In ancient times, the author of the epic poems Iliad and Odyssey was thought to have been a man called “Homer”. We don’t know whether this was his actual name, and academic opinion is divided on whether or not the two poems are even the work of a single individual. But the ancient Greeks attributed a number of other poems also to Homer, including the so-called “Homeric Hymns”.
These ancient Greek hymns (songs of praise), thirty-three in total (some manuscripts add a thirty-fourth: a very short hymn to xenoi or “foreigners”), were attributed to Homer in antiquity, but the dates for the individual poems vary; most of them date to the seventh and sixth centuries BC. They are first referenced by Thucydides (3.104), who wrote an incomplete history of the Peloponnesian War.
The Homeric Hymns use the same meter as the Iliad and the Odyssey, the dactylic hexameter. Each of these hymns is dedicated to a particular deity, though a couple are dedicated to more than one: Hymn 25 is dedicated to the Muses and Apollo, while Hymn 33 deals with the Dioscuri, Castor and Polydeuces (Pollux).
A hymn to Ares
Of all the ancient Greek gods, Ares, the god of battle and strife, usually receives short shrift, as I’ve discussed before. He is usually regarded as a bloodthirsty god, the embodiment of strife and slaughter, and quite different from his more collected Roman counterpart, Mars. Of the Homeric Hymns, no. 8 is dedicated to Ares, and it presents us with a different take on the supposedly most bloodthirsty of all the Olympians than you might expect.
As this hymn is quite short, let’s read it together, using the (somewhat archaic) translation available on the Perseus website:
Ares, exceeding in strength, chariot-rider, golden-helmed,
doughty in heart, shield-bearer, saviour of cities, harnessed in bronze,
strong of arm, unwearying, mighty with the spear, O defence of Olympus,
father of warlike Victory, ally of Themis,
stern governor of the rebellious, leader of righteous men,
sceptred King of manliness, who whirl your fiery sphere
among the planets in their sevenfold courses through the aether
wherein your blazing steeds ever bear you above the third firmament of heaven;
hear me, helper of men, giver of dauntless youth!
Shed down a kindly ray from above upon my life,
and strength of war, that I may be able to drive away
bitter cowardice from my head
and crush down the deceitful impulses of my soul.
Restrain also the keen fury of my heart which provokes me
to tread the ways of blood-curdling strife. Rather, O blessed one,
give you me boldness to abide within the harmless laws of peace,
avoiding strife and hatred and the violent fiends of death.
Though only seventeen lines long, there’s a lot packed into this poem. The poem is remarkably different from the other hymns. It opens with essentially a long sequence of epithets (“golden-helmed”, “doughty at heart”, and so on), which is unusual.
Even more strange is that many of the epithets underplay Ares’ originally rather aggressive nature: he’s here referred to as a saviour of cities (like the goddess Athena), rather than a destroyer of one. He’s said to be the “defence of Olympus”, and even an “ally of Themis”. Themis is the personification of order and justice, and again seems a weird fit for the chaotic, destructive Ares we know from, for example, the Iliad.
This emphasis on Ares as a god of good order, rather than a god of chaos and destruction, returns later on in the poem, when the speaker asks for Ares to “restrain also the keen fury of my heart”, asking for the courage necessary “to abide within the harmless laws of peace, avoiding strife and hatred”. In this hymn, Ares is asked to give strength in battle, but rather to steel the soul to avoid engaging in conflict and violence. As a result, it seems unlikely that the poem is very early.
The hymn also references the red planet, identified by the Greeks and Romans with the god of war. The ancient Greeks recognized seven “planets” in total, with Earth placed in the centre and the others revolving around it. The Greek planetes (“wanderers”) included the sun and the moon, in addition to Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Uranus and Pluto were unknown, as they cannot be seen with the naked eye. Mars thus occupied the “third orbit”, as per e.g. Aristotle (On the Heavens 2.392A).
All these elements together suggests that the poem is late, with some suggesting that it wasn’t composed until the fifth century AD (see esp. M.L. West, “The eighth Homeric Hymn and Proclus”, The Classical Quarterly 20.2 (1970), pp. 300-304). Certainly, the description of Ares here is a better fit for the Roman god of war, Mars, who wasn’t as bloodthirsty as his Greek counterpart and who was one of most important deities of the Roman pantheon. Diane Rayor, who has produced a very good translation of the hymns, says that it is possible that the poem could be as early as the third century BC (Diane Rayor, The Homeric Hymns: A Translation, With Introduction and Notes (2004), p. 139).
Whatever the exact date of the hymn’s composition, the contents shed a different light on the ancient Greek war-god. Ares may have changed by the time that the poem was committed to papyrus, and so too might have contemporary attitudes towards warfare. Indeed, may we all be given “boldness to abide within the harmless laws of peace”.