Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
In the Ancient World, the most powerful forces that shaped human destiny were personified by polytheistic religions in the form of Gods. In this way, the ancients believed that they could influence impersonal forces and powers. One of these was war. In the past, conflict was a constant fact of everyday life, and peace was rare. This is what made the Greek God of War, Ares, so influential in mythology and religion.
The origin of the myth of Ares
Ares was the son of Zeus and Hera, was regarded as one of the Twelve Olympians, and was one of the major deities of the Greek world. The etymology of the name Ares means curse or ruin. Unlike many other religions, such as Roman mythology, the Greeks did not worship war. They were very ambivalent about the God who personified for them the power and bravery needed for victory in war. For the Greeks, he represented the worse in war and conflict.
Ares was worshipped, it appears, by the Mycenaean Greeks from at least 1200 BC. In some sources he was born in Thrace, which was an area populated with fearsome, war-like people. This god was never popular and there were very few temples and shrines to him. He was mainly worshipped by armies who obviously needed his support in battle and on campaigns. There were some archaic practices and rituals associated with this god, such as the sacrifice of a dog in the night.
Helmeted young warrior, so-called Ares. Roman copy from a Greek original—this is a plaster replica, the original is now stored in the Museum of the Villa. Canope at the Villa Adriana
Ares had a sister named Eris, who was the divine personification of discord and disorder. The character of Ares was not an attractive one. He was touchy and quick to anger and was something of a bully. However, during the war, he always favored those who displayed the greatest courage on the field of battle. The Greeks believed that he provided soldiers with the courage and strength to win in a war.
However, the support of Ares did not always guarantee victory, as is shown in the Iliad. The god of war did not save the Trojans from their catastrophic defeat. While many Greeks were ambivalent about this deity, that was not always the case. In Sparta, which was a society dedicated to war, he was revered as the model soldier and a paragon of manly virtue.
The loves of Ares
The god of war was, like other Greek gods, a serial adulterer. He never married, but his consort was Aphrodite, the Goddess of War. This union was intended to demonstrate that both war and love were forms of strife and struggle. However, Aphrodite was married to Hephaestus, the god of metalworking, a fact that would come back to haunt them.
Vatican, Rome, Italy. Statue of Ares, Scopas’s influence. Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection.
The affair between Ares and the Goddess of Love was public, and the couple had six children. They had the attributes of one or both of their parents. For example, Eros, the God of Sex and Love, was their son and so was Phobos, the personification of fear.
Ares also had affairs with two of the Muses, a Titan, and one of the Furies with whom he had more children. Then he had several affairs and more offspring with semi-divine and human lovers. In one myth, Ares is the father of The Amazons, a race of warrior women, who were probably modeled on Scythian female warriors.
Stories of Ares
There are several tales related to Ares in Greek myths, often disrespectful of the deity of war and prowess in battle. In the Odyssey, Ares and Aphrodite are trapped in an iron net created by Hephaestus, enraged about his wife’s affair with a being he despised.
Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan (1827) by Alexandre Charles Guillemot (detail).
The Love of Ares and Aphrodite Crowned with flowers … how the two had first made love in Hephaestus’ mansion, all in secret. Ares had showered her with gifts and showered Hephaestus’ marriage bed with shame but a messenger ran to tell the god of fire— Helios, lord of the sun, who’d spied the couple lost in each other’s arms and making love. Hephaestus, hearing the heart-wounding story, bustled toward his forge, brooding on his revenge— planted the huge anvil on its block and beat out chains, not to be slipped or broken, all to pin the lovers on the spot.
Also in Homer, Ares’ parents, Zeus and Hera, are shown as hating him, because of all the carnage that he caused. He also comes into conflict with Poseidon because his son had raped one of the God of War’s daughters.
Ares played an important role in the Trojan War, fighting alongside the Trojans—his intervention almost helped them to victory. However, Athena, the Goddess of military strategy, with the backing of Zeus, entered the fray on behalf of the Greeks and this forced Ares into a humiliating retreat.
Relief of Mars Ultor, 26–14 BCE; in the Cleveland Museum of Art. Source: Britannica.
They were not long about beginning, and Ares piercer of shields opened the battle. Sword in hand he sprang at once upon Athena and reviled her […] As he spoke he struck her on the terrible tasseled aegis—so terrible that not even can Jove’s lightning pierce it. Here did murderous Ares strike her with his great spear. She drew back and with her strong hand seized a stone that was lying on the plain—great and rugged and black—which men of old had set for the boundary of a field. With this she struck Ares on the neck, and brought him down. Nine roods did he cover in his fall, and his hair was all soiled in the dust, while his armour rang rattling round him. But Athena laughed and vaunted over him saying, “Idiot, have you not learned how far stronger I am than you, but you must still match yourself against me? Thus do your mother’s curses now roost upon you, for she is angry and would do you mischief because you have deserted the Achaeans and are helping the Trojans.” ~ Iliad, Book XXI
The Greek deity was very important even though he was not popular. For example, the Athenian court, the Areopagus, was built on a hill dedicated to this God. Ares was very influential in the Roman conception of Mars. Over time, the old Latin God of battle and valor in war became identical with the Greek God.
The Areopagus as viewed from the Acropolis.
Ares was often depicted with a helmet and a lance, and his symbol was the dog. The lover of Aphrodite and the personification of war has become a popular figure, appearing in movies, television series, and even video games.
The Greek God of War was one of the most important of all the deities in the Pantheon. He was not a popular God and he represented the worst aspects of war. As a result, the myths are not respectful of this deity and this signifies the hatred the Greeks had for conflict and battle.
Graves, Robert (1990). The Greeks Myths. London: Pelican.