From the dawn of civilization, the appearance of our red, attention grabbing neighbor in the night sky was seen as an ill omen and a warning of bloodshed to come. It is not surprising then that a multitude of legends sprung around this unsettling heavenly body.
So what did the various cultures around the world think about mars? And what can it tell us about it’s astrological meaning?
When it comes to most deities in the Greek and Roman pantheons, one can hardly tell the difference. But in the case of Mars and his Greek counterpart Ares, the difference is quite startling to say the least. In fact, it would be very hard to imagine that these are the same deities or that they are even related.
In the eyes of the Romans, Mars was a bearded, mature, muscular man with a copious amount of battle experience and worldly wisdom collected through his many exploits. He was considered not only the god of war, but also the protector of agriculture and the giver of virility that made living things move, interact and reproduce. On the negative side, he was the ruler of the ferocious predators of the wild.
Ares on the other hand, was seen by the Greeks as a slender, athletic youth with sociopathic tendencies and extreme anger issues. In the Iliad Zeus actually says he despises him and considers him the most vile of his children due to his quarreling temper. In addition he was considered quite a bit weaker than his sister Athena when it came to martial prowess and he was supporting losing side in the Trojan war. In fact, his most notable achievement in Greek mythology was sleeping with Aphrodite, the goddess of love. But even that was marred by them both getting caught in the net of Hephaestus, her husband, who strung them in the middle of Olympus for all the gods to see.
Brave but overshadowed
If the heroic Spartans didn’t appreciate the crimson planet, perhaps the berserking Vikings and marauding barbarians did?
Turns out that in Germanic and Norse mythology, Mars wasn’t even the god of war. Tyr, or Tiwanaz, is remembered today through the English Tuesday that was named after him, but he is surprisingly scarce in myths and legends. In fact, the only significant mention of Tyr is the story about the binding of Fenrir, the dread wolf.
In that story, Fenrir was getting too large and would soon be able to devour every one of the gods, so they decided to trick him. They asked Fenrir to test his strength by binding him in chains which he would have to break. Fenrir, suspecting a trap, agreed on the condition that one of the gods must put his hand in Fenrir’s mouth, risking it being bitten off in case of foul play.
All of the gods refused to take such a risk, but Tyr accepted without hesitation. This did in fact resulted in him losing his right hand, but that sacrifice made sure that Fenrir was contained and that the world would continue to exist. One might even say that instead of being the god of war, a position which was actually given to Mercury (Odin) in Germanic mythology, Tyr was the god of bravery and sacrifice, the most valued attributes in Germanic society.
Some rest for the wicked
While the Roman and Germanic portrayals of Mars were rather flattering, the Sumerian one is almost as bad as the Greek. To the inhabitants of the midrivers, Mars was known as the wrathful and valiant Nergal, who turned his own execution into a marriage proposal. In that story, Nergal insulted Namtar who was the son of Ereshkigal, goddess of the underworld. For this offense he was ordered by the other gods to descend to the underworld and face the consequences. Upon arriving at the court of Ereshkigal, Nergal decided to defiantly keep his head attached to his neck and instead of surrendering sucker punched Namtar and threw Ereshkigal to the ground to make it easier to split her head with his axe. But before he could finish the job, Ereshkigal made him an offer he could not refuse, which was to marry her and get her kingdom as a dowry. At the end, not only did threatening the life of a queen pay off, but he also got a comfortable vacation home for 6 months every year, reflecting the seasonal nature of warfare at the time.
Cold blooded and caring
With Capricorn, the exaltation sign of Mars, being depicted as a crocodile-like creature in the east, a reptilian war god would be quite interesting to anyone who studies astrology. And while Ancient Egypt had no shortage of war deities, none of them was as interesting as Sobek, the Crocodile headed god. He was also the most versatile of the war gods, being also the god of robbers and thieves, the “impregnator” god of fertility and the ferocious protector of children.
These traits are far from mythological in origin. In fact, they precisely describe the behavior of actual crocodiles who easily penetrate the water with their torpedo-like elongated form and ability to snatch animals from the shoreline and drag them like thieves to their dens. They are also the only reptile to care for and guard their young, carrying them in their mouth and on their backs, and protecting them from any threat with their formidable jaws. If you ever wondered where did the 4th, 7th and 8th special aspects of mars come from, now you know.
Hell hath no fury…
Unlike the cold blooded, capricornian Sobek, the attempt to turn the cancerian mother goddess Hathor into a killing machine by the sun god Ra was quite a spectacular disaster to say the least. When a faction of rebellious humans decided to abandon the worship of Ra, he thought it would be a great idea to turn the motherly and nurturing fertility goddess Hathor into a blood-drinking, lion-headed warrior goddess Sekhmet.
Turns out that the phrase “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorn” applies to lion goddesses as well, because annihilating the rebels was not enough and she continued to annihilate any human in sight. To satiate her bloodlust, Ra had to pour enough ochre-dyed beer and make her so drunk that she fell unconscious.
Of lions and men
In india, Sekhmet is known as Durga who has a rather human appearance, while the lion head is worn by the Mars incarnation of Vishnu – Narasimha. While his role was not to crush a rebellion but rather to defeat a demon, just like Sekhmet he ended up unsatisfied with the pool of blood at his feet and demanded more. According to some accounts, only a fierce battle with Shiva returned him to his senses.
Shiva also happens to be the father of a slightly more human (and sane) version of Mars named Kartikeya (aka Murugan). He is also heavily associated with Agni, the god of fire, and this is shown in him having 6 mothers (or at least six births), mirroring the raising of Agni by the Pleaides. His mount is not some fierce beast but rather the pompous peacock, showing the role of ego in his character.
Yet neither Kartikeya nor Narasimha are the direct depictions of Mars in Hinduism. That honor is actually reserved for Mangala, aka Kuja or Angarika, who is quite similar to Kartikeya in some respects yet very different in others. Unlike the six mothers of the latter, Mangala was the son of Mother Earth, and instead of the peacock his mount is the boisterous, headstrong ram. In addition, he is considered a celibate, which might explain his aggressive nature.
Meanwhile, half way across the world…
Imagine you had a twin sister on the other side of the globe. Well, in the case of Murugan that is literally true because he has a female doppelganger in Ireland named Morrigan. Just like her Hindu sibling, Morrigan is a war goddess that sometimes appears as a crow and incites men to battle each other. Also like Murugan, she is sometimes described not as a single being but as a triad, although in her case no one seems to describe her with six heads.
Her most important role in Irish mythology seems less like the work of Mars and more like the work of Saturn, as she appears to people in their dreams and lets them know they are about to die. She does however involves herself directly in the melee, in a manner very similar to the Norse war god Odin, thus revealing her martial prowess and warlike nature.
“Citizens, keep an eye on your wives, we’re bringing back the bald adulterer. He’s fucked away the gold in Gaul that you loaned him here in Rome.
Caesar vanquished the Gauls, Nicomedes Caesar, Caesar who vanquished the Gauls now triumphs. Nicomedes does not triumph, who vanquished Caesar.”
Urbani – A song by Caesar’s soldiers.