When the goddess of spite felt snubbed by the other gods, she enacted a plan of revenge that would lead to one of the most brutal conflicts in history.
Eris sent a golden apple to Mount Olympus, addressed only to “the fairest.” Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena all tried to claim the apple for themselves.
With Zeus unable to judge the matter fairly, Paris of Troy was chosen to determine which goddess deserved the apple.
Each goddess offered him great gifts in exchange for a favorable judgement. Ultimately, he chose Aphrodite and won the love of the most beautiful woman in the world.
Helen, however, was already married to the king of Sparta. When Menelaus called upon his allies to bring back his wayward wife, they began the ten-year long Trojan War.
Had Paris made a different choice, the conflict might have been avoided. The identities of the goddesses involved, however, made it virtually impossible for the contest to have ended in any other way.
The story of the golden apple begins with the marriage of Peleus and Thetis.
The human hero and the Titaness were married on Mount Olympus. Their wedding feast was said to have been the greatest celebration ever witnessed there.
All of the gods were invited to the festivities except for Eris. The goddess of discord, it was thought, would ruin the feast by inevitably causing arguments and ill-will between the guests.
Instead, it was the exclusion of Eris itself that caused conflict.
Eris was infuriated by the slight and vowed revenge. She took one of the golden apples of the Hesperides, magical fruits that granted eternal youth and health, and sent it to Olympus.
Included with the apple was a note that addressed it “to the fairest.” Who the fairest was, however, was not specified.
The king of the gods, however, was unwilling to be the judge. He could not be impartial, or did not want to cause problems for himself, when the contestants included both his wife and his daughter.
Instead, Zeus suggested that a human should be the judge. Paris, the prince of Troy, had recently proven himself to be fair and impartial in a contest of his own against Ares so Zeus determined that he would be a good choice for the task.
Hermes was sent to explain the situation to the young prince and the goddesses appeared before him. The three goddesses stripped nude so Paris could get the full measure of their beauty, but he still struggled to choose between them.
Each goddess then attempted to bribe the human prince with gifts that were within their respective powers.
Hera, as the queen of the gods, could offer worldly power. She would make him king over all of Europe and Asia if he declared her the fairest.
Athena was the goddess of war and wisdom. She offered Paris knowledge above all other humans and victory in every battle he faced if he chose her.
Aphrodite, as the goddess of love and beauty, promised Paris a gift that was within her power to give. She would give him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world.
Paris chose Aphrodite based on her promised gift and she was awarded the golden apple of Eris.
What the goddess had failed to disclose, however, was that the most beautiful woman in the world was already married. Helen was the queen of Sparta and the wife of King Menelaus.
Paris still won her heart, as Aphrodite had promised, and the two eloped together to Troy. Menelaus called upon the other Greek kings, who had sworn to aid whichever among them became Helen’s husband, to sail to Troy to retrieve his bride.
In the conflict that followed, Aphrodite continued to show favor to Paris for choosing her. Hera and Athena, however, remained angry at losing the contest for the golden apple and sided with the Greek forces.
The Trojan War began because Paris chose Aphrodite as the fairest goddess to win the love of Helen. The decade-long conflict was sparked by that decision and ultimately by the exclusion of a single goddess from a wedding feast.
The Judgment of Paris is one of the most famous scenes in Greek mythology, but it is also an often misunderstood one.
While most retellings of the story today center around the gifts each goddess promised, this was a later feature of the story. The earliest stories had Paris awarding the apple to Aphrodite based on her appearance alone.
The fact that Paris was offered fabulous gifts in later stories makes the scene both ironic and more complicated.
Paris had been chosen by Zeus specifically because he was believed to be fair and impartial. Ultimately, however, he makes his choice based on a bribe.
The choice of gifts that are within the goddesses’ domains makes the Judgment of Paris one of personal value rather than objective fact. Another character may have chosen Hera’s power of Athena’s victories over the love of Aphrodite.
With or without the inclusion of the bribes, however, by most standards Aphrodite would have won anyway.
While Aphrodite’s offer of love makes Paris a more romantic figure who values emotion over personal power, it leads to a terrible war. Some readings of the story come to the conclusion that this outcome was nearly inevitable.
Even if the gifts offered in later stories are not included, Aphrodite would be almost certain to win in a contest of beauty. Physical perfection and allure was, after all, her domain.
This is especially true when the other goddesses in the contest are viewed in the context of their broader mythology.
Athena was a virgin goddess. As such, she was depicted in an almost entirely asexual manner by the writers and artists of Greece.
As a goddess she was a paragon of physical perfection, but she was also a deity who rejected the common markers of feminine beauty for the traditionally male domains of knowledge and warfare.
It would be almost impossible for Athena to be named as the most attractive of the goddesses, therefore, because her entire characterization was based around a lack of sexuality.
Hera could have rivaled Aphrodite in allure based on her appearance alone, but her role as a goddess of marriage, and her portrayal as a jealous and vindictive wife, would also preclude her from winning.
As a married woman, Hera would have been off limits for any man but her husband. Her role would have been one of chastity and fidelity, so choosing her would have been as impossible as choosing the virginal Athena.
For Hera and Athena to even appear undressed in front of Paris and Hermes makes the scene uncomfortable. While later artists relished the opportunity to portray three beautiful female nudes, the people of Greece would likely have been more aware of the inappropriateness of Hera and Athena’s displays.
Paris had virtually no choice but to choose Aphrodite, the goddess who was defined by her allure and availability. To choose either the virgin goddess or the married one as the fairest would have gone against what each of those goddesses represented.
After her exclusion for the wedding feast of Thetis and Peleus, the goddess of strife planned her revenge. She sent a golden apple to Mount Olympus that was addressed “to the fairest.”
Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera all tried to claim the title.
When Prince Paris of Troy was asked by Zeus to settle the matter, the goddesses each offered him the greatest gifts they had the power to grant. Hera offered kingship, Athena wisdom and victory, and Aphrodite offered the love of the most beautiful woman in the world.
The prince chose Aphrodite, earning the enmity of Hera and Athena. This would come into play because of the aftermath of Aphrodite’s boon.
The most beautiful woman in the world was Helen, the queen of Sparta. Unfortunately, she was already married, and her elopement with Paris led to the ten-year long Trojan War.
While it’s tempting to believe that the outcome may have been different if Paris had chosen Hera or Athena instead, the awarding of the golden apple to Aphrodite may have been something of a foregone conclusion.
She was the goddess of beauty, so it was only logical that she would be named as the fairest goddess of them all. Athena’s position as a virginal deity and Hera’s role as a wife also would have made it impossible to rightfully judge them to be the most appealing.