“The Test of Paris”, the prelude story in Greek mythology to “The Fall of Troy,” appears on the surface to be a simple story. Egged on by the Goddess of Discord, Eris, three goddesses are driven by their own vanity to force a mortal man to decide who amongst them is the loveliest. They are Hera, queen of the gods and Goddess of motherhood and protector of marriages, Athena, goddess of wisdom and righteous war and Aphrodite, Goddess of Beauty and Love. The three goddesses agree to allow a mortal, Paris, to decide which amongst them is the loveliest and therefore deserving of the golden apple that Eris has offered as a prize.
Two of the goddesses, obviously, are unhappy with the ruling and demand retribution against Paris, eventually leading to the Fall of Troy. What appears to be simple story, however, is filled with peculiarities. The major fallacy with the story being, why would Athena participate in such a contest? The virgin goddess of wisdom is hardly pictured as the kind to worry about how beautiful she appears to men. It is even less likely, from the stories told of her, that she would allow her opinion of herself to depend on the decision of a single mortal.
In addition, Athena favors battle over other hobbies (Hesiod 11. 1-4). Her apathy towards romance and men is mentioned throughout legend. “I begin to sing of Pallas Athena, the glorious goddess, bright eyed, inventive, unbending of heart, pure virgin savior of cities…” (Hesiod 11. 1-16) Taking sides against Troy over a lost beauty contest appears against Athena’s personality as well. Athena does not choose sides in battle thoughtlessly. While many of the gods select sides in battle according to a single hero in their favor, Athena decided more often according to which side is just.
After the fall of Troy, despite her rage against Paris, when the Greeks sack the city, raping, killing and acting “like enraged beasts” (Melchinger 116) Athena withdraws her favor from them. She then, in a round-about way, apologizes to Poseidon for having allowed Troy to fall to them. She also suggests severe retribution against the Greeks for having squandered her favor and acting so despicably. At the beginning of “The Trojan Women” she stands with Poseidon, god of the sea, whom she originally opposed during the war. “I would make Mine ancient enemies laugh for joy, and bring
On these Greek ships a bitter homecoming… Therefore with thee I stand To smite them. ” (Euripides 7) Finally, as an “eternal virgin”, Athena has nothing to gain by being judged the most beautiful. Beauty is used to sway minds and find favor. Athena already uses wisdom sway minds to her way of thinking. Men going to war already beg her favor. While the Gods and Goddesses of Greek legends have their fallacies and their petty arguments, they are fairly one-dimensional characters (Berry 16). They respect, seek or desire very human things, usually connected with their area of power.
In Hera’s case, she craves authority and respect. With this in mind, Hera too, has little to gain from this contest. She already has the mightiest husband she can hope for and is Queen of all the Gods and mortals alike. While a jealous woman, Hera is never pictured as a shallow or vain woman in Greek culture, especially when there is nothing to be gained. Unlike her husband, Zeus, she craves power, not lovers. Aphrodite is the only one of the three with a true need to win the apple. As the goddess of love and beauty, to be judged less beautiful then her opponents will undercut her power.
Greek gods were not models of morality as in many other religions, but powerful, immortal beings who controlled a specific area of influence (Berry 16). For Aphrodite to lose this contest means not just a blow to her ego, but to her very status as a goddess. To be the Goddess of Beauty, she must be found most beautiful. Continuing the tale, Paris is chosen by Zeus as the mortal to be burdened by this conflict and is approached by the goddesses to decide. Not willing to leave it to chance, the goddesses blatantly try swaying his decision; bribing him with all the things they believe a man should desire the most.
It is apparent that what is really becoming at stake here is not beauty at all. Instead the contest becomes about which goddess can offer man, in this case Paris, what he values the most in return for his praise. Hera begins by offering Paris a land of his own to rule. With power will come respect, money, power and prestige for his children to come. She is queen of the gods, and he will know her favor if only he bestows the apple to her. Her persuasions to Paris cover not only her own sphere of influence, but a reminder of her marital connections: “Dominion shall be your over land and sea….
Reverence, you agree, is the highest wisdom. How can you judge more wisely than by conforming to the judgment of Father Zeus, master of choices, who of all living creatures chose me as his wife? (Evslin 10)” Athena goes second and offers him wisdom. Hera, she argues, is queen of the gods only because Zeus made her so. Athena, however, sprung forth from his head fully formed as goddess of wisdom and war. She is her own source of power. With her favor, Paris may win himself a kingdom, through war or diplomacy as he wishes.
Without her favor, he will soon lose whatever kingdom Hera gives him because all generals must pray for her, and without wisdom to rule, kingdoms collapse in the end “…Wisdom is uniquely mine to offer. And without wisdom, power loses its potency and wealth grows poor (Evslin 11). Aphrodite, goddess of love and desire, offers him the most beautiful woman of the age, the fickle Helen. Helen has been compared to Aphrodite herself and her suitors have been kings and princes. Simply choosing her husband has already come close to starting a war. Aphrodite describes her to Paris: “There is a mortal woman on earth said to rival me in beauty.
She is Helen, queen of Sparta, and I hereby promise her to you. (Evslin 14). ” Paris, of course, chooses beauty over wisdom or power, and so begins the Fall of Troy. The goddesses he has decided against now give their favor to the Greeks, seeking to make Paris pay for his decision by destroying his city (Fuller 172). Aphrodite gives him her favor, of course, but battle and power are not her spheres of influence. There is little she can do once the war begins. The other gods choose sides as well, but none as passionately as these three women. The decision of Paris has changed the beauty contest into something more.
The prize is no longer a golden apple or ego, but the goddess’ divinities are now in question. It is important to note that beauty itself was vital to what made a goddess worthy of worship. The Greeks thought of gods as little more than immortals with greater power and greater beauty than they themselves possessed. (Berry 16) Isocrates defends the choice of Paris by reminding his reader “Zeus, lord of all, reveals his power in all else, but deigns to approach beauty in humble guise. ” (93) Even the Father of Gods, he says, is brought low by beautiful women, so how can a mere man not see it as important?
“Beauty is of all things the most venerated, the most precious, and the most divine. And it is easy to determine its power; for while many things which do not have any attributes of courage, wisdom, or justice will be seen to be more highly valued than any one of these attributes, yet of those things which lack beauty we shall find not one that is beloved; on the contrary, all are despised except in so far as the possess in some degree this outward form, beauty and it is for this reason that virtue is most highly esteemed, because it is the most beautiful way of living.
” (Isocrates 89, 91) Like Zeus without his strength, a goddess without beauty is less of a goddess. Secondly, by seeking to bribe him with the things in their power, each of these women has also put her own divinity on the line in other ways. The true point of the contest is not who is most beautiful, but who has the greatest gifts to offer. When beauty is judged a greater gift than Wisdom or Power, this is no longer just about ego to Hera and Athena, but about their very importance in Olympus. Since they are the embodiments of these things, they have been found wanting.
In order for Hera and Athena to regain their status in the Greek pecking order, it becomes necessary for Troy to fall. Hera must prove again the might of her rule, Athena her prowess in combat. For this, the city falls and great heroes on both sides die. The gods themselves turn against one another, reconciled in the end only by Zeus’ order. It seems very apparent that, whatever Paris’ judgment, the only one to truly prove her might was Discord.
Berry, Gerald L. Religions of the World. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc. , 1956 Euripides. The Trojan women of Euripides. Project Gutenberg, 2003
Evelyn-White, Hugh G. (1924). “The Theogony” Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns, and Homerica. Evslin, Bernard. Greeks Bearing Gifts: The Epics of Achilles and Ulysses. New York: Four Winds Press, 1976 Fuller, Edmund. Bulfinch’s Mythology: A Modern Abridgement. New York: Dell Publishing Company, Inc. , 1959 Isocrates (???? ). Helen. Malinowski, Bronislaw. Magic, Science and Religion. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. , 1954 Martin, Thomas. Ancient Greece. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000 Melchinger, Siegfried. Euripides. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. , 1973