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Goddesses of War

by Tala Bar

One of the astonishing phenomena in ancient mythology is the existence of goddesses of war, which contrasts with the absence of women from the actual scene of war. For hundreds or even thousands of years of wars between rival tribes, peoples and countries, women have been excluded from one of the central occupations of human beings; but the appearance of goddesses of war persisted as long as there were any goddesses left in any pagan pantheon all round the globe, from America to the Far East to the Near East and Europe.

It is my contention that on the whole, war goddesses were not concerned with any of the battles mentioned above, but with one that women did take an active part in, one that led to their creation. It is not an actual war between peoples, but the symbolic seasonal battle between two gods for the favors of the Goddess of Love, and for the right to leadership and power that her love would grant.

Such mythological war was conducted yearly between figures like Baal and Mot, Balder and Hodder, Osiris/Horus and Set in order to gain the favors of the respective goddesses Anath, Nana and Isis, as described in my article “The Fight for Love and Glory in Myth and Literature.” The goddess supervising this war would be none other than the Great Mother of Life and Death.

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Some war goddesses were considered warriors themselves; others were in charge of war or of some parts of it without taking an active part in it. Two nameless figures appear from ancient mythology as being in charge but not taking part in any war.

One we know from an old Amerindian story that tells how war trophies in the shape of scalps and mounted with eagle's feathers were placed in the hand of an old woman. She bore them about in a scalp-dance — naturally danced by men — while derogatory epithets were uttered against the tribe from which these had been taken.

The “old woman” seems to be in charge of the war dance, and by implication, symbolically in charge of the war itself. It may be understood that the person in charge of the war would be in charge of the life and death of the men who are going to face battle.

The second case is that of a “Dark Girl” who had the body of a bird (thus making her a heavenly being) appearing in Chinese mythology. She taught the art of war to the Yellow Emperor of the Middle Heaven — one of China’s most esteemed ancient divine figures. Significantly that same woman also taught the Yellow Emperor the art of love, and helped overcome his enemy the Green Buffalo by pouring water on the fire it had created.

Both water and fire belong to the fertility scheme of things; the “Dark Girl” is thus seen as being in charge not only of the Emperor’s ability in battle but also of the personal rivalry between him and the Green Buffalo. The latter idea gets us back to the seasonal war theory mentioned above.

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Unlike the two nameless figures mentioned above, which seems to be remnants of ancient, long-forgotten rituals and myths, many traditional war goddesses are still well known from old myths of European, Middle Eastern, Far Eastern and American cultures.

One such famous war goddess is the Greek Athena, without whose help great warriors such as Odysseus would have hardly considered undertaking the adventures they did. Athena, though, was primarily the Goddess of Wisdom who, like her Chinese counterpart, taught the art of war but did not take part in bloodshed. She was also in charge of wisdom and ethics, the order of civilization, justice and fertility. One can definitely see her as a very versatile figure, in whom war was only one of many important functions.

A Great Mother goddess of war is also the Hindu Kali, known both for her cruelty and for her motherly care for all creation. Kali is sometimes considered an aspect of another Hindu war goddess, Durga, about whom the following story is told on the site ‘Goddesses of War’:

Durga, a fierce warrior, was born during a lengthy battle between the Hindu gods and an army of demons. In desperation, the gods gathered together and breathed in unison. A ferocious fire blazed forth from their mouths, out of which Durga was born — a fully grown warrior, ready to fight.

The gods quickly gave her a lion (or, some say, a tiger), to mount, and a weapon for each of her ten hands. Durga advanced toward the demons — one of them in the form of a buffalo, which is reminiscent of the Chinese story cited above. As her arms flashed with their weapons, within moments she had slaughtered all the demons.

On a site dedicated to her particularly, Durga is said to represent the power of the Supreme Being Shiva, to whom she was married, who preserves moral order and righteousness in creation. She is called “Divine Mother”, and one of her epithets is Maha, which means “Great” or “Terrific.” She had three divine children, two sons and a daughter.

It seems obvious that both Athena and Durga, springing forth with full armor ready for battle out of the effort of male divinities, were created by patriarchal societies. However, their respective characters present them as much more ancient female figures who had adapted masculine ideas of women’s loyalties. Both goddesses, besides being in charge of war, kept the main function of both fertility and wisdom belonging to ancient female divinities.

Another war goddess who was a Great Mother is the Babylonian Ishtar. Like the other two, she was given a “father” from among the gods. Ishtar was known from Canaanite myths as Atherath, or Ashera, Mother of the Gods, and she was also connected with the Sun through her title “The Lightbringer” as well as being a “goddess of fertility, love and war.” She was considered the most important goddess of the Near East and Western Asia. Like Durga she rode a lion, and in the figure of Atherath she was married to the Chief god, El. She had two divine sons, Baal and Mot, and a divine daughter, the goddess Anath.

Anath, whose name may have been an anagram of the names of the goddesses Athena and Neith, was the most prominent goddess in charge of the seasonal war in the Middle East.

She was deeply involved in the fertility cult of Baal (“Master”) and his twin brother Mot (“Death”) as their both sister and lover, for whose love and power they fought endlessly. Their endless seasonal battles took part twice a year, springtime and autumn, when there exists till today the eternal change of seasons between rainy and green, sunny and lifeless.

Anath not only supervised this war but was happy to take active part in it as a known warrior, as she is described in the Canaanite poem of the 14th century BCE from Ras Shamra (the ancient site of the town of Ugarith), on the northeastern coast of the Mediterrenean:

Anath’s soul was exuberant, As she plunged knee-deep in the soldiers’ blood, Up to her thighs in the warriors’ gore ... (Coogan 1978:91).

In this poem she is called The Queen of Heaven, which makes her, though only a daughter of the Mother Goddess, overlap in title and function with Ishtar, the main Middle Eastern goddess of war and fertility. It may be noted that in her involvement with the battle between Baal and Mot, Anath is helped by the Canaanite Sun goddess.

Sun goddess is one title of the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet, who is in charge of war, retribution and disease as well as the cure of diseases.

The Egyptian sun, like the Canaanite one in summer, is known for its harshness and cruelty. On the other hand, the sun is an important component of the idea of fertility.

A counterpart to Sekhmet is the North African Neith, who, besides being a war goddess, was also in charge of creation and of water. Water parallels the sun as a factor of fertility: creation in Egypt is particularly connected with the emerging of the land from the flooding of the Nile in spring — that river is the only source of fertility in that country.

Thus the two Egyptian goddesses of war form the two aspects of one deity of fertility: the harshness and deathlike Sun goddess and the comforting, life-giving water goddess. Here we find again the connection between war and fertility, which would be hard to explain except on the grounds of seasonal war.

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War goddesses who are also Great Mothers in charge of Fertility appear not only in the East but also in Northern Europe. One of these is the Irish Morrigan, whose name means Great Queen. But at a website called by her name, Danielle Ni Dhighe says that “The Morrigan is a goddess of battle, strife, and fertility. Her name translates as ‘Phantom Queen’.”

She is actually a triple goddess, made up of the three figures of Nemain, Macha, and Badb, sometimes called in the plural, The Morrigna, but she can also stand on her own as an individual. The Morrigna appeared as crows, ravens, vultures, and wolves, standing for war, battle, fighting, strife, panic, frenzy, blood, gore, and death, together with victory.

Some aspects of the Morrigna also saw the future and announced great victories with poetry. All together, the Morrigan presented a dark but powerful image. The Morrigan’s particular feature of both vicious war and fertility appears also in one of her aspects, Macha.

The Morrigan is compared to the Norse war goddess in the form of the Valkyries by using magic in order to choose which of the warriors would die in battle. She is said to have had a love affair with the hero Cuchulainn, making her also a parallel to the Middle Eastern goddesses of war and love, Ishtar and Anath.

A close similarity exists in many areas between the Irish Morrigan and the Norse goddess Freya, who was also said to have been “a leader of the warrior Valkyries... riding a winged horse while taking the souls of dead warriors to Valhalla.”

Freya, (who may also interchange with Freyja or Frigg), was said to be “the goddess of love, beauty, fertility, healing, and magic. Some of her possessions connect her with the Sun, e.g. her golden chariot and winged horse, like those of the Greek Sun god Helios, and a cloak made of falcon feathers — the Egyptian Sun god Horus appeared in the form of a falcon.

The connection between the Sun and war, as has been shown in the characters of the Egyptian Sekhmet, the Babylonian Ishtar, and the Norse Freya, appears also in the Irish/Celtic goddess Brighid/Brigit, whose name means “bright.” Like the Greek Athena, she was also the patroness of wisdom connected with the Underworld, including the crafts, medicine and poetic inspiration. She “favored the use of spear or arrow” and was known as the goddess of healers, poets, smiths, childbirth, fire and hearth, and a patron of warfare.

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Looking at the list of twenty-seven war goddesses given below, it may be noted that only six of them are connected with war alone. The best known of these is the Roman goddess Bellona (from the word belli — “war” in Latin — or perhaps, vice versa...). Bellona was a counterpart of the Greek goddess Enyo, whose name means “horror.” She is said to have been a mate of the war god Mars, but also one of the Graeae (“the Gray ones”), who were said to be “a triple goddess of war and wasters of cities.”

Bellona usually carried a spear and “appeared covered in blood with a striking attitude of violence.” However, Bellona’s festival was celebrated in June, very close to Midsummer and the time of the seasonal war between the two male figures who represented the life and death of the year. The connection may be tenuous, but it may exist, nonetheless.

Beside those war goddesses in the list who are considered Mother goddesses, many of them are connected with Fertility in one way or another, either in the overall sense, like the Gallic Andarta or Latin Vacuna, or else in some particular aspect of Fertility, like the Aztec Cihuateteo (childbirth), Chaldean Eshara (productive fields), or Tamil Korrawi (the jungle). Others are associated with the Underworld with its various aspects of wisdom and judgment.

Surprisingly, some of the war gods from the list below are also connected with fertility: the Roman Mars, for one, as well as the Celtic Lugh. Others are significantly associated with either fire (the sun) or storms (rain), which are important factors in fertility. The Armenian Aray is actually himself the god who dies and is resurrected in the manner of the best known gods of fertility, while the Germanic Tyr is said to be a god of justice, as the Hindu Durga is.

Durga’s festival is celebrated in the autumn, in the months corresponding to September/October; and the Wikipedia comments that “The worship of Durga in the autumn is the year’s most major festival in East India.” These autumn months are when the monsoon’s torrential rains hit India. These rains are both punishing in their destructive force and the killing of many people and beneficial by being India’s main source of fertility.

Taking Durga as an example of an all-around war goddess, it has been said that she “protects mankind from evil and misery by destroying evil forces such as selfishness, jealousy, prejudice, hatred, anger, and ego.”; At another website it is said that she “symbolizes triumph over evil.” But the idea of evil has no place in the pagan, natural scheme of things; it is an artificial idea, that fits more into the late Hindu religion of ideas than into the natural world, to which the Great Mother (as Durga is said to be) would belong. The Great Mother, as a ruler of the Underworld besides being the ruler of Earth and Heaven, is also a goddess of wisdom and judgment. On the whole, she is both beneficial and punishing, as any good mother should be.

Thus, inspite of being said to be created by a set of male gods, the war goddess in the shape of the Great Mother Durga is in charge of the war that keeps the balance in the world between good and bad, light and darkness, life and death. In sum, she is first and foremost a Goddess of Fertility.

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List of war goddesses:

List of war gods:

Copyright © 2006 by Tala Bar

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