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The Nature of Deimos and Phobos

October 6, 2009

It is human nature to be fascinated by that which horrifies and repulses us. We watch films and television programs for their graphic scenes – the mangled bodies, the dead children and the utter madness. When we drive past a horrific car crash, we slow down to see the destruction. Some among us enjoy watching animals chew off their own body-parts in order to escape the traps we set for no reason but to sate our sadistic amusements. The majority of us will, at one time or another, have hurt somebody, stolen something, lied to somebody – and some among us have even killed somebody. We are, due to our very natures, sinful creatures; and that is all that sets us apart from the ‘lower’ animals. They do not sin, or set out to sin. We try to strive for virtue, and in the process we get exactly the opposite.

This is the nature of Deimos and Phobos, the gods of terror and panic, respectively. They are the sons of Aphrodite, the Olympian goddess of love, beauty, sensuality, pleasure, feminity and women, and Ares, the Olympian god of courage, battle, war, blood, masculinity and men. Deimos and Phobos inspire the blurring of their parents’ domains – they are the pleasure derived in pain, the love of war, and the stirring and spilling of blood.

In his Dionysiaca, Nonnus describes a scene in which Aphrodite and her Erotes—the winged gods of love in all its forms—, accompanied by Deimos and Phobos, sack a city. The scene is spine-tingling: Aphrodite is usually described as a soft, gentle, smiling goddess, rather than a goddess of war, and thus to see her in the company of such ‘awful’ gods as Deimos and Phobos is unnerving. “Kypris [Aphrodite] wore a gleaming helmet, when Peitho shook a brazen spear and turned into Pallas Athena to stand by Minor in the fray . . . when the bridal swarm of unwarlike Erotes shot their arrows in battle; I know how tender Pothos sacked a city, when the Kydonian trumpet blared against Nisos of Megara and his people, when brazen Ares shrank back for very shame, when he saw his Phobos and his Deimos supporting the Erotes, when he beheld Aphrodite holding the buckler and Pothos casting the lance, while daintyrobe Eros wrought a fairhair victory against the fighting men in arms.” (Nonnus, Dionysiaca 25.150ff.) This scene further blurs the line between Love and War; and, interestingly, it is not Aphrodite who is shamed to see the fighting, but Ares. This suggests that while Ares’ warfare has little to do with love—and therefore he is shamed by the war for such—Deimos and Phobos care not for the cause, but only for the outcome: war, war, war.

Aeschylus describes how war-oaths are sworn not by Athene, or by the usual gods of oaths—Styx and Horkos—but by Ares, Enyo (Ares’ sister and the goddess of war) and Phobos: “Seven warriors, fierce regiment-commanders, slaughtered a bull over a black shield, and then touching the bull’s gore with their hands they swore an oath by Ares, by Enyo and by Phobos who delights in blood, that either they will level the city and sack the Kadmeans’ town by force, or will in death smear this soil with their blood.” (Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes 41ff.) This passage hints at how warriors viewed Phobos, at least – as a god that you want on your side, rather than as on your enemy’s team.

The Roman author Valerius Flaccus, in the Argonautica, also deeply identifies Aphrodite’s (Venus’) crueller aspects with the nature of her son Phobos (Fear): “Venus herself whirling a pine-torch in spires of flame piles gloom on gloom and girt for the fray sweeps down to quivering Lemnos; storm, lightning and peals are her escort from heaven; the pomp of her father’s thunder lends her glory. Then through the terror-stricken air again and again she makes a strange cry ring, whereat all Athos first did shudder, and then the sea and the wide Thracian mere, aye, and every mother in her bed; and children at the breast grew chilled. Straightway Fear and insensate Strife from her Getic lair, dark-browed Anger with pale cheeks, Treachery, Frenzy and towering above the rest Death, her cruel hands bared, come hastening up at the first sound of the Martian consort’s pealing voice that gave the signal.”(Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 2.200ff.)

A passage in Hesiod’s Theogony identifies Deimos and Phobos as gods of disorder, of chaos: “Also Kytherea [Aphrodite] bare to Ares the shield-piercer Phobos and Deimos, terrible gods who drive in disorder the close ranks of men in numbing war, with the help of Ares, sacker of towns.” (Hesiod, Theogony 933ff.) This, then, leads on to furthering their link to their mother, Aphrodite – as a goddess of the human body and of beauty, she is also goddess of the chaos of expression—particularly in art—and, also, she is furthered as a ‘chaos-god’ by her very nature as a goddess of love: for what is love if not chaotic?

As gods of war, terror, panic, fear and chaos—and representing the fear of losing war, or of losing someone in war, by their nature as sons of Aphrodite and Ares—Deimos and Phobos become more than mere sons and attendants of Ares; they become terrifying in their own right. And yet they do not strike without need – they are both merciless and merciful, for the myths do not speak of their attacking without reason. They exist in the chaos of humanity – in the beating of the heart; in the blood streaming through veins and, when spilled, over skin; and in the madness of the human mind. They bring about the fascination with the awful, with the hideous. They are the patrons of ‘circus freaks’, as well as warriors and fear-inspiring fighters; they are the gods of disfigurement and the revulsion it can cause; they are the gods of horror, of fear, and of everything you’ve ever wished does not exist.

But if they are treated well, and shown proper respect, they are not necessarily awful. Their natures do not change, but their aims may – and if Deimos and Phobos stand beside you, in any and every matter, then they are not standing against you. If they are against you, then they are the voice in the back of your mind, stirring in delicious terror over the consequences your actions may be; if they are beside you, they lend their strength unto you to do what you must, regardless of how selfish your reasons might be.

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