Tuesday, October 21, 2014

God of Great Fury

How 'bout some discussion of Greek gods? Today, someone asks this one: There are a lot of fictional adaptations of him, so can we talk about Ares, the God of War, and his place in the Hellenistic world?

I think this question is mostly asking about how Ares is usually characterized in Greek myth, and how that might differ from the average fictional adaptation version of him we might see in more modern media, which is a neat subject indeed. Modern fictional versions of Ares often appear as violent bloodthirsty types, rushing headlong into battle even when they shouldn't (in the 2011 movie Immortals, for example) or so rowdy and uncontrolled in their passions that they rebel against even Zeus (as the Marvel comics universe or Wrath of the Titans, the recent sequel to the remake of Clash of the Titans).

And you know what? As a matter of fact, that's not too far from the ancient Greek conception of their god of war, who was not among either their most popular deities or their most well-behaved epic characters. The ancient Greek god of war is a sort of chaotic personification of mayhem, battle-madness and violence, so it shouldn't surprise anyone too much that no one wants to stand super close to him unless things have already gone completely haywire.

Yes, it does say "Artemis" next to him - that's because she's on his left in the original painting.

Ares' name most likely means something along the lines of "disaster", "ruin" or "battle", which is perfectly appropriate since that is basically what he is all about. Ares is characterized as not just good at fighting in Greek myth, but as bloodthirsty, uncontrollable, frenzied and in utter love with destruction and bloodshed; where Ares goes, fierce and vicious fighting follows, which makes him an excellent patron god of warriors who need that kind of unfettered will to destroy their enemies in battle but also renders him a dangerous loose cannon at all other times. In fact, he is often a problem even in battle itself, when he encourages it to go overboard into mad slaughter and ruin when it doesn't need to.

Epithets and descriptions of Ares reflect this general sense of great physical power and intense danger that goes along with it. When the ancient Greek writers extol his virtues, they call him "great of strength", "unwearying", "mighty" and "unconquered"; but they also refer to him with decidedly frightening descriptions as well, including "destroyer of mortals", "gore-defiled", "savage", "mad", "the dread god", "manslaughterer", "grim", "deadly", "bloodstained", "evil-maker" and a thousand other ways of saying that he is a creature of destruction and death. Prayers and hymns to Ares most often revolve around asking him to grant warriors power in battle, but they also often include verses that ask Ares not to make them too slaughter-happy lest they become unacceptably bloodthirsty, or when used for worship ask Ares to please calm down and go hang out with Aphrodite and/or Dionysus so they can distract him with sex and wine and prevent him from just rampaging all over the place at the drop of a hat.

Our conception of Ares as "god of war" is actually pretty generalized; he's not really about war as a concept as much as he is about slaughter, mayhem and bloodlust, which occur most commonly during battle. He has very little to do with other aspects of war, like tactics, strategy or leadership of troops, which fall under his half-sister Athena's purview instead. And if that wasn't specific enough, he's usually accompanied by a gaggle of divine children who act as specialized representatives of his power, including Phobos (terror), Deimos (rout), Eris (strife) and Enyalios (warlike).

With Ares this much of a dangerous disaster engine, it's probably not too surprising that most of his most famous fights are against other gods and heroes who are at least nominally his allies. Among his greatest hits are his quarrel with Poseidon, who attempted to have him executed after he killed Poseidon's son Hallirhothios to avenge the rape of his daughter Alkippe, his indirect combat against Athena during the Trojan war in which she used the mortal Diomedes to defeat him by proxy, and his murder of Adonis, who was a rival for the affections of the beautiful Aphrodite and who he straight up killed in the form of a wild boar. Of course, he did his duty during the Gigantomachy as well, pitching in to murder many giants and save his pantheon, but it's still pretty noticeable that he's pointed at the other gods at least as often as he's pointed at their enemies, often with gruesome results.

Or, we could just give Zeus the floor for a moment, to tell it like it is (in Homer's Iliad) the way only he can:

Then with an angry glance from beneath his brows spake to him Zeus, the cloud-gatherer [to Ares]: "Sit thou not in any wise by me and whine, thou renegade. Most hateful to me art thou of all gods that hold Olympus, for ever is strife dear to thee and wars and fightings. Thou hast the unbearable, unyielding spirit of thy mother, even of Hera; her can I scarce control by my words. Wherefore it is by her promptings, meseems, that thou sufferest thus. Howbeit I will no longer endure that thou shouldest be in pain, for thou art mine offspring, and it was to me that thy mother bare thee; but wert thou born of some other god and proved so ruinous long since thou wouldst have been dropped beneath the gods of the bright sky."

Or, in plainer language, "Shut up and stop whining, you pain in the ass. I hate you more than all other gods because of how many problems you cause, just like your mother is constantly driving me up the wall. I'll get you healing, because you're my son, but if you were anyone else's kid I would have kicked you out years ago." This is after, incidentally, he earlier had a conversation wherein Athena said, "Hey, is it okay with you if I go kick Ares' ass?" and he responded, "Oh, totally go for it, he deserves it."

So Ares is in general sort of this wild and dangerous problem child who sometimes shows up to things and blows them up. I know you were looking for comparisons to modern media, but it's worth it to do a quick comparison between ancient Greek Ares and the first round of determined fan-rewriting about him - the Roman Empire, which conflated him with their war god Mars. Mars gets all of Ares' stories pasted onto him, including his love affair with Aphrodite/Venus, but the Romans were fans of very ordered and organized combat and definitely not into the whole wild slaughter thing, which they found embarrassing and abhorrent. So Mars became much less of a danger to himself and others in the Roman pantheon (or maybe it's more accurate to say that the Roman god Mars gained the stories of Ares' exploits but not his personality?), and became a god of battle in a more general sense, incorporating many ideas of honor and tactics that were not part of the original Ares toolkit.

Interestingly, this different personality for Mars made him much more of a dignified and respected figure as a god, and gained him widespread cult worship, which in turn made him way more popular in Rome than he ever was in Greece. Almost all of our Renaissance artwork is of Mars rather than Ares, for understandable reasons - he is way less problematic and dangerous, after all - and because of his association with honor and manliness as Mars, it is also the Roman myths that make his love affair with Venus so popular, as opposed to the ancient Greek myths that more often make fun of the humiliation of the two of them getting caught and the immorality of the adultery in the first place.

(Watching how very different Roman mythology is from Greek mythology, even though the same story is present in both a lot of the time, is a whole lifetime's worth of reading and research. Check it out some time, because it's a trip!)

I love this painting, by the way (which is by Guillemot, a French painter from the nineteenth century), because of how Venus looks embarrassed, Mars looks like "uh-oh" and Vulcan is just over there looking at them like "Dude, really?"