Understanding Ares

Ares is a controversial figure, and a favorite villain in cartoons, comics, and movies. For some people, making the most basic statement that he’s a deity, an Olympian, and worthy of respect is so unthinkable that they assume that I must be out of my mind to say it. But, I’d go further. Ares is the first deity I call when I am on the verge of losing my temper. He’s the first god I call when my fear is about to make me do something stupid. No, this is not a Neo-Pagan thing. It’s a Homeric thing.

Please enjoy this Homeric Hymn:

Ares, exceeding in strength, chariot-rider, golden-helmed, doughty in heart, shield-bearer, Saviour of cities, harnessed in bronze, strong of arm, unwearying, mighty with the spear, O defence of Olympos, father of warlike Victory, ally of Themis, stern governor of the rebellious, leader of righteous men, sceptred King of manliness, who whirl your fiery sphere among the planets in their sevenfold courses through the aether wherein your blazing steeds ever bear you above the third firmament of heaven; hear me, helper of men, giver of dauntless youth!  Shed down a kindly ray from above upon my life, and strength of war, that I may be able to drive away bitter cowardice from my head and crush down the deceitful impulses of my soul. Restrain also the keen fury of my heart which provokes me to tread the ways of blood-curdling strife. Rather, O blessed one, give you me boldness to abide within the harmless laws of peace, avoiding strife and hatred and the violent fiends of death. 

— Homeric Hymn #8

There’s much ink spilled about how Ares is war (and Athena isn’t…? Apparently…?) and war is terrible, and violence is terrible, and therefore Ares is terrible. But here we have him helping a person wage a different kind of war: the one against their own evil impulses.

Ares is a soldier, and he’s a good one. He understands every part of being a warrior: the courage to charge out into battle, the loyalty to defend his home, and the spiritual war that every soldier must inwardly wage with fear, moral uncertainty, and ultimately, with their own hearts and minds as they reintegrate into society during times of peace. He has killed, but he still loves, helps, and has a place among his kin who have not.

He’s a friend of Themis, the goddess of fairness and justice. He is the favored lover of Aphrodite. Land lastly, but perhaps most interestingly, the father of Harmonia, the goddess of Peace.

This all makes sense when you think about war as not being an isolated force, but a part of a very human cycle.

Imagine a place full of injustices. The leaders are crushing the poor to enrich themselves and their friends. People live in fear of violence against their loved ones, even their children, because of the circumstances of their birth, be that their gender, their ethnicity, or their country or origin. You know, kinda like our country right now. This is not peace. THIS IS NOT PEACE.

There are people counseling non-violence. They don’t want a war. War is bad. But what they are instead asking is that the very people who fear for the lives of their children, instead of fighting back, should gently educate the people trying to obliterate them. They should slowly encourage a gradual change away from oppression, and murder, and injustice.

Unsurprisingly, the people counseling this are highly privileged individuals who have it pretty good right now, who aren’t living in fear. They don’t want the boat rocked because they stand to lose something, which seems unfair to them since they aren’t the people who caused the problem. They want to avoid war because it will be costly to them, personally. It will have a cost to those clamoring for it, too. However, when the cost of war for the average person becomes less than the cost of simply enduring the mistreatment, abuse, and oppression, war happens.

An environment of bitter oppression is like a sky heavy with clouds or air heavy with humidity and tension. War is the storm — it’s when the inevitable happens, and that tension breaks.

Ares didn’t cause the war. The people who decided to take advantage of the disempowered caused the war. Ares isn’t a god of world leaders or plutocrats. He’s a god of doing excellently once deities like Zeus, or Athena, or Hera — or in the case of our country, Dionysos and Ariadne —  decide that it’s time for the war to be waged.

Ares is a god of doing excellently, too, once the war is over. He’s not standing by the coward signing a legal document to send our troops over seas. He’s the god who ships off with the soldiers, and stands by them in the trenches, then comes home with them, and helps them cope with the terrors in their soul which inevitably haunt them after they’ve killed people and had bullets removed from their bodies, or as they come to terms with living with fewer parts than they were born with. He’s the one whispering, to warriors on both sides of any conflict, before, during and after the conflict, “you can do this.”

The courage for battle. The courage for peace. The courage to be a friend to Themis under both circumstances. Why the war was waged, who wins, or why peace is made, is of no concern to him, really. His job is just to get us through it.

 

The polarity he inhabits? War and Peace, particularly on the level of the individual. So is it any small wonder that he is the father of Harmony and Victory both?

He Took A Stand Against Rape

A synonym for “rape” in the dictionary is “ravish.” Ravish is a wretched word. It at once means to overwhelm someone with passion, rape them, and to fill them with delight. It gets at the heart of our cultural confusion about rape. Every rape trial ever focuses on the possible idea that the one who has been raped somehow enjoyed it, and evidence is brought about their sexual proclivities to try and prove the point.

If you have ever followed such a trial and been disgusted as the (usually) male suspect gets off with a slap on the wrist, and maybe, for a moment, imagined some avenging angel swooping down from the high heavens and cutting their head off, you were imagining Ares.

“Agraulos [daughter of Kekrops king of Athens] and Ares had a daughter Alkippe. As Halirrhothios, son of Poseidon and a nymphe named Eurtye, was trying to rape Alkippe, Ares caught him at it and slew him. Poseidon had Ares tried on the Areopagos with the twelve gods presiding. Ares was acquitted.” — Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3. 180 (trans. Aldrich) (Greek mythographer C2nd A.D.)

Of course, this story means something different to an ancient audience who thought that raping a young woman was just a way that a young man (or deity, in this case) proved his manliness. At that time, it was not uncommon to blame the victim. The rape might mean that they now belonged to the man who did it. If they were discovered to be pregnant as a result of the violence, and the man in question had departed, their own family might kill them.

Ares, without hesitation, slays the son of Poseidon. No prolonged discussion of whether his daughter “deserved it” or “was asking for it.” No hemming, no hawing. No asking why she didn’t fight back. No suggestion that she ought to be shamed or punished. Just insta-death. Damn the consequences.

But even though the Ancient Greeks thought of rape, and murder, and honor very differently than we think about it today, Ares was acquitted. The effect was a statement — radical at the time — that rape was not fun and games, and it was not without consequences.

 

Surely, He’s Misogynistic, Though?

Ares is called Gunaikothoinas — “the god feasted by women.”  One time, the women of Tegea made an attack upon the enemy from an ambuscade. This decided the victory. The women, therefore, celebrated alone and excluded the men from the sacrificial feast.  (Paus. viii. 48. § 3)

So, no. Ares isn’t all about male supremacy. He’s all about valor. Gender is not really a factor. That’s just some toxic male fantasy that got projected onto him by men far less secure in their gender identity.

On a Personal Level

Fear is hatred. Fear makes us do horrific things. It makes us silent when we should speak out. It makes us run when we should intervene on the behalf of people who are being victimized.

It is impossible for me to do what is right when I am afraid. I can’t think clearly when I am afraid. Fear prevents me from being just and it prevents me from doing what I need to do. When I need to put fear (and insecurity) away, Ares is there for me. With his help, I am better able to live up to my values and do what I know is right.

 

1 Comment

  1. This is great, and very needed! One way to interpret myths is such that descriptions of Gods are descriptions of Their effects in the world. This hermeneutic was used in late antiquity with an interesting result: Zeus was seen to effect stability in all things while Ares did just the opposite — his is division as such. This makes sense of the Iliad’s statement that Zeus hates Ares more than any: stability is directly opposed to division.

    Destruction, violence, war — these all typify division. But, they don’t exhaust it. So, it only makes sense to pray to Ares to tear apart things like bad habits, poor health, or the like. Ares awesome 🙂 Looking forward to reading more!

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