(a Greek myth)
Once upon a time, long ago, Queen Hecuba of Troy had a dream. The queen was pregnant at the time, eagerly awaiting the birth of her first child. But one night she dreamed she gave birth to a flaming torch. When she told her husband, King Priam, he became worried and called upon his eldest son, Aesacus, the seer, to tell him the meaning.
“Your newborn son will be the downfall of Troy,” Aesacus said. “He must be killed to save our people.”
And so when the baby boy, named Paris, was born, Hecuba and Priam looked into his eyes and fought against their fears. They knew they must destroy him, but they could not bear to do it. King Priam called upon his chief herdsman, Agelaus, to do the deed.
Agelaus carried the baby to desolate Mount Ida. Once there, he shrank from the task. He could not kill this baby, and so he left tiny Paris there, alone, in the wilderness, certain to perish.
But that night a bear came upon the baby and took pity on him. She kept him safe through the night. In the morning, when Agelaus returned for the body, he found the boy alive and safe. He took this as a sign: The boy was meant to live.
And so, in secret, Agelaus took Paris to his home to rear the boy as his own son.
Paris grew up to be a regal young man, beautiful, intelligent and wise, beloved by women and men alike. He often pitted his prize bull against the bulls of other men.
One day, he offered a challenge: His bull would fight anyone’s bull to a battle. The winner would receive a golden crown.
When Ares, the god of war, heard this, he transformed himself into a bull and accepted the challenge. Naturally, Ares easily won, and Paris proved how fair he was when he readily awarded Ares the crown.
It was in this way that the gods came to understand that Paris was a man who kept his word, and this is how he came to be the judge for one of the most extraordinary contests ever waged.
It happened this way.
On Olympus, home of the gods, Zeus planned a wedding feast for the sea nymph, Thetis, and her beloved, the mortal Peleus. Zeus invited all the gods and goddesses but one, Eris. This is because wherever Eris, the goddess of discord, went, she brought only chaos and misery.
But Eris learned of the feast, and she was furious. In the midst of the wedding merriment, she stormed into the great hall and flung a golden apple into the crowd. The apple was inscribed with the word kallisti, meaning “for the fairest.”
Naturally, every goddess rushed forward to claim the fruit. Soon they were arguing and fighting over the apple, but by the end of this chaotic battle, only three goddesses remained: Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty; Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war; and Hera, Zeus’ wife, the goddess of women and marriage.
The three goddesses turned to Zeus and said, “You must choose who gets the golden apple. Which of us is fairest of all?”
Zeus understood that no matter which woman he selected, the other two would create terrible grief. And so he decreed that the matter would be decided by the fairest judge in the land.
“The shepherd Paris of Troy will select the fairest goddess,” Zeus proclaimed.
Zeus instructed his son, Hermes the messenger, to lead the goddesses to Mount Ida. When Hermes explained the task, Paris could not refuse. No one refused a command from Zeus.
And so he stood before the goddesses, carefully inspecting each one, wondering how he could possibly decide.
The goddesses began to offer bribes.
“I can make you king of Europe and Asia,” Hera said. “Select me and you will be among the most powerful men on earth.”
Athena strode forward next. “I will give you wisdom, and I shall make you the finest warrior who ever lived.”
Last to step forward was Aphrodite. She had enhanced her charms with flowers strewn through her hair. She gazed at the handsome young man. “Paris,” she said, “I offer you the most enticing gift of all. I offer you love. Helen of Sparta, the most beautiful mortal woman in the world, will fall in love with you. I will make certain she cannot resist your charms.”
Helen was famous for her great beauty, and for many years she had suitors of extraordinary ability — men of strength and wisdom and power. It was her father, Tyndareus, who at last chose her husband: King Menelaus of Sparta.
When Helen and Menelaus married, Tyndareus extracted a promise from all those former suitors, demanding that they protect and defend his daughter’s marriage to King Menelaus forever. Each of the suitors vowed they would always defend this marriage.
But there on Mount Ida, Paris could not resist Aphrodite’s offer. He handed Eris’ golden apple to her. And when he raided the house of King Menelaus and stole Helen away to Troy, he received Aphrodite’s gift of Helen’s love.
The moment King Menelaus discovered his queen was gone, he called upon all her former suitors. Every one stepped forward and vowed to return Helen to Sparta, no matter what that took. The land of Troy would be destroyed!
And so it was all because of Eris and that golden apple that the long and terrible Trojan War began.