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Giorno Pagano Europeo della Memoria – Papers – n.

1 – Ares, Mars and the others

30 giugno 2013


Understanding the relations between ancient worls deities to understand the original
character of each
Like Walter F. Otto said better than me, the ancient Greek Religion and so the other so-called
pagan (better: European prechristian) 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. Each religion as a whole of deities and practices is consequence of a
specific worldview, in which we must contextualize the single deity to understand it better. Since no
ancient culture was isolated, and Europe saw during the period from prehistory to christianity an
intense cultural exchange among populations, religions interacted too, exchanging and completing
their pantheons and practices with the others’.

This process lasted for centuries and had different results across time and space; what remains
to modern times is a whole in which is difficult to distinguish the original parts. We risk to ascribe
to an ancient culture a worldview not belonging to it, that is worse if we use a modern view on
ancient cultures. One thing we usually fail to recognize to ancient religions is the importance of
relations among gods and goddesses. These actually help us to understand the single god not only
when relations take place inside the same culture, but also when relations are between
‘corresponding’ gods from different cultures. An example of this comes from the following
comparison between Ares, Mars and his several equivalents in the so-called Gallo-Roman religion.

Part one: from Ares to Mars

Who or what is Ares actually? We use 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. 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:

Giorno Pagano Europeo della Memoria – Papers – n. 1 – Ares, Mars and the others
30 giugno 2013

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.1

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?

Homeric hymns, Homeric apocrypha, Lives of Homer, edited by Martin L. West, London, Harvard University Press,

Giorno Pagano Europeo della Memoria – Papers – n. 1 – Ares, Mars and the others
30 giugno 2013

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’. Burkert2 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

See bibliography

Giorno Pagano Europeo della Memoria – Papers – n. 1 – Ares, Mars and the others
30 giugno 2013

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
interpretatio, the ‘translation’ of a god from a culture to another.

Seconda parte – Marte attraverso la religione Gallo-Romana

After dealing with the difference between Ares and Mars as an expression of the difference of
Greek’s and Roman’s worldviews, a difference that can be perceived also in studying their
languages, let’s talk about how the Roman god Mars has been joined with different Celtic gods and
how this could help us to understand better both these paganisms.

When the Celts first got in touch with Romans, apart from battles for the possession of lands,
a cultural exchange between the two populations occurred. Then, the imposition of a religion didn’t
exist: nobody tried to consciously delete the cult of Celtic gods and goddesses. What did really exist
was what modern scholars call interpretatio, that is the ‘translation’ of one god into another culture.
Since a pagan god as humans describe him is the result of some kind of world perception, then the
god is a concept and can be translated, even though this translation can be more or less accurate.
Sometimes a language has an idea expressed in one word while another language needs two or more
words to express the same thing: this happens with common words as well as with the gods.
Teutatis and Esus, two of the most important and known Celtic Gods, have been compared both
with Mars and with Mercury. It appears obvious that it was because none of the Roman Gods was
exactly the same as the Celtic God being ‘translated’, so, since the name was after all not so
important, Romans thought it was no harm to call the Celtic God with different Roman names in
different contexts.

Giorno Pagano Europeo della Memoria – Papers – n. 1 – Ares, Mars and the others
30 giugno 2013

The contacts between Celts and Romans came certainly before the great battles led by Cesar
in order to subjugate the Gaul. It’s true that Cesar is the first to write about the interpretatio of
Celtic gods, but it’s true also that in facts the interpretatio must have been realized before. Cesar’s
accounts about Celtic religion aren’t so much reliable. Actually Cesar wasn’t very interested in
religion: all he wanted was to conquer the Gaul and bring this result back to the Senate for political
aims. Cesar is also accountable for defamation of Gallic religion, spreading rumors that never found
any confirmation by archaeological excavations.

Since literary sources are indubitably partial, we must refer to archaeology or to epigraphy to
understand how Mars entered Celtic, or better speaking Gallo-roman, religion. The Gallo-roman
religion was born from the close link that formed between Roman names of gods and Celtic names
of gods or adjectives. This kind of religion wasn’t born from an imposition under which Celtic cult
had to go on secretly, but it was some kind of a fusion and we must remember that the Gaul
remained pagan long after Rome officially converted.

This fusion is ‘useful’ for us who want to look at these religions because it helps us to
understand them both: since it happened between real practiced cults it may help us understand the
original meaning that the god Mars had beyond its comparison with Ares and since the Celtic
religion didn’t usually imply great worship buildings, made in durable materials, nor many
inscriptions while the Roman religion did, we have more written clues to understand something
about Celtic religion.

Among the Celts Mars was a god of battles but often is also the patron of a particular place,
like a mountain, or a tribe: this remembers us the ancient Roman name of “father” Mars was called
with and also the ceremony of the Ver Sacrum, when young men, consecrated to Mars, left their
village to create another one and so another population, sometimes following an animal sacred to
the god from which they lately took their name. According to the legends, this was the origin of
Picenes (from the latin word picus that means woodpecker, sacred to Mars), of the Marsi, the
Frentani, the Marrucini, all Italic populations.

The Celtic Mars is also related to healing, especially from eye illnesses, and seldom to
celestial worship: the Salii priests in Rome, who used to dance wearing armors to honour Mars,
sang a song in which a god was called “Leucesie”, that means “luminous”, and it is said that he
“thunders” causing the gods to shake; some scholars suggested he could be Mars too. Furthermore,
in Mars’ temple in Rome the Lapis Manalis, a sacred stone we read about in Festus’ (second
century c.e. grammarian from Gaul) works, was kept until the moment came to use it for sacrifices
to Jupiter to get rain.

Anyway, in Gallo-Roman religion Mars has always been a very important god and he has
been compared to several Celtic gods or received different Celtic appellations. Let’s make an
overview of them3:

Mars Albiorix: the tribe of the Albices in Southern Gaul considered him the god of their
mountain. According to some scholars his name may mean “king of the world”.

From Miranda J. Green, Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend

Giorno Pagano Europeo della Memoria – Papers – n. 1 – Ares, Mars and the others
30 giugno 2013

Mars Budenicus: Another god who protected a specific place, he was also considered the
spouse of the goddess Sulevia, who was lately identified with Minerva even though her features
were closer to the matrones’ ones. The name of Sulevia is similar to the name of another Celtic
goddess, Sulis, worshipped in Bath, who had been identified with Minerva too and was related to
the sun worship.

Mars Camulos: Camulos is a god of war in Gaul and in Britain. The present city of Colchester
was called Camulodunum, city of Camulos, in ancient times. Dedications to these gods have been
found in Rindern, in the region of Reims and in Dalmatia.

Mars Caturix: his name means king of battles or of fighting, maybe he was the tribal godo f
the Caturiges. He was worshipped around the present Geneva.

Mars Corotiacus: the name of this god appears on a small bronze depicting a horseman
stomping on his enemy. In Eastern Britain Mars was often worshipped as horseman.

Mars Lenus: Lenus was the healer god of the Treveri, and it’s clear that here Mars is
interpreted as the defense against illnesses. In stone dedications, the name of Lenus comes first, so
maybe Mars was added as a translation for Roman visitors of the sanctuary. His main worship
centre was in a wooded valley on the left bank of the Moselle, next to a mountain stream. This place
must have been considered sacred much time before the construction of the great Gallo-roman
temple in 2nd century c.e.. This temple had a big altar and space for ceremonies and small pools for
healing (created by channelling a healing spring that was upstream). Small tamed birds were offered
to Lenus, who was also called “patron of the young”. Another very important sanctuary dedicated to
Lenus was in Pomerania; this sanctuary had a resting place for the incubatio: visitors used to sleep
there hoping to receive some kind of healing dream from the god. Lenus was worshipped in Britain
too, inside sanctuaries where Mars was related with two other gods, like Ocelus and Vellaunus,
maybe Celtic tribal gods. In Chedworth, Lenus is depicted as a warrior god, with hammer and spear.

Mars Loucetius: there’s a dedication to Mars Loucetius in the healing temple of Minerva Sulis
in Bath, where the god is associated to the Celtic goddess Nemetona. We also have a dedication
found elsewhere in which Loucetius is associated to a Roman goddess, Bellona, who was a deity of
battles, too. Loucetius means “Luminous” and this god is usually compared with Jupiter, while the
goddess Sulis, in whose sanctuary the dedication to Mars Loucetius was found, recalls some kind of
solar worship. Mars is related to the worship of the skies also when compared to the British god

Mars Mullo: Mullo was worshipped in the Northern and North-Western Gaul, especially in
Brittany and Normandy. Some scholars relate his name to horses or mules; he was certainly a
patron god and a healer from eye illnesses in the temple of Allonnes. During the 2 nd century c.e. the
god Mullo was associated to the imperial cult (so we would rather expect an association with
Jupiter, since emperors preserved the office of Pontifex Maximus) and many urban sanctuaries were
built for him.

Mars Nabelcus: patron god of the mountains of Vaucluse.

Giorno Pagano Europeo della Memoria – Papers – n. 1 – Ares, Mars and the others
30 giugno 2013

Mars Nodens: Nodens was the god of the healing sanctuary in Glouchestershire. Nodens was
also associated with Silvanus, and we know that Cato the Elder calls Mars ‘Silvanus’ in his de agri
cultura about agriculture. In the temple dedicated to Mars Mullo there was a dormitory for healing
sleep and there were found offerings representing human organs. The god is not depicted in the
temple, but the many images of dogs let us think that this animal must be sacred to him.

Mars Olloudius: he was worshipped in Britain, he was a patron, a healer and a fertility god,
depicted with two horns of abundance but also as a warrior.

Mars Rigisamus: his name means “supreme king” and appears on a dedication found among
the remains of a temple, along with a small statue of a naked man bearing a helmet, a spear and a

Mars Rigonemetis: his name means “king of the sacred wood” (the Celt word for sacred wood
is nemeton), he was related to the tribe of Corieltauvi and later associated to the emperor worship.

Mars Segomo: his name means “victorious”; Segomo was sometimes associated to Hercules.
A bronze horse found in Burgundy was dedicated to Segomo.

Mars Smertrius: the root of the Celtic god’s name refers to abundance, and it’s the same of
Rosmerta, Celtic goddess of abundance. Mars Smertrius was worshipped in Mohn and associated to
the goddess Ancamna.

Mars Teutates: Teutates is one of the three gods that Lucan said to be the most important in
Gaul. Teutates was compared to Mars but also to Mercury (these two Roman gods were often
associated in Gaul); the name Teutates refers to the teuta, the tribe, so in this case it was the aspect
of Mars as patron god that was taken in.

Mars Thincsus: maybe Thincsus is not even a Celtic god but rather a Germanic one, though
he was worshipped in Housesteads fortress near Hadrian’s wall. Like Mars Ocelus, his sacred
animal was the goose, which in ancient times was a house guardian.

Mars Visucius: Visucius, worshipped on the border between Gaul and Germany was also
identified with Mercury.

Mars Vorocius: he was usually depicted as a Celtic warrior, but at the healing spring in Vichy
was invoked for healing eye illnesses.


Giorno Pagano Europeo della Memoria – Papers – n. 1 – Ares, Mars and the others
30 giugno 2013


Part one

Anna Ferrari, Dizionario di mitologia greca e latina, Torino, UTET, 2002

Homeric hymns, Homeric apocrypha, Lives of Homer, edited by Martin L. West, London, Harvard
University Press, 2003

Inni orfici, a cura di Gabriella Ricciardelli, Milano, Mondadori, 2000 (collana Fondazione Lorenzo

Esiodo, Teogonia, introduzione, traduzione e note di Graziano Arrighetti, Milano, Rizzoli, 1998

Georges Dumezil, La religione romana arcaica, Milano, Rizzoli, 2001

M. L. West, The eighth homeric hymn and Proclus, in “Classical Quarterly” 20 (1970), p. 300-304

Giovanni Battista Pighi, La poesia religiosa romana, Bologna, Zanichelli, 1958

Walter F. Otto, Spirito classico e mondo cristiano, Firenze, La Nuova Italia, 1976

Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1985

Francisco Villar, Gli indoeuropei e le origini dell’Europa, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1997

Part two

Cesare, De bello gallico

Lucano, Pharsalia

Catone, De agri cultura

Festo, De verborum significatione

Miranda J. Green, Dizionario di mitologia celtica, Milano, Rusconi, 1999 (Dictionary of Celtic
Myth and Legend)

Mars en occident. Actes du colloque International “Autour d’Allonnes (Sarthe), les sanctuaires de
Mars en Occident”, Le Mans, Université du Maine, 4-5-6 juin 2003, Rennes, Presses Universitaires
de Rennes, 2006

F. Benoit, Mars et Mercure. Nouvelles recherches sur l’interprétation gauloise des divinités
romaines, Aix-en-provence, Publication des annales de la faculté des letters, 1959

Miranda J. Green, The gods of the celts, Phoenix Mill, Sutton, 1997

Georges Dumezil, La religione romana arcaica, Milano, Rizzoli, 2001

Renato Dal Ponte, Dei e miti italici, Genova, ECIG, 1998