Phobos and Deimos: The Twin Spirits of Terror and Panic
The Greek daimones, or spirits, served as personifications for nearly every aspect of the world and the experiences of mankind. Some were famous gods like Eros, but most were more obscure.
Two of these personifications were inescapable to any man who went to war, though. Nearly every soldier would at some point feel the power of Deimos and Phobos.
Only the bravest, or the most devoted, warriors completely resisted panic and terror in the face of battle. Courage, good training, and self-restraint were needed to keep the gods of fear from holding too much power.
The twin sons of Aphrodite and Ares embodied two different types of fear. Dread and panic were closely related but distinct forms of the emotion, either of which could be disastrous in a battle or fight.
They were minor spirits, but Deimos and Phobos had a power that could fell entire armies.
Aphrodite was the goddess of beauty and love, while Ares embodied the brutality of war. Despite their differences, the two deities had one of the most famous love affairs in Greek mythology.
Their children were often more closely associated with one or another of their parents, but most had one thing in common. Both love and war gave rise to strong, overpowering emotions.
Their twin sons, Deimos and Phobos, were most often associated with their father. They were the personifications of fear.
As twins the two were very alike and almost inseparable. They embodied variations of the same emotion and were almost always seen together, affecting the same side of a battle to lead to a total breakdown of morale and discipline.
Deimos was the god of terror and dread. Phobos was the god of panic and rout.
The twin gods, along with their aunt Enyo, were most often shown accompanying their father to battle. There, they could lead armies to utter destruction.
Despite their associations with overwhelming forms of fear, Deimos and Phobos were typically not represented as particularly terrifying in their appearance.
In fact, most artwork shows them as looking remarkably ordinary. They were young men, either nude or dressed as soldiers.
Often only an inscription differentiates them from common soldiers. Sometimes their identities can only be inferred from their proximity to their father, Ares, or the other terrible gods and goddesses of war.
A few depictions, both written and artistic, show them in a more terrifying light than this.
Hesiod said that Phobos had eyes that glowed like fire and a gleaming row of viscous-looking bright white teeth.
In other depictions, Phobos is shown with leonine features. He sometimes has the mane of a lion or the entire face of one.
More immediate than their physical appearance, however, were the feelings that the twins inspired in all who encountered them. Terror and panic were two of the strongest emotions a man could face on the field of battle.
The twin gods of fear accompanied their father to battle.
Ares, the god of war, embodied the blood lust of fighting and the vicious side of warfare. While he inspired men to fight ruthlessly, his sons brought fear to those not affected by their father’s bravado.
Deimos brought the sense of dread and terror a soldier might face as a battle began. Those affected by him might be too afraid to fight.
Phobos was the personification of panic. He could cause soldiers to flee a battle in fear.
No battle could happen without Deimos and Phobos being present. Their part in warfare was even more central and inescapable as their aunt Enyo’s bloodlust.
Their role was not to inspire greatness or bring renown to brave warriors. They caused disorder and chaos in battle, often leading to more deaths as soldiers let their fear overcome their judgment and training.
The Greeks were pioneers in warfare, using careful planning and training to keep their soldiers from breaking ranks. When Deimos and Phobos took control of the battlefield, however, the tight lines of the Greek phalanx fell apart, leaving the entire army open to slaughter.
Deimos and Phobos were often shown as their father’s charioteers. In at least one story, the twins carried their father to safety when he was injured in battle.
The later Dionysiaca even depicted Deimos and Phobos serving Zeus during his fight against the monstrous giant Typhon. Against one of the more fearsome enemies the gods would ever face, only the twin forms of fear could help Zeus win a victory.
Now Zeus armed the two grim sons of Enyalios [Ares], his own grandsons, Phobos (Rout) and Deimos (Terror) his servant, the inseparable guardsmen of the sky: Phobos he set up with the lightning, Deimos he made strong with the thunderbolt, terrifying Typhon. Nike (Victory) lifted her shield and held it before Zeus: Enyo countered with a shout, and Ares made a din.
-Nonnus, Dionysiaca 2. 414 ff (trans. Rouse)
Although she, too, was associated with war, Athena was rarely if ever pictured with the twins of fear. Her role was as a strategist and leader, valuing discipline and planning over chaotic emotions of the battlefield.
In some ways, the type of war overseen by Athena was the antithesis of the battles Deimos and Phobos delighted in. The leaders and great generals she inspired may have hoped to cause fear in the opposing army, but the relied on reason and discipline to win their battles instead of raw emotion.
In Greek warfare, a soldier’s shield was as much of a weapon as his sword or spear. It could be used to strike out at an enemy, but it had an even more important function as a psychological weapon.
One of the main functions of the shield every Greek soldier held was to inspire fear.
The Greeks believed that the images on their shields helped to protect them and give them strength in battle. They would often decorate their shields with images of their favored god or goddess to ask for that deity’s protection.
More often, however, the Greeks used their shields to inspire fear in their enemies. Depicting a monster, for example, would not only give the bearer a portion of that monster’s strength but would also display his ferocity to those he faced on the field of battle.
Shields served as a type of psychological warfare among Greek armies, and many famous examples showed that the Greeks often invoked Phobos and Deimos to inspire fear in their enemies during battle.
A warrior’s shield was so important that many poems and epics describe them in great detail. While common soldiers may have had simple shields, the great kings and gods carried shields into battle that were rich works of art in themselves.
Several of these exceptional shields described by ancient writers featured Deimos and Phobos as proof that those who carried the shield had the favor of those gods and could inspire their fear in anyone who challenged them.
- The Shield of Heracles – In an epic poem written by Hesiod, the shield of Heracles is described in detail. Among the many images engraved on it were several of Phobos and Deimos.
- The Aegis of Athena – While the head of Medusa was always the central part of Athena’s famous shield, Homer described “hanging about it like a garland” because the aegis was imbued with the god’s power.
- The Shield of Agamemnon – Like Athena’s aegis, the famous king’s shield featured Medusa encircled by a pattern of bronze, tin, and cobalt. Phobos and Deimos were inscribed upon it to aid the king in battle.
- The Shield of Achilles – The hero’s shield was inscribed with images of many wars and included Deimos, Phonos, Enyo, and Eris at the center.
Agamemnon’s shield, in one description of it, included an inscription that named both Phobos and the man who carried his image. The implication was that the human king was strong enough to have power over fear, both to keep it from affecting himself and to inflict it in his enemies.
Shields served an apotropaic function in Greek warfare. Images of Phobos and Deimos showed the gods’ favor of those who carried them and turned their powers onto the viewer – the enemy.
While Deimos and Phobos were most closely associated with their warrior father, they were also sons of Aphrodite. As such, their powers could be felt off the battlefield as well.
Those in love had reason to be wary of the arrival of the twins almost as much as those who faced an attacking army. Love and battle were closely linked in the Greek imagination, and both could inspire fear.
Deimos could represent the fear of loss as well as the terror of battle. An unlucky lover could find themselves overwhelmed with the dread that they would one day lose the one they loved, whether to another person or to death.
Phobos could stop a person from pursuing love altogether. Fear of rejection, for example, could inspire a panic that kept a person from ever expressing their love for another.
As much as the different forms of fear could affect men in war, those in love could also see their aspirations cut short by Aphrodite’s terrible sons.
Deimos and Phobos were not often the focus of worship. As the embodiment’s of fear, most people hoped to avoid their influence in their lives.
The exception, of course, was when a person wished to inspire fear in another. In those cases, Deimos and Phobos were invoked to give aid.
The brothers were known to take sides in battle, granting assistance to one side while ignoring the prayers of the other, so it was important to win the gods’ favor before one’s enemies were able to.
The seven military leaders in the famous tale known as the Seven Against Thebes, for example, were said in the works of Aeschylus to have made grim sacrifices to attract the favor of Phobos and Deimos in battle.
They sacrificed a bull over a pure black shield, letting its blood and entrails spill onto the surface. They then ran their hands through the gore while swearing an oath to the gods of war, including Phobos and Deimos, that if they did not conquer Thebes their own blood would be the next sacrifice to stain the ground.
When an army of Amazons invaded the city of Athens, it looked as though the battle would be locked in a stalemate. Only when Theseus, on the advice of an oracle, made sacrifices to Phobos did his armies find the strength to fight harder.
Some people supposedly went to terrible lengths in their appeals to the twin brothers. According to one story Cycnis, a son of Ares who lived in Thessaly, murdered any strangers who passed through his land so he could use their skulls to construct a temple to Phobos there.
The story of Cycnis was probably an invention, but more accurately documented as the worship of Phobos in Sparta.
The warrior culture of Sparta often went against the norms of the rest of the Greek world in their values and in the gods they held in highest esteem.
Plutarch described one of the more unusual facets of Spartan culture with their temples to gods who were shunned elsewhere in the region. There was a shrine there not only to Phobos, but to Thanatos (Death) and Gelos (Laughter) as well.
The obvious interpretation of such an unusual trio of shrines was that the Spartans had no fear of death, and laughed when fear lead them to victory over their terrified opponents.
Outside of battle, however, the Spartans also embraced Phobos and Deimos in their day to day lives. They believed that fear was an essential component to holding society together.
Spartan culture was harsh and highly regimented. The leaders of the city-state believed that the only way to keep their society functioning was if the people lived in fear of the consequences of stepping out of line.
This was exceptionally true for the Helots, the slave caste of Spartan society. The Helots outnumbered the Spartans, and the rulers of the city used fear to keep their workers from rising up against them.
Deimos and Phobos were twin sons of Aphrodite and Ares. They were most often associated with their father in his role as the god of battle.
The two represented different types of fear.
Deimos was the personification of dread and terror. Phobos embodied panic and the urge to run away.
They were typically described accompanying their father into battle, where they could make armies too afraid to fight or too panicked to remain on the field of battle.
Occasionally, however, they were also companions of their mother. People in love could feel dread over the prospect of loss, or panic at the thought of rejection.
Deimos and Phobos were popular images on shields, as illustrated in the descriptions of the great kings and gods of legend. The served an apotropaic function, turning fear away from the bearer of the shield and inspiring it in that person’s opponents.
The twin gods always chose sides in a battle, and soldiers would make bloody sacrifices to win their favor.
While their worship was never widespread outside of war, there was a shrine to Phobos at Sparta. In the harsh warrior society there, fear was necessary both in battle and to keep the populace from rising up against the oppressive demands of their culture.