering of apples would often be placed on burials to symbolize rebirth, hence the Feast of Avalon, Avalon of course being the ‘land of apples’.

Harvest time, to the Celts, also preceded the sacred festival of Samhain which marked the end of the light of summer and the beginning of winter’s dark. Again, the cycle of light and dark, birth and death is an ever present arch-type, a cycle of which our ancestors were keenly aware and for which they had a deep respect.

The Isle of Avalon - Tor and flood (photo by Lynne Newton)

The Isle of Avalon – Tor and flood (photo by Lynne Newton)

So, as we sit to our laden tables this autumn, perhaps we should tip a bit of wine to the goddess who wept for her daughter’s departure into darkness, and for the end of light. When the harvest moon shines down on us in all its luminescence where we live in a world of concrete floors and steel girders, think of our forest and field-dwelling ancestors. They looked up at that same moon for ages from the dark circles of their sacred groves, and gave thanks for all they had.

Thank you for reading.

 

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