Strong, muscular, tall, and often cruel, Ares, the Greek god of war, was the most despised of all the Olympians. However, despite the low opinion the gods and the Greeks had of him, Ares did feature in two myths that provided enduring lessons in morality and honor. These were his love affair with the goddess Aphrodite and his alleged murder of Poseidon's son Halirrhothius.
Ares was the son of Zeus and Hera, the king and queen of the gods, although one version of Ares' birth has it that Hera conceived the god of war when she touched a flower. For the ancient Greeks, Ares was the personification of war, strife, and brute force. Despite his belligerence, he was often romantically involved, especially with Eos, goddess of the dawn, and Aphrodite, goddess of love, beauty, and marriage. Aphrodite was also the wife of Ares' crippled half brother Hephaestus, god of fire and metalworking.
References to Ares in Greek mythology depict him as always overeager for war and the first Olympian to join in a battle among mortals. In combat Ares usually wore a gleaming helmet and armor, carried a sword, and rode in a chariot. He was often accompanied by his sister Eris, the goddess of strife; his sons Deimos, who symbolized fear and terror, and Phobos, who represented panic; and Enyo, a bloodthirsty war goddess. It was told that during a battle Ares would roam the field looking for the bloodiest fights to join, rarely caring on whose side he fought.
Many Greek myths describe Ares as despised by both mortals and most of the gods; even his own parents, Zeus and Hera, did not like him. In the Iliad, an epic poem by Homer (c. ninth-eighth century BCE), Zeus says to Ares, "Most hateful to me are you of all gods on Olympus, for ever is strife dear to you and wars and fighting."
Ares was the main character in very few Greek myths. However, he did play a small but significant role in many other myths and legends. In the story of Cadmus and the founding of Thebes, for example, the dragon that guarded the spring near where Cadmus was to build the new city was either the servant of Ares or an offspring. One version of the myth has it that for slaying the dragon Cadmus had to pay homage to Ares for eight years.
Hippolyte, the queen of the Amazons, was said to wear a belt, or girdle, that was a gift to her from Ares. The belt was meant to symbolize the queen's power, and the Greek hero Heracles successfully stole it from her as one of his 12 labors for the king Eurystheus. Another famous Greek legend involved the hero Jason, who, along with the Argonauts, went on an epic quest for the Golden Fleece. It hung in an oak grove in Colchis that was dedicated to Ares, guarded by a dragon that never slept. Jason was only able to obtain the fleece with the help of the sorceress Medea, who was the granddaughter of Helios the sun god.
Ares performed an unusual role in the myth of Sisyphus and Thanatos, god of death. After Sisyphus had told Asopus, a river god, that Zeus had stolen his daughter, Aegina, Zeus sent Thanatos to take Sisyphus away. In the underworld, however, Sisyphus tricked the god of death and tied him up. As long as Thanatos was unable to reach the land of the living, no one died on earth. This angered the gods, and they sent Ares to solve the problem.
Ares' first act was to release Thanatos. He then captured Sisyphus, who was still in the underworld, and delivered him to the god of death. Thinking he had solved the problem and pleased the other gods, Ares returned to Olympus, but Sisyphus tricked death again and ended up living to a ripe old age.
Ares had some very contradictory characteristics. Depending on the myth, he could appear either strong or weak, stupid or intelligent, mean or noble, and immature or resolute. For example, he was too weak to stop the twin giants Ephialtes and Otus, who attacked Olympus in an attempt to overthrow Zeus. The giants tied up Ares in brass chains and forced him into a jar, where he stayed for 13 months before being rescued by Hermes, the messenger of the gods.
Ares' meaner nature was revealed in some versions of the story of the death of Adonis. Loved by the goddess Aphrodite, Adonis was a handsome mortal who had the bad luck to incur the jealousy of Ares. A few sources record that Ares, angry at Aphrodite's love for Adonis, transformed himself into the boar that gored Adonis to death.
Ares was also an amorous god. His many lovers included Aglaurus, who was either a nymph or an Athenian princess, and the goddesses Aphrodite and Eos. In one myth Aphrodite grew so angry at Eos for making love to Ares that she cast a spell forcing Eos always to fall in love with someone new, never settling with one god or mortal.
In another myth Aphrodite's husband, Hephaestus, suspected that his wife was unfaithful. To catch her and her lover, he forged a metal net so thin it was invisible to all but Hephaestus, and so strong that not even the gods could break free of it. He placed the metal net around Aphrodite's bed to entrap whoever joined her there. Ares and Aphrodite were caught, and Hephaestus dragged them before the other gods, seeking justice for his betrayal and humiliation. However, the gods just roared with laughter at the two hapless lovers. Ares appeared wanton and foolish, incapable of extricating himself from the snare and from the ridicule of the gods.
The Trojan War, the legendary conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans, was the subject of many myths in ancient Greece. In these myths all the gods used their respective powers to help or hinder either the Greeks or the Trojans. Accounts of his involvement in the Trojan War depict Ares as untrustworthy and immature. The god of war promised both Athena and Hera, queen of the gods, that he would side with the Greeks, but he broke his promise and sided with Aphrodite, who was aiding the Trojans. Hera and Athena vowed to punish Ares for his broken promise.
During the battle Ares was a fearsome sight. According to one source even the fierce Greek hero Diomedes shuddered at the sight of the bloodstained god and cried out to the Greek soldiers to retreat from the battlefield. It was then that Hera asked Zeus if she could drive Ares from the battlefield. Zeus agreed. Hera joined Diomedes in the battle and urged him to strike at Ares. Diomedes hurled his spear at the god of war. The spear was guided by the angry Athena, Ares' half sister, who was invisible even to the gods because she was wearing the Helmet of Hades. The injured Ares cried out loudly and rushed back to Olympus, where Paeon, god of healing, tended his wound.
After Paeon's treatment Ares returned to the battlefield outside the walls of Troy. Knowing that Athena had aided Diomedes, Ares attacked her. According to Homer, Athena was at first surprised that Ares would even attempt to challenge her, but she quickly shook off the attack and threw a giant boulder at Ares, knocking him to the ground.
Ares had been a bitter rival of Athena for many years before the start of the Trojan War. Whereas Ares relied on his brute force when fighting, Athena used skill, intelligence, and cunning to earn her victories. As a result, Athena was far more honored by the ancient Greeks than Ares. In further contrast, Athena never relished the prospect of war, but once the fighting started she devised a strategy that attempted to achieve a quick victory with minimal bloodshed. Away from the battlefield Athena missed no opportunity to humiliate Ares, whom she viewed as slow-witted. At the same time, just the sight of Athena sent Ares into a violent rage.
Some scholars believe that the concept of Ares did not originate in Greece but that the Greeks adopted him from Thracian mythology. Thrace was an ancient civilization that occupied the territory north of the Aegean Sea. Today Thrace forms a region that includes parts of Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans thought of Thrace (known as Thracia in Latin) as a country made up of fierce warriors. It is unclear whether the Thracian Ares was as battle-hungry and capricious as the Greek Ares, but in the Roman pantheon, Mars, who was modeled on Ares, was depicted as having more maturity and intelligence than the Greek deity.
Mars was originally an earth god and a god of spring, fertility, and growth. For some reason he eventually became associated with death and ultimately was viewed only as the Roman god of war. The Romans wrote far more positively of Mars than the Greeks did of Ares. In the Aeneid, an account of the founding of Rome by the poet Virgil (70–19 BCE), Roman warriors die gladly upon "Mars' field of renown." The soldiers worship Mars rather than fear and detest him. The Romans held festivals and built temples to honor him. With the significant exception of the Areopagus (Hill of Ares), located west of the Acropolis in Athens, the ancient Greeks barely acknowledged Ares in any public or tangible way. Other than the Areopagus, there was only one temple dedicated to Ares in all of Athens and only a single spring consecrated to him near Thebes.
The Areopagus was where criminal trials were held. It was named for Ares because, according to legend, he was the defendant in the first trial held there. When Halirrhothius, Poseidon's son, attempted to rape Alcippe, Ares' daughter by Aglaurus, Ares saw the attack and killed Halirrhothius. In retribution, Poseidon, god of the sea, demanded that Ares be tried for murder. At the Areopagus Ares pleaded his case before 12 Olympian gods who acquitted him. Works by some of the major dramatists and writers of ancient Greece, including the playwright Euripides (c. 484–406 BCE), refer to this myth. Ares' trial on the Areopagus can be seen as a legal commentary about justifiable homicide. The 12 Olympian gods summed up their verdict by saying that it was wrong for Ares to have committed murder, but in this case the murder was justified because the god of war was defending his daughter's honor.
This was a rationale that would have resonated with the ancient Greeks, and similar kinds of justification have formed the basis for many legal decisions in the modern world. For instance, defendants on trial for murder are often acquitted if a jury can be persuaded to see the killing as morally justified. In ancient Greek and many modern Western courts, such justifications could include self-defense, the defense of property, or the defense of loved ones. It is perhaps ironic that a character as loathsome as Ares could stand for a legal code so commonly recognized.
In art, Ares was depicted as a handsome, often youthful warrior. Most representations of him were sculptures rather than paintings, and in these he was usually shown wearing a helmet and holding a spear, shield, and sword. Sometimes he was even depicted wearing an aegis (a special goatskin cloak or breastplate honoring Zeus and Hera), but in literature and paintings it was his rival Athena who was more often associated with the aegis.
One of the most famous representations of Ares is a sculpture known as the Ares Borghese. The work, carved around 125 CE, acquired its name in the 18th century when it was purchased by a member of the Borghese family, a powerful Roman dynasty. It stands at over 6 feet (2 m) and shows the war god as young and nude, wearing nothing but his war helmet. Today the sculpture is housed in the Louvre in Paris.
Paintings of Ares are few, but the Roman equivalent, Mars, was a popular subject of many artists. Two of the many paintings of Mars show the god of war as young and handsome, highlighting the deity's virility. The exploits of Venus (Aphrodite) and Mars (Ares) inspired paintings such as Jacques-Louis David's Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Graces (c. 1824), which shows a mature god of war, draped in a bloodred cloak, lounging with Venus. Mars and Venus Caught in the Net (1536) by Maerten van Heemskerck shows the lovers trapped in Vulcan's (Hephaestus's) net, dragged before the gods.
See also: ADONIS; AMAZONS; APHRODITE; ATHENA; CADMUS; DIOMEDES; EOS; HEPHAESTUS; HERA; HERACLES; HERMES; MARS; PAEON; PHOBOS; POSEIDON; SISYPHUS; ZEUS.
- Bulfinch's Mythology. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2006. .
- The Greek Myths. New York: Penguin, 1993. .
- Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. New York: Grand Central, 2011. .
- The Iliad. New York: Penguin, 2009. , and Robert Fagles, trans.
- The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
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