Mythic Monday: Martial Mars

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Mars, the Roman god of war, was known as Ares in Greek mythology. Credit: © INTERFOTO/Alamy Images

This week’s mythology star, Mars, the god of war, held a special place in the hearts of the ancient Romans—not because of the god’s warlike nature but because the Romans considered him the father of the legendary founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus.

The Romans did not always think of Mars as a war god. Originally, they worshiped him as the god of farmland and fertility. They named the first month of their crop-growing season after him. Known by the Romans as Martius (our March), that month was also the beginning of the Roman year.

After they came into contact with the Greeks, the Romans gave Mars the characteristics of the Greek god of war, Ares. Over time, Mars became associated principally with war and conquest. The Romans offered sacrifices to Mars before and after battles.

However, one of the most famous stories about Mars does not involve war at all—or at least not armies in conflict. The tale concerns the god’s affair with Venus, the goddess of love. Possessed of a dazzling beauty, Venus was married to Vulcan, who was considered the least attractive of the gods. Vulcan was the blacksmith to the gods as well as the god of fire, metalworking, and skilled craftwork in general.

According to one version of the story, the sun witnessed a secret romantic meeting of Mars and Venus. Shocked by the affair, the sun told Vulcan about it. Vulcan immediately prepared a trap for the lovers. He crafted a huge net made of a metal that was incredibly strong but so fine that it could not be seen. Vulcan took the net and arranged it around the bed in his and Venus’s bedchamber. Before long, Venus and Mars met for another romantic tryst. As they embraced, the net closed on them, and they were trapped—caught in the midst of their affair. Then Vulcan, hoping to shame the lovers, showed other gods into the bedroom to see the lovers snared in the net. However, the gods did not cry “shame” or berate the lovers as he hoped they would. Instead, the gods laughed and laughed at the sight, and delightedly told the story again and again. Through the years, besides being a popular tale among the Roman gods, the story of the love affair between Venus and Mars became a favorite subject for poets and painters here on Earth.

In some ways, Mars lives on. In addition to having the third month of our calendar named after him, his is the name given to the fourth planet of our solar system. The planet Mars can be seen with the unaided eye and was known to ancient observers. As they gazed upon the blood-red planet, the Romans associated it with war and conflict and so they named it after Mars, their god of war.

And by the way, the next time you hear a march or the martial music of a military band, maybe give a thought to Mars. After all, the words march and martial are both based on his name.

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