Ares, the god of war

A closer look at Ares (known to the Romans as Mars), who wasn’t so much the god of war as he was the god of slaughter and strife.

Written by Josho Brouwers on

At a conference on ancient Greek warfare in London, last April, Alexander Millington gave an interesting lecture on the Ares, the Greek god of war. Ever since that lecture, I have been meaning to devote some time to writing about Ares, and since I have also just finished a book on Greek mythology (in Dutch), to be published later this year, now seems as good a time as any.

Ancient Ares: the origins of the god of war

Ancient Greek names are always a little bit of a puzzle, with scholars disagreeing if a particular name is of Greek (Indo-European) origin or else a name adopted from the original inhabitants by the Indo-Europeans when they first invaded the Aegean basin. Some have argued that the name is Greek and perhaps means Destroyer, but this is by no means certain (etymologically, in that case, he would be closely related to Apollo).

The earliest sources for the names of Greek divinities are the Linear B tablets unearthed in the archives of the Bronze-Age palaces, such as at Knossos and Mycenae. In these tablets, we can recognize the names of a large number of Greek gods, including Zeus, Demeter, Poseidon, Hermes, Athena, Hera, Dionysus, and Hephaestus, as well as a number of lesser divinities, including some that somehow fell out of favour after the fall of the Mycenaean palaces.

Ares is not mentioned in the tablets directly (apart from one possible identification, if memory serves), but we do have another name: Enyalius. This may have been an older god of war or perhaps an earlier name for Ares himself; the poet Archilochus of Paros, who lived around the middle of the seventh century BC, uses Enyalius as an alternate name for Ares.

Wild Ares: Thracians, Scythians, Amazons

Modern scholars tend to emphasize the foreign nature of Ares, believing the god of slaughter not to fit in well with more heavenly figures in the Greek pantheon, such as Apollo or Athena. However, this is to deny that warfare was of great cultural significance among the Greeks, as I have tried to show in my book Henchmen of Ares: Warriors and Warfare in Early Greece (2013), and as Alexander Millington demonstrated in his paper in London.

Nevertheless, the Greeks did associate Ares, as a wild and brutal man-slaying divinity, with the less civilized parts at the edge of their own world. In particular, Ares can often be found in Thrace, the area along the northern edge of the Aegean basin, which is sometimes thought to be his birthplace; Euripides calls Ares the patron deity of Thrace. Herodotus mentions that the Thracians worshipped only Ares, Dionysus, and Artemis, with the exception of their kings, who venerate Hermes (Hdt. 5.7). In Greek myth, Diomedes, the Thracian King, possessed man-eating mares that Heracles had to tame as part of his famous Twelve Labours.

Ares was also associated with nomadic horse-peoples. According to Herodotus, the Scythians worshipped Ares in the form of a sword, sacrificing animals and captives to a sword stuck into a pile of brushwood (Hdt. 4.62). Ares was also considered the father of the Amazons, the fierce horsewomen who were thought to have their capital at Themiscyra on the River Thermodon, possibly to be identified with the historical Themiscyra in Pontus (Anatolia); their fiery queen was a descendant of the god of war himself.

Various figures associated with Ares serve to enhance his wild status. Two of his sons are called Phobos (Rout) and Deimos (Fear) and said to accompany him on the battlefield to install fear in the hearts of men. Ares is also accompanied by the Keres, female death-demons or spirits who suck the blood from the sand of those who have fallen in combat. They are roughly equivalent to the Valkyries from Teutonic myth.

Beastly Ares: dragons

Finally, Ares is also associated in Greek mythology with a number of monstrous creatures. Chief among these are various dragons. When Cadmus had been sent out by his father to search for his lost sister Europa (she had been kidnapped by Zeus), he was told by the Oracle of Delphi to stop looking and found a city instead. The city he founded was Thebes, but only after he had slain a ferocious dragon, beloved of Ares, who was guarding the spring where he wanted to get water to perform the necessary rites.

The death of his dragon angered Ares, but eventually he patched things up with Cadmus. The latter was even given Harmonia to wed, the daughter of Ares and Aphrodite. Upon their death, they were turned into serpents, perhaps in recognition of the reptilian origin that lay at the heart of their unification.

Similarly, Aeetes, the king of Colchis, was so favoured by Ares that the god of war gave him a dragon to guard the fabled Golden Fleece. Unlike Cadmus, Jason and the Argonauts did not need to fight the dragon, as the king’s daughter, Medea, managed to put the creature to sleep long enough for the Thessalian hero to grab the Fleece and make a run for it, no doubt much to the dismay of Ares.

Ares’ status: “most hated of all the gods”

Ares was the son of Zeus and Hera. There is a famous passage in the Iliad where Zeus refers to Ares as the god that he hates the most. The exact lines are the following (Il. 5.890–891):

To me you are the most hateful of all the gods who hold Olympus. Forever quarrelling is dear to your heart, wars and battles.

Zeus says this after Ares had fled to Olympus, having been wounded by Diomedes (with help from Athena; see below). However, we should not read too much into this sentence; Zeus is rather angry at this point of the story, and Ares is a force of nature to himself, who doesn’t seem to pay too much heed to his father’s wishes.

Within the context of the Iliad, the scene above is actually an echo of an earlier exchange between Agamemnon and Achilles. Achilles is angry on account of Agamemnon’s perceived greed. Agamemnon in turns become angry and says the following, after Achilles says that he will return to Phthia (Il. 1.173–175):

Run away by all means if your heart drives you. I will not entreat you to stay here for my sake. There are others with me who will do me honour, and above all Zeus of the counsels. To me you are the most hateful of all the princes loved by the gods.

And yes, that final sentence was used in a slightly different form in the movie Troy (2004), which has Agamemnon (Brian Cox) say about Achilles (Brad Pitt), “Of all the warlords loved by the Greeks, I hate him the most.”

These scenes, however, are not where the similarities between Ares and Achilles end. Of all the gods, Ares is supposed to be the swiftest; similarly, there is no mortal runner faster than Achilles. Like Ares, Achilles can wheel about the battlefield like an enraged whirlwind, slaughtering men left, right, and centre. When Hector puts on Achilles’ armour, after stripping it from Patroclus’ body, the poet says that the spirit of Ares enters into him (Il. 17.210–212).

In short, Ares was probably not particularly disliked by the other gods, most of the time, or at least not more disliked than any violent member of a family would be. In the world of mortal men, Achilles serves as a human counterpart to the god of war: a man of action and bloodshed, a protector of allies, as well as an taker of lives.

Ares and the other gods

In the Odyssey, but not the Iliad, the goddess of love, Aphrodite, is married to Hephaestus, the ugly god of fire. She also has a long-running affair with Ares. Together, they produced a number of children, of which Harmonia is perhaps the most striking (do love and war together produce harmony?). The Odyssey includes a story where Hephaestus managed to catch Ares and Aphrodite together, but this only made the other (male) gods laugh, apart from Poseidon, and did not serve to end their relationship at all.

With the exception of his relationship with Aphrodite, Ares appears to keep largely to himself. Athena seems to provide a natural foil for him and the two do engage in battle at one point during the Iliad, where Athena aids Diomedes in wounding Aphrodite and then defeating Ares in battle.

Both Ares and Athena are gods of war. But whereas Ares embodies strife and slaughter, Athena is the goddess of strategy and forethought. However, Athena is also more than a goddess of war: she also served as protector of cities (compare this with Ares as a sacker of cities) and is considered a goddess of wisdom and patron deity to female crafts (Hephaestus is the patron deity of male crafts and metalwork).

The differences between Athena and Ares are probably due to differences in gender. Most of the female divinities do not, as a rule, make their hands dirty. Hera and Athena protect and guide heroes; in the battle against Ares, Athena aids Diomedes, while keeping in the background. Only Artemis, the goddess of wilderness and the hunt, has a savage streak that sometimes comes to the surface.

Most of the goddesses seem to occupy themselves with making plans and developing stratagems, and then having male gods or mortals execute them. Ares, like Aphrodite’s husband Hephaestus, does get his hands dirty and engages directly in combat, slaughtering Greeks and Trojans alike. As a result, Athena is typically regarded as the goddess of generalship, whereas Ares would be the deity that regular warriors prayed to for inspiration and bravery, if not protection.

Ares and the world of men

The ancient Greeks did not dedicate many temples to the god of war. A few examples are known; Pausanias mentions a temple to Ares in Athens, for example.

However, as Alexander Millington pointed out at a conference in London recently, we should not assume that simply because there were no temples to Ares, that he was not venerated at all. In a world where warfare was relatively common, Ares may have been worshipped at small shrines or other sacred sites about which we know relatively little.

Ares remained the most important god when it came to actual battle and bloodshed. In poetry, warriors were referred to as “henchmen of Ares”. On the island of Corfu, the grave of one Arniadas, who died around 600 BC, had a three line hexameter with a reference to man-slaughtering Ares (translation by M.L. Lang):

This is the tomb of Arniadas whom flashing-eyed Ares destroyed as he fought beside the ships in the streams of Arathus. He was the bravest by far in the wretchedness of war.

Similar epigrams all emphasize the ferocity of Ares as a god of slaughter. Such descriptions are interesting because they give us some insight into the nature of warfare in ancient Greece: it was bloody and chaotic, and seemingly marked by indiscriminate killing of brave men and cowards alike.