Ares and Gender

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…

11 comments on “Ares and Gender

  1. I enjoyed this article very much. As someone coming from a military family, who works quite a bit with warrior ‘medicine,’ and certainly as someone who serves a war God, this was most enlightening. Thank you!

    • pthelms says:

      You’re welcome. I tried to be as PC with this post as I could– I don’t want my personal views to bleed to far into the information. That’s what it’s really about, the information. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Apollodorosh says:

    Maybe that all-male festival was also used for some homosexual bonding amongst the soldiers, so they’d be more valiant in battle to defend their lovers and impress them with their skills at warfare ;D

    And perhaps elements of these festivals can be used for a ritual before one is deployed for battle or some other duty the military now has 😉

    • pthelms says:

      That is also very true. I would think you can’t be focused on your soldier-lover if your wife/some random woman is standing over you nagging 😛

      “perhaps elements of these festivals can be used for a ritual before one is deployed for battle or some other duty the military now has”

      That certainly is the plan. While I will probably work a general blessing-type rite into the Lesser Aresia, I do want to create a smaller family/individual blessing for deploying soldiers, or a welcoming rite for new soldiers and a farewell for retirees/those leaving the military.

  3. Very well written, thank you. Honestly I’m not surprised Ares was more inclusive. When it comes to war, it doesn’t matter your gender. You’re gonna have to fight and die if it shows up.

    The closest God my Norse ancestors have to Ares is probably Freyja (at least judging by the relation to Mars and his nature). Many think it Tyr, but it is Freyja who is both Goddess of battle, passion, and aggression, as well as the fields and fertility. It it always fascinating to see how the War Gods of other people live and breath. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Very thoughtful post! And certainly the legendary daughters of Ares, the Amazons could be thought of to make similar war preparation festivities. I would wonder if perhaps the festivals of women feasting to Ares may have something to do with successful return of soldiers from their campaigns.
    That said, I do think that such inclusiveness is more widespread that what folks tend to give credit to. For instance Gymnapadiae, which is typically described as a festival in which men danced, it also translated by as a women’s festival, and certain descriptions indicate that there may have been simultaneous rites, not necessarily separate, of women and men celebrating.
    But I see this issue come up more in very specific cults…like that of Hercules in Religio Romana who had certain festivals in which women were not allowed to participate.
    However some assumptions have no historical basis, but rather on stereotypes associated with specific deities. There is a lot of assuming for instance that Artemis was all about femininity, and ignores the fact that other than at Brauron, both boys and girls participated in transitional festivals of Artemis, and this is particularly true of boys as Sparta. But there are a lot of women who like to view her as a male-exclusionary deity.

    With the exception of very few specific festivals (which are generally done for a very specific purpose as you have pointed out in the case of Ares) I can’t think of any worship that is notoriously for being gender-exclusive to be honest.

  5. […] post from Aspis of Ares has inspired me into further thought about this topic. Though I have refrained […]

  6. […] Helms sheds light on a sadly neglected topic, the worship of Ares by women: To my knowledge, while other gods may have local cults which excluded one or the other sex, only […]

  7. cehualli says:

    Loved this essay. It reminds me of something that struck me about the historical practices of the Aztecs (Mexica-Tenochca) regarding Huitzilopochtli, their war god. He’s specifically noted in the Florentine Codex as having a cadre of priestesses in His service, and it struck me years ago that His priestesses make up the lion’s share of references to female clergy in that massive encyclopedia.

    Outside of Huitzilopochtli’s specific cult, women or male priests in the guise of women show up repeatedly in key roles in rituals and festivals relating to war. In some case, both adult and juvenile females spur the males (grown men and youths just becoming men and getting ready for their first war expedition) on with jibes and insults to get them stirred up to fight, and in the festival of Ochpaniztli, which opened the war season, the goddess Cihuacoatl manifests through both a female vessel and then a male vessel in Her aspect as an instigator of war. The male priest, dressed in Her regalia, lead semi-mock (the records say there was enough tension and possibility for real violence that people were frightened and fled from his/Her presence) raids and attacks all throughout Tenochtitlan, before his/Her fellow warriors finally took the regalia and placed it on display at the edge of enemy territory in a Mesoamerican form of throwing down the gauntlet.

    Cihuacoatl pops up in a dual-gendered aspect in that the name was used as a title by the highest war advisor to the Aztec king, and all recorded officeholders were male, the most famous of which was Tlacaelel.

    There’s a whole lot more to the interesting and extensive twining of both genders in ceremonies and social roles relating to war among the imperial Aztecs, but I’ll cut it short there. Sorry for the bit of a brain dump, but your article just hit a bunch of neural connections at once and I had to share!


    PS: If you’re interested, I ran across a paper that discusses the gender-bending and female involvement in a lot of war-oriented thought and action among the Aztecs, and similarly the appearance of war themes in things traditionally thought of as feminine or women’s mysteries or work.

    “Birthing War” by Jeanne Gillespie at:

  8. morganarose says:

    Educational and enlightening as always. I love seeing information I’ve never seen before posted on your blog. Ares is in everyone not just men and I think you showed that brilliantly.

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