There certainly are an awful lot of deities connected with warfare within every major Pagan pantheon. I suppose part of the reason for this is that the deities reflect the lives of the people who worshipped them, and the pantheons that remained recorded in history were often those of the societies who were inclined to conqueror others and build empires – the combative, warlike ones, in other words.
Another important reason, and one that’s still highly relevant to religion today, is the link between state and religion within those societies. Unlike modern day neopaganism, Pagan religions of old were very much supported and utilised by the state. And, just as we see with religion today today, divine imagery was used to glorify war and battle, and to encourage young men to hurl themselves into danger and to kill others with the promise that the gods would be on their side (or, at least, an afterlife fit for a hero). Hence the proliferation of gods and goddesses related to war.
Actually, I see the evolution of war gods as a good example of what happens when folk religion is adapted by leaders and transformed into state religion, as many of the war gods did not start out as such. The most famous of all gods of war, Mars, was originally an agricultural deity. Odin’s association with wisdom and poetry probably came before his connection with battle. And in Shinto, the war god Hachiman, like Mars, started off life as a bringer of plentiful harvests and fish worshipped by peasants. I think that in all these cases, the military associations with these deities was given to them by generals and leaders to inspire a warrior spirit in their subjects.
So should we Pagans still honour these deities as gods of war? I have asked myself that question many times. For example, when I remembered the victims of warfare in my November Esbat ritual as a way of commemorating Remembrance Day, I wondered whether I should direct my prayers to one of the gods of war.
Eventually, I decided not to. I try to live as a pacifist, and so it seems wrong for me to pray to a deity that glorifies warfare. What’s more, I much prefer folk religion over state religion, and so I’d rather worship the deities as perceived by the common people in ancient times rather than those constructed by the state. I realise the two can be very difficult to separate, but I do what I can.
That’s not to say I do not venerate the gods with associations with warfare. I just chose to honour them for their other aspects. For example, my husband and I asked for the blessings of Mars during our handfasting, but in this case we were asking for his blessings of passion and energy rather than calling upon his belligerent aspects.
And as for honouring those who have died in combat and conflict, I find it far more fitting to pray to a deity of benevolent death, such as Thanatos, or a deity connected with peace, like Eirene or Freyr. In today’s world where (most of us at least) are striving for a peaceful and fair world for everyone, this seems much for suitable and constructive.