A few thoughts on the Rivalry of Ares and Athena

There is a reason that the chapter for Ares is going to come last in the book. I’ve put off writing this chapter longer than anything else. Ares is one of the Gods that I have always had the hardest time understanding, and upon reflection, I believe that may be partially because of the rivalry that is sometimes portrayed in myth between Ares and my own Goddess Athena. Athena was always my first introduction to the Greek pantheon, and in many ways my perceptions were at first deeply colored by how They were said to have interacted with Athena. In the past I also held Athena in such high esteem, that if She and another God approached the same subject in a different manner, I automatically considered Her position to be superior. Most of these feelings were certainly not conscious on my part, but nonetheless they were there.

Why am I mentioning this? Athena and Ares are, obviously, both War-Gods. Whereas Athena is the general who plans and directs the battle for its strategic purpose, Ares is the grunt, the soldier on the ground, who fights to the best of his ability, but might be considered ignorant of the “larger plan”. This might sound judgmental, but I assure you it isn’t. Ares’ position is just as important as Athena’s if not more so. No war can be won with a general alone – someone has to actually carry out the battle plans. Despite often being portrayed as rivals in war, Ares and Athena are both necessary parts in it.

Athena and Ares were on opposite sides of the Trojan War, at least after Aphrodite convinced Ares to change to the Trojan side. Athena was furious with Ares, not simply for backing the Trojans, but for breaking His word, His promise to support the Greeks. She goes so far to call Him “evil-wrought” and a “double-faced liar[1]”. But this could be a basic misunderstanding of Ares’ nature – if Ares is war itself personified, than He owes no alliance to one side or another. He moves among armies as He chooses, inspiring rage and battle-lust, blesses these He favors with the strength and stamina to survive the battle, on both sides. I’m not sure if Ares cares at all about the ideology behind a war, like Athena certainly does, but He certainly rejoices in the spirit of war.

But when it really mattered, when the Olympians were under siege, Athena and Ares put aside Their differences and fraught together. In the War against the Titans[2], in the War against the Giants[3], in the battle against the monstrous Typhoneus[4], They fought together. They had each other’s backs when it was important that They do so.

Pausanais spoke of a sanctuary to Ares that also housed statues to Aphrodite and Athena[5]. There is also a mention by a visitor from Lesbos that offerings to Ares of the enemies’ dropped weapons were made in a temple of Athena[6]. This is particularly interesting to me. If it’s an offering to Ares alone, why was it offered in the temple of Athena?

Their symbolism overlaps further in their association with the metal bronze. Bronze is mentioned in relation to Ares in only a few texts specific texts[7], but He had very common epithets of Khalkeos and Khalkokorustês, meaning “Brazen/Of the Bronze”, and “Armed with Bronze”, respectively.

In fact in Sparta, Athena was called Lady of the Bronze House, because Her temple was covered with bronze[8].  There is even a festival celebrating bronze-workers in Athens that was sacred to Athena and Hephaistos[9]. There are many more mentions I’ve found linking Athena to bronze than Ares, but I think this can be attributed to Her being vastly more popular than Ares.

They are also both related to horses, probably at least in part because of the animal’s usefulness in ancient war. Another interesting overlap between Ares and Athena, is that the barn owl and eagle owl are sacred to Ares. Owls in general are considered Athena’s birds, and She is almost always pictured with one. In orinthomancy, or the ancient art of divination by birds, these particular owls’ appearance foretold war, sedition, and bloodshed.

So it should be obvious by now that Ares and Athena are intimately connected. Even if They are at times locked in vicious conflict, ultimately They clearly respect each other and can work together when They have to. All Gods deserve our respect, and maybe if They can get along occasionally, than we can can make peace with our rivals, too.

[1] Homer. Iliad 5. 699 ff

[2] Nonnus. Dionysiaca 18. 274 ff

[3] Apollonius Rhodius. Argonautica 3. 1227 f

[4] Antoninus Liberalis. Metamorphoses 28

[5] Pausanias. Description of Greece 1. 8. 4

[6] Strabo. Geography 13. 1. 38

[7] Herodotus. Histories 7. 61. 1

[8] Pausanias. Description of Greece 3. 17. 2 – 4

[9] Suidas s.v. Khalkeia

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