THE JUDGEMENT OF PARIS was a contest between the three most beautiful goddesses of Olympos--Aphrodite, Hera and Athena--for the prize of a golden apple addressed to "the fairest"
The story begins at the Wedding of Peleus and Thetis to which all of the gods were invited, all except Eris, the goddess of discord. When she appeared at the festivities, she was turned away, and in her anger cast a golden apple amongst the assembled goddesses addressed "To the Fairest." Three goddesses laid claim to the apple--Aphrodite, Hera and Athena. Zeus was asked to mediate and he commanded Hermes to lead the three goddesses to Paris of Troy to decide the issue. The three goddesses appearing before the shepherd prince, each offering him gifts for favour. He chose Aphrodite, swayed by her promise to bestow upon him Helene, the most beautiful woman, for wife. The subsequent abduction of Helene led directly to the Trojan War and the fall of the city.
Stasinus of Cyprus or Hegesias of Aegina, Cypria Fragment 1 (as summarized in Proclus, Chrestomathia) (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C7th or 6th B.C.) :
"The [Homeric] epic called The Cypria which is current is eleven books. Its contents are as follows. Zeus plans with Themis to bring about the Trojan war. Eris (Strife) arrives while the gods are feasting at the marriage of Peleus and starts a dispute between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite as to which of them is fairest. The three are led by Hermes at the command of Zeus to Alexandros [Paris] on Mount Ida for his decision, and Alexandros, lured by his promised marriage with Helene, decides in favour of Aphrodite."
Stasinus of Cyprus or Hegesias of Aegina, Cypria Fragment 6 (from Athenaeus 15. 682) :
"The author of the Cypria, whether Hegesias or Stasinos, mentions flowers used for garlands. The poet, whoever he was, writes as follows in his first book [describing the Judgement of Paris]: ‘She [Aphrodite] clothed herself with garments which the Kharites (Graces) and Horai (Seasons) had made for her and dyed in flowers of spring--such flowers as the Horai wear--in crocus and hyacinth and flourishing violet and the rose's lovely bloom, so sweet and delicious, and heavenly buds, the flowers of the narcissus and lily. In such perfumed garments is Aphrodite clothed at all seasons. Then laughter-loving Aphrodite and her handmaidens wove sweet-smelling crowns of flowers of the earth and put them upon their heads--the bright-coiffed goddesses, the Nymphai and Kharites (Graces), and golden Aphrodite too, while they sang sweetly on the mount of many-fountained Ida.’"
Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca E3. 2 (trans. Aldrich) (Greek mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"[At the wedding of Peleus and Thetis:] Eris tossed an apple to Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, in recognition of their beauty, and Zeus bade Hermes escort them to Alexandros [Paris] on Ide, to be judged by him. They offered Alexandros gifts: Hera said if she were chosen fairest of all women, she would make him king of all men; Athena promised him victory in war; and Aphrodite promised him Helene in marriage. So he chose Aphrodite."
Strabo, Geography 13. 1. 51 (trans. Jones) (Greek geographer C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"The Adramyttene Gulf [in the Troad] . . . Inside is Antandros, above which lies a mountain called Alexandreia, where the Judgment of Paris is said to have taken place."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 15. 9. 5 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"[Amongst the scenes depicted on the chest of Kypselos dedicated at Olympia:] There is also Hermes bringing to Alexandros [Paris] the son of Priamos the goddesses of whose beauty he is to judge, the inscription on them being : ‘Here is Hermes, who is showing to Alexandros, that he may arbitrate concerning their beauty, Hera, Athena and Aphrodite.’"
Ptolemy Hephaestion, New History Book 6 (summary from Photius, Myriobiblon 190) (trans. Pearse) (Greek mythographer C1st to C2nd A.D.) :
"The river Skamandros had a son, Melos (Apple), who was beautiful; it is said that Hera, Athena and Aphrodite quarrelled on his account; who would have him as a priest; Alexandros [Paris] judged that Aphrodite carried it; it is for this reason the fable of the apple circulates." [N.B. This is a late Greek rationalisation of the story.]
Ptolemy Hephaestion, New History Book 7 (summary from Photius, Myriobiblon 190) :
"She [Aphrodite] won and accepted as prize a zither [from Apollon at the first Pythian Games] which she gave as a gift to Alexandros [Paris]. It is of her that Homer says: ‘But what help could your zither bring you.’" [N.B. Paris is usually shown playing this instrument in Greek vase paintings of the Judgement.]
Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 92 (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"Jove [Zeus] is said to have invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis all the gods except Eris, or Discordia. When she came later and was not admitted to the banquet, she threw an apple through the door, saying that the fairest should take it. Juno [Hera], Venus [Aphrodite], and Minerva [Athene] claimed the beauty prize for themselves. A huge argument broke out among them. Jupiter [Zeus] ordered Mercurius [Hermes] to take them to Mt Ida to Paris Alexander and order him to judge. Juno [Hera] promised him, if he ruled in her favour, that he would rule all the lands and dominate the rest in wealth; Minverva [Athena], if she left the winner, that he would be the strongest among mortals and know every skill; Venus [Aphrodite], however, promised that he would marry Helen, daughter of Tyndareus, the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris preferred this last gift to the previous ones and ruled Venus was the prettiest. Because of this, Juno [Hera] and Minerva [Athena] were angry with the Trojans.
Alexander, at the prompting of Venus [Aphrodite], took Helen from his host Menelaus from Lacedaemon to Troy, and married her."
Ovid, Heroides 5. 33 ff (trans. Showerman) (Roman poetry C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"Venus [Aphrodite] and Juno [Hera], and unadorned Minerva [Athena], more comely had she borne her arms, appeared before you [Paris] to be judged. My [Oinone's] bosom leaped with amaze as you told me of it."
Ovid, Heroides 16. 51 ff :
"[Paris describes the Judgement:] My beauty and my vigour of mind, though I seemed from the common folk, were the sign of hidden nobility. There is a place in the woody vales of midmost Ida, far from trodden paths and covered over with pine and ilex, where never grazes the placid sheep, nor the she-goat that loves the cliff, nor the wide-mouthed, slowly-moving kine. From there, reclining against a tree, I was looking forth upon the walls and lofty roofs of the Dardanian city, and upon the sea, when lo! it seemed to me that the earth trembled beneath the tread of feet--I shall speak true words, though they will scarce have credit for truth--and there appeared and stood before my eyes, propelled on pinions swift, [Hermes] the grandchild of mighty Atlas and Pleione--it was allowed me to see, and may it be allowed to speak of what I saw!--and in the fingers of the god was a golden wand. And at the self-same time, three goddesses--Venus [Aphrodite], and Pallas [Athena], and with her Juno [Hera]--set tender feet upon the sward. I was mute, and chill tremors had raised my hair on end, when ‘Lay aside thy fear!’ the winged herald said to me; ‘thou art the arbiter of beauty; put an end to the strivings of the goddesses; pronounce which one deserves for her beauty to vanquish the other two!’ And, lest I should refuse, he laid command on me in the name of Jove, and forthwith through the paths of ether betook him toward the stars.
My heart was reassured, and on a sudden I was bold, nor feared to turn my face and observe them each. Of winning all were worthy, and I who was to judge lamented that not all could win. But, none the less, already then one of them pleased me more, and you might know it was she by whom love is inspired. Great is their desire to win; they burn to sway my verdict with wondrous gifts. Jove's [Zeus'] consort loudly offers thrones, his daughter, might in war; I myself waver, and can make no choice between power and the valorous heart. Sweetly Venus smiled : ‘Paris, let not these gifts move thee, both of them full of anxious fear!’ she says; ‘my gift shall be of love, and beautiful Leda's daughter [Helene], more beautiful than her mother, shall come to thy embrace.’ She said, and with her gift and beauty equally approved, retraced her way victorious to the skies."
Ovid, Heroides 16. 139 ff :
"[Paris admires the beauty of Helene:] Features like those, as near as I recall, were Cytherea's [Aphrodite's] own when she came to be judged by me. If you had come to that contest together with her, the palm of Venus would have come in doubt!"
Ovid, Heroides 16. 163 ff :
"[Paris woos Helene:] ‘Only give yourself to me, and you shall know of Paris' constancy; the flame of the pyre alone will end the flames of my love. I have placed you before the kingdoms which greatest Juno [Hera], bride and sister of Jove [Zeus], once promised me; so I could only clasp my arms about your neck, I have held but cheap the prowess that Pallas [Athena] would bestow. And I have no regret, nor shall I ever seem in my own eyes to have made a foolish choice; my mind is fixed and persists in its desire.’"
Ovid, Heroides 17. 115 & 131 ff :
"[Helene replies to Paris:] You say Venus [Aphrodite] gave her word for this; and that in the vales of Ida three goddesses presented themselves unclad before you; and that when one of them would give you a throne, and the second glory in war, the third said : ‘The daughter of Tyndareus shall be your bride!’ I can scarce believe that heavenly beings submitted their beauty to you as arbiter: and, grant that this is true, surely the other part of your tale is fiction, in which I am said to have been given you as reward for your verdict. I am not so assured of my charms as to think myself the greatest gift in the divine esteem. My beauty is content to be approved in the eyes of men; the praise of Venus would bring envy on me. Yet I attempt no denial; I am even pleased with the praises of your report--for why should my words deny what I much desire? Nor be offended that I am over slow to believe in you; faith is wont to be slow in matters of great moment. My first pleasure, then, is to have found favour in the eyes of Venus; the next, that I seemed the greatest prize to you, and that you placed first he honours neither of Pallas [Athena] nor of Juno [Hera] when you had heard of Helen's parts. So, then, I mean valour to you, I mean a far-famed throne!"
Statius, Achilleid 2. 55 ff (trans. Mozley) (Roman epic C1st A.D.) :
"Verily that quarrel [between the goddesses Hera, Athene and Aphrodite] arose in thy [Akhilleus'] own glades, at a gathering of the gods, when pleasant Pelion made marriage feast for Peleus [and Thetis], and thou [Akhilleus] even then wert promised to our [the Greeks] armament."
Apuleius, The Golden Ass 10. 30 ff (trans. Walsh) (Roman novel C2nd A.D.) :
"[Description of a religious play depicting the Judgement of Paris held in Korinthos, Greece:] The day appointed for the show was now at hand . . . The curtain was raised, the backcloths were folded away, and the stage was set. A mountain of wood had been constructed with consummate workmanship to represent the famous mountain which the poet Homer in his song called Mount Ida. It was planted with thickets and live trees, and from its summit it disgorged river-water from a flowing fountain installed by the craftman’s hands. One or two she-goats were cropping blades of grass, and a youth was acting out control of the flock. He was handsomely dressed to represent the Phrygian shepherd handsomely dressed to represent the Phrygian shepherd Paris, with exotic garments flowing from his shoulders, and his head crowned with a tiara of gold.
Standing by him [Paris] appeared a radiant boy, naked except for a youth's cloak draped over his left shoulder; his blonde hair made him the cynosure of all eyes. Tiny wings of gold were projecting from his locks, in which they had been fastened symmetrically on both sides. The herald's staff and the wand which he carried identified him as Mercurius [Hermes]. He danced briskly forward, holding in his right hand an apple gilded with gold leaf, which he handed to the boy playing the part of Paris. After conveying Jupiter's [Zeus'] command with a motion of the head, he at once gracefully withdrew and disappeared from the scene.
Next appeared a worthy-looking girl, similar in appearance to the goddess Juno [Hera], for her hair was ordered with a white diadem, and she carried a sceptre.
A second girl then burst in, whom you would have recognized as Minerva [Athene]. Her head was covered with a gleaming helmet which was itself crowned with an olive-wreath; she bore a shield and brandished a spear, simulating the goddess' fighting role.
After them a third girl entered, her beauty visibly unsurpassed. Her charming, ambrosia-like complexion intimated that she represented the earlier Venus [Aphrodite] when that goddess was still a maiden. She vaunted her unblemished beauty by appearing naked and unclothed except for a thin silken garment veiling her entrancing lower parts. An inquisitive gust of air would at one moment with quite lubricous affection blow this garment aside, so that when wafted away it revealed her virgin bloom; at another moment it would wantonly breathe directly upon it, clinging tightly and vividly outlining the pleasurable prospect of her lower limbs. The goddess's appearance offered contrasting colours to the eye, for her body was dazzling white, intimating her descent from heaven and her robe was dark blue, denoting her emergence from the sea.
Each maiden representing a goddess was accompanied by her own escort. Juno [Hera] was attended by Castor and Pollux [the Dioskouroi], their heads covered by egg-shaped helmets prominently topped with stars; these Castors were represented by boys on stage. The maiden playing this role advanced with restrained and unpretentious movements to the music of an Ionian flute playing a range of tunes; with dignified motions she promised the shepherd to bestow on him the kingship of all Asia if he awarded her the prize for beauty.
The girl whose appearance in arms had revealed her as Minerva [Athene] was protected by two boys who were the comrades in arms of the battle-goddess, Terror [Deimos, terror] and Metus [Phobos, fear]; they pranced about with swords unsheathed, and behind her back a flutist played a battle-tune in the Dorian mode. He mingled shrill whistling notes with deep droning chords like a trumpet-blast, stirring the performers to lively and supple dancing. Minerva with motions of the head, menacing gaze, and writhing movements incisively informed Paris that if he awarded her the victory for beauty, her aid would make him a doughty fighter, famed for the trophies gained in war.
But now Venus becomingly took the centre of the stage to the great acclamation of the theatre, and smiled sweetly. She was surrounded by a throng of the happiest children; you would have sworn that those little boys whose skins were smooth and milk-white were genuine Cupides [Erotes] who had just flown in from sky or sea. They looked just he part with their tiny wings, miniature arrows, and the rest of their get-up, as with gleaming torches they lit the way for their mistress as though she were en route to a wedding-banquet. Next floated in charming children, unmarried girls, representing on one side the Gratiae [Kharites] at their most graceful, and on the other the Horae [Horai] in all their beauty. They were appeasing the goddess by strewing wreaths and single blossoms before her, and they formed a most elegant chorus-line as they sought to please the Mistress of pleasures with the foliage of spring. The flutes with their many stops were now rendering in sweet harmony melodies in the Lydian mode. As they affectingly softened the hearts of onlookers, Venus [Aphrodite] still more affectingly began to gently stir herself; with gradual, lingering steps, restrained swaying of the hips, and slow inclination of the head she began to advance, her refined movements matching the soft wounds of the flutes. Occasionally her eyes alone would dance, as at one moment she gently lowered her lids, and at another imperiously signalled with threatening glances.
At the moment when she met the gaze of the judge, the beckoning of her arms seemed to hold the promise that if he preferred her over the other goddesses, she would present Paris with a bride of unmatched beauty, one like herself. There and then the Phrygian youth spontaneously awarded the girl the golden apple in his hand, which signalled the vote for victory . . . Once Paris had completed that judgement of his, Juno [Hera] and Minerva [Athene] retired from the stage, downcast and apparently resentful, indicating by gestures their anger at being rejected. Venus [Aphrodite] on the other hand was elated and smiling, and registered her joy by dancing in company with the entire chorus."
Colluthus, Rape of Helen 15 ff (trans. Mair) (Greek poetry C5th to 6th A.D.) :
"Among the high-peaked hills of the Haimonians, the marriage song of Peleus was being sung while, at the bidding of Zeus, Ganymede poured the wine. And all the race of gods hasted to do honour to the white-armed bride [Thetis] . . . And after him [Apollon] followed Hera, sister of Zeus; nor did the queen of harmony herself, even Aphrodite, loiter in coming to the groves of the Kentauros [Kheiron]. Came also Peitho (Persuasion), having fashioned a bridal wreath, carrying the quiver of archer Eros . . . And Athene put off her mighty helmet from her brow and followed to the marriage, albeit of marriage she was untaught . . .
But Eris (Strife) did Kheiron leave unhonoured: Kheiron did not regard her and Peleus heeded her not. And as some heifer wanders from the pasture in the glen and roams in the lonely brush, smitten by the bloody gadfly, the goad of kine: so Eris (Strife) overcome by the pangs of angry jealousy, wandered in search of a way to disturb the banquet of the gods. And often would she leap up from her chair, set with precious stones, and anon sit down again. She smote with her hand the bosom of the earth and heeded not the rock. Fain would she unbar the bolts of the darksome hollows and rouse the Titanes from the nether pit and destroy the heaven, the seat of Zeus, who rules on high. Fain would she brandish the roaring thunderbolt of fire, yet gave way, for all her age, to Hephaistos, keeper of quenchless fire and of iron. And she thought to rouse the heavy-clashing din of shields, if haply they might leap up in terror at the noise. But from her later crafty counsel, too, she withdrew in fear of iron Ares, the shielded warrior.
And now she bethought her of the golden apples of the Hesperides. Thence Eris took the fruit that should be the harbinger of war, even the apple, and devised the scheme of signal woes. Whirling her arm she hurled into the banquet the primal seed of turmoil and disturbed the choir of goddesses. Hera, glorying to be the spouse and to share the bed of Zeus, rose up amazed, and would fain have seized it. And Kypris [Aphrodite], as being more excellent than all, desired to have the apple, for that it is the treasure of the Erotes (Loves). But Hera would not give it up and Athena would not yield. And Zeus, seeing the quarrel of the goddesses, and calling his son Hermaon [Hermes], who sat below his throne, addressed him thus: ‘If haply, my son, thou hast heard of a son of Priamos, one Paris, the splendid youth, who tends his herds on this hills of Troy, give to him the apple; and bid him judge the goddesses’ meeting brows and orbed eyes. And let her that is preferred have the famous fruit to carry away as the prize of the fairer and ornament of the Loves.’
So the father, the son of Kronos, commanded Hermaon. And he hearkened to the bidding of his father and led the goddesses upon the way and failed not to heed. And every goddess sought to make her beauty more desirable and fair. Kypris [Aphrodite] of crafty counsels unfolded her snood and undid the fragrant clasp of her hair and wreathed with gold her locks, with gold her flowing tresses. And she saw her children the Erotes and called to them.
‘The contest is at hand, dear children! Embrace your mother that nursed you. Today it is beauty of face that judges me. I fear to whom the herdsman will award the apple. Hera they call the holy nurse of the Kharites (Graces), and they say that she wields sovereignty and holds the sceptre. And Athena they ever call the queen of battles. I only, Kypris, am an unwarlike goddess. I have no queenship of the gods, wield no warlike spear, nor draw the bow. But wherefore am I so sore afraid, when for spear I have, as it were, a swift lance, the honeyed girdle of the Erotes (Loves)! I have my girdle, I ply my goad, I raise my bow: even that girdle, whence women catch the sting of my desire, and travail often-times, but not unto death.’
So spake Kypris of the rosy fingers and followed. And the wandering Erotes heard the dear bidding of their mother and hasted after their nurse.
Now they had just passed over the summit of the hill of Ida, where under a rock-crowned cliff’s height young Paris herded his father’s flocks. On either side the streams of the mountain torrent he tended his herds, numbering apart he herd of thronging bulls, apart measuring the droves of feeding flocks. And behind him hung floating the hide of a mountain goat, that reached right to his thighs. But his herdsman's crook, driver of kine, was laid aside: for so, walking mincingly in his accustomed ways, he pursued the shrill minstrelsy of his pipe's rustic reeds . . .
As he made shrill music under the high-roofed canopy of trees, he beheld from afar the messenger Hermaon. And in fear he leapt up and sought to shun the eye of the gods. He leaned against an oak his choir of musical reeds and checked his lay that had not yet laboured much. And to him in his fear wondrous Hermes spake thus: ‘Fling away thy milking-pail and leave thy fair flocks and come hither and give decision as judge of the goddesses of heaven. Come hither and decide which is the more excellent beauty of face, and to the fairer give this apple’s lovely fruit.’
So he cried. And Paris bent a gently eye and quietly essayed to judge the beauty of each. He looked at the light of their grey eyes, he looked on the neck arrayed with gold, he marked the bravery of each; the shape of the heel behind, yea and the soles of their feet. But, before he gave judgement, Athene took him smiling, by the hand and spake to Alexandros thus: ‘Come hither, son of Priamos! Leave the spouse of Zeus and heed not Aphrodite, queen of the bridal bower, but praise thou Athene who aids the prowess of men. They say that thou art a king and keepest the city of Troy. Come hither, and I will make thee the saviour of their city to men hard pressed: lest ever Enyo of grievous wrath weigh heavily upon thee. Hearken to me and I will teach thee war and prowess.’
So cried Athene of many counsels, and white-armed Hera thus took up the tale : ‘If thou wilt elect me and bestow on me the fruit of the fairer, I will make thee lord of all mine Asia. Scorn thou the works of battle. What has a king to do with war? A prince gives command both to the valiant and the unwarlike. Not always are the squires of Athene foremost. Swift is the doom and death of the servants of Enyo!’
Such lordship did Hera, who hath the foremost throne, offer to bestow. But Kypris lifted up her deep-bosomed robe and bared her breast to the air and had no shame. And lifting with her hands the honeyed girdle of the Erotes (Loves) she bared all her bosom and heeded not her breasts. And smilingly she thus spake to the herdsman: ‘Accept me and forget wars : take my beauty and leave the sceptre and the land of Asia. I know not the works of battle. What has Aphrodite to do with shields? By beauty much more do women excel. In place of manly prowess I will give thee a lovely bride, and, instead of kingship, enter thou the bed of Helene. Lakedaimon, after Troy, shall see thee a bridegroom.’
Not yet had she ceased speaking and he gave her the splendid apple, beauty's offering, the great treasure of Aphrogeneia, a plant of war, of war an evil seed. And she, holding the apple in her hand, uttered her voice and spake in mockery of Hera and manly Athene: ‘Yield to me, accustomed as ye be to war, yield me the victory. Beauty have I loved and beauty follows me. They say that thou, mother of Ares, dist with travail bear the holy choir of fair-tressed Kharites (Graces). But today they have all denied thee and not one hast thou found to help thee. Queen but not of shields and nurse but not of fire, Ares hath not holpen thee, though Ares rages with the spear: the flames of Hephaistos have not holpen thee, though he brings to birth the breath of fire. And how vain is they vaunting, Atrytone! Whom marriage sowed not nor mother bare, but cleaving of iron and root of iron made thee spring without bed of birth from the head of thy sire. And how, covering thy body in brazen robes, thou dost flee from love and pursuest the works of Ares, untaught of harmony and wotting not of concord. Knowest thou not that such Athenas as thou are the more unvaliant--exulting in glorious wars, with limbs at feud, neither men nor women?’
Thus spake Kypris and mocked Athena. So she got the prize of beauty that should work the ruin of a city, repelling Hera and indignant Athene."
- Stasinsus or Hegesias , Cypria Fragments - Greek Epic C7th-6th B.C.
- Apollodorus, The Library - Greek Mythography C2nd A.D.
- Strabo, Geography - Greek Geography C1st B.C. - C1st A.D.
- Pausanias, Description of Greece - Greek Travelogue C2nd A.D.
- Ptolemy Hephaestion, New History - Greek Scholar C1st-2nd A.D.
- Hyginus, Fabulae - Latin Mythography C2nd A.D.
- Ovid, Heroides - Latin Poetry C1st B.C. - C1st A.D.
- Statius, Achilleid - Latin Epic C1st A.D.
- Apuleius, The Golden Ass - Latin Epic C2nd A.D.
- Colluthus, The Rape of Helen - Greek Epic C5th-6th A.D.