Peleus and Thetis are over the moon. The Greek hero and the nymph are getting married! The event, celebrated atop Mount Pelion, is attended by all Olympian Gods, sitting on twelve golden thrones – Zeus, who set up the wonderful celebration, his wife Hera, his brother Poseidon, and many others are chatting happily while enjoying the feast. Judging by the smiles and the laughter-conducive atmosphere, everybody is quite enjoying himself: marriage is indeed an institution in ancient Greece, as exemplified by Zeus and Hera’s whose honeymoon lasted for 300 years!
The newly-weds look over the banquet table, and suddenly their blissful smiles fade away: somebody’s coming. Eris, goddess of discord, has not been invited to their wedding – as a matter of fact, she is the sister of Ares, god of war, and alike him, she malevolently triggers conflict and fights through playing on others’ sense of self-esteem, pride and jealousy. But she had invited herself anyway – most probably, to ruin the happy celebration overlooking the Aegean Sea.
Once she’s caught everybody’s full attention, the laughing-and-chatting has gone; silence has fallen like a dark veil over the ceremony. Satisfied with the dramatic effect, Eris holds up a golden apple, which she has stolen from the Garden of the Hesperides (the very one mighty Hercules will have to visit in the course of his 11th Labor). Knowing that everybody is watching, Eris proceeds to write something on the golden fruit and then tosses it on the banquet table around which the puzzled audience is sitting. The apple rolls around platters stuffed with ambrosia and nectar-filled glasses, and when it eventually stops, everyone notices an inscription on it: “To the most beautiful.”
Zeus buries his face in his hands. Thetis looks anxiously at her husband; seems like the fun is over. Athena, goddess of war and wisdom, has stood up; so have Hera, Zeus’ spouse, and Aphrodite, deity of beauty. A minute ago, the three goddesses were friendly talking – now courtesy has died out. Each is convinced that she deserves the fruit, and appeals to the gods’ decision: which of them is to be judged the most beautiful?
An embarrassing silence follows. Unable to favor one over the others – though, just to be clear, his own wife is competing – Zeus summons Paris, a Trojan mortal, to elect the beauty contest’s winner. The three goddesses join Hermes, messenger of the gods, on top of Mount Ida, where Paris is watching over his herd. Hermes addresses him: “Paris, since you are very skilled with heart matters, Zeus orders you to choose which one of these three goddesses is the most beautiful!”
Reluctant at first, the shepherd accepts to mediate, and to see the goddesses in turn. First comes Hera, who promises to make him King of Asia and the richest man on Earth; then enters Athena, offering him skill and victory in every battle; finally, Aphrodite seems to understand him the best. She evocates a woman named Helen, who ranks amongst the most beautiful the world has ever known: “She’s as charming as I am” the goddess whispers, getting slightly closer to the shepherd than the previous contesters had. Aphrodite promises a blushing Paris Helen’s hand in marriage, would he give her the golden fruit she truly deserves. The shepherd welcomes the goddess’ offer with great enthusiasm, and in exchange for the future ‘apple of his eyes’, he hands the golden apple over to Aphrodite.
The fact that Helen is already engaged to Menelaus, King of Sparta, doesn’t appear to be a problem for the goddess, who stands by her promise. She blesses Paris’ ship, heading to Sparta and to Helen filled with confidence, and when the Trojan reaches the town nestled next to the Eurotas River, Menelaus welcomes him like a prince with a nine-day-long celebration. Following a very short seduction period – involving writing “I love you, Helen” with red wine over the dinner table: as the cliché goes, Paris is romantic – Helen, most likely influenced by Aphrodite’s powers, flees Sparta and her naive husband with Paris.
When the King of Sparta understands how the Trojan kid has betrayed his trust, he explodes in anger. Menelaus looks to his brother Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, for taking revenge: the latest unites Greek forces to overthrow Troy in a bloody battle that will last for nine years…
From this legend originates the expression ‘apple of discord’ which defines a sensitive topic, likely to head to conflict and disaster. Indeed, the very first one caused the prosperous city of Troy to be devastated in flames and ravaged by war. Ironically, Thetis and Peleus’ own son Achilles would die during the Trojan War, when Paris shot an arrow through his heel, his only vulnerable body part…
Here, Greek mythology echoes the Biblical ‘forbidden fruit’ story, but shifts the responsibility to the goddesses’ vanity rather than Eve’s unhealthy curiosity. All of that started with an apple! And they say it keeps the doctor away…
- Robert Graves, Les Mythes Grecs (1958), Fayard