What role did the Greek War God Ares play in Mythology?
The Greeks had a polytheistic religion and they personified the great forces and powers that shaped and influenced their lives. In this way, they tried to control their world. The Greeks and the Romans believed that they could influence impersonal forces and powers, by sacrifices and rituals. One of the most powerful phenomena in Ancient life was war. In Greek religion the God Ares was the deity of war, specifically, he embodied the bravery, prowess, and physical force, required in battle. He was an especially important God in the pantheon and in Greek mythology. Ares can teach modern people a great deal about Ancient Greek views on war.
The origin of the myth of Ares
Ares was the son of Zeus and Hera and regarded as one of the Twelve Olympians and was seen as one of the most powerful gods. The name Ares is believed to have derived from the word for curse or ruin. He was the representative of destruction caused by war and he was the personification of war in its most destructive form. Like so many other Greek deities it is believed that he was first worshipped by the Mycenaean Greeks. They were the Greeks who are recorded in the Iliad and whose vast palaces have been unearthed by archaeologists. References to Ares was found on tablets written in the Archaic Greek known as Linear-B . Once the Greeks had another war God, known as Enyalius, but in later myths, he became a byname for Ares. According to some, Ares originated in Thrace, which was traditionally inhabited by fearsome warriors. Many experts have observed that Ares had many of the characteristics of the Indo-European war-god and is similar to deities such as the Germanic God Wotan. Ares was never popular and there were very few temples and shrines to him in the Hellenic World. There was a shrine to the god on a hill near Athens and this was later the site of the courts, which dealt with capital cases. Ares was mainly worshipped by soldiers and by armies on campaigns.
Portrait of the War God
Ares had a sister named Eris, who was the divine personification of discord and disorder. The character of Ares was not an attractive one. Another sister was Artemis the virgin Goddess who was also the deity of strategy and generalship. Ares was arrogant and vengeful and loved violence and war. In the myths, he is often shown as angry and his roars were likened to ‘ten thousand men shouting’ He had many other half-siblings because of Zeus many adulterous affairs with demi-gods and humans. During war, Ares always favored those who displayed the greatest courage on the field of battle. Ares usually favored the strongest and was often portrayed as merciless. In one version of the Sisyphus myth, he frees death, because battles were no longer enjoyable if men did not die. Ares support did not always ensure victory, however, as is shown in the surviving corpus of myths. This was because he like the other Gods had to accept the commands of Zeus, who in turn was acting in accordance with fate. Zeus and Hera, the parents of Ares did not like him and the Father of the Gods, told him that he was detestable, because he was so blood-thirsty. This was because he enjoyed battle and bloodshed. The god of war never married but his consort was Aphrodite the Goddess of Love. Aphrodite was married to Hephaestus, the god of smiths, metalworkers, and craft persons. They carried out their affair in public, much to the anger of Hephaestus. Ares and Aphrodite had a number of children, one was Eros the God of Sex and erotic love, who embodied the characteristics of both his parents. Another son was Phobos who was the embodiment of fear and terror. Ares was not faithful to Aphrodite and he had relationships with a long litany of lovers. They included some of the Muses, a Titan, and even one of the Furies. He had countless children and in some myths’ he was the father of the first Amazon. The Amazons were the race of warrior-women who were probably based on Scythian female warriors and they later took part in the Trojan War.
The stories of the War-God
There are relatively few myths about the war-god, an indication of his unpopularity with the Greeks. He does play a role in the Foundation Myth of Thebes. He created a dragon that terrorized people and it was killed by the hero Cadamus. These grew from the earth and became the first Theban warriors who were as martial as the Spartans. Ares came into conflict with the God of the Sea Poseidon because his son had raped one a daughter of his. This story may be the origin myth of some festival which was marked by a general truce. In, another story, Ares is humiliated by Hercules, when Athena intervenes on the side of the demi-god. This occurred when Hercules killed Kyknos the son of the God of War. Kynos had been killing pilgrims on the way to the oracles at Delphi and had been building a mountain out of their skills. Ares fought in the war against the giants. Two of them Otos and Ephialtes plotted revenge against the Olympian gods and they decided to abduct Hera and Artemis. However, they had to remove Ares first and they lured him into a trap and captured him. The giants then stuffed him into a bronze jar for thirteen months (a lunar year). He was rescued by Artemis, who cleverly played off the giants against each other.
Ares and the Iliad
The God who personified strength and courage in war played an important role in the Trojan War. Usually in war he favored the strongest and helped them to victory and was not concerned with justice, for Ares, might was always right. However, in the Iliad, he is shown by Homer as fighting on the side of the Trojans. He abandoned his usual impartial approach due to the persuasion of Aphrodite, who favored Troy. He may also have done this because some of his sons were fighting with the Trojans. Homer describes the war-cry of Ares as like the thunder from a storm cloud. He intervened on the side of the Trojans and when the Greeks saw this they retreated and almost left Troy. Athena, the sister of Ares, saw this and asked Zeus could she intervene. The Goddess of strategy was able to save the day for the Greeks. This was not the end of Ares's involvement when he heard that one of his sons had been killed, he let out a roar that shook the world. Athena did not want the War-God to help the Trojans and possibly lead them to victory. She stole his helmet and lance, so he could not enter the fray between the Greeks and the Trojans. In one episode, Athena and Ares fought and his sister wounded him with a massive rock, during the brutal struggle. On another occasion, Ares did enter the fray on the side of the Trojans. Athena once again outfoxed him and had the Achaean hero Diomedes, hit him with a spear and drew blood. Being wounded by a mere human was a terrible humiliation. Ares was on the losing side in the Trojan War.
The meaning of the myths of Ares
The Greeks did not revere Ares in the same way as many other of the Olympian Gods. They valued restrained and harmony and demanded reasonableness. Ares was tempestuous and violent and was every eager to engage in mindless violence. He represented the dangers of unrestrained passion. The Greeks recognize that the violence and lack of restraint embodied by the God of War were dangerous it was necessary for war. This is why the god was mainly honored by warriors on the campaign. The Greeks in peacetime did not value Ares. Even in war, Ares was of limited importance. In many myths, including those recounted by Homer he is shown to be humiliated by Athena, the goddess of strategy and leadership, or outfoxed by Hephaestus . This demonstrated that the values represented by Athena were superior in a battle to those represented by Ares. The Goddess was often shown with Nike, the Goddess of Victory, and Ares was never shown with this deity. All the Ancient Greeks rate strategy and cleverness in war above all, else, especially in battle. The various humiliations inflicted by Athena on Ares demonstrated that in war, strategy and skill were more important than brute force and power. Moreover, the myths demonstrate’ the superiority of reason over brute force. Athena represents reason and restraint and Ares unrestrained power and thoughtless violence. It would be wrong to see in the habitual humiliations of Ares in myths as proving that the Greeks despised war, in fact, they saw it as an inevitable part of life . The Greeks valued strategy and guile in war and this was one of the reasons why they were able to defeat the Persians and later, enabled Alexander the Great to conquer most of the known world.
Sparta and Thebes
The cult of Ares in Sparta and Thebes which were much more militarized societies than Athens was different. This is indicated in the prominence that they bestowed on the God of War in their civil religion. We see here that there was no uniform interpretation of the Greek Gods and their worship varied from state-to-state. While the majority of the Greeks were ambivalent about this deity, there were exceptions. Sparta was a society that was based on martial principles and the goal of the state was to produce great warriors and invincible armies. Ares was more popular with the Spartans and they regarded him as the ultimate warrior. Spartan citizens were expected to model their conduct in battle on the god, who was the embodiment of war and conflict. It is believed that Sparta’s worship of Ares was a conscious effort to distinguish themselves from other Hellenes.
The influence of the Greek War God myth
Ares was very influential in the development of the Roman God, Mars. As part of the Hellenization of Roman civic religion, Mars was transformed from an agricultural god to the deity of war. Mars assumed many of the characteristics and features of Ares. However, the Romans valued the qualities of Ares more than the Greeks. They appreciated his power and his ruthlessness qualities and they adopted his cult wholesale from Greece. The frequent depictions of Mars in Latin Literature are all based on their interpretation of the Ancient Greek deity. Down the centuries, Mars eclipsed Ares. However, in recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the Greek god of War. He has appeared as a character in the animated Disney movie Hercules and in the TV series Xenia. Ares was also the villain in the recent Hollywood blockbuster, Wonder Woman. Interestingly, the modern versions of Ares are largely negative. This may indicate the modern age’s dislike of war and conflict. This is a good example of how ancient myths can be reinterpreted by different societies and represent different values and truths.
Ares represented a specific facet of war. He was the personification of the violence of war and its brutal nature. The Greeks did not regard him highly because they disliked the emotion and irrational forces that he represented. This god never achieved the status of other deities, with the exception of Sparta and Thebes. In the myths told about Ares, he is often humiliated and defeated. This was to indicate that valor and physical brawn was not enough for success. Ares is often shown as being bested by Athena. This symbolized for the Greeks the superiority of reason and strategy over courage and brute force. Moreover, the myths of Ares can also provide insights, to modern people, on how to succeed in conflict and even the nature of leadership.
Millington, Alexander. "Iyarri at the Interface: The Origins of Ares." In Luwian Identities, pp. 543-565. Brill, 2013.
Kostuch, L. (2011). Pantes theoi, Polemos and Ares on the Battlefield. The Greek Concept of the War Deity.
- Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion (Harvard, Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 134
- Graves, Robert. The Greeks Myths (London, Pelican, 1990), p. 45
- Homer, The Iliad, vi
- Graves, p 116
- Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by A.T. Murray. Theoi Classical Texts Library, p. 115
- Burkert, p. 119