The son of Zeus and Hera and one of the twelve chief Olympian deities, Ares was the god of rage, terror, and violence. Known as the “shield-piercing” and “city-sacking,” he was often portrayed in the midst of battle. Though he was often portrayed as the all-encompassing god of war, Ares traditionally represented only the most brutal, impulsive, and unrestrained aspects of combat. His counterpart Athena, meanwhile, represented the strategic and tactical aspects of martial conflict.

Ares’ impulsiveness, temper, and eagerness to cause wanton destruction made him perhaps the least appreciated of the Olympians. He was widely acknowledged by the Greeks, but seldom admired. Though Ares was a god, the Greeks often claimed that he was Thracian (Thrace was a region north of Greece home to a notoriously warlike people) in an attempt to disassociate him from Greek society and values. Ares’ unpopularity not only suggested that the Greeks were all too accustomed to conflict, but that they were also loath to celebrate its destructive tendencies.

The “Ludovisi Ares,” Roman copy of Greek original from ca. 320 BCE. Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Altemps, Rome, Italy. Unlike many of the chief male gods, such as Zeus, Poseidon and Hades, Ares is consistently depicted, as he is here, as a handsome young man without a beard, which was fitting for a figure with a shortage of wisdom and a surfeit of youthful passion.

Etymology

The name of the god “Ares” came most immediately from the word are, which in the ancient Greek means “bane,” “ruin,” and “curse” or “imprecation.” In the longer view, the word descended from the Proto Indo-European Mrēs—the probable root of the Roman and Latin name “Mars,” meaning “battle,” or “war.”

In the Mycenaean Greek, it was used in the form a-re, and was used in adjectival form to describe gods and goddesses going into battle, like so: “Zeus Areios,” or “Athena Areia.” This word also formed the basis of the Sanskrit word irasya, meaning “ill-will,” and it survived to the present day in English words such as “ire,” and “irate.”1

Family

Ares was the son of Zeus and Hera, the king and queen of the Olympian deities. His sisters were Hebe the cupbearer of the gods and goddesses, and Eileithyia, the goddess of motherhood, childbirth, and midwifery.

Like most Greek male deities, Ares was said to have had many lovers, as well as many children by them. He famously had a long and eventful affair with the married Aphrodite; together, they produced a litany of important figures, including Deimos, the god of terror and dread, and Phobos, the god of fear. Both gods served as attendants to Ares, and rode into battle with him on his chariot.

Ares and Aphrodite also had offspring with decidedly unexpected characteristics. These children included Adrestia (the goddess of balances and fitting retributions,) Harmonia (the goddess of harmony and peace,) and the deities known as the Erotes—winged deities associated with love and eroticism. These deities consisted of Eros (god of sexual love and bodily desire,) Anteros (the god of requited love, who punished those who refused the advances of others,) Himeros (a god associated with sexual intercourse whose name meant “uncontrollable desire,”) and Pothos (who appeared with a vine in his hands and represented longing). The children that Aphrodite and Ares bore together represented the idea that eroticism stemmed from a combination of love and the raw violence of passion.

Ares’ other children included Mygdon and Edonus, both born of Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry. With Otrera, the mortal queen of the Amazons, Ares sired Antiope, Melanippe, Penthesilea, and Hippolyta; this last child would one day become queen of the Amazons. As queen, Hippolyta wore a magical girdle and—much to her detriment—tangled with Hercules on several memorable occasions. Ares also fathered Nike, the goddess of victory, and the murderous Kyknus; their mothers, however, are not well attested.

Mythology

Ares and the Foundation of Thebes

According to legend, Ares co-founded the city of Thebes, a warlike city-state that enjoyed a brief period of hegemony in the fourth century BCE prior to the rise of Macedon. It was said that Ares created a water-dragon to terrorize the people who lived near the future site of Thebes.

One day, a great hero of Greek mythology, Cadmus, destroyed the dragon, angering Ares in the process. The belligerent god ordered Cadmus to show penance for his actions, and Cadmus did so by sowing the teeth of the dragon into the earth. Soon, warriors of Thebes known as the Spartoi began to emerge from the land Cadmus had sown. Afterwards, Cadmus took Ares’ daughter Harmonia as his bride and together they founded a dynasty that would rule Thebes for generations to come.

Ares and Aphrodite fresco from Pompeii, 1st century CE, Naples National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy. Once again, Ares is depicted as a young man. To the left and right of the gods are two of the Erotes, their love children.

Ares and Aphrodite

As with other gods and goddesses, many tales of Ares centered on his romantic escapades, including his courtship of Aphrodite. Over time, Ares began to fall in love with Aphrodite, who was married to Hephaestus, the god of craftsmanship. One day, the sun god Helios happened to observe Ares and Aphrodite having sex in Hephaestus’ bed. Helios rushed away to tell Hephaestus, and Aphrodite’s husband soon conjured up a scheme to ensnare the two. Using his great skill, Hephaestus fashioned a net made of material so fine that it was essentially invisible and placed it in his bed. The next time Ares and Aphrodite were enjoying each other’s company, Hephaestus sprang his trap, catching the two in the act.

Jacques-Louis David, The Combat of Ares and Athena (1771), Louvre Museum, Paris, France. Depicting a well-known scene from the Iliad, David’s painting shows Athena triumphant over Ares following their battle.

Adding insult to injury, Hephaestus invited the entire pantheon to witness what he had found. While the goddesses refused, claiming modesty, the male gods eagerly attended and laughed heartily when they saw what Hephaestus had to show them. Poseidon sympathized with the humiliated Ares, however, and pleaded with Hephaestus to release him. As it was told in the Odyssey:

The mighty Hephaestus loosed the bonds and the two, when they were freed from that bond so strong, sprang up straightway. And Ares departed to Thrace, but she, the laughter-loving Aphrodite, went to Cyprus, to Paphos, where is her demesne and fragrant altar.2

Ares in the Iliad

During the Trojan War, the impetuous, capricious, and belligerent Ares alternately fought for and against the Achaeans, the coalition of Greeks who invaded and besieged Troy. In the Homeric epic, Ares was described as “hateful,” “war glutton,” “killer of men,” and “curse of men." Tellingly, he was also depicted as a rather incapable warrior.

While Ares was defending the Trojans, he faced off against Athena, who was fighting on the side of the Achaeans. During their battle, Athena managed to wound Ares with a boulder. Later in the conflict, Athena imbued the mortal Diomedes with preternatural strength and courage, and Diomedes used these gifts to run Ares through with a spear. The poets of the Iliad cast the actions of the wounded Ares in an unfavorable light that said much about the god’s standing:

But Zeus who marshals storm clouds lowered a dark glance
And let loose at Ares: “No more, you lying, two-faced…
No more sidling up to me, whining here before me.
You—I hate you most of all the Olympian gods.
Always dear to your heart,
Strife, yes, and battles, the bloody grind of war.
You have your mother’s uncontrollable rage—incorrigible,
That Hera—say what I will, I can hardly keep her down.
Hera’s urgings, I trust, have made you suffer this.
But I cannot bear to see you agonize so long.
You are my child. To me your mother bore you.
If you had sprung from another god, believe me,
And grown into such a blinding devastation,
Long ago you’d have dropped below the Titans,
Deep in the dark pit.”3

Ares, the Luckless God

In another losing contest, bellicose Ares took on the great Hercules. Kyknos, a son of Ares from Macedon, was in the habit of waylaying travelers to the oracle at Delphi. According to some versions of the story, Kyknos was bloodthirsty and wanted to build a pyramid made of travelers’ skulls.

Despite his son’s violent nature, Ares loved him. When Apollo commissioned the mighty Hercules to slay Kyknos, Ares lashed out. The furious god confronted Hercules in battle, and might have won had Athena not defended Hercules. Ultimately, however, the battle left Ares with little more than an injured body and wounded pride. To the Greeks, who absorbed these tales of Ares’ embarrassing losses, the lesson was obvious: the calculated strategy of Athena would always overcome the blind rage of Ares.

One final tale of Ares reveals the gods’ relationship with other races of powerful, divine creatures. One day, Ares was abducted by Aloadae, Otos and Ephialtes, giants who were the sons of Poseidon and Iphimedia.

Angered by the defeat of the giants in the Gigantomachy, Otos and Ephialtes plotted revenge against the gods. They planned to abduct Artemis and Hera, but decided that they must first remove Ares from the picture. The giants soon captured him and stuffed him into a bronze pithos, or jar, keeping him there for an entire lunar year.

As luck would have it, Hermes caught wind of Ares’ fate and alerted Artemis. The goddess quickly offered herself to Ephialtes in exchange for Ares’ release, making Otos jealous. The giants decided it best to kill Artemis, but as they readied their bows the goddess assumed the shape of a deer and darted in between them. In the commotion, the giants missed the deer entirely and ended up shooting each other. Once more, artifice triumphed over anger.

Ares and the Greeks

For the Greek majority that idealized restraint above aggression, Ares stood as a warning against the dangers of unchecked passion and thoughtless action. Tellingly, Ares had followings among the Spartans and Thebans, warriors renowned not just for their skill and aggression, but for their eager glorification of war as well.

Pop Culture

In recent years, Ares has seen a resurgence in popular culture. While he has maintained much of his belligerency, he has also been reinvented as a diabolical plotter working to achieve sinister aims.

Ares featured prominently in the video game series God of War. In the first installment of the series, Ares served as the main antagonist and final boss. In the game’s story, Ares assailed Athens until Kratos, his former protege, came to rescue the beleaguered city.

In addition to an appearance in Disney’s Hercules, Ares enjoyed prominent roles in the television series Xena: Warrior Princess, and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. In both shows, Ares was portrayed by Kevin Tod Smith. In the former show, Ares comically balanced his love for Xena with a kind of recidivistic tendency to foment violence and hatred in people. Ares also featured as one of the main villains of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians book series, written by Rick Riordan.

Finally, Ares appeared as the principal antagonist in the blockbuster movie Wonder Woman (2017) starring Gal Gadot as Diana, an Amazon, and David Thewlis as Ares/Patrick Morgan, the secret of persona of Ares, a politician on the British Supreme War Council who was ironically pushing to end the hostilities in WWI. In Wonder Woman, Ares was a nefarious fellow who silently persuaded others to commit awful acts (aerial bombardments and attacks with chemical weapons, among others); in doing so, he quietly produced the horrors of the First World War. His portrayal as a plotter working behind the scenes was a vast departure from his ancient role as a brash and uninhibited brawler.

References

Bibliography

  1. “Ares.” Online Etymology dictionary. https://www.etymonline.com/word/ares.

  2. Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Viking, 1990.

  3. Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by A.T. Murray. Theoi Classical Texts Library. https://www.theoi.com/Text/HomerOdyssey8.html.

Footnotes

  1. “Ares,” Online Etymology dictionary

  2. Homer, The Odyssey, 8.359–370. 

  3. Homer, The Iliad, 5.1027–1041.