Eris: The Greek Goddess of Discord and Conflict
Table of Contents
Eris, the goddess of strife, was at the heart of every disagreement and argument in ancient Greece.
Eris was not one of the favored goddesses of the ancient world. She represented a host of negative emotions and reactions that most people hoped to avoid entirely.
She was the goddess of strife. She sewed discord between people to spur them to fighting, arguing, and even waging war all for her enjoyment.
Eris delighted in people’s unhappiness. When people fought, whether it was a group soldiers on a battlefield or two neighbors arguing about property, Eris was delighted.
The Greeks may not have liked the goddess of strife, but she played a major role in their lives. Every argument, large and small, both began and ended with Eris.
She even had the power to start the most famous war in Greek legend.
Eris was the goddess of strife, discord, disagreement, and rivalry.
Most ancient writers said she was a daughter of Nyx, the personification of night. Her siblings had domains such as death, misery, doom, and old age.
Whenever people argued, bickered, and feuded, Eris was right in the middle of it.
She was credited, for example, with creating discord between married couples to cause disagreements and distrust instead of love.
Her reputation for causing fights between couples would certainly be fitting if her parents were the king and queen of the gods. Zeus and Hera were known for their frequent disagreements, distrust, and arguments.
Eris spurred men and women to competition and jealousy. She could cause resentment over someone else’s good fortune or skills.
She was typically seen as a harsh goddess who delighted in turmoil and unhappiness. She never took sides in an argument, but instead was equally happy to witness the suffering of everyone involved.
In any argument, large or small, she was said to be the first to instigate it and the last to leave. Even after the fighting was done, strife and resentment often stayed behind.
Most of all, though, Eris embodied the strife of war.
In addition to being called his sister, Eris often appeared as a companion of Ares. Nowhere was strife and discord more evident than in the bloodshed and misery of a battlefield.
Like her brother, Eris was said to delight in the horrors of battle. She was a violent and vicious goddess who took joy in the miseries brought about by war.
In fact, Eris was usually the last to remain on the field of battle. Long after Ares left and the bravery he embodied was gone, she remained behind with her conflict and unhappiness.
Ares represented the strength and courage of fighting men. When that courage was gone, only strife remained.
During the Trojan War, for example, Eris was often the only deity present during battle. Zeus had forbidden the gods from taking part in the human war when they all chose sides.
Eris, however, chose no side. The hatred and misery of war would always affect both sides equally.
While the other gods watched the battle from afar and did nothing to intervene, Eris stood in the middle. Both the Greeks and the Trojans suffered because of strife.
Many depictions of legendary battles included the figure of Eris at the centre of the conflict. But sometimes, it is unclear whether the goddess who delights in the struggles happening around her is actually Eris at all.
Eris often accompanied her brother, Ares, to battle. He delighted in bloodlust and feats of great strength and courage, while she took joy from the fighting itself and the negative feelings of the combatants.
Eris was not the only sister of Ares who delighted in battle, however.
Enyo, the goddess of bloodshed and destruction, was also a close companion of her brother.
The two goddesses shared a very similar function. In fact, Homer appears to make no distinction between them at all.
In many cases, the names Enyo and Eris seem to be used interchangeably. Both were goddesses, often called a sister of Ares, who took delight in the violence of war and the destruction caused by fighting.
Both goddesses were noted for their destructive natures and quarrelsome personalities. Enyo, the “sacker of cities” and “hard-hearted” Eris were both unwelcomed by nearly all men.
The strife of Eris was not always related to war, however. She was also at the heart of more domestic matters.
Eris was the goddess of marital discord and family feuds. But, according to Hesiod at least, she could also do some good for mankind.
So, after all, there was not one kind of Strife alone, but all over the earth there are two. As for the one, a man would praise her when he came to understand her; but the other is blameworthy: and they are wholly different in nature. For one fosters evil war and battle, being cruel … But the other … is far kinder to men. She stirs up even the shiftless to toil; for a man grows eager to work when he considers his neighbour, a rich man who hastens to plough and plant and put his house in good order; and neighbour vies with his neighbour as he hurries after wealth. This Strife is wholesome for men.
-Hesiod Works and Days 11 – 24
Hesiod took the unusual position of giving Eris credit for motivating people to better their lives and work harder. Trying to outdo one’s neighbor could, according to Hesiod, be a form of strife that was beneficial.
The version of Eris was so different from the Eris seen on the battlefield that they were sometimes considered two different goddesses. The Eris of fighting was cruel and merciless, but the domestic Eris could use a man’s discontent and competitive nature to make his life better through hard work.
One Eris focused her discontent outward and battled against other people, while the other Eris focused inward and inspired a man to fight against his own bad habits.
The Eris of fighting was often confused with Enyo, but the more personal Eris was a different type of goddess entirely.
Eris was said to have had many children. Like Nyx, she gave birth to a wide range of negative beings.
Most of these children were personifications of the feelings and troubles that grew out of strife and fighting or led to it.
- Ponos – The god of hard work and toil, he personified more than just a bit of labor. He represented the back-breaking work required to survive under poverty and harsh conditions.
- Lethe – The goddess of forgetfulness, she was associated with the underworld river of the same name.
- Limos – She personified extreme hunger. She represented the starvation and famine that were often left behind after war.
- The Algae – The three sisters, Lupa, Ania, and Achos, represented both mental and physical pain, distress, and grief.
- The Hysminai – These were the spirits of hand-to-hand combat. Instead of armed conflict, they presided over brawls and fist fights.
- The Machae – The opposites of the Hysminai, they represented the sights and sounds of great battles, including the din of war and the confusion of the battlefield.
- The Phonoi – They personified murder, killing, and slaughter outside of war.
- The Androctasiae – They too personified killings, but theirs were within the realm of warfare.
- Horcus – Horcus was a god of oaths, specifically one who punished perjurors.
- Ate – She was the daimon of reckless action, folly, and impulsiveness.
- Dysnomia – She personified lawlessness and the breakdown of civil order.
- The Amphilogiae – They were personifications of altercation.
- The Pseudologoi – This group of spirits represented lies.
- The Neikea – Some of Eris’s most malevolent children, they embodied feuds and lasting grievances.
Eris and her children represented many of the most unwelcome and disliked aspects of life. The collectively personified the causes and effects of fighting, all springing from a form of strife.
There was one story, however, that illustrated the destructive power of Eris more than any other. It was the story of how she started a war.
When the Titaness Thetis was married, all of Olympus was invited to the wedding feast. The only one to be excluded was Eris.
No one wanted Eris at the feast because she sewed discord wherever she went. Arguments and bickering were not welcomed at a celebration, particularly when the goddess was known to cause them in marriages.
Eris took the slight as an insult and decided that she would get revenge on the Olympians the best way she knew how. She sewed discord among them.
The goddess of strife got a golden apple from the Hesperides and left it at the entrance to Mount Olympus. Attached was a note that said the magical fruit was a gift for the “fairest.”
As the king of the gods, a dispute among them typically fell to Zeus to judge. Any choice he made, though, would only cause more problems.
Hera was his wife, Athena was his daughter, and Aphrodite was his half-sister. Whichever choice he made would be an insult to the others that would not only continue their conflict, but bring the anger of two powerful goddesses into his personal life.
Zeus decided that the fairest way to judge the goddesses was to take the decision out of Olympus entirely. He would have a human award the apple to one of the goddesses so no one could blame him for the decision.
He and Hermes chose the Trojan prince Paris for the task. The goddesses appeared before him so he could judge which was the fairest.
All three goddesses tried to improve their chances, however. They were so consumed by their rivalry that they each offered the prince great gifts to sway his vote.
Athena promised military might and victory. Hera could give earthly power and control over great riches.
Aphrodite, however, won the apple with her promise. She could give Paris the love of the most beautiful woman in the world.
Unfortunately, the woman in question was Helen, who was already married to the king of Sparta. Aphrodite and Eros still caused her to fall in love with Paris, however, and the couple eloped to Troy.
The abduction, or defection depending on the point of view, of Helen kicked off the Trojan War. The Spartans called upon their allies and almost ever state of Greece sailed to Troy to join them.
The war lasted ten years and cost the lives of many of the greatest heroes of the age. Many of the gods and goddesses lost mortal children to the fighting.
The Olympians themselves ended up at war. Nearly all picked sides, based on their allegiances and their feelings about Paris’s choice of the fairest goddess.
The one goddess who did not pick a side was Eris. She remained in the center of the Trojan battlefield, delighting in the decade of conflict she had caused just because she had been left out of Thetis’s wedding feast.
Homer mentioned Eris often in the Iliad, the great epic poem he wrote about the war she had started.
One aspect of Eris that he noted was how her physical presence changed over time.
When Eris appeared in any location, she was very small. She was dwarfed even by human children and was hardly noticeable.
The longer she remained, however, the larger Eris became. Eris would grow until she was so large that her head brushed against the heavens and she towered over the entire earth.
Homer used the personification of strife to show how conflicts changed over time. Any disagreement began as a small minor matter, but the longer it went on the more overwhelming and powerful it became.
Ultimately, Eris was probably the least popular goddess in Greece. There were no temples to her and there is no record of anyone praying for her favor.
Despite the positive spin Hesiod put on his description of Eris, she remained a goddess that people would rather avoid.
She had nothing positive to offer the people of Greece. Even against their enemies she offered no benefit because Eris did not distinguish one side of a fight from the other in her efforts to sew conflict.
She is remembered not for her cult or any great myths about her, but as the personified grudges and rivalries that kicked off the greatest war in Greek legend.