Who or what is Ares actually? Like Walter F. Otto said better than me, the ancient Greek Religion and so the other so-called pagan religions are 'religions of reality', in which the presence of the gods can be perceived in the surrounding world, in ourselves, in our actions and in others' and in the events of the world. The religion as a whole of deities and practices is a consequence of a specific worldview, so we can try to understand what Ares meant in that world. We are used to say that Ares is the god of war, but in epic poems like the Iliad, we find many other gods and goddesses at war, like Athena. So Ares can't be simply the god who presides over wars, this would be a Christianized vision, according to which a god is outside the things he creates or causes, while a pagan god is the divine essence of something.
We usually attribute some features to the whole Greek religion, even when those features are more typical of a part of the Greek religions: we forget what we have just said, that the pagan religion is a religion of reality and derives from a worldview which can be different from city to city and from region to region. Those of you who remember something about greek history, certainly remember that Greek cities are called city-states, that Greece didn't reach a political unity until Alexander, that there were different Greek dialects and populations, each of them having its own peculiarities, let's just look at the always-made comparison between Athens and Sparta. So we shouldn't be surprised if the city of Tegea called Ares "the god of women" and if in the city of Trezene the god and the Amazons were worshipped together. We are certainly less surprised to see him worshipped together with Aphroditis: Ares' temples usually hosted also a cult to the goddess and they are lovers in mythology.
All these relations should help us to understand Ares more, since every divine character must be considered inside the web of relations with other characters in a pantheon, because they are all part of a same worldview. This is the first piece of the puzzle: Ares' relationship with Aphroditis, with which he had three children, part of this puzzle too. They are Phobos, that means fear, Deimos, that means terror, and Harmony. Ares is also linked to feminine fertility.
In ancient texts, Ares is defined 'hateful to men and gods' because of his link with blood and battle, but he also has a positive side, as we can read in a Homeric hymn:
Eighth hymn: to Ares
Ares haughty in spirit, heavy on chariot, golden-helmed; grim hearted, shieldbearer, city savior, bronze-armored; tough of arm, untiring, spear-strong, bulwark of Olympus; father of Victory in the good fight, ally of Law; oppressor of the rebellious, leader of the righteous; sceptred king of manliness, as you wheel your fiery circle among the seven coursing lights of the ether, where your flaming steeds ever keep you up on the third orbit; hearken, helper of mankind, giver of brave young manhood, and gleam down your kindly flare from on high into my life, and martial strength, so that I might chase bitter wickedness away from my head, deflect the soul-deceiving impulse in my thoughts, and restrain the sharp force of appetite that provokes me to embark on chill conflict. Blessed one, grant me courage to abide the innocuous principles of peace, escaping battle with my enemies and the perils of violence.
Taken from Homeric hymns, Homeric apocrypha, Lives of Homer, edited by Martin L. West, London, Harvard University Press, 2003
This is quite an irregular among Homeric hymns: all others of them, in fact, celebrate a god through a myth, while this is an invocation closer to Neoplatonic and Orphic hymns. The text can be dated to a later period and according to some scholars its author could be even Proclus or Plotinus. Maybe the scribe who copied the Byzantine anthology from which we know those hymns made a mistake and put here one of Proclus' hymns also included in the anthology.
The Orphic hymns to Ares has a similar scheme: a series of adjectives (even though those aren't always translated as adjective, because of a peculiarity of Greek language we'll see in a while) and a final call to the "peace that nourishes the young". Pagan gods often are two-sided, they are something but they protect their contrary: so Ares, related to the warfare, protects the peace and Artemis, goddess of wood and wild beasts protects both animals and hunters. This Ares evoked in the hymn is the Neoplatonic and Orphic Ares, that is the thymòs, Greek word for heart, courage. Here we don't find a relation with Aphroditis, nor a link to Athena: Athena often is opposite to him, like in the Iliad, where the goddess reminds him she's stronger. In the Iliad there is another Ares, fighting, bloodthirsty, defeated by Athena who is a goddess of warfare too, since she's born from the head of Zeus with weapons in her hands.
Let's step back to the conception of pagan religion as a religion of reality, conveying a perception of the divine in the world. What else expresses a population's worldview? The language. The ancient Greek language is rich in adjectives and nouns. In Greece, philosophy is born, and philosophy is the description of concepts and ideas: description is made by adjectives. So we can find among the Greeks a particular attention toward concepts and this attention expresses also in the perception of gods. Look at Hesiod's Theogony: from the Chaos, Herebus and Night are born, Night gives origin to Day, Blame, Misfortune, Nemesis, Dispute, Deceit and so on. As we can see, these gods express the same concept expressed in their names, so why shouldn't we think that the Olympic Gods, too, are the divine expression of an idea?
Aphroditis, the seduction, a very powerful titan (she's Uranus daughter, and, as a Titan, a goddess of 'primordial' human feelings, like Temi, another Titan goddess, is the justice in itself, differently from Dike who is the justice according to human laws), with Ares, gives birth to Harmony. We can have harmony between two opposites and the opposite of seduction is imposition. Ares is in war the opposite of Athena, who is the planning intelligence or strength directed toward an aim: she was born with shield and spear from the head of Zeus who had swallowed Metis, whose name means 'intelligence'. Ares is considered bloodthirsty, but in other contexts he has to do with women's fertility, which is linked to the blood too: so who is Ares?
Ares is the brutal, explosive force and his name comes from the linguistic root that means 'violence, damage'. Burkert says that Ares was at the beginning an abstract noun meaning 'throng of battle, war'. Ares is the throng of battle, hateful because it kills, but according to the Orphics and the Neoplatonics can be the prelude for peace, and according to some Greek cultures he's also that explosive force we can see when a woman gives birth to a child, that has to do with the blood, too, and is expression of fertility. That's not easy to explain because the intuition of the divine in the world isn't easy to explain by the reason: that's why the ancient Greek language is so rich in adjectives and nouns and created philosophy.
Later, Ares was compared to Mars. The Romans themselves made the comparison and took on Mars some Greek myths about Ares, as they did for other Gods. But was Mars originally the same god?
In this case too, the pantheon expresses the worldview of a specific culture. For example, Hercules can be considered somehow an Italic god not because of his name, which he has certainly in common with the Greek Heracles, but because of what he represents: in his most ancient cults, Hercules has some features that Heracles doesn't have or not so evident, therefore, even though their names have the same origin, these figures don't express the same part of the world and are originally different gods. Nobody today would still call Mercury the main god of Celts and Germans, like Cesar did, but we agree to do that with Greek and Roman gods, because of the tight and early bound between these cultures.
Greek and Latin as languages are different too: we said that Greek is rich in adjectives and nouns and that in Greece philosophy was born. Latin philosophic words are all borrowed from Greek language because Latin is richer in verbs than in nouns, though in translations we often can't appreciate the subtle difference among certain verbs. Since the Latin worldview focuses on actions, in the Roman pantheon we find gods and goddesses, especially those of the origins, who express the divine part of an action. One of the earlier names of Mars was gradivus, a word that comes from the verb gradior, that means 'to walk', so Mars is called 'he who walks', maybe referring to the ver sacrum ceremony, dedicated to the god, in which young males of a population left their city to found a new one. The Salii, priests of Mars in Rome, honored the god leaping and dancing; farmers used to make three animals walk around their property three times and then sacrifice them to the god.
Dumezil says that, in spite of this, Mars can't be considered a god of agriculture; he adopted the theory of a strict tripartition, according to which a deity could be only a god of sovereignty, or a god of warfare, or a god of home and agriculture, but he also wrote in a time in which the Hindu civilization was considered the source of all Indo-European civilization, a theory which is today outdated. Today this tripartition is considered too strict and, from a pagan point of view, doesn't consider that the Roman gods are actions. Nor it considers the linguistic side of the matter: according to linguists, a god can't take origin from another when the names don't have the same root. So in this sense we could say that Mars has to do with agriculture because he has to do with the whole city life, even though we can't say that he's a god of agriculture or fertility.
An ancient Latin religious poem, known as Carmen Arvale and written about in the 4th century b.c.e., is dedicated to Mars. The Arval brethren were priests dedicated to the field fertility and their name comes from the Latin word arva, that means fruits. Just one single verse of this Carmen makes us understand the difference between Mars and Ares. The verse says "be satisfied, fierce Mars, jump on the threshold, stay there!". Three verbs in one verse, while the original version of the Homeric Hymn to Ares has 17 verses and the first verb referred to Ares is in the second half of the poem. So what is Mars doing? He moves on the threshold and stays there, holding, because Mars is the fighting, is the action of fighting, especially in defense. A field can be protected against enemies, but also against parasites or everything that prevents the growth of the harvest. Ceres is the growth of harvests, Mars is their defense.
As we saw, Ares and Mars are similar, but not equals because they come from different, similar but not equal, cultures; they are compared to each other through the institute of interpretation, the 'translation' of a god from a culture to another. In some coming page we'll see the same interpretation working to unite Mars with several Celtic gods, and how this union helps us to understand the original nature of the Roman God too.
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