Ares, known as the Greek God of war, is one of the twelve Olympians residing on Mount Olympus. Bloodlust, violence, hatred and promiscuity were the main facets of Ares’ personality.
According to Greek mythology, there are two gods of war, one symbolizing the benevolent aspects while the other symbolizing the malevolent ones. So, while Athena is the goddess of the art of warfare, skill, strategy, courage, and above all, wisdom, Ares is more specifically, the God of warlike frenzy, hostility, and mercilessness. In short, Ares stands for every negativity that relates to war.
Ares in Greek Mythology
Ares was one of the twelve Olympian Gods who make the primary divinities of the Greek pantheon. He was the eldest son of Zeus and Hera. Though born in Thrace, which was considered to be his true home, some sources state that he resided on Mount Olympus, much like the others of his race. He had three siblings viz., Hebe (Goddess of Youth), Eileithyia (Goddess of Childbirth) and Eris (Goddess of Discord).
Though Ares is considered the ‘God’ of war, he denotes all the malevolent forces that war comprises. He had a peculiar liking for and a sort of addiction to bloodshed and murder due to which his parents were very ambivalent towards him. Though he was not a neglected child, he was also not the one who was loved much by his parents, the simple reason being that they did not have any sympathy for his inhuman and hostile acts. In fact, Homer’s epic poem Iliad has an incident wherein Zeus says that Ares is the most hateful god to him. This reference throws some light on the relationship of Ares with his parents, especially with his father. Ares is often accompanied by several other gods into the battlefield – gods who seem to share some of his characteristic traits. These include his two sons from Aphrodite viz., Phobos (personification of fear) and Deimos (personification of terror), Enyo (Goddess of strife) and Alala (personification of war cry).
The myth of Ares founding the city of Thebes is one of the most popular tales. He was the father of a water dragon that was killed by Cadmus, the Prince of Phoenicia. The dragon’s teeth were sown into the ground and fully grown Spartans sprung out of them. These Spartans were considered the descendants of Ares. Cadmus then married Harmonia, the daughter of Ares, and founded the city of Thebes.
The Romantic Side
Ares has a very limited role to play as far as Greek mythology is concerned. However, some literary sources point towards his pleasing physical appearance. He has been portrayed as a charming and a handsome male whose extremely good looks and casanova-type behavior often resulted in several romantic frolics and relationships. Apparently, Ares never got married. There is no reference whatsoever of him having a legitimate spouse. But we know with certainty that he had a long list of romantic relationships which also resulted in the birth of his numerous children.
Ares’s most famous love affair was with Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of love and lust. What makes this relationship more controversial and a subject of public curiosity is the adulterous attitude of Aphrodite towards her own husband Hephaestus. Though Ares and Aphrodite never tied the knot, sources say that they were so deeply in love that they could go to any extent for each other. They parented six children who were Deimos, Phobos, Harmonia, Eros, Anteros and Adrasteia.
Apart from Aphrodite, he also had romantic escapades with other goddesses, demigoddesses and mortal females. The list of his lovers include Eos (Goddess of Daybreak), Persephone (daughter of Demeter and spouse of Hades) and Enyo (Goddess of Strife), Harpinna (Naiad nymph of Pisa), Sterope (Pleiad star-nymph of Elis), Kyrene (nymph of Bistonia), Triteia (nymph of Einalia), Aerope (princess of Anatolia), Atalanta (princess of Arkadia), Othere (queen of Assyria) and many more. Legend says that he had children from almost all of his lovers and so it can be inferred that they range from gods to demigods to mortals.
Ares in the Battlefield
In the famous ‘war of the gods’ in which the Olympians registered their victory over the Titans and became primary deities of the Greek pantheon, Ares had an important role to play. He was the general of the Olympians in the war and it was majorly due to the strategies formulated by him that the Olympians emerged victorious. Apart from this, there were many more ‘infamous’ victories of Ares – infamous probably because of his lust for blood.
There are also a number of instances penned by literary laureates that highlight in a very matter-of-fact way, the failures and the defeats of Ares. One such narrative of Ares’ humiliation by the Giants had been given by Homer in the ‘Iliad’. It says that Ares was captured and chained by two twin giants – Ephialtes and Otus – and was locked in an urn made of bronze, where he remained for thirteen long months until he was finally rescued by Hermes.
Homer also describes Ares as a disloyal guy having no determined allegiances. During the Trojan War, he promised Athena that he would side the Achaeans against the people of Troy, but his lover Aphrodite easily succeeded in persuading him to fight for the Trojans. However, Athena was able to overpower Ares in the war by hitting him hard with a large boulder.
Cult and Worship
Because Ares stood for violence and terror, he became a god who had lesser followers as compared to the others belonging to the pantheon. However, the god seemed to have developed certain niches for himself as far as his worship and rituals were concerned. Occasionally, troops going to war happened to worship the lord. Sometimes, there used to be shrines dedicated to Ares on military campsites. But this was not always the case as people seemed to prefer Athena to Ares for her more balanced and positive symbolism.
Sparta was the city of warriors where people seemed to worship Ares for what he was. He was locally known by the epithet Enyalius and was a hot favorite, especially amongst young men. Spartans used to hold fighting contests every year and it was a ritual to sacrifice a pup before the God Enyalius whose wooden statue was located in the Phobaeum. The Spartans sometimes also offered him human sacrifices. Similarly, there was a temple dedicated exclusively to Ares in the Agora of Athens. The people of Anatolia also worshipped Ares. This is evident from the archaeological ruins of the temple dedicated to Ares that has been recovered from the excavations carried out in the western part of Turkey.
Interestingly, it was only the hostile and the warlike population that seemed to have ritualistically worshipped the god in spite of his violent and troublesome traits. As mentioned above, Athena remained popular as a goddess of war among the common people and because she also represented wisdom and peace after war, even the docile population continued to worship her.
Depictions in Art
Ares is generally depicted in a standing pose, geared up in his war attire. He wears a helm on his head and holds either a spear or a sword in one of his hands. Rarely is he depicted in a seated pose. One such seated statue of Ares from the Ludovisi collection preserved in the Terme Museum in Rome portrays a seated nude figure of Ares in his early youth. He holds a sword in his left hand and his shield lies near his right leg. There is also a small statuette of a child, perhaps Eros, near his legs. The original statue is of bronze, but there are numerous reproductions of the same, especially in marble.
Moreover, the standing figure of Ares placed in the museum of the Villa Adriana in Tivoli is an interesting example. The image portrays Ares standing nude and wearing his helm. He holds his shield in his left hand. The most noteworthy part of this statue is a small figurine of a vulture that rests near the god’s left leg. Vulture is one of the birds that is sacred to Ares. The other animals sacred to him include snakes, alligators, boars and dogs.
Apart from these, there are also examples of Ares’ busts found either as free-standing images or carved on medallions, coins, etc. Figures of Ares have also been painted on ancient Greek amphorae and other kinds of pottery. Thus we have many depictions of the god, all of them pointing towards his hawkish attitude.
Symbolism of Ares
♣ Ares has a dubious reputation and, therefore, bears a capacity to attract as well as to repel. He seems to have been extremely goal-oriented, focused and passionate while also being aggressive and forceful at the same time.
♣ The character of the god also highlights his disloyal nature. Not only in case of his many love affairs but also in the battlefield, he displayed this trait by changing sides according to his own preferences.
♣ The love affair between Ares and Aphrodite is particularly significant. The two of them symbolize the union of irresistible emotions and passions. However, they were capable of producing harmony in nature whenever they could control their feelings. But it can be noted from the myths that most of the time, such was not the case.
♣ At the same time, Ares also stands for freedom – freedom to do things his way. He did not seem to care what others thought about him, not even his own parents.
♣ Though in many respects, Ares signifies how not to live, one has to accept that it is not easy to swim against the tide. This is precisely one quality that can be taken in a positive way and learned from his character. He thus not only stands for freedom, as mentioned above, but also for courage and boldness.
The best thing about Greek Olympian gods is that they resemble human beings very closely. They stay in a family, love, hate, fight and care for each other. Most importantly, they also tend to injure themselves and die eventually. It is this very combination of human and godly features which brought the Olympians even closer to the hearts of the people and thus made them the primary divinities of the Greek pantheon. Actually, this combination makes it possible for the people to directly relate to their gods and goddesses and decide whether to regard or to disregard them. This is precisely the reason why the cult of Ares is much smaller than the cults of other Olympian deities.