Monday, 3 March 2014


Ares, handsome and cruel, often depicted carrying a bloodstained spear or sitting upon a throne in Olympos that was covered in the skin of men he had slain in battle was the god of war, raw masculinity and warlike frenzy.   Though counted among the ruling council of the gods, he had a very poor reputation among the Olympians and the ancient Greeks. Worshiped in places such as Sparta and Thrake, Thessalia and Thesprotia, he was hated by many of the city-states because of the blood lust and slaughter that he brought to mankind as he rode upon his chariot accompanied by Eris the goddess of discord and Enyo, goddess of slaughter

Ares is the son of Hera and Zeus (though in some myths he is called the child of Hera only, much as Hephaistos was).  Ares was a warrior and was filled with aggression and unbridled passion from the moment of his birth.  Very soon after his birth, before he learned to wield weapons and to fight, Ares is said to have learned to dance.  The dances of adolescent males in ancient Greece were militant choreographies similar to tai chi and martial arts katas and were the preliminary teachings of any warrior. 

Unlike Athene who represented the more orderly aspects of military life - forethought, planning, chivalry and heroics – Ares is the survival instinct, raw and brutal, that gives us the ability to look at another human, acknowledge them as such and still, face to face, draw their blood and take their life.  Where Athene is war, Ares is battle; he is the god of the individual hero seeking glory while she of the soldier kept in line and following orders.  Before the introduction of trumpets, two priests of Ares, marching in front of the armies, hurled a torch at the foe as the signal of the beginning of combat and it was the dogs and vultures, his sacred animals whose presence truly declared the end of fighting with their wandering among the wounded and dead. 

Ares’ negative reputation was well deserved by both modern and ancient standards but he did embody positive qualities as well. Ares is the willingness to fight for freedom, to protect home and family even if the fight means certain death.  Ares is the survival instinct, the drive to survive no mater what stands in the way and the ability to stand against fear to do what is needed and what is right.

Ares was not invincible and on several occasions was bested by both gods and mortals.  During a skirmish as he was protecting Aineias before the walls of Troy he was wounded by the Greek warrior Diomedes, it is said that Ares’ scream of pain and fury was louder than the fighting of the thousands of men gathered before the gates; Ares had to be assisted off the field by Aphrodite.  Ares also received wounds at the hands of Athene and was defeated in one-on-one combat by his half-brother Herakles.  Another incident saw Ares captured by the Aloadai during the Gigantomachy – the way between giants and gods – and trapped for thirteen months in a great bronze jar.

Ares was the father of many children, mortal and divine.  Among his sons were Deimos (fear) and Phobos (terror); another, Kyknos was killed by Herakles and Ares was unable to avenge the death as Zeus would not permit his least favourite son to harm his most favourite.  Ares had many daughters as well, numbered among them are many of the queens of the Amazonian tribes, the warrior women living at the edges of Greek civilization. One daughter named Alkippe was raped by Halirrhothius the son of Poseidon.  This transgression was avenged and Ares killed the rapist and was charged in the first murder trial (of which he was acquitted) by the furious Poseidon upon a hill outside of Athens which became known after as the Areiopagos and was then on the sight of all murder trials, including the famous trial of Orestes. 

The most renowned of his children however were those born to Aphrodite the goddess of love.   Love and war seem a natural pairing, both driven by passion and desire and both 
With the potential to bring freedom or pain and death but Aphrodite was the wife of Hephaistos (thus joining fertility with tool making) before she became in myth the lover of Ares (joining fertility and the seizing of people and goods).  From their union was produced Eros, the god of desire with the gift to kindle love-at-first-sight or eternal hatred with a strike of his arrow and Harmonia - goddess of harmony, Queen of Thebes and grandmother of Dionusos. 

Ares was equated with the god Mars in the Roman world and was considered one of their primary deities.  Mars, father of Romulus and Remus the founders of Rome,  retained much of his militaristic aspects but was much more respected and loved than Ares by the Greeks.  Mars was considered an agricultural deity; this makes sense when one looks at the effects of battle upon the harvest, the death and blood and decay of war feeds the land and brings forth an abundance of crops.  Life comes from death.

Ares also has ties to the early Mykenean cultures that inhabited the Mediterranean.  On Krete and at places like Pylos there are inscriptions in Linear B to a god named Enyalios, which remained an epithet of Ares even into classical times.  He may also be present as the name Ar-e and A-re-ja, the later possibly referring to a female Ares; perhaps even the forerunner of Eris?

Today I honour Ares at sights of death and devastation that have seen men and women die for the cause of freedom and peace.  For me, Ares’ temples are the tombs of the unknown soldiers, war memorials and battlefields.  Poppies worn in November as reminders of those who have followed his call.  And I see in him the lesson that hate, anger, lust and those feelings often called ‘negative’ can, with strength and will, be harnessed to great ends.

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