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In reading both fiction and nonfiction materials over the years, involving Egyptian, Roman, Persian, Greek, and Jewish cultures, I have seen statements to the effect that the locals believed their war was won because the god of preference in the story was stronger and determined the outcome. Recently, I thought I could find a simple, concise statement by some scholar that the concept was ubiquitous in ancient cultures (and by some people, believed modernly). However, in researching the basic question, "did ancient people generally believe that the strongest god was instrumental in winning the war", it is a case of being unable to see the forest for the trees.

I have been surprised how difficult is to get a general statement, although the web is full of individual debates about the wars within specific pantheons, the belief systems and origins of various cultures, and the modern world of gaming describing the powers of the gods. There are thousands of links to Ares, Mars, Týr, Anann, Horus, Istar, etc. But a general statement about a widely held belief among the ancients to the effect that the wars' outcome was dependent on which god was stronger, has been elusive.

Thank you for your insight into the problem.

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  • I don't know of any concise formulations off the top of my head, but I have seen some summaries before. If you stick around, eventually I'll come across it again and let you know.
    – cmw
    Sep 22 at 2:52
  • Your best bet would actually be in introductory books on ancient religion and war, like the Cambridge Companions or something like that. I'll look through there. Incidentally, I just came across a similar incident involving Rameses II, where he was "saved" by Amun during the Battle of Qadesh. The saving moment? When Egyptian reinforcements showed up!
    – cmw
    Sep 22 at 2:53
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Is it a general rule?

I note that when the Romans were losing badly to Carthage, their reaction was not to think the Carthagian gods were stronger, but to investigate what they had done to offend their gods. After Canae, they consulted the Sibylline books, sacrificed four people to the gods, and sent a delegation to Delphi and its oracle. Indeed, one act taken during the war was to tamp down, hard, on superstitious practices because people were consulting means outside official control. This would point not to thinking the other gods stronger, but that their own gods were angry with them.

One also notes that they practiced the interpretatio romana, as the Greeks the interpretatio graeca, whereby they identified their gods with the nearest equivalent of the other culture's gods. Hence, a Roman writer said that Hannibal sacrificed a boy to Saturn. In this vein of thought, there were not different gods in question.

Even the practice of evocatio, a rite where you set out to lure a foreign god to Rome and strip a foreign city of its tutelary deity, points to their regarding the favor of the gods as the major element, not their relative power.

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  • One might also cite in this connection the ancient Hebrews, who passionately clung to the conviction that their god was the only real one and the ruler of the whole universe, even as their nation was getting batted around like a tennis ball among a whole series of more powerful empires. The solution was always to blame themselves or their leaders for offending Yahweh. Sep 19 at 10:48
  • Yet on the Carthaginian side, I'm sure they thought their gods were stronger. It might be more interesting to frame it with respect to what the victors thought, not the victi.
    – cmw
    Sep 22 at 2:50
  • What evidence did we have that the Carthaginians thought that, as opposed to having lost the gods' favor? Certainly we have Roman accounts of their panicking about having failed in offering proper sacrifice -- and we have no Carthaginian accounts, so that's the evidence we've got.
    – Mary
    Sep 22 at 2:53
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As @Mary already suggested, the outcome of the conflict would generally not imply a loss of faith in the gods by the losing party, but would initiate a search for why the particular deitie(s) were displeased with their followers. In reality, this of course points to the clergy of that deity scapegoating some likely offense to the deity in order to retain their worldly power over the people.

But I think it is safe to say that the alleged prowess of a deity is universally used as a means to get people into a mental state so that they would kill another human being. A deity would also be invoked or given as justification for battles. Some examples from different cultures and religions:

  • The Romans had several invocation battle cries, including Venus Victrix (Winner of Venus) and Mars Ultor (Avenger of Mars)
  • A common war cry used in India was "Vetrivel, Veeravel" (Victorious Vel, Courageous Vel). Vel is the holy spear of Murugan,the Hindu war deity.
  • Vikings invoked the name of Odin when entering battle.
  • During the crusades, European armies would utter the battle cry deus vult (it is God's will)
  • The takbir Allahu akbar was used historically as a battle cry during war.
  • Nobiscum Deus in Latin, Μεθ᾽ἡμων ὁ Θεός (Meth hēmon ho theos) in Ancient Greek, was a battle cry of the late Roman Empire and of the Eastern Roman Empire
  • German soldiers during WWII had "Gott mit uns" (God is with us) inscribed on their belts. The Nazis continued this long-held tradition that goes back to the Prussian era (ca. 1700). It was also commonly used by Sweden in most of its wars and especially as a war cry during the Thirty Years' War. The allies similarly claimed the same deity was on their side with battle cries as "for God, King and country"
  • The Japanese Japanese battle cry "Tennōheika Banzai" (天皇陛下万歳, meaning "Long live His Majesty the Emperor") originates in the 7th century and was used until the end of WWII. The emperor was considered a living god.
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  • Invoking divine protection does not mean that the gods are calling for the war.
    – Mary
    Sep 25 at 14:02

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