Astro Journal · Mythology

Planet Myths: The Story Behind Mars

Mars represents your will and survival instincts and how you direct your life force to achieve goals. It shows how you assert yourself and express your desires, initiating action to get what you want. Depending on placement and aspects, there’s no messing about with Mars – he’s direct and courageous, urging you to go forth and multiply!

Mars takes about 2 years to orbit the entire zodiac and the time he spends in each sign varies depending on his cycle as he goes retrograde roughly every 2 years. Mars was named after the Roman god of war, and is also known as the Red Planet thanks to the iron oxide on its surface that gives it a reddish appearance.

Mars rules both Aries and Scorpio, and is exalted in Capricorn. The glyph is the circle of spirit with an arrow firing upwards, representing procreative power and energy. It’s the old symbol for iron in alchemy, and could also represent the shield and spear of the god Mars.

Mars is a masculine planet but this has nothing to do with gender, despite the glyph being used to symbolise the male sex. Everybody has Mars in their horoscope and the planet rules the masculine Aries and feminine Scorpio. It represents the masculine side of the psyche or the yang principle.

Mars is sometimes described as the Lesser Malefic due to its reputation for stirring up trouble. As the lower octave of Pluto, Mars represents the personal will and how you use your energy in the world, while Pluto represents the transpersonal Will of the soul or deeper Self.

In astrological terms, Mars serves the Sun and helps you to affirm and express your individuality. As your basic survival instinct, it’s energising, aggressive and passionate, fuelling your sex drive and ambitions. Mars’ energy is hot and sharp, stimulating action, conflict and defence. It can also be impulsive, violent and wounding, turning anger into rage and strength into domination.

Some of the archetypes associated with Mars include: the Warrior or Soldier, the Action Man, the Lover, the Dancer, the Sportsman or Athlete, the Winner, the Conqueror, and the Berserker.

Let’s see how all this is portrayed in the myths…

Mars Myths

The Mars archetype is best illustrated in the mythology of war gods and goddesses. In Babylonian astrology, Mars was associated with Nergal, god of war, plague and death, who was depicted as lion-headed. Later he became god of the underworld and husband of Erishkigal who is associated with Pluto.

Nergal claimed his new title after refusing to honour Erishkigal at a banquet. He was ordered to the underworld to apologise but attacked her instead, and only let her go when she promised to marry him. Like Inanna, Nergal tried to take the power of the underworld for himself but ended up having to share the throne.

Nergal and his various nasties…

Inanna is worth mentioning here despite representing Venus in Babylonian astrology. As the Queen of Heaven, she was the goddess of fertility and war, and was often depicted with lions. Inanna was notorious for unleashing her fury and battles were called the ‘Dance of Inanna.’ One myth says:

“She stirs confusion and chaos against those who are disobedient to her, speeding carnage and inciting the devastating flood, clothed in terrifying radiance. It is her game to speed conflict and battle, untiring, strapping on her sandals.”

More on Inanna in Aries Myths. She’s one of many goddesses associated with both fertility and war, including the Babylonian Ishtar, the Egyptian Hathor and Sekhmet, and the pre-Classical Greek Aphrodite. The association comes from the fact that blood was seen as the source of life so to ensure the fertility of the land, blood had to be spilled – a sacrifice had to be made.

War is the ultimate sacrifice and a way to grow empires and ensure the prosperity of the people – at least, the ones who don’t get killed.

Aside from war goddesses, there are also many myths of female warriors, such as the Scandinavian Valkyries and Shield-maidens, and the Greek Amazons.

The Amazons were the daughters of Ares who fought on the side of Troy in their battle against the Mycenaean Greeks. In the Iliad, Homer describes them as equal to men in terms of strength and fighting prowess, and Herodotus said they were horse-riders, skilled with bow and arrow and spear. (More on the Amazons in Wonder Woman here)

These myths were probably based on encounters with real Scythian warriors who lived on the Eurasian steppes stretching from Bulgaria to Mongolia. In western Russia, graves of female warriors have been found buried with their weapons, including swords, axes and arrows. Similar Viking graves have also been found.

Previously, when a grave was found containing a sword or weapons, they assumed it was a male skeleton. Now they can verify the sex using DNA analysis and are discovering many of these warriors were women.

Fighting in wars wasn’t restricted to men in ancient times, and more recently many women have disguised themselves as men so they could fight or join pirate ships. There are tons of real women warriors, such as Boudica, the queen of the Celtic Iceni people in Britain who killed thousands of Romans after they took her property and raped her daughters; and Joan of Arc who fought in the Hundred Years’ War after receiving visions from God.

Boudica rides into battle

In Greek mythology, Ares was the god of war. He was the son of Zeus and Hera, although a later myth says he had no father. According to Ovid, Hera gave birth to Ares after touching a magical flower. She was angry at Zeus for creating Athena without a mother. So Ares was born from the goddess’ rage as an act of revenge. In The Inner Planets, Liz Greene says:

“Ares has no father principle in him … he does not spring from logos, from the spiritual or intellectual dimension of the masculine realm. He is male, but he is pure instinct, without any reflective or symbolising capacity.”

This means Ares is physical and chthonic, and not good at being detached or objective. It’s no surprise that the ‘rational’ Greeks didn’t like him much. He was wild and irrational and easily provoked into a rage and wasn’t well-respected by the other gods. Homer said Ares was bloodthirsty and stupid, always arguing when he didn’t get his way, and was constantly outwitted by his wiser sister Athena.

Athena was the goddess of wisdom and battle strategy, and was depicted wearing a helmet and holding a spear. She was born directly from Zeus’ head after he swallowed the Titan wisdom goddess Metis. So Athena’s wisdom was drawn from an ancient source, as symbolised by the Medusa on her shield. (see Scorpio Myths)

As a virgin warrior goddess, she was patron of heroes like Jason who retrieved the Golden Fleece, and Heracles (or Hercules if you’re Roman) who she helped with his labours. Athena was seen as more civilised than her brutish brother, and the city of Athens was named after her.

Unlike Athena, Ares had loads of consorts and children, including his sons Phobos (Fear) and Deimos (Terror), and daughter Harmonia, who were born to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. It’s only Aphrodite who could tame Ares through her beauty and desire. But they were caught in the act by her husband Hephaistos, who trapped the lovers in a gold net and all the other gods had a good laugh at Ares’ expense.

The Greeks didn’t like Ares because he brought war and death, and they associated him with barbarians like the Thracians. The earliest reference to him comes from Mycenae on a tablet found in Knossos dated to c. 1,400 BCE. The Linear B script says, “A-Re”, which means a curse, bane, or ruin.

But Ares was also courageous and inspired men to victory in battle. The Spartans thought he was great – a model soldier – as seen in the film 300 (basically Gerard Butler shouting in his pants). The Romans held the god of war in higher esteem too.

Mars was a (slightly) nobler version of Ares, a god of war and fertility, and protector of the fields, wild animals, and the community. He was the father of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, called the City of Mars by Virgil. The Roman empire was famous for its gladiatorial games where thousands were slaughtered in sacrifice to Mars.

An Amazon fighter with the Medusa on her shield

The Meaning of Mars

Mars has a bad reputation for a good reason. He represents the primal life force of pure instinct that can erupt into violence when its survival is threatened. It may be malefic but it’s also an essential and natural drive, rooted in the body and the unconscious.

As your will to live, Mars helps you separate from the womb and attachment to your mother and the collective. It helps you to define yourself as an individual and stand on your own two feet. This makes Mars an antisocial force because it serves the individual rather than society as a whole.

So its energy needs to be civilised or worked with consciously; its aggression can’t be blindly acted out. However, the conditioning process of socialisation often leads to repression or distortions of our natural instincts, and this creates most of the problems we have with Mars. At best, Mars can be used creatively and positively to achieve whatever you want, even things that help others and serve society too.

Mars is the fighting principle of the Sun. It enables you to fight for yourself and be who you are. The Sun provides Mars with meaning and context – a reason to fight. And it’s the power of Mars that helps you to actualise your individual identity (Sun), serving the process of individuation.

This process is illustrated in the myths of the twelve labours of Hercules. There’s one for each sign of the zodiac (read about them all here) and they show the battles you have to deal with in order to grow up and become yourself. In the myths, Hercules blunders about, clubbing creatures over the head, and causing problems. He often kills or wounds others by accident, such as his friend Chiron. But he figures things out in the end and hopefully grows up a bit.

Many of our Martian battles involve fighting a dragon or evil twin. These myths show the need to overcome the shadow or unconscious part of the psyche in order to become self-aware. The scary monster represents the dark face of the Mother, as seen in the story of Marduk battling Tiamat to create the world (see Neptune Myths).

This battle doesn’t have to involve physical fighting – it can also occur on an emotional, psychological and/or spiritual level. Mars helps you to build resilience through conflict, giving you the inner strength to resist the temptation to slide back into unconsciousness or passivity. It can also help you to ‘fight’ using non-violence in the spirit of Gandhi or Martin Luther King.

The wolf eats the king…

The need to make Mars conscious is illustrated in the symbolism of alchemy where a wolf stands for the primal life force before it’s been transmuted into the King, or alchemical gold – i.e. the Sun, or reflective consciousness. The wolf eats the king and is cooked in the fire with the king in its stomach. This burns away the wolf, leaving the king purified of his lower drives.

So from the alchemical perspective Mars is a primitive form of the Sun. The primal rage of the wolf is contained so it can be transformed into conscious awareness. With insight, aggression can be channelled into positive activities and power wielded in the service of life. In other words, you become a spiritual warrior.

A warrior needs a cause to fight for, something worthy of his energy and dedication. Raw energy (Mars) can be transmuted into courage and a protective force, combined with skill and intelligence (Athena). For an example, watch this video of ex-soldier David Eubank of the Free Burma Rangers saving children in Mosul.

A true (spiritual) warrior must have self-mastery and that requires the effective use of Mars. Self-mastery means controlling your energy and how you respond to events, rather than trying to assert power over others. Self-empowerment is about building inner strength and resilience, not clobbering other people over the head or demanding that they give you want you want or make you feel safe.

You can be assertive without being aggressive and be true to yourself without denying that right to others. Anger can be justified and useful in some situations, such as fighting injustice or protecting yourself and others from harm. People only tend to get aggressive or violent when their natural assertive drive is blocked or misdirected in some way.

Mars needs to be tamed without being repressed or denied. When it’s repressed it doesn’t disappear but turns poisonous and controls you from the unconscious. Your natural instincts are then turned against yourself and/or projected outwards against others, or society, or life in general.

Unconscious rage leaks out sideways in passive aggression, self-destructive behaviour, illness, and accidents. Or you may feel powerless, depressed, or impotent. With an unconscious Mars, you project anger onto others and blame them for your own feelings of victimisation or powerlessness rather than accepting the challenge of growing up and being an individual.

The trouble is, growing up and separating from the safety of the Mother creates a lot of anxiety and fear. But it has to be done if you want to form conscious relationships with others. That means acknowledging the other as other – as separate and different from you. Only then can love mean anything, and without separation, there can be no love.

This is reflected in the myths of Ares and Aphrodite who are seen as a complementary couple. They represent the interdependent forces of Love and Will that work best when they’re balanced with each other. Will without love is domination and tyranny, and love without will is sentimentality and self-indulgence.

Mars and Venus together gives you individuality and relationship, action and receptivity, competition and cooperation. To take action you need to choose where to focus your will (Mars) and that’s guided by your values and what you care about (Venus). To love and practice the creative arts (Venus) you need self-discipline and patience and that involves the use of will to attain self-mastery (Mars).

Mars and Venus get loved up

In spiritual circles Mars is seen as the bad guy because he boosts the ego, but he doesn’t have to. Mars will fight for the ego or the soul and it’s up to you to choose. When he serves the soul it helps to free you from attachment to the ego – Mars’ sword cuts the ties to ignorance and delusion, and opens the way to spirit.

Ultimately, Mars is about fighting for the freedom to be yourself. But freedom doesn’t mean doing whatever you want from the ego’s perspective. True freedom comes from self-mastery and that means freedom from your lower drives so you’re no longer enslaved by your passions.

There’s nothing wrong with Mars serving the ego – it’s part of life, after all. However, if your ego isn’t aligned with the soul or deeper Self, you may run into difficulties. When you try to force your will, it might work for a while, but in the end, you’ll hit a brick wall. Perhaps you get what you want and then realise it’s not fulfilling, or it brings unexpected problems.

Whatever happens, the deeper Self will eventually intervene to bounce you back on track. How bad that experience is depends on how far off-track you’ve got wielding your personal will.

Spiritual practice involves learning how to align your personal will with the deeper Self or transpersonal Will of the soul. This isn’t an easy process and the personal will often gets repressed or bypassed to a certain extent. For it to work effectively, your will has to be transformed – like the king in the fire – and encouraged (or forced) to surrender, as in the Dark Night of Spirit.

This might occur through a Neptune or Pluto transit to your Mars, for example. Progressed Mars conjunct natal Pluto did it for me – it was brutal and I’m still processing. 😳

Once you’ve aligned your personal will with the transpersonal Will, you still need to act in the world and relate to others in society. You can become a channel through which the transpersonal Will is expressed. This is the goal of the process of individuation that paradoxically requires extreme selflessness.

Not my will, but thine, be done.

Or: Love and do what you will.

Mars Myths on Film

You’re spoilt for choice for films about Mars because Hollywood loves sex and violence! Films that represent the Mars archetype include stories about war and fighting, fighters and crusaders, sport, speed, sex, and dancing. You’ll have your own favourites, but here are a few examples of Mars on film:

  • Amazon Diana searching for Ares in the world of Men in Wonder Woman.
  • The Marines of First Recon Battalion confronting reality in Iraq in Generation Kill.
  • Callum Lynch fighting for freedom in Assassin’s Creed (terrible film with some interesting symbolism).
  • Niki Lauda and James Hunt competing for the Formula 1 championship in Rush.
  • Erin Brockovich fighting for justice for a community in Erin Brockovich.
  • Monkey fighting demons and helping Tripitaka on his spiritual quest in Monkey.
  • Mob assassin Ghost Dog following the Way of the Samurai with his pigeons in Ghost Dog.
  • Aging mutant Logan fighting his way to redemption in Logan.
  • Master Li Mu Bai fighting to defeat Jade Fox and retrieve his sword in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Follow the links above to explore those films in depth. More on the mythical world of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon here

More on Mars

Images: Planet; Nergal; Boudica; Amazon; Wolf; Venus

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