Iphigenia and The Opposition of Mars

Supremely Strong AresI’ve been thinking about Mars for the past few months. Not the planet, though. I’ve been thinking about the god (Ares, to be more specific).

I’ve just closed a production of Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis. One of the things I love about the play is that it subverts any reductive position you try to take on war. And unlike the traditional war play that focuses only on the men in charge who send our youth into battle, Iphigenia turns our focus to the youth themselves who heed the call and willingly offer their lives.

Is that a good thing? It’s a complicated question. Any thinking person has to be grateful that at certain points in history these young people have done just that. Was it right for Iphigenia? That depends on one’s cultural sense of honor. For Falstaff, probably not. But for Iphigenia, maybe so. Again, it’s complicated. For me it’s clear that there are times when tyranny must be fought, and we owe a great debt to the men and women who do the actual fighting.

So where is Ares in all of this? For most of my life I’ve thought of Ares as a quick-tempered, belligerent warmonger––the way he is portrayed in pop culture. But in working on Iphigenia, I’ve found something different.

I decided to have two choruses in the play. The first chorus was the one in the script, a chorus of women of Chalcis. I added the second chorus, a chorus of Greek soldiers. The main function of the second chorus was to be a visual representation of how Agamemnon allows the massive Greek army to get into his head and fill him with fear. But at one point in my production, this second chorus chanted Homer’s Hymn to Ares.

The Ares of the hymn is brave and ready, but he is also wise and slow to battle. He is a martial artist. His philosophy is peace, and so he understands when the rare occasion arises that peace can only be won through war.

Ares is indeed a god who teaches courage and preparation when it’s time to fight. He is a protector, an ally of order. (Tyranny may be orderly, but it is itself disorder.) However, for the most part, Ares is a god who understands war so well that he is able to steer his supplicants away from its horrors.

It’s appropriate then that last night, after I had locked up the theater, and as I walked to my car, I was thinking about how Ares, the god of war, could also be called a god of peace––that, in a sense, his nature is in opposition to his stewardship. Then I looked up and saw what they call the opposition of Mars, brilliant and “supremely strong.”

HYMN to ARES

Supremely strong Ares,
golden-helmeted chariot-rider,
tough-hearted, shield carrying
guardian of cities,
bronze in armour, brave of hand,
the tireless, spear-sharp
rampart of Olympos,
father of war-winning victory,
the ally of Themis.

You are a tyrant to the rebellious,
a leader to the most just,
you carry the staff of manhood,
you whirl your disc of bright fire across the sky
among the seven tracks of the constellations
where blazing horses bear you forever
beyond the third orbit.

Hear me, helper of mortals,
whose gift is the courage of youth.
From high above, shine down upon our lives
your gentle light and your warrior’s power,
so I may drive away bitter cowardice from my head
and subdue my soul’s beguiling impulse,
so I may restrain the shrill rage in my heart
which excites me to charge
into the chilling din of battle.

Rather, blessed god, give me the courage
to stand my ground within the safe laws of peace,
shunning hostility and hatred
and the fate of a violent death.

–Homer (translated by Jules Cashford)

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