Sibling Rivalries

Well, it’s Friday, which means it’s time for my weekly update. While the previous post was fun, I feel it didn’t have the “umph” to really carry the week out, so I wanted to give you all something more to go on for the weekend. Today I wanted to talk about sibling rivalries, particularly the rivalry between Ares and Athene, and what we can learn about our own lives from looking at their respective cults and mythologies.

The rivalry between Athene and Ares is well-documented in poetry and myth. Homer sets the pair apart from the Iliad onward, always fighting and trying to one-up the other, with Athene coming out on top every time. Based on even the most basic data, it is clear that the ancient Hellenes found Athene vastly more popular as well.  It’s hard not to be rivals when you are given to governing the same forces in the world (war and battle). Yet, like most families, when it came down to the most kosmologically important matters, they came together and made things happen.

In the brutal slaying of men, Ares’ place as the best cannot be challenged. Throughout the Iliad, Homer describes the great fear of both the Greeks and the Trojans have of Ares, who “… made play in his hands with spear gigantic and ranged now in front of Hektor and now behind him.   Diomedes of the great war cry shivered as he saw him”(Homer, Iliad 5. 592 ff). Only the wit and strength of Athene could end Ares’ rampage, as She went to the side of the Greeks and wounded Ares. The best and fiercest warriors of the Iliad are given the titles “scions of Ares”, and other gods, such as Zeus, Dionysos, Aphrodite, and even Athene Herself have Ares’ name as an epithet. Ares is war. Athene is, however, better at the art of war than Ares, and proves this time and again as Her champions best the champions and children of Ares.

Athene and Ares are not always at odds, however. The pair fought together in three separate kosmological wars, and honors were bestowed upon both. During the Titanomachy, Ares was on the ground slaying the monstrous offspring of the Titans whilst Athene aided the defense of Olympos. During the Giant War, Ares again got up-close and personal, slaying Mimas, and Athene threw the whole of Sicily upon Enkelados from the back of her chariot. Both fought against Typoeus, though Ares was forced to flee; Athene stood alone with Zeus against the abomination.

Now, part of this rivalry may be explained ethnographically. Literary evidence, from Homer to Herodotus, has been cited in support of the theory that Ares is not originally a Hellenic god. Mention is often made of Ares as Thracian, and indeed much of his cult was centered in this barbarous, northern land. Indeed, some have interpreted Ares’ support of the Trojans, themselves living near Thrace, as evidence to Ares’ cult being foreign to, or even per-existing in, Hellenic religion. Some have also speculated that Ares is a pre-existing deity native to Greece whose cult diminished as the Hellenes became more civilized.

Athene’s cult, in contrast, is squarely centered in Her chief city of Athens, in the heart of classical Greece, and is much more prominent throughout every city-state, even in place Ares is regularly worshipped. Part of the reason Athene was more popular probably has much to do with the fact Her cult encompassed many more aspects of life and culture than Ares. Whilst most evidence points to Ares being strictly a cut-and-dry war god, we know Athene is a patroness of the arts, a purveyor of wisdom and healing, and the savior and champion of cities. Athene is a people’s goddess, while Ares functions as a destroyer in all but a few cases. Athene is civil, Ares is not, and that made a big difference to the Hellenes, and still does to many today. If Ares is indeed a foreign son, and Athene a native daughter, it makes a great deal of sense, in my eyes, as to why Athene receives better treatment in both myth and cult.


Okay, so you may be asking yourself what this means to you. How can we take these stories and facts and apply them to our own lives? Well, first, if you have siblings, you can take a look at that relationship. As the eldest of six children, I understand that not all familial relationships will be great. It’s normal to fight and disagree and compete. Are you the Ares or the Athene of the relationship? Yes, Ares is brutish and mean-spirited, but he can rise to help his family when needed. Can you do more to temper yourself, especially in times of family crisis? Are you more like Athene, the good child? Do you, as Athene has done, chide and egg-on your siblings into further bad behavior, just to see them squirm or get in trouble? Can you come to your least-favorite sibling’s side when he needs it?

Families these day no longer always conform to the traditional nuclear model. Do you resent a sibling who may be adopted? Or did a step-parent bring a child from a previous relationship into the family? Many of us deal with these tensions and disturbances to our “normal” lives every day. With divorce a chilling every-day reality, and an increasing number of couples holding off on child-bearing into less fertile ages, the occurence of adopted and step-siblings will only increase. Can you handle that challenge if faced with it? Will you become an Ares or an Athene? Neither?


Theoi Greek Mythology Project

Cults of the Greek States, Vol V, by Lewis Richard Farnell

Greek Religion, by Walter Burkert

One comment on “Sibling Rivalries

  1. I found this post quite intriguing. While I am the oldest of five children, the majority of them were born when I was in middle school, but I have an interesting history of rivalry with my brother who is only a year younger. I love my brother though we are nothing alike, and our differences often resulted in spars as much they resulted in playful antics (and yes I was the older sister who used to put her brother in headlocks until he got bigger than me and was able to literally pick me up…though that didn’t make me hold my ground any less lol).
    The relationship between Ares and Athena may seem in myths to be a bit disfunctional, and her popularity versus that of Ares is quite well known, still in the end they can come together. The fact that Athena can temper the might of Ares is rather interesting. She doesn’t possess his brute strength but she can temper him with her own abilities. In this manner, though they may often be at ends with each other, they seem to have a necessary relaitonship in my way of thinking.

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