The Judgement of Paris in Greek Mythology
The judging of a beauty contest would not normally be perceived as a dangerous occupation; the worst that a judge might expect is a few accusations of bias. Although, in Greek mythology, a beauty contest was one of the starting points of a war. That beauty contest was the Judgement of Paris, and the war was the Trojan War.
The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis
The Start at the Wedding of Peleus and Thetis
The story of the Judgement of Paris appears in many ancient sources, including the Bibliotheca (Apollodorus), Fabulae (Hyginus), and Description of Greece (Pausanias). In the most famous story of the Trojan War, the Iliad, Homer makes only passing reference to it, assuming that his readers were already acquainted with the story. These sources all suggest that the starting point for the Judgement of Paris was the Wedding of Peleus and Thetis.
Peleus was a noted hero of Ancient Greece, whilst Thetis was a Nereid, a sea-nymph. Poseidon and Zeus had both chased after Thetis, but had been warned off when a prophecy was given about the greatness of the future offspring of Thetis; so the Nereid was married off to Peleus.
All the deities of the Greek pantheon were invited to the wedding festivities; that was all deities apart from Eris, the goddess of strife.
Angered by the slight, Eris decided to turn up at the celebrations anyway; and she brought a gift, a golden apple. This was an apple of disharmony, and upon it was written the words “to the fairest.” Eris threw the apple amongst the wedding guests and waited for the arguments to start.
Three goddesses laid claim to the golden apple; each believing that they were the “fairest,” or most beautiful, of the assembled guests. These three claimants were Hera, the wife of Zeus, Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, and Athena, the goddess of wisdom.
Each of the three goddesses argued their case, but of course, none of them were willing to listen to the arguments of the other, or give the title of fairest to a rival.
Therefore, the goddess decided that Zeus would have to make the final decision.
Zeus was wise enough to avoid placing himself in a position where he would end up putting one goddess above another; thus, he made the proclamation that the choice of fairest was to be made by Paris.
Paris and the Beauty Contest
Paris was not another god, but was a mortal, and a prince of Troy. Paris was the son of King Priam of Troy, and looked after the cattle and sheep of his father on Mount Ida, to the southeast of the city.
Paris was well known for making fair and just decisions, and acting as a judge who would not be swayed by outside influences. Paris had already judged that Ares, when disguised as a bull, was a better animal than Paris’ own bull, without knowing that the other bull was a god in disguise.
Hermes, therefore, took the three goddesses to Paris for him to make a decision. The three goddesses, despite having profound natural beauty, were not content to allow Paris to make a decision based on looks alone. Each sought to influence the decision by offering bribes.
Hera offered Paris wealth, power, and dominion over all mortal realms if she was chosen as fairest of the three. Athena promised the Trojan prince every known skill, as well as the ability to be the greatest of all warriors. Lastly, Aphrodite offered Paris Helen's hand in marriage. The daughter of Leda and Zeus, Helen was said to be the most beautiful woman in the world.
The Judgement of Paris
Paris gives his Judgement
Paris made his decision; and the Judgement of Paris was that Aphrodite was the “fairest” and rightful owner of the apple. No doubt. Paris was swayed by the bribe that the goddess of love offered to the prince.
Aphrodite would keep her promise, and would aid the Trojan prince with the abduction of Helen from Sparta; regardless of the fact that Helen was already married to Menelaus.
Of course, the decision made by Paris was not well received by Hera or Athena, and both would hold a lifelong grudge towards Paris. The animosity of Athena and Hera would later be displayed in the Trojan War, when both goddesses sided with the Achaean forces; although Aphrodite would assist the Trojans.
Aphrodite the Winner
The Inevitability of the Judgement of Paris
Paris would have done well to keep clear from judging this beauty contest, but what mortal could turn down a request from Zeus? A declination from Paris would have probably proved deadly for the prince.
In any case, the whole event had already been pre-ordained, as it had been foretold that Paris would cause the downfall of Troy. When Hecuba had given birth to Paris, a premonition had seen the queen see Troy burning, and the Trojan seer Aesacus had proclaimed that Paris would have to be put to death to save the city.
Many of the ancient sources also claimed that Zeus himself had planned everything, arranging for Eris to throw the apple and start off the Trojan War, so that the supreme deity could bring the time of heroes to an end.
Questions & Answers
Why was Paris chosen to be the judge of the beauty contest?
Zeus chose Paris for two reasons. Firstly, Paris was not an immortal, and Zeus did not wish for potential conflict between the gods.
Secondly, Paris was known as an impartial judge, for previously he had judge a competition between cattle, and had chosen an animal in preference to his own, without even knowing that that animal belonged to the god Ares.