Now that the Covid-19 media apocalypse is upon us here in Ireland I am taking a moment to think about the boy who gave us the name for next month.
The painting above is the Benjamin West 1795 “Death on a pale horse” which depicts the Biblical four horsemen of the apocalypse, Pestilence, War, Famine and Death, riding successively horses coloured white, red, black and pale.
In the ancient world disease killed more armies than battle, and was a constant companion of any assembled army. Famine followed in the wake of every army as they stripped the land bare of food, like a plague of locusts. Death of course is the bride of war.
So it is interesting to look at the parallels between the apocalyptic horsemen and the earlier Greco-Roman depictions of the Roman Mars (for whom we name March) and his Greek origination as the God Ares.
Homer, in the Illiad, quotes Zeus as calling Ares the god most hateful to him. Such a thing to say to your own son!
The Greeks, for all their warlike tendencies, had a suspicion of unbridled passion. They saw Eros (uncontrolled love) as a form of madness. In Ares they saw the passion needed to succeed in battle, but they also saw the brutality. Untamed aggression was achieved by letting slip the reins of mental discipline.
Like the later four horsemen Ares travelled in a gang of four. Himself, the God of war, accompanied in his chariot by his two sons Phobos (Fear) and Deimos (Terror) and his daughter/lover Enyo (Discord). Indeed it was Enyo who started the Trojan war. But that’s a different story.
Ares had four sure-footed, gold bridled, immortal horses who pulled his chariot; Aithon, Phlogios, Konabos and Phobos (same name as his son).
The Greeks saw Ares as a destabilising force, and saw war as a necessary evil, both to be avoided if possible. Ares is often ridiculed or embarrased in Greek mythology.
Rome took a different line. Rome placed Mars in the top 3 of their Gods. The Romans viewed War as the means to Peace and they treated their god of war with reverence and dignity. Instead of being incestuously linked to Discord like Ares the Roman Mars is married to Nerio, the Goddess of Valor.
So we can see that the four horsemen of the bible have more in common with the Greek god of war than they do with the Roman Mars.
And now back to the painting. In a twist of fate it carries its own apocalyptic tale. When the first American Academy of art burned down a volunteer fireman cut the painting from its frame and saved it from the conflagration.