Mythology

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The Trojan War pitted a loose alliance of independent Greek kings against the city of *Troy (in what today is northwest Turkey) and her allies in Asia Minor. It is said to have begun with an insult to the goddess Eris ("Strife" or "Discord"). When the Greek hero *Peleus married the minor sea-goddess *Thetis, all of the gods were invited to the wedding except Eris. Angry at this, she placed on the banquet table a golden apple inscribed with the words: "For the fairest." Immediately strife broke out between the various goddesses at the wedding, all of whom claimed the apple for themselves. (Today we still refer to the *Apple of Discord: does this story remind you of any other famous apples?) Three goddesses were determined to have the best claim: *Hera, sister and wife of *Zeus, queen of the gods, goddess of marriages, and a force to reckon with; *Athena, daughter of Zeus, a powerful warrior goddess associated with wisdom and skilled crafts; *Aphrodite, daughter of Zeus, goddess of sexual passion. None of the male gods was willing to judge between these three so they decided to give the job to a mortal. The goddesses were led by the messenger god *Hermes down to Mt. Ida (near Troy) where the handsome young Trojan prince *Paris (also known as Alexander), son of the Trojan king *Priam and his wife *Hecuba, was tending a flock of sheep. (What was a prince doing tending sheep? There was a romantic myth to explain this, but the real reason seems to be that we are dealing with a Greek adaptation of an ancient near eastern myth about a mother goddess and her young male consort.) As we will find, the ancient Greeks are highly competitive, placing more emphasis on success than on means: the three goddesses immediately set about bribing the judge. The queenly Hera offered Paris royal power over Asia and Europe, the martial Athena promised him military prowess and fame, while Aphrodite offered him *Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris immediately chose the last (perhaps he'd been out with the flocks a bit too long) and, with Aphrodite's help, sailed off to Greece, accompanied by the Trojan hero Aeneas. His destination was *Sparta (in the *Peloponnese: see map 2 in The World of Athens), where Helen was married to *Menelaus, king of Sparta and brother to the powerful *Agamemnon, king of neighboring *Mycenae. Paris stayed at Sparta as Menelaus' guest until Menelaus was forced to leave on business, whereupon Paris promptly made off with his host's wife. This act is known as the *Rape of Helen. The rape of Helen was an offense against the guest-host relationship and against Zeus Xenios, who oversaw this relationship. [The Greeks not only worshipped a number of gods (polytheism) but attributed to each god a variety of spheres of influence or jurisdictions: thus Zeus in his role as supervisor of the guest-host relationship was distinguished from, e.g., Zeus in his role as protector of suppliants (Zeus Hikesios) or as a chthonic deity associated with the spirits of the dead (Zeus Meilichios).] In violating Menelaus' hospitality, Paris had in effect slighted Zeus, not a good thing to do. Moreover, he had won the hatred of Hera and Athena by awarding Aphrodite the prize for beauty. To add to Paris' troubles, the various suitors of Helen had sworn an oath that they would honor the rights of whatever man won her hand in marriage and would band together to punish anyone who infringed upon those rights. As the most powerful of the various Greek kings, Agamemnon assumed charge of the expedition that was formed to win Helen back and punish the Trojans. Various stories were told of the early stages of the expedition. [For example, some of the heroes attempted to avoid going at all: the cunning *Odysseus pretended to be insane; *Achilles (the son of Peleus and Thetis and the greatest of all the Greek heroes) was disguised as a girl and hidden on the island of Scyrus. The first expedition failed when the Greeks landed in Mysia (south of...
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