Mythology Mondays: καλλίστη

This myth is one I tell a lot. You see, it’s the story behind one of my two tattoos.

This is the story of the Golden Apple.

When Queen Hecuba of Troy is pregnant with Paris, she dreams she gives birth to a pile of burning sticks. This is generally considered to be a bad omen. The Seer is called and he agrees. The Queen’s baby will be the downfall of Troy. When Paris is born, Hecuba and her husband, King Priam, are supposed to kill him. But they have a change of heart, and instead send him to be exposed. The herdsman, having been well educated in the role of herdsmen in Greek myths, does not kill the baby but instead raises Paris as his own son.

Years later, two gods are getting married on Olympus. They make the mistake of not inviting Eris, the goddess of Discord. She shows up anyway, and plays a little trick. She takes out a golden apple engraved with the word καλλίστη - “for the fairest.” She tosses the Apple into the middle of a throng of goddesses. Immediately, each goddess thinks it should be for her, since she is the most beautiful. Hera, Athena and Aphrodite all lay claim to the apple. They demand that Zeus choose between them. Now, Zeus isn’t an idiot, he’s not going to get himself embroiled in this. So he dictates that a mortal must chose.

Meanwhile, Paris has grown up to be a beautiful shepherd boy. He’s lying in the shade of a tree, when suddenly the sky opens up and he receives a decree from Zeus. He is to judge which of the three goddesses is the fairest.

Each of the goddesses come down to bribe Paris, in turn. Hera offers him the kingship of all of Greece and Asia, to be the most powerful man in the world. Athena offers to make him invincible in battle, the greatest warrior of all time. Aphrodite offers him the love of the most beautiful woman in Greece.

Paris, not a particularly smart or courageous man, chooses Aphrodite. Aphrodite promises him the hand of Helen of Sparta, who is married to Menelaus. Paris decides that first, of course, he must go regain his royal title. He marches directly to Troy, announces who he is, and is welcomed with open arms as one of King Priam’s fifty sons.

Soon enough, Paris builds a beautiful boat and sails off to Sparta, under the guise of an ambassador. He stays with Menelaus and Helen for many days, speaking to the husband of peace and Mediterranean trade agreements in the day, and making eyes at Helen at night. It is often debated whether Helen was in love with Paris as well, but in Greek literature the matter is largely irrelevant, since Paris would have taken her whether he has to abduct her or not.

Menelaus is called away from Sparta, and the very next day Paris leaves with Helen and her dowry. They escape to Troy. At first, the Trojans are weary of Helen, knowing the trouble her abduction will cause. But it is said that eventually, they all became enchanted by her beauty and even the women wished her to stay.

Menelaus was understandably furious. He was not a particularly handsome, wise or brave man, but he had bought Helen from her father fair and square. Normally, what you would have had after the abduction of a wife was a small two city battle, which Menelaus would have undoubtedly lost to the unbreakable walls of Troy. But this wasn’t a normal case.

Helen was the most beautiful woman in Greece. When she was twelve, the hero Theseus had abducted her from her father’s house, thinking to take her for his own. (In Greece, and later in Rome, there were two ways of getting married- the official way and the marriage by rape way, in which a man abducted a virgin, raped her and then started calling her his wife.) But he had second thoughts, and eventually she was returned to her family. But now her father, Tyndareus, knew there was going to be a problem when it came time to marry her off.

Indeed, by the age of fifteen, Helen had dozens of suitors - among them the most wealthy and heroic men in Greece: Odysseus, Diomedes, Menelaus, Patroclus, Antilochus, both the lesser and greater Ajax. Tyndareus recognizes the problem. He has to choose just one husband, but he risks pissing off a dozen or so of the most powerful men in Greece by doing so. It’s Odysseus who comes up with a plan. Odysseus realizes that as the King of the small island of Ithaca, he doesn’t have much to offer and little hope of winning. So he tell Tyndareus he will help him if Tyndareus promises him Helen’s cousin, Penelope.

The result is the Oath of the Horse. Tyndareus sacrifices a horse to Zeus, and divides it into thirteen pieces. In order to be considered for Helen’s hand, each suitor must swear on a piece of the horse that he will uphold Tyndareus’ choice and defend whichever man is chosen as Helen’s husband, should someone try to steal her from him. The suitors agree, and Menelaus is chosen as Helen’s husband.

So by stealing Helen from Menelaus, he has not only pissed off the brother of Agamemnon, the most powerful of the Greek kings, but also all of Helen’s suitors who are sworn to defend Menelaus.

Oh, and Hera and Athena are so on the side of the Greeks because they still hate Paris for not chosing them. Aphrodite remains devoted to Troy, because of Paris and also because her lover, Anchises, and her son, Aeneas, are cousins of the royal family. But who would you rater have on your side in a war, the goddess of love or the goddess of battle?

And thus the kings of Greece launch a thousand ships for Troy. And spend ten long years trying to break through the walls of the fortress of Ilium.

My awesome tattoo, for the fairest.


  • By Faebala, April 20, 2009 @ 10:46 am


  • By Jo, April 20, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

    Lovely! Original and meaningful…

  • By Lea, April 20, 2009 @ 2:39 pm

    That’s a really good geekitude test for potential suitors. “Read the tattoo.”

  • By Sebastian, April 20, 2009 @ 9:55 pm

    If she lets me get close enough to read that tattoo she’s in trouble…

    Sorry, did I say that out loud?

    I had no idea so many big players were involved in the Trojan myths… jesus. No wonder it’s so well known!

    Must’ve been one hell of a period to live through.

    Have you read the narrative history books by Tom Holland?

  • By Hezabelle, April 20, 2009 @ 10:00 pm

    I haven’t read Tom Holland, no. Recommend?

    The Trojan War.. like most wars.. is highly glamourized. It’s likely that it DID happen, but that it didn’t last for 10 years, it wasn’t about a woman but trade agreements, and it was more brutish hoplites poking at one another than brave heroes and gods dueling to the death.

    But I have to say I like Homer’s version better. Greece without the romance is no fun. I want to live in Homer’s Greece, but not actual Bronze Age Greece.

    I’m glad you enjoyed the tattoo, Seb. ;)

  • By Sebastian, April 20, 2009 @ 10:07 pm

    Yes — he did fantastic (award winning) narrative history books for whole Caesarian Roman story (it’s aptly called ‘Rubicon’…)

    And then he did one for the rise of the Persian empire, and then he did a final one for the rise of the Christian kingdom, I think (I have it, just not actually LOOKED at it yet).

    The Roman one is probably the best… but I am perhaps a bit biased, what with it being such a colourful period of history.

    What other bits of your body do we get to feast our eyes upon…?

  • By Hezabelle, April 20, 2009 @ 10:18 pm

    I don’t know… you’ve already seen my feet, my cleavage, my neck and I think there’s a photo of my wrist tattoo on here somewhere. I’m running out of blog appropriate bits of me.

  • By Ambles, April 21, 2009 @ 4:16 am

    Hot tattoo!

    Very interresting post, as always. I think I will just skip trying to learn this stuff on my own and let you tell me all the gory details!

  • By Rowan, December 1, 2016 @ 10:18 am

    Sorry I am so late to the party but I wanted to chime in and say, “thank you.” I am embarking on my own odyssey reading the great books of the western world. I found your site while searching for Tantalids. I am reading Agamemnon by Aeschylus. Thank you for unraveling the thread of this story in chronological order. I will be checking in periodically as I love your writing but don’t want to spoil my own voyage of discovery.

Other Links to this Post

  1. Hezabelle » Mythology Mondays: 1200 BCE, a Greek Odyssey — June 22, 2009 @ 9:02 am

  2. Hezabelle » My Theseus — May 11, 2010 @ 7:03 am

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