Ares: God of War

‘Sing, Muses, sing to me a story of Olympus and the deathless gods who govern earth, sea and sky.’

That is Orestes’s ask. He stands upon the edge of the Aeropagus and overlooks all Athens. Her temples, her walls, her every edifice is picked out in silver; moonlight catching in the rain that streams down roofs and pools in gutters. 

He stretches out hands, feels the downpour drive against his palms like needles. It does little to wash away Clytemnestra’s blood. His mother’s blood. 

Orestes thought he knew the price of kin-slaying. Revenge was the whetstone against which he had keened his character, and he would gladly shatter to achieve it. But death would be a relief compared to the madness that haunts him now. The Furies pursue him relentlessly.

In the temple of Apollo, he begged some relief, and the oracle answered: head to Athens, seek out the Aeropagus.

But now that Orestes is here, he can find little clue as to what to expect. The escarpment is barren, all cragged rock and parched scrub. The only feature is a single spear. It is plunged so deep into the rock that the bladed head is all but swallowed in stone. 

‘Why am I here,’ he asks. That is when the Muses begin to sing, to dance, to play the lyre and the flute.

‘This is a place of trial,’ they tell him. ‘The hill is named for blood-soaked Ares. The manslaughterer. The god of war. The first kin-slayer.’

The Muses’s song starts with a son and a daughter. They are each the mortal child of a god. 

Halirrhothius, the son, is arrogant and brutish. He is a scion of the sea, a child of Poseidon, Lord of the Deep. He is as wild as the waves that begot him.

Alcippe, the daughter, is fair and noble, and so few would guess at her parentage. Her father is blood-soaked Ares. But she is the best of him. His ferocity is her passion. His destruction her creativity. 

While Alcippe may take little heed of her origins, Halirrhothius is consumed with his. He wears his ancestry like a crown. After all – he convinces himself – he is as good as a god. And when he first spies Alcippe, he recognises one worthy of him; her beauty is another divine inheritance, a perfectly faceted gem to embellish his crown.

But she will not have him. 

Halirrhothius’s temper is tempest. And in that rage, like a sudden turn of the tide, he forces himself on Alcippe. He believes it his right; for who would dare deny a god such as him.

But gods are deathless. And when Ares’s blazing spear plunges into Halirrhothius’s chest, tearing flesh from bone, boiling his blood like the sea foam for which he is named, it puts an end to his pretensions. Halirrhothius is no god. He is dead before he even hits the ground.

The killing is novelty. 

You see, the world was young then. Death was still something new to Olympus. True, their reign was forged in war – Titanomachy, Gigantomachy – but those were deathless wars. And when neither side could die, the loser’s fate was always usurpation. Imprisonment. As for the Olympians’ own fights – little more than squabbles. Sport. Pain without bite, wound without injury. A justice that said eye for an eye without ever risking sight.

But something had changed when the gods began to sire children with mortal beings. Children who could die. Children who would die.

And with Halirrhothius, the inevitable has happened. He is – he was – Ares’s cousin, the child of his father’s brother. So the act is not merely murder, homicide, the killing of kith. It is the slaying of kin. A deathless child of Olympus vanquishing a mortal one.

And Olympus does not know how to react. Poseidon has lost a son and demands some retribution.

The matter requires careful adjudication.

So, to the escarpment overlooking Athens, to the place where the murder was committed, the Olympians descend. Their appearance is the blink of an eye. 

They will hear both sides. They will make a judgement.

Poseidon is the prosecution, and his indictment is the roar of a sea squall. Of all the gods, of course blood-soaked Ares would be the first to kin-slay. Is not his aspect war at its most indiscriminate? He is control discarded; restraint relinquished. All he understands is blood, so blood must be his punishment. It does not run in his veins – only deathless ichor – but it does in those of his daughter, Alcippe. 

Ares steps forth then, and his defence is Poseidon’s charge. He was protecting his own child, his daughter. They are fragile, these mortal children, and so they must be defended with a comparable ferocity. His ferocity. 

The Olympians then begin their deliberation. They turn the testimonies this way and that. They weave their thoughts and wind their reckonings. And at last, this jury of the gods makes their judgement known: they acquit Ares. But they also set precedent. For revenge is a cycle without end: a snake gorged on its own tail. And so, at this hill where Ares’s spear still stands, murder, kin-slaying – by deathless and mortal alike – will henceforth be subject to trial. Only the jury will decide punishment.

The Muses bring their song to a close then. But they and Orestes are no longer alone.

The Olympians have descended. Their appearance is the blink of an eye.

Ares stands among this jury of the gods. The moonlight picks out his peaked helmet, the intricacy of his breastplate, the adamantine sword slung at his hip. He meets Orestes’s eye. Then his gaze drops to the mortal’s blood-soaked hands. 

His acknowledgement is the slightest of nods. 

One kin-slayer to another.

Commissioned by HistoryHit for The Ancients podcast

Written by Andrew Hulse