As a dedicated peacenik and staunch foe of militarism, which I consider one of the greatest curses of modern life, but also a Pagan, I have often pondered how the ancient European Pagan traditions had gods of both war and of peace. Obviously, then as well as now, war was sometimes an unavoidable necessity, and then as now, it had an economic dimension as well, in that "to the victors go the spoils," to which we might add modern-day reflections on the military industrial complex and how much profit and employment is wrapped up in the war biz. The greater the number of people who depend on the military-industrial complex for their employment, education, housing, health insurance etc., the harder it becomes to cut back any aspect of the military, as it has become an ever-expanding social welfare program for soldiers and their families as well as all the people who work in military-related industries.
In the Pagan religious traditions I am closest to, the Norse-Germanic Asatru/Heathen tradition and the Baltic-Lithuanian Romuva movement, I have seen that what often seems to attract a certain number of men to these religious movements dealing with the Pagan past is the opportunity to play and pose with swords and other medieval weapons and imagine themselves great warriors of the distant past. A lot of this is just testosterone bluster in honor of the Gods of War, but I worry about how this kind of thing may drown out an appreciation of the Gods of Peace.
I cannot help but relate this to modern American culture, with its endless images of war and violence that are drilled into our heads 24 hours a day. I do understand that boys will be boys, and that they often do love to play with war toys. I had my toy soldiers as a boy too, and enjoyed my share of make-believe combat. But I do worry at how this ties in with our modern, post-9/11 military occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, because it seems to me that in this last decade, war and the military have gained a sort of sacrosanct status, as something sacred that cannot be questioned but must only and always be obeyed. We are all pressured to "support the troops" rather than to THINK about what these wars are based upon and what they are actually achieving or not achieving.
I find the Gods of War a pretty scary lot. Even Odin, one of my favorite Pagan deities, is described as sometimes being untrustworthy in his aspect as a war god, giving victory to the undeserving and sacrificing his own followers on the battlefield for his own mysterious purposes, including drafting them into the elite force that will battle frost giants and fire demons in the final battle of Ragnarok, which, according to the Eddic poem "Voluspa," will plunge the whole world into fiery chaos, prior to an eventual regeneration of the cosmos after its total destruction. I think that for many in the Heathen or Asatru community, the mythology of Odin, Valhalla and Ragnarok is seen as a straightforward glorification of war and warriors. I see darker, more ambiguous meanings here. Odin's shiftiness on the field of battle seems a perfect metaphor for the horrible uncertainty of war; the destruction on both sides, never knowing who will live or die, and in the aftermath, the grieving for the dead and the wounds both psychological and physical, the broken limbs and shattered minds that even the victors will carry home from the battle, and the possibility of renewed war in the near or distant future as the losing side nurses grievances and dreams of vengeance. Not exactly a good time for all. Not the great fun of "The World of Warfare" video game.
And, Ragnarok is a failure, an absolute disaster for the gods. All the combined efforts of Odin and the other great gods like Thor and Freyr to protect the worlds of gods and of men are all in vain. Odin is swallowed by the great wolf Fenrir; Thor is slain by the Midgard Serpent. The other gods go down in defeat as well, and the fire-demon Surt runs wild, in what seems a medieval version of a nuclear holocaust. There are obviously different ways to interpret this, and my thoughts here are strictly my own. I read this as actually suggesting a weariness with war, a sense that war only leads to greater and greater destruction. Others may view this as prophesizing that some kind of all-destroying conflict (Israel versus Iran in the Middle East? India vs Pakistan? Yankees versus Red Sox? soccer versus football?) is inevitable, and that we should all sharpen our axes, shine our shields and prepare to go down fighting.
However, the peacenik in me finds other threads to follow in the Norse myths. When Odin gains mastery of the magical runes in the poem Havamal, one of the abilities he acquires is the ability to make peace. So he is not a 24/7, bloodthirsty war god who only knows how to rhyme "war" with "more." He knows the value of peace, when possible. There is also the tale of the battle between two families or tribes of divine beings, the Aesir (including Odin and Thor) and the Vanir (fertility gods all, sea-god Njord, brother and sister fertility deities Freyr and Freyja). It was the "first war in the world," and neither side could win. So they arranged a truce, exchanged prisoners, and Freyr and Freyja came to dwell among the Aesir. This truce, unlike the apocalyptic battle of Ragnarok, was a success. Peace worked, at least in this case.
Elsewhere in the mythology, a minor episode that I also find significant is that Freyr, in the course of wooing a maiden of interest, gives away his sword, and when the battle of Ragarok comes, he is without a proper weapon, and has to make do with the horn of a stag; we might jokingly say, Freyr has to "go stag" at the worst possible moment. He gave up his weapon for love. Now, this didn't end so well for Freyr, so it is not necessarily an argument that this was the best move to have made, but I find it expressive of Freyr's primary nature as a fertility god, who was often worshipped in the form of a giant phallus. He seems to have been a "make love not war" kind of god.
Therefore, I think that a cogent case can be made that the Norse tradition is not wholeheartedly pro-war or pro-military. There are also anti-military, pro-peace dimensions that deserve contemplation. Stepping back to our modern society, I think that pro-peace voices need to be bolder and louder. For too long now, the worship of the war god has dominated our political discourse. To be anti-war is seen as wimpy, traitorous, un-American. On the conservative side of politics, there is the strange, ironic coincidence of "pro-life" and pro-war points of view. I think that being truly pro-life should extend to opposing war, or at least being very cautious and reserved about the hellish mass murder that war is, and not celebrating it as if it were a big happy football game for the whole family to watch and cheer. In the Pagan world, I would personally like to join forces with other Pagans who feel that their spirituality calls them to promote peace and denounce war. I will stand with you. There was once a "Pagans for Peace" organization in the late 1990s, but I don't think it survived the Bush years. Perhaps it is time to try again?