Wednesday, 6 June 2012

The Judgement of Paris

It is a curious thing how great the influence of one person can be on the course of history. Though they may not know it at the time, one person truly can make all the difference. The Trojan War, the most iconic of its kind in history, which forever bound the great civilisations of the West, and whose heroes are spoken of in awe even today, began because of one such person. But the War (whose story begins here) found its origins in the most unlikely of places...

The Marriage of Thetis and Peleus
Painting by Hendrick de Clerck
One day, far distant in the mists of time, high on the peaks of Mount Ida, there was great jubilation. It was a joyful day, for it saw the wedding of the nymph Thetis to Peleus, a marriage which held the blessings of the gods of Olympus. Great would be their progeny indeed, for one day their union would give birth to the mightiest of champions - Achilles, whose name the world would ever after speak of in reverence. Men, nymphs, gods, goddesses and all manner of magical creatures came from far and wide to celebrate, bearing a dazzling array of gifts to honour the happy day. Even Ares, lord of war, and Artemis, chaste maiden of the hunt, were to be seen in the great ensemble. All were euphoric, the skies rang to the sound of music, and not a sad face was to be seen amid the revelry. All, that was, except for one. For, skulking in the shadows, was the only being who had not received an invitation. Looking on in cold fury at her rejection, Eris, the goddess of discord, whose evil ways had ever left her shunned amid the spirits of the world, conspired to take her revenge, and bring cruel chaos down upon the scene before her now. As she circled in the shade of the trees, she cast her thoughts to how she could bring her malevolent influence to bear. Perhaps she could spread foul rumours amongst the guests? Poison the minds of the many against their gracious hosts? Openly denounce the bridal pair? There was a dark moment, when her rage waxed grave indeed, when she considered, for one brief moment, going to the very depths of the world, to the deepest part of the Underworld, and breaking asunder the Gates of Tartarus, and so releasing the Titans from their infernal bonds, to be unleashed once more upon the world. It was a fortunate thing indeed, that her fear was too great to carry out this dark deed. Instead, her thoughts turned to discord, that thing at which she was adept at spreading above all others.

Taking a Golden Apple from the Garden of the Hesperides (of the very same tree which Heracles had once ventured to, for the story, please click here), the vengeful goddess inscribed upon it "For the fairest". Never before or again would one sentence bring such ruinous calamity upon the world. Eris, proud of her stratagem, took careful aim, hurling the fruit into the midst of the dancing goddesses. All were amazed at the shining seed now before them, but none more so than three of the greatest goddesses - Hera, Queen of the gods, Athena, goddess of wisdom and war and Aphrodite, goddess of lust. From the moment they set eyes upon it, each goddess claimed the Apple for their own. As discord and argument soon spread as to who should rightfully bear the fruit, the three goddesses turned to Zeus, King of all the gods, to judge himself. Knowing well the undying wrath he would earn from the two he did not choose, the Thunderer wisely refused. To a mortal man should fall this mighty burden, the god ruled, as he thought to himself who this soul could be.

There was, not far away on the slopes of Mount Ida, a young man tending his flocks as a faithful shepherd. But this man was no ordinary shepherd. Named Paris, he was an exile of royal blood, cast out of his homeland whilst still a baby. For long ago, the boy's mother, Queen Hecuba of the royal house of Troy, had experienced a terrible nightmare. Just before her son's birth, she saw a vision that she would give birth to a flaming torch. When she awoke with a start, she confided in her husband, King Priam. Priam decided to consult an Oracle as to what this strange portent could mean. The seer Aesacus, when the royal couple retold their worries to him, was gripped with anguish. The child that the Queen would soon bear, the prophet declared, would be the ruin of Troy. The seer urged them to kill the child as soon as it was born, and save Troy from her doom. The day came, however, when Paris entered the world, and from the moment Hecuba and Priam looked upon him, they could bring no harm upon their own flesh and blood. Despairing, Priam handed the child over to Agelaus, his chief herdsmen, to take him away. The shepherd took the young Paris far from Troy's towering heights, but as a he too looked upon the baby, he found that he could not bring himself to slay a child. Vowing to raise the child as his own, he took Paris into his care, where the two lived happily, with a simple life upon the slopes of Mount Ida. It was to Paris that the goddesses of Olympus came now, forever to change his destiny, and that of the world.

The Judgement of Paris
Painting by Rubens
It was with great fear that Paris beheld the sight of Hermes, messenger of the gods, bearing down upon him on that fateful day. " Fling away thy milking-pail and leave thy fair flocks and come hither and give decision as judge of the goddesses of heaven. Come hither and decide which is the more excellent beauty of face, and to the fairer give this apple’s lovely fruit ", the swift footed god declared. Paris stood, transfixed, hardly daring to question, even less refuse the command of Olympus. In a flash of blazing glory, the three goddesses appeared suddenly before him, in all their divine majesty. One by one, the goddesses approached, Athena, lady of war and wisdom first:

          " Come hither, son of Priam! leave the spouse of Zeus and heed not Aphrodite,
            queen of the bridal bower, but praise thou Athena who aids the prowess of men.
            They say that thou art a king and keepest the city of Troy. Come hither,
            and I will make thee the saviour of their city to men hard pressed:
            lest ever Enyo of grievous wrath weigh heavily upon thee.
            Hearken to me and I will teach thee war and prowess! "

Then came Hera, regal mistress of Olympus:

         " If thou wilt elect me and bestow on me the fruit of the fairer,
           I will make thee lord of all mine Asia. Scorn thou the works of battle.
           What has a king to do with war? A prince gives command both to the valiant
           and to the unwarlike. Not always are the squires of Athena foremost.
           Swift is the doom and death of the servants of Enyo! "

Finally, there stood Aphrodite, folly of all men, who simply looked Paris in the eyes, smiling, as she began to speak:

      " Accept me and forget wars: take my beauty and leave the sceptre
         and the land of Asia. I know not the works of battle.
         What has Aphrodite to do with shields? By beauty much more do women excel.
         In place of manly prowess I will give thee a lovely bride, and, instead of kingship,
         enter thou the bed of Helen. Lacedaemon, after Troy, shall see thee a bridegroom! "

Painting by Evelyn de Morgan
Little did Paris, or the other deities assembled know, that Aphrodite wore a girdle infused with a powerful enchantment. No man which looked upon its wearer could resist base temptation. Still did the words flow from Aphrodite as the son of Priam already offered the Apple to her. Triumphant, Aphrodite raised her glittering prize, mocking her competitors mercilessly. Athena was angered, but it was nothing compared with the fury of Hera. For from this moment the House of Troy and all her descendants had made an eternal enemy of the goddess, and her curse would plague the destiny of the Trojan race. Aphrodite turned to Paris, placing her blessing upon him, declaring that he had the heart of the most beautiful woman in the world. Her name was Helen. With this promise, the goddesses departed, leaving Paris severely shaken. All he could think of now was Helen, far away in the distant lands of Greece. Unable to turn his thoughts anywhere but to her, he resolved to seek her out. Little could he know now the whole world of pain that this decision would unleash...

United Kingdom

Oppian. Colluthus. Tryphiodorus (Loeb Classical Library)
(The most poetic, and best preserved form of the story)

(A sample available to read online)

United States

Oppian, Colluthus, Tryphiodorus (Loeb Classical Library No. 219)
(The most poetic, and best preserved form of the story)

(A sample available to read online)