Skyscript home page

Ancient Mythology
The Tarot


Mars in Myth & Occult Philosophy
       By David McCann

Ancient Mythology

Mars In ancient Mesopotamia, the planet Mars was known as Salbatanu and associated with the god Nergal. The attributes of Nergal combined those that we associate with Mars and Pluto today: he was lord of the underworld and also connected with such dangers as infectious disease, fire, and warfare.

The Egyptian equivalent was considered by the Greeks to be Anhur. Originally the local god of Abydos, he became the manifestation of the strength of Ra. The imperialist Pharaohs of the New Kingdom worshipped him as a god of war; but he was equally popular with the common people, who called him the Saviour or the Good Warrior and invoked him as a protection against danger.

The Greek god Ares was said to be the son of Hera and Zeus, but his name is not Greek: he probably originated in Thrace. Homer showed that he considered Mars to be a foreigner by making him fight for the Trojans, along with other immigrant gods. Ares, as presented in Greek literature, is really too much a personification of war and lust to be a good image of the planet, but this may be because the authors came from the south and east of Greece, while his cult was best established in the north and west. At a deeper level, as a people too much given to warfare, the Greeks were probably right to distrust Ares: the forces of Mars are difficult to express, assertion easily becoming aggression, which is precisely why we call him a malefic. In Greek myth, Heracles would have been a better choice to represent Mars, but he was not originally a god, only a hero. Of course, even Heracles had problems with the Martian side of his nature: he had his outbursts of uncontrolled rage, as well as his more acceptable monster-slaying achievements.

The Roman Mars was rather similar to Anhur: a god who represented the better side of the planet. Some have called him a god of agriculture, claiming that his association with war could be explained as the Roman farmers appealing to their most-invoked deity before battle, but the agricultural role of Mars was to protect cattle and crops from diseases, bad weather, and evil influences. The rituals observed by the priests of Mars show that he corresponded to the Indian god Indra, a warriors' god who combated the forces of evil.

The Romans considered the Germanic god Tiw (Norse: Tyr) to be the equivalent of their Mars, since he was invoked before battle; thus Tuesday (OE: Tiwesdæg) corresponds to the Italian Marted (Lat: Martis dies). Actually Tiw was so invoked in his capacity as the god of justice, and in name he corresponds to Zeus and Jupiter. The Norse equivalent of Mars was really Thor, but the Romans equated him to Jupiter for no better reason than his use of thunder-bolts: ancient mythographers were often far less informed than modern ones.


IIn the Jewish cabbala, Mars is the fifth sphere, Power (Gevurah); it is notable that the Pythagoreans called the number five Nemesis, a word related to retributive justice, an unconquerable enemy or vengeance. The sphere of Mars is also known as Fear (Pachad): that fear of God which is said to be the beginning of wisdom, because it comes from realising our own shortcomings. Gevurah forms the moral triad with Chesed (Jupiter) and Tiphereth (the Sun). Here the benefic Jupiter and malefic Mars symbolize the constructive and destructive principles which are both vital parts of the universe, and which are transcended in the Sun. This contrast between Mars and Jupiter is reflected in the opposition between their exaltations: according to Antiochus of Athens, this is because they are life and death, a comment which takes us back to Babylon where Marduk (Jupiter) was the creator and Nergal the Lord of the Underworld.


Tarot cards based on Mars In the major arcana of the tarot, the Golden Dawn assigned the Thunderbolt (or the Tower) to Mars. This shows the malefic aspect of the planet, a tower being struck down by lightning, and can indicate anything from change to ruin. The card Fortitude (or Strength) is also frequently linked to this planet; in divination it represents both sides of Mars:- courage and action, or anger and pride. The image of a woman holding the head of a lion, used in many packs, probably started as a long-haired Hercules strangling the Nemean lion; the alternative, a woman with a broken column, was most likely the equally long-haired Samson demolishing the temple of the Philistines. In the minor arcana, Mars is assigned on cabbalistic grounds to the fives. These are all unfortunate: Five of Wands, called Conflict; Five of Swords, Defeat; Five of Coins, Worry; Five of Cups, Disappointment.

David McCann, who lives in London, is an expert on the history and philosophy of astrology. His articles have been published in many international journals of astrology and he was a regular contributor to the Traditional Astrologer magazine, where this article first appeared.

© David McCann, 1998
This article was first published in The Traditional Astrologer Magazine, issue 16, March 1998

More on Mars
Mars glypth More articles by David McCann

Other planets featured in this series:

See also:
Mercury's Orbit & Phases
Birth of the Outer Planets