When you think of many of the gods of Greece, certain images and symbols immediately come to mind. Hermes, for example, was always shown with his famous hat and winged sandals.
The mention of Ares, however, does not usually conjure up such a strong mental image. He was the god of war, but most people would struggle to think of a single symbol that would identify him.
This is because Ares was the one god of the Greek pantheon that had no real symbolism associated with his worship. He was generally shown in a very basic way, with the armor and weapons of a common Greek soldier.
A spear or sword is certainly an understandable symbol for a war god, but they do little to set his image apart from that of any other fighting figure.
So why was the iconography of Ares so limited? The answer lies in the attitudes the Greek people had toward him and the war he represented.
Many of the gods of Greece had complex and detailed iconography. They were associated with specific animals, symbols, and even modes of dress.
Heracles, for example, was commonly shown wearing the skin of the Nemean Lion as a protective cloak. Athena had her owl and aegis, Poseidon carried his trident, and Apollo was shown with his lyre and bow.
Compared to these gods, Ares had a much less distinct iconography.
The god of war was most often shown without any identifying features besides the tools of his trade. The armor and weapons of a Greek soldier were his most common symbols.
Even in this, the portrayal of Ares was never fixed. Sometimes he carried a spear, while at other times he held a sword. He usually had a helmet and sometimes carried a shield, but he could be shown fully armored or completely nude.
One of the problems this presents for historians is that it is sometimes difficult to identify images of Ares. If the figure is shown without the context of a specific event or the other gods, it could be that of a hero or even a common soldier.
The easiest images of Ares to identify were, paradoxically, those that didn’t feature his usual attributes. Images of Ares and Aphrodite together were a popular motif, especially in later time periods and into the Roman era, and the context made his identity apparent even when shown with no weapons whatsoever.
Occasionally, an animal or other symbol was used in connection to Ares. These, too, reflected his position as the destructive god of war.
Vultures, for example, were sometimes seen in images that included Ares. The presence of carrion birds was, of course, a common sight in the aftermath of a bloody battle.
The other birds mentioned in connection to the god were of a more fantastic type. The Birds of Ares were vicious creatures with dart-like feathers they could shoot from their tails. He gifted the birds to his daughters, the Amazons.
In Sparta, another animal was symbolic to Ares for a particularly gruesome and heartbreaking reason.
It was traditional for the boys of the militant city to sacrifice a puppy before entering into ritual fights. The sacrifices became incorporated into the strong cult of Ares in the city, and in that region dogs were associated with the god of war.
Most often, however, Ares carried only his weapons and armor as identification. While the symbolism and iconography of other gods was complex, he was almost always portrayed as a model soldier.
The fact that Ares had such limited iconography is not because the Greeks were at a loss for imagery of war or unique weapons and armor.
Athena, for example, had a distinctive shield as one of her many attributes. Poseidon’s trident and Zeus’s thunderbolts were unique weapons, and Artemis had a unique tunic and several animals in addition to her bow and arrows.
These gods were different from Ares in more than just their associated symbols, however. They were, quite simply, more popular across Greece than Ares ever was.
All the Greek gods engaged in fighting and some, like Athena, were closely associated with aspects of warfare. Ares, however, had war as his only domain.
While other gods offered protection for their devotees and favored some armies over others, Ares famously took no sides. No matter who prayed to him or how just their cause, Ares revelled in the destruction of both forces in equal measure.
This made him an unlikable figure, both in the minds of the Greek people and in the mythology surrounding his character.
War was a fact of life, but one that most people wished to avoid. Even those who dedicated their lives to fighting hoped to appeal more to the heroism and valor of Athena than the violence and bloodlust of Ares.
The Greeks were generally ambivalent toward Ares. He was prayed to by soldiers, but in everyday life he offered no protection or positive blessings to the people of Greece.
Ares was a god that people hoped would not take notice of their city or impact their lives. He brought nothing but violence, death, and suffering.
Thus, there were few temples to Ares and few places where his iconography could flourish. While the Athenians minted coins with Athena’s owl and images of Hermes protected roadways, there was no reason for most people to create images of Ares.
The one exception in the Greek world was in Sparta. The militant society embraced Ares, but saw little value in artistry. The one place a complex iconography for Ares would have developed was in the city that valued simplicity and austerity.
The lack of symbolism surrounding Ares reflects Greek attitudes toward the god. His iconography was never expanded upon because the people of the land were too ambivalent toward him to create a complex and cohesive imagery.
As the god of war, Ares’s chief symbols were those of soldiers. He carried a weapon, either a spear or sword, and often had some kind of armor or shield.
This very general imagery makes it sometimes difficult to identify Ares in art. The same weapons and armor he carried were those used by any soldier in Greece.
Often, Ares is identifiable because of this lack of additional symbolism. While other gods and heroes had more complex iconography, Ares was shown much more simply.
Sometimes, a figure can only be assumed to be Ares because of the scene it is in or the presence of other gods in the image.
Some animals were occasionally associated with the god of war, such as vultures and dogs, but the use of these images was never consistent or wide-spread like the attributes of other gods.
The lack of symbolism associated with Ares reflects the ambivalence felt toward the god by the people of Greece. Most people avoided Ares because he offered no benefits or protection, only the death and suffering of war.
Thus, there were few major temples to Ares and few votive images. The one place these may have existed, in the militant society of Sparta, was also a place that valued austerity over complex iconography and expensive art.
The Greek god of war had limited iconography and few symbols because he was a god that most people had little reason to pray to, and ample reason to avoid.