The identity of Mars in Roman culture shows a curious transition over the six or so centuries from its establishment as a regional power until its turbulent yet glorious Imperial era. Formed from a synthesis of native Latin, Etruscan, Sabine and Umbrian subcultures under a continuous stream of influence from their Greek and ‘barbarian’ neighbours it was a protean and ever-changing hotbed of innovation in both secular and religious matters. Its gods were therefore just as prone to change, and Mars makes an interesting case study:
Unlike the Greek god Ares, who tended to appear in myths (as befitted Greek warrior culture) as a dangerous quarrelsome outsider, Mars was treated more as an ancestral father-figure for the Romans. Livy (Ab Urbe Condita) recounted his role in Rome’s foundation-myth as father of Romulus and Remus by Rhea Silvia – a priestess of Vesta, identifiable with Vesta herself, otherwise cognate with the ancestral mother deity: Larunda, the Mater Larum. Indeed, Rome’s Etruscan forebears called their god of war Laran, which has similar connotations of the spirits of the departed, known as ‘Lares’. His consort was Turan whose entourage included the Lasas – another archaic name for Lares. Turan was also seemingly associated with birds – a common archetype for souls. She became identified in the Republican era with Venus – Mars’ complementary feminine aspect.
Mars’ agricultural aspect and his link to the ancestral spirits of the Etruscans and Romans is illustrated beautifully in the hymn of the priests known as the Arval Bretheren – the Carmen Arvale – preserved in a temple inscription, and invoking both Mars, the Lares and the fertilising spirits or Semones to bless the fields. The month of March (Martis – named after Mars) marked the sprouting of spring wheat and the beginning of the agricultural season as the weather warmed. Another Roman priesthood – the Salii – celebrated the rites of agricultural Mars, and had their origins back in the ancient Roman kingdom. They carried ancient shields called ancilia, which were kept in Mars’ temple. These were supposedly made by a legendary smith-armourer called Mamurius Veturius, possibly cognate with Mars in the Carmen Arvale under the name Marmor. The connection between the cthonic realm, food and metal seems obvious: the earth renders both. The annual re-forging of nature meant that it would not have been unusual for such a theological connection to have been made between smithcraft and the underworld.
Warfare and metal were likewise connected: War and death also. The annual death and rebirth of nature, and the fertility engendered in soil by dead matter (‘Putrefaction’) were likewise important parts of the same semantic field. In fact, the co-ordinated armies of people required for agricultural endeavours and the tendency for battle to be joined a campo in warfare added to this analogy. Rome and Etruria’s ancient wealth and power depended as much on agriculture as it did warfare, and Roman Mars expressed this idea.
Tied closely to Roman Mars’ semantic field-map are Janus, Mercury, Vulcan and Pluto. Pluto, because of the older connection to the cthonic otherworld and the Lares. Janus and Mercury because of the crossing of boundaries between the worlds, and Vulcan because of the active fiery, reforging aspect of Mars as an agricultural deity.
Elsewhere in Europe where hunting and transhumance and nomadic pastoralism were principle modes of food-production, one might imagine that the ‘herdsman’ aspect of cthonic gods was to the fore, and this indeed proved to be the case. The ‘wild hunt’ of Wotan, Velnias, Volundr, Herla are cases where battle-gods or smith-gods fulfill such roles. Thor was a battler-deity favoured for agricultural protection, as was Hercules.
The Greco-Roman mythological character who was the bestower of wealth was the ‘divine child’ Ploutos/Plutus, an aspect of Plouton/Pluto (related to the Roman gods Dis Pater and Orcus)who was at the heart of the Eleusinian Mysteries, and seems to have had a certain similarity to Cthonic Mars. Plutus was the child of Demeter and the Hero, Iasion, who made love to the goddess in a ‘thrice ploughed field’. The birth of Plutus might therefore have a parallel to the birth of the Etruscans’ ‘divine child’ Tages, who emerged from a ploughed field and gave knowledge of Augury and Haruspicy to the people. Knowledge of Sorcery or any form of Augury was to be found in the province of the dead… Mercury/Hermes was the ‘psychopomp’ responsible for conducting souls to this realm, as well as being the god of trade and pecuniary increase – the gift of Plutus transmitted in his hands back to this world from the Otherworld! Janus was also identified with the archaic member of the first Capitoline Triad, the Sabine god Quirinus, who was sometimes identified as a deified form of Mars’ divine son, Romulus. He ‘stood’ over the gates between the Otherworld and this world, and presumably allowed the two-way interaction between the spirit and elemental worlds to occur. Mars himself was therefore a conduit of masculine vital force from the spirit world which influenced the mundane world in a positive way. He was a keystone for the functions of a number of other gods, and was therefore one of the most important of Roman deities, and was venerated (under this wider identity) more than any other in the Romanised Celtic world…