The Divine Woodpecker

Gilded Flicker

Gilded Flicker. Photo by Glenn Seplak.


One of the most startling experiences for people new to the Sonora Desert is the loud metallic rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat that rattles the early mornings. It sounds like a machine gun. It’s made by Mars, the god of war, in his woodpecker form.

When I first moved to the desert, the earliest thought that would enter my drowsy morning brain was, “Those stupid woodpeckers. They don’t know the difference between a tree and a heating vent.” But when you decide people or animals are doing something because they’re stupid, it’s usually because you yourself are ignorant. Desert Gilded Woodpeckers love those aluminium roof vents because they make a loud noise. Mars is also the god of metal. And they’re not looking for battle; they’re showing off for the girls. Woodpeckers make noises to signal that they’re looking for a mate. Or they’re defining territory. Or they’re drumming for some other reason, but at any rate the whole purpose is to make the biggest racket possible. They think that’s really cool. In time the rattling becomes like the coyote chorus: one of those familiar comforting sounds of the desert.

Mars was not, originally, the god of war. He was the father-god who brought bread to the divine Roman twins while their wolf-mother nursed them. Male woodpeckers do most of the work scraping out the family home, and they help incubate eggs and care for the young. A woodpecker god would naturally be the archetype for the nurturing male.

Robert Graves agrees that Mars was not originally a war god, calling him a “Spring-Dionysus” figure. During the Greco-Roman era, Mars became conflated with the Greek Ares, who according to Graves was originally a Thracian god given the hateful “war god” moniker as a reflection of Athenian attitudes toward the Thracians. Classical Greeks had a more ambivalent attitude toward war than Romans of the early Common Era, viewing war as a threat to prosperity rather than a means of sustaining it.

Properly speaking, no deity is a war deity, or else they all are. When people go to war, they invoke their protective deity to aid them in the battle, be it Athena or Mars or Andraste. I’ve seen pictures of rebels with the Virgin Mary painted on their rifle butts, and we certainly wouldn’t call her a warrior goddess. In glossaries a good three-quarters of the Celtic goddesses are identified as warrior goddesses, but this mostly reflects the understanding of the Romans, who focused their studies on the behavior of their Celtic adversaries in war.

After Mars became conflated with Ares, he gained a great deal of prominence as a war deity in a culture that was by this time centered (and dependent) on military prowess. Still, Mars was also invoked as father and civic leader, reflecting an importance among the Latin tribes that long preceded Rome’s ascendance as a military power. That he was not necessarily seen as a war deity is reflected in the other gods he became conflated with, such as Mars Nodens (for the Celtic healing god Nodens) or Mars Silvanus (for the Roman–possibly Etruscan–god of the countryside).

The modern strict association of Mars with war has affected how we view the planet Mars, the astrological sign of Aries (ruled by Mars), and even the beginning of spring. Michael Jordan says that March is named for the god Mars because of “its violent weather.” We do think of March as violent, but is it really, compared to say, November, when harsh weather begins, or February, when bitter cold can claim toes and noses? Was the March weather violent in Italy 3,000 years ago? When we think of Mars as woodpecker rather than warrior, the association with the first month of spring doesn’t take a lot of thought or empirical data. This is when woodpeckers are dating–and making a lot of racket in the process.

We think of Aries people as combative, but are they really? Do people view Aries, and do Aries view themselves, as combative due to the warrior reputation of Mars? Comparing Aries to woodpeckers, would aggression be interpreted as defense of territory and protection of vulnerable dependents?

We think of the planet Mars as bloody, because it’s red, but is Mars stained with bloodshed or red like the throat, head or wings of the various woodpecker species?

Mars is now retrograde, a phenomenon that only happens every couple of years. For me, retrogrades are times when we review, reflect and re-examine things. Perhaps this is a good time to be rethinking Mars.


Sources

Robert Graves. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin Books, 1960.
Michael Jordan. Encyclopedia of Gods. New York: Facts on File, 1993.


For another unconventional look at Aries, see my post from 2009 from Yellow Birch School.

Why would anyone provide acoustic support for woodpeckers? The folks at this site have a blueprint if you’re interested.

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