Classical Mythology: Mars

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The Image and Descent of Mars

Mars is fierce and sour in his aspect; terror is every where in his looks, as well as in his dress; he sits in a chariot drawn by a pair of horses, which are driven by a distracted woman; he is covered with armour, and brandishes a spear in his right hand, as though he breathed fire and death, and threatened every body with ruin and destruction.

Mars, the god of war, who is often seen on horse back, in a formidable manner, with a whip and a spear together. The dog was consecrated to him, for his vigilance in the pursuit of his prey; the wolf, for his rapaciousness; the raven, because he diligently follows armies when they march, and watches or the carcasses of the slain; and the cock, for his watchfulness, whereby he prevents all surprise. But, that you may understand every thing in the picture, observe, that the creatures which draw the chariot are not horses, but Fear and Terror. Sometimes Discord goes before them in tattered garments, and Clamour and Anger go behind. Yet some say, that Fear and Terror are servants to Mars; and accordingly, he is not more awful and imperious in his commands, than they are ready and exact in their obedience.

Claudian writes in his work “Against Rufinus”:

My helmet let Bellona bring; Terror my traces fit;
And, panic Fear, do thou the rapid driver sit.

Virgil sings in book 8 of the “Aeneid”:

Mars in the middle of the shining shield
Is grav’d, and strides along the liquid field.
The Dirae come from heav’n with quick descent,
And Discord, died in blood, with garments rent,
Divides the press: her steps Bellona treads,
And shakes her iron rod above their heads.

Bellona is the goddess of war, and the companion of Mars; or, as others say, his sister, or wife. She prepares for him his chariot and horses when he goes to fight. It is plain that she is called Bellona from bellum. She is otherwise called Duellona from duellum, or from the Greek word belone (needle), of which she is said to be the inventress. Her priests, the Bellonarii, sacrificed to her in their own blood; they hold in each hand naked swords, with which they cut their shoulders, and wildly run up and down like men mad and possessed: upon which people thought, that (after the sacrifice was ended) they were able to foretell future events. Claudian introduces Bellona combing snakes; and the poet Silius Italicus describes her shaking a burning torch, with her hair hanging loose, stained and clotted with blood, and running through the midst of the ranks of the army, uttering horrid shrieks and dreadful groans.

Her torch Bellona waving through the air,
Sprinkles with clotted gore her flaming hair,
And through both armies up and down doth flee,
While from her horrid breast Tissiphone
A dreadful murmur sends.

In Homer’s Iliad, we have a description of a battle in which Mars, Minerva, and Discord, are engaged:

Loud clamours rose from various nations round,
Mix’d was the murmur, and confus’d the sound:
Each host now joins, and each a god inspires;
These Mars incites, and those Minerva fires.
Pale Flight around, and dreadful Terror reign;
And Discord, raging, bathes the purple plain.
Discord, dire sister of the slaught’ring pow’r,
Small at her birth, but rising every hour;
While scarce the skies her horrid head can bound;
She stalks on earth, and shakes the world around;
The nations bleed where’er her steps she turns:
The groan still deepens, and the combat burns.

Before the temple of this goddess, there stood a pillar called Bellica, over which the herald threw a spear, when he proclaimed war.

Mars is said to be the son of Jupiter and Juno, though, according to Ovid’s story, he is the child of Juno only.

He married Nerio or Nerione, which word in the Sabian language signifies “valour and strength,” and from her the Claudian family derived the name of Nero.

Names and Actions of Mars

The name of Mars sets forth the power and influence he has in war, where he presides over the soldiers; and his other name, Mavors, shows that all great exploits are executed and brought about through his means.

The Greeks call him Ares, either from the destruction and slaughter which he causes; or from the silence which is kept in war, where actions, not words, are necessary. But from whatever words this name is derived, it is certain that those famous names Areopagus and Areopagita, are derived from Ares. The Areopagus, that is, the “hill” or “mountain” of Mars, was a place at Athens, in which Mars, being accused of murder and incest, was forced to defend himself in a trial before twelve gods, and was acquitted by six voices; from which time, that place became a court wherein were tried capital causes, and the things belonging to religion. The Areopagitae were the judges, whose integrity and credit was so great, that no person could be admitted into their society, unless he delivered in public an account of his past life, and was found in every part thereof blameless. And, that the lawyers who pleaded, might not blind the eyes of the judges by their charms of eloquence, they were obliged to plead their causes without any ornaments of speech; if they did otherwise, they were immediately commanded to be silent. And, lest they should be moved to compassion by seeing the miserable conditions of the prisoners, they gave sentence in the dark, without lights; not by words, but on paper; hence, when a man speaks little or nothing, they used proverbially to say of him, that “He is as silent as name one of the judges comes in the Areopagus.”

His name Gradivus comes from his stateliness in marching; or from his vigour in brandishing his spear. He is called Quirinus, from Curis or Quiris, signifying a spear; whence comes securis or semicuris, a piece of a spear. And this name was afterward attributed to Romulus, because he was esteemed the son of Mars; from whom the Romans were called Quirites. Gradivus is the name of Mars when he rages; and Quirinus, when he is quiet. And accordingly there were two temples at Rome dedicated to him; one within the city, which was dedicated to Mars Quirinus, the keeper of the city’s peace; the other outside the city, near the gate, to Mars Gradivus, the warrior, and the defender of the city against all out ward enemies.

The ancient Latins applied to him the title of Salisubsulus, or “dancer,” from salio, because his temper is very unconstant and uncertain, inclining some times to this side, and sometimes to that, in wars: whence we say, that the issue of battle is uncertain, and the chance dubious. But we must not think that Mars was the only god of war; for Bellona, Victoria, Sol, Luna, and Pluto, used to be reckoned in the number of martial deities. It was usual with the Lacaedemonians to shackle the feet of the image of Mars, that he should not fly from them: and among the Romans, the priests Salii were instituted to look after the sacrifices of Mars, and go about the city dancing with their shields.

The poets relate only one action of this terrible god: this is his attachment to Venus, and her treachery. Sol was the first that discovered it, and he immediately acquainted Vulcan, Venus’ husband. Vulcan instantly made a net of iron, whose links were so small and slender, that it was invisible. By this the lovers were caught, Alectryon, Mars’ favorite, suffered punishment, because, when he was appointed to watch, he fell asleep, and so gave Sol an opportunity to slip in; therefore Mars changed him into a cock, which to this day is so mindful of his old fault, that he constantly gives notice of the approach of the sun, by crowing.

The Story of Tereus; the Sacrifices of Mars

Tereus, the son of Mars, by the nymph Bistonis, married Progne, the daughter of Pandion, king of Athens, when he was king of Trace. This Progne had a sister called Philomela, a virgin in modesty and beauty inferior to none. She lived with her father at Athens. Progne, being desirous to see her sister, asked Tereus to fetch Philomela to her, with which he complied. Tereus fell desperately in love with Philomela; and as they travelled together, because she refused to favor his addresses, he over powered her, cut out her tongue, and threw her into a prison; and returning afterwards to his wife, pretended that Philomela died in her journey; and that his story might appear true, he shed many tears and put on mourning. But injuries sharpen the wit, and a desire of revenge makes people cunning: for Philomela, though she was dumb, found out a way to tell her sister the villainy of Tereus. She described the violence offered to her in embroidery, and sent the work folded up to her sister. Progne no sooner viewed it, than she was so transported with passion that she could not speak, her thoughts being wholly taken up in contriving how she should avenge the affront. First, then, she hastened to her sister, and brought her home without Tereus’ knowledge. While she was thus meditating revenge, her young son Itys came and embraced his mother; but she carried him aside into the remote parts of the house, and slew him while he hung about her neck, and called her mother. When she had killed him, she cut him into pieces, and dressed the flesh, and gave it Tereus for supper, who fed heartily on it. After supper he sent for his son Itys: Progne told him what she had done, and Philomela showed him his son’s head. Tereus, incensed with rage, rushed on them both with his drawn sword; but they fled away, and fear added wings to their flight: so that Progne became a swallow, and Philomela a nightingale. Tereus was also changed into a hoopoe, which is one of the filthiest of all birds. The gods out of pity changed Itys into a pheasant. This myth is related by Ovid in the Metamorphoses.

To Mars were sacrificed the wolf for his fierceness; the horse for his usefulness in war; the woodpecker and the vulture for their ravenousness; the cock for his vigilance, which is a prime virtue among soldiers; and grass, because it grows in towns laid desolate by war.

Among the ancient rites belonging to Mars, the most memorable is the following: Whoever undertook the conduct of any war, went into the vestry of the temple of Mars; and first shook the Ancilla, a holy shield, afterwards the spear of the image of Mars, and said “Mars, watch!”

Comprehension Questions

  1. What is the subject of this lesson?
  2. How is Mars represented?
  3. How is his chariot drawn and driven?
  4. What animals are consecrated to Mars?
  5. Repeat the lines in Virgil.
  6. Who is Bellona?
  7. Who is Bellonarii?
  8. How is Bellona represented by Claudian?
  9. Who was Mars?
  10. Whom did he marry?
  11. What does the name of Mars import?
  12. What do the Greeks call him?
  13. What names are derived from Ares?
  14. Who were the Areopagitae?
  15. From what does Mars derive his name Gradivus?
  16. Why is he called Quirinus?
  17. On what account has he the title of Salisubsulus?
  18. What action is related of Mars?
  19. Who discovered Venus’ treachery, and what was done in con sequence?
  20. What happened to Alectryon?
  21. Who was Tereus, and whom did he marry?
  22. Give some account of the story of Philomela.
  23. Into what were Progne, Philomela, Tereus, and Itys metamorphosed?
  24. What were the sacrifices offered to Mars and on what account?
  25. What rite did the ancient warriors perform before they went out to battle?
  26. Briefly summarize the content of this lesson.

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