A mighty god who can bellow like nine thousand men, Ares knows both the victory and defeat of battle. He arrives in battle in a war-chariot drawn by golden-bridled horses, wearing his golden armor and helmet and brandishing a gigantic bronze spear. Perhaps moreso than the other gods, he dwells within those who worship him, being those who are drawn to or faced with battle and conflict. The Iliad explains how difficult it could be to govern war, particularly when other gods choose to get involved:
“Ares was indifferent to taking sides in the Trojan War, and his promise to fight alongside the Greeks was not one he gave great weight; Aphrodite was able to persuade her lover to change sides, much to Athene’s consternation.”
This depiction of Ares from the Iliad reminds us that he cannot be bound to a single belief or philosophy; Ares comes to all who feel embattled or filled with anger. Unlike those gods who largely received their offerings at temples, Ares accepts his due whenever, and wherever, it manifests. It is no surprise that he was indifferent – Ares is needed by soldiers regardless of their cause or king, and he is arguably the most egalitarian of the gods.
In ancient times, Ares was not the subject of many statues, nor were many temples built to him. This makes it difficult to study how he was worshiped. References to the god in the Iliad and Seven Against Thebes interpret mention of Ares’ name is metaphor in most cases: “secure the city before Ares’ blast storms down upon it” is seen as a synonym for an invading army. What is more likely is that Ares was believed to reside in the heart of each soldier in that army, making it less about colorful language and more about the action of the War God himself, through the swords of his followers.
Ares has never required temples to be worshiped; he is present whenever anger and the possibility of battle invite him to be.
So it was unfair of his fellows to ask Ares to limit his influence over such a war by committing to but one side. Battle and anger are sacred to Ares, and one does not expect a god to forsake something which is sacred to him. Ares also holds the poisonous serpent, the boar, and the vulture sacred; although they are not even closely related, the turkey vulture serves a similar role as the vulture and is probably also sacred to him. He is the ancestor of Thebes through the Spartoi, children of the dragon’s teeth, and serves as a Cthonic god there, worshiped as ancestor.
His names and epithets, not surprisingly, refer to his warrior aspect. He is called Aatos Polemoio (battle-insatiate), Brotoloigos (destroyer of men), Deinos (the terrible), Enkhespelos (spear-shaking), Enyalios Andreiphontes (the murderous Lord of Battles), Khrysopêlêx (god of the golden helmet), Loassoos (who rallies men), Miaiphonos (bloodstained), Obrimos (the mighty), Oxus (sharp or fierce), Polemistes Talaurinos (the god who fights under the shield’s guard), Teikesipletes (stormer of strong walls), and Thoos (swift), among others. These examples are mostly drawn from the Iliad.
Ares oversees many aspects of battle, and these can appear contradictory. He is God of War, War Averted, Rebellion, Civil Order, Brigands, Banditry, Violence, Rage, Anger Controlled, Courage, Manliness, Cowardice, and Fear. This means that Ares is the god to turn to, both to encourage and avert any of these things. Ares can be appeased to prevent war, control anger, and master fear; thankfully the same god that governs manliness understands cowardice!
The Spartans had a statue of Ares bound before Nike, which was intended to keep the warrior-god’s spirit in the city. Together with offerings to appease his bloodlust, this sort of binding is the most common form of ancient worship that we’re presently aware of. Ares was, and is, a god with very clear motivations, and appears to have been honored in much the same way that an earthquake or hurricane might be: to ask that the power be directed so as to avoid harm, or at least to cause that harm to someone else.
It is not nearly as common to go to war as it was two or three millennia ago, but Ares still has much to offer the world. He can be seen in the political strife that tears our country apart: debates over same-sex marriage, gun control, and health care come to mind. His hand is the one that defeated the Nazis and tore down the Berlin Wall. His rage protects women from violence and punishes the rapist. He gives courage to the oppressed, stays the hand of the potential suicide victim when all seems lost, and gives mothers the strength to protect their children against the dangers of the day.
Perhaps it is put best in Hearthstone’s Devotion: Prayers to the Gods of the Greeks:
“Grant me strength, son of Zeus, guide my hand at need, my heart at impact.”
This is an award-winning essay on Ares that I wrote some months ago, and present here now, because I just got word yesterday that my prize should be arriving imminently. Hail Ares!