Ares, the god of war (part 2)

In the first part of this series of blog posts, I looked at the origins of Ares and outlined some basic characteristics of this Greek god of war, who was really a personification of slaughter and bloodshed. In this second instalment, I look at the relationships that Ares had with both other divinities and mortal men.

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. 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 (see previous blog post), 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.

This was the second part of a three-part blog post on the god of war. The third and final instalment in this series will be published on this blog tomorrow.

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