Helen loved Menelaos like no other. History and myth haven’t told that portion of my sister’s story well. For Helen, the Spartan queen, her strong war-king was a far greater prize than a pretty shepherd.
I won’t lie to you, gentle guest, and say she didn’t love the pretty shepherd, too. Paris was charming, and he endeared himself to Helen of Sparta. The Gods make their plans, and Aphrodite always knew that Helen would make the journey across the sea to Troy. Even before that dreadful contest.
You’ve heard the tale of that golden apple and the appointment of Paris as judge, I’m sure. No? Oh, my friend, the world believes the story starts here, so let me share the briefest telling of that tale.
At a certain marriage feast, all the Gods of Olympos were invited. All but Eris, for who would willingly welcome Strife into their marriage? And yet, who could keep her out? And so she came, but the gift she brought was conflict, cleverly concealed. She rolled in a golden apple engraved with a single word. “Kallisti.” It means “for the fairest.” Aphrodite, with the grace of a dove, bent to lift it, knowing she was the fairest of gods and men. Hera, queen of the Olympians, recognized the apple as being stolen from her own evening orchard and strutted with a peacock’s beauty to claim the prize, while grey-eyed Athene, stunning in her wisdom, swooped in to forestall the fray.
Paris was chosen to settle the dispute that erupted between the three goddesses. Paris, a Trojan prince. Paris, a handsome and romantic youth. Paris, a shepherd whose city was favored of old by lovely Aphrodite.
Each goddess appealed to the young prince with the greatest reward she could offer the young man. Hera, in all her royal authority, came to him first. “I can make you a king like there has never been among men before. Your father is a majestic man, but your reign, young prince, will span boundaries no mortal has yet dared to reach and bring you riches beyond imagining. Kingship will be yours, if you give the apple to me.” She left him with a light in his eyes and a desire for power he hadn’t known could stir within his heart.
Happily considering her offer, Paris was approached by solemn Athene. He saw the warning in her eyes, like storm clouds building over a troubled sea. “That apple is no trifle or trinket, Paris. By giving it into my care, you would show wisdom beyond other men. Wisdom far beyond your few mortal years. I can turn that wisdom into the makings of legend and lore. I am the mentor of heroes, Paris. Your name will be sung for generations beyond count as a great hero, if you give the apple and your fate into my care.”
Paris protectively cradled the apple and tucked it out of sight, feeling the weight of Athene’s words as she left him to ponder this newest option.
Aphrodite spoke directly to the shepherd’s heart when she came to win his favor. “The apple’s intended owner is clear enough, sweet boy. It is marked ‘for the fairest,’ and that is me.” She blushed sweetly and continued, “Is it a boast if I say this of myself?”
Paris considered both the words and the image of the goddess before him and said, “It is not a boast, for all the poets and philosophers hail the beauty of golden Aphrodite.”
“There is a mortal woman whose beauty the poets sing, too, sweet Paris,” Aphrodite continued. “Helen of Sparta is a woman in whose face and form my own beauty shines. In exchange for the apple that bears my epithet, lovely Paris, I will give you the greatest love the world has ever known. You will be beloved of the most beautiful woman in the world, and poets and philosophers will tell your tale until the gods turn their shining faces from the world and men have sung their last songs.”
And so, my friend, Love won the contest. Yes, Love, the sweet beguiler and mother of persuasion was more potent than promises of kingship and glory. Royalty and valor, men dream of, it is true. But it is love that pushes men into battle to defend family and country and love that sees them safely home. Love compels mothers to give all for the safety and happiness of their babes. Love binds together the hands of friends and the hearts of tribes in peace and in war. For there is no power on earth more compelling than love.