I’ve been fighting myself not to comment on the mess that is Pantheacon. On one hand, it’s a crapshoot of progressive versus conservative politics, which I attempt (and sometimes fail) to avoid on my blog. On the other, I just love conflict and am drawn to it like a moth to the flame. Though this post is related to the debacle, I mean debate, it does give me the opportunity to describe an interesting feature of Ares’ cults- the idea of gender-exclusive rites.
To my knowledge, while other gods may have local cults which excluded one or the other sex, only Ares had exclusive festivals for both sexes. This is interesting, because both sets of rites were intrinsically tied to battle. For many, including myself initially, it seems odd Ares is so… equal opportunity. If you really think about it though, strength, courage, and passion are needed by every person, regardless of gender or sex. So why then, would these festivals be limited to either one sex or the other.
Let’s start with the ladies’ cult, that of Ares Gynaikothoinas, or Ares, Feasted by Women. This cult originated in Tegea, in Arkadia, according to Pausanias. The Tegeans were at war with Lakonia (the Spartans) at the time, and when things started going south for the Tegean men, the women rose up themselves under the command of Marpessa Khoira. The women pushed back the Lakonians, then made a sacrifice to Ares, leaving their disappointing husbands out of the celebration. How to interpret this story is problematic in today’s world. The way I interpret the legend is that the men weren’t being manly enough (by losing), so the town’s women got the job done for them. By excluding the men from the sacrifice, the women were both celebrating the power of women and taunting the men for their lack of masculinity.
Mind you, this is the way I interpret the story based upon the knowledge of traditional gender roles in Greece at the time. Of course, times change, so reconstructing this festival commemorating the victory would probably be problematic in today’s social arena. Gender roles are shifting, and have become more laissez faire. There are more women in the workplace than men, now. A lot of men, and even women and families are struggling to identify with new, progressive norms. I’ve seen conservative women who believe in upholding their traditional gender roles berated as “traitors” to the feminist movement and only do so because they are being controlled by men. On the flip side, progressive men are berated for being stay-at-home dads and doing “women’s work”.
For the men, Pausanias describes the cult of the village of Geronthrai in Lakonia. Every year, the men there would hold a festival women were not allowed to attend. Though Pausanias doesn’t have anything more to say, Matthew Gonzales contends that this was probably a pre-campaign festival meant to bless those who would serve as soldiers and ask for a victorious season. He bases this assumption on other local cults, such as the cults in near-by Sparta, and archeological evidence dating back to the Mycenean age culture. That being said, war was men’s work, and women would therefore simply interfere. Of course, the notion of war being simply men’s work has changed, but this would have held true in ancient culture. In addition, if this was in fact a festival to prepare for the campaign season, it would have been important psychologically to remove the presence of the women folk in order to cast thoughts of doubt and fear from the mind of the husbands going off to war. Any military member can tell you the hardest part of deploying is saying goodbye, not knowing if you’ll come back in one piece.
Again, this festival would be problematic to reconstruct. First, it’s not just men who are soldiers these days; women serve beside them and are just as deserving, just as in need of a blessing before going into battle. Secondly, there is no delineated “campaign season” today. Any service member, of any gender, can be called up at a moment’s notice to deploy anywhere in the world, no matter the season. Also, soldiers don’t just respond to violence any more; natural disasters, guard duty, and humanitarian crises all warrant military response, called Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW). While blessing soldiers and asking for victory is important, annual festivals simply aren’t congruent with the concepts of a modern military force.
So while the gender debate about Pantheacon rages on, I hope you learned something about Ares’ gender-specific cults. Perhaps one day I can (with the help of some awesome ladies) come up with suitable rites to celebrate the themes of both these festivals in a way appropriate to our modern circumstances. Until that time, maybe we can move on without too many people taking themselves down in the fiery pit of gender politics and the unfortunate blending of politics, both progressive and conservative, into our religious rituals…