The Judgment of Paris: to begin, read a summary of the story.
Depictions of the myth in art history:
Rubens, Peter Paul, The Judgment of Paris, 1635
Crauach, Lucas, The Judgment of Paris, 1508
Archetypal images--the three goddesses
- Hera is the wife of Zeus and a matriarchal symbol of marriage and domesticity, childbirth, and the home. Her feminine power and divine authority as well as the cognitive wherewithal to defend--often through clever contrivance--the absolute sovereignty of her home makes her the icon of the city-state. In Homer's Iliad she is depicted as a jealous and avenging wife, but she also represents morality and devotion--the good/woman archetype. Rembrandt (1660) gives Hera, in Art, the regal presence due this Queen. She is not an erotic icon like Aphrodite; she is the goddess of marriage and married women, always outraged by her husband's infidelities, yet willing to reconcile under one condition--the annihilation of her husband's mistress. To be named the most beautiful of the three goddesses, Hera offers Paris political power. Paris refuses her because he is already a prince, the son of King Priam of Troy.
- Athena is the par excellence goddess of war and wisdom, which to modern sensibilities may seem like an oxymoron. In Homer she is the great protector of Odysseus and other Greek warriors. Gustave Klimt (1898) portrays her fully armed with a golden replica of Medusa on her armor-plate, but Athena is equally the patroness of all urban arts and crafts . . . so she ultimately personifies cultural wisdom. I speculate here that she stands at the gateway between nomadic wandering and the massively rural tradition and single-site occupancy of the city--the urban center. Archeologists suggest ( as well as the Roman poet Ovid) that genuine warfare--with the warriors of the realm--begins with the development of agriculture and urban life. The function of war among nomadic hunter and gatherers was perhaps brutal as well but also more ritualistic, an arena for acquiring social status by counting coup on your enemies rather than killing them. Homer's Athena is born out of the patriarchal cult of heroes and warriors; she protects glorious Greek men fully armed for sieges of destruction and mass murder i.e Achilles in The Iliad. At the center of the judgment of Paris story, Athena offers Paris success in war, but Paris is a lover not a fighter, so he turns her down. Because of his decision, Athena fights against Paris and the Trojans in the saga of the Trojan War.
- Aphrodite wins the prize of course. We recognize here that the contest is not really much of a contest as Aphrodite alone personifies beauty. Paris could hardly choose otherwise. She is also the archetype of love and fertility. Sandro Botticelli's Birth of Venus (1480) shows her grace and perhaps gives us a sense of balance between the sensual and the spiritual, uniting the human and the divine in love. Botticelli's Venus and his Virgin Mary are virtually interchangeable.
The three goddesses together symbolize social order, a precursor perhaps to the feudal system. Hera is regal political power, Athena is the warrior class, and Aphrodite is fertility of the land, the harvest of the agrarian society. These three women unite different and necessary sociological characteristics of the ancient Greek city/state or polis. In Homer, Achilles' shield contains similar iconography. Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire and crafts, creates an ideological artifact where the fertile landscape, the warrior, and the King are portrayed as interrelated members of the human community. In an earlier mythology, the people who lived in the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (in the second and third millenniums BCE), told stories of King Gilgamesh, the mythic hero. At the end of the epic, Gilgamesh describes the precinct of Uruk as follows: "One third of the whole is city, one third is garden, and one third is field." If we apply comparative methods, we can see the garden as fertility and the field as the field of battle, thus establishing a connection between Ancient Near East precursor to the feudal system and these three female deities in ancient Greek mythology.