I’ve written before on the myth of “The Judgment of Paris.” Here is the main quote:
Briefly it is this: a wedding celebration for Peleus and Thetis is attended by all the gods and Very Important Mortals except one–Eris, the goddess of discord and strife, who as a guest tended to be as we would say today, a bummer. So true to character, she takes her revenge by tossing into the proceedings an apple on which is inscribed kallistēi, meaning “for the most beautiful.” So true to their character, this sets up a competition among three of the goddesses in attendance: Hera, wife of Zeus; Athena, patron goddess of Athens; and Aphrodite herself. Zeus is asked to judge, but, being wise, recuses himself in favor of the mortal Paris, who, not being so wise, chooses Aphrodite who has implied to him as a reward she will give him the most beautiful mortal woman–Helen, wife of the Spartan king Menelaus. So we see where this is going–Paris abducts her to Troy and precipitates the events recounted in Homer’s Iliad. Seen metaphorically, it is this theft of beauty that is in a sense the “original sin” of man, and which plunges him into prolonged discord and war. Somewhere Eris is cackling.
Now some of the “original sin” parallels with this myth and that of the Garden of Eden are pretty evident. We start off with a scene of unity and happiness, but a being embodying Strife (Eris/Satan) comes along with an apple (from the Garden of the Hesperides in the Greek myth) and plunges the race into misery. (The question of who created this Strife Being and why is one that doesn’t seem to get asked.) But the temptation in Genesis is fairly obvious–eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil–that is, duality. The choice presented to Paris is rather more subtle, I think and bears some looking into.
There are several partial versions of this myth, and one has that Paris’s mother Hecuba, wife of Priam, king of Troy, had a prophetic dream tying him to the destruction of Troy while pregnant, and he was taken to be exposed, a common way of getting rid of unwanted children back then. He survived though by being nursed by a bear, raised as a shepherd, and later, after defeating his brothers at boxing, was welcomed, or at least allowed, back into the family. Big mistake.
Fast forward to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, a mortal man and a goddess, representing a unity between the human and the divine. Again, quickly, the snubbed goddess Eris tosses in an apple inscribed καλλίστῃ (kallistéi–for the fairest, dative case, so you know my study of Greek is doing some good), which sets off a competition among three goddesses. (Still the females who cause the conflict, I might point out, but one that gave many artists over the years a good reason to paint the female nude.)
Michele Rocca, The Judgment of Paris, 1710-20
Anyway, Paris has to judge which is fairest among Hera, wife of Zeus, king of the gods; Athena, goddess of war and wisdom, and Aphrodite, goddess of beauty, love, and, well, sex. Basically, he is presented with three choices:
- From Hera–unlimited power and glory (kleos), which as the wife of Zeus is no doubt hers to confer. Some sources say she offered him the kingship of Europe and Asia.
- From Athena–skill in war and great wisdom. An odd combination, I know, but the Greeks were known for that. Anyway, think wisdom.
- From Aphrodite–well, beauty, love and sex, in the person of Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, but the current wife of King Menelaus of Sparta.
So it’s worth asking: which would you choose? Each has its divine aspect: power, wisdom, beauty. But also each has its appeal to ego, to the ownership of the forgoing: glory, war, sex. Could you distinguish between them, or wish to? Well, I might point out (to myself as well) that we are in fact faced with this choice, this discrimination (krinein), at each moment of the day. Let’s take this out of the realm of the mythological/theoretical: it’s about human choice. Do I choose toward the divine or the personal? For us or for me? For the Good or the pleasureable?
We are each of us on a hero’s quest. We are each of us an Odysseus trying to make our way home to the constant lighthouse of our Penelope and the Fatherland. What do we do when we have to choose between giving up to the dark forces of the Cyclops or escaping to carry on? What do we do when we are tempted by the pleasures of Circe or Calypso? What do we do when we have to choose between Skylla and Charybdis? Let us be able to remember these words of Plotinus:
“Let us flee then to the beloved Fatherland”: this is the soundest counsel. But what is this flight? How are we to gain the open sea? For Odysseus is surely a parable to us when he commands the flight from the sorceries of Circe or Calypso- not content to linger for all the pleasure offered to his eyes and all the delight of sense filling his days.
The Fatherland to us is There whence we have come, and There is The Father.
What then is our course, what the manner of our flight? This is not a journey for the feet; the feet bring us only from land to land; nor need you think of coach or ship to carry you away; all this order of things you must set aside and refuse to see: you must close the eyes and call instead upon another vision which is to be waked within you, a vision, the birth-right of all, which few turn to use.