In this series, “Conversations with Students”, we will list out the major questions from the daily seminar, and then we will report frequent and also exceptional answers from the conversation, with added depth as the medium provides.
The basic background comes from the story of the “Apple of Eris” which was conveyed to us by Pseudo-Hyginus in his Fabulae, Lucian, and Apollodorus in his Library. The basic story is as follows: The mortal hero Peleus (father of Achilleus) and Thetis, his immortal Nereid wife, were to have a grand wedding where all the gods and goddesses were to be invited. Eris, however, the goddess of discord and chaos, was noticeably excepted because of her naturally destructive nature. Being of a divine and therefore easily offended nature, Eris concocted a plan to throw one of the golden apples of the Hesperides into the wedding with the Greek superlative, Kallisti, on it, or, “to the fairest/most beautiful”. All the goddesses contended for this beautiful and vaunted apple, but in the end three were chosen as finalists: Aphrodite, Athene, and Hera.
Naturally, the three goddesses chose the king of the gods and principle of divine order as the natural judge of this high honor, but intelligently, Zeus recused himself due to his marriage to Hera, and his paternal relationship to both Aphrodite and Athene. There is, however, and perhaps even more perfidious, a theory that Zeus did this knowing all along that a war would ensue regardless of Paris’ choice, because he wished to cull the population of man and the heroes of the generation of Achilleus. In any case, the young shepherd son of Priam, Paris, was chosen to choose the fairest goddess. Poor boy.
At first, perhaps having some intuition into the nature of judging the gods as a mortal, Paris attempted to split the apple into three equal parts for the goddesses. Being goddesses, however, of course they did not accept this “cop-out” decision, and each attempted, knowing the nature of the others, to bribe the young mortal man. Athene offered Paris victory in any battle or war–a fine gift from the war-goddess always accompanied by Nike, goddess of victory. Hera offered the young man the power to rule on high. But it was Aphrodite’s offer of “the most beautiful woman in the world” which tantalized Paris most. He, not being as sharp as he was passionate, wrongly assumed that he would be receiving Aphrodite as bride. She however reminded him after his choice that she was a goddess, and no mere mortal woman, so a certain married Helen of Sparta, wife of Menelaos would have to do.* From there, it is all mythological-history: Paris visits Sparta and Menelaos’ court; Menelaos leaves to attend the funeral of Catreus, his maternal grandfather in Crete, and Paris absconds with Helen.
With that brief summary of the story so far presented, we will continue on to the questions of the seminar.
We talked first about the causes of the Trojan War and who was at fault: was it Eris, goddess of Discord’s, fault for throwing the apple marked kallisti in the first place? Or was it perhaps Peleus and Thetis’ fault for not inviting Eris. Surely she would have caused some sort of disturbance, but likely not one so large. Was the blame in fact on Zeus for delegating the task of choosing the which goddess received the kallisti apple to a mere mortal, Paris, or was it Paris for not choosing Athene or Hera in the first place?
We then considered which goddess and which bribe should have been accepted: Athene’s war-victories, Hera’s political power, or Aphrodite’s most beautiful woman in the world. At first, the students mostly thought that Athene’s gift was best, but slowly they started to see the consequences of each decision with each goddess. For instance, with the capacity to win all battles, they then started to consider what their day to day lives would be like–battling over and over. Watching friends, family members, and enemies die over and over again. Their every day would be filled with suffering and misery of all those around them, and they themselves might be turned cruel by the endeavor.
Hera’s gift is potentially not much better: to gain political power one must take that power from another, and as Paris is not the eldest son of his father Priam, he would supplant both Hektor and his father, and it is highly unlikely that he would attain his power without many deaths–and that after attaining it in such a way that he would not maintain it similarly. His life would be one conspiracy after another to maintain and garner power, never trusting another.
And of course Paris’ decision to go with Aphrodite led to him being awarded the chance to woo and win Helen away from her powerful husband, Menelaos of Sparta, and from this the Trojan War erupted which would eventually destroy his people. Choosing who the fairest (kallisti) goddess is is a rough deal indeed.
The final source of conversation was focusing on Agamemnon’s choice to sacrifice Iphigeneia at Aulis after Artemis turned the winds against the fleet there. On the one hand, why would Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter in order to save his sister-in-law? But the situation is more complex, because he is not only choosing to save his sister-in-law, but to honor his relation to his brother and increase his own personal honor. And to use an argument from Herodotus’ Histories and Sophocles’ Antigone many of the students decided that as Menelaos is the sole brother of Agamemnon, and their father Atreus is dead, and that Agamemnon both has two more daughters and the capacity for more–that his primary duty was to his brother, not his daughter, though she, and not his brother, was under his protection and tutelage.
On the other hand, with so many former suitors of Helen, had Agamemnon not allowed his daughter to be sacrificed, it is most likely that the men trapped at Aulis would still have been honor-bound to fight for Helen at Troy and that Artemis would stay un-appeased without blood spilled from the House of Atreus. Therefore, had Iphigeneia not been sacrificed, it is very possible that Agamemnon himself may have ended up on the chopping block. So, whether Agamemnon was acting to honor his brother, add to his own honor, or to save his own skin was subject to dispute.
Last but not least, we turned to the first book of Homer’s Iliad and considered the conditions under which Agamemnon took Achilleus’ concubine Briseis from him. It is true that Achilleus, out of turn, called an assembly of Achaians together and then rudely insisted that not even Agamemnon would lay a hand on the prophet Kalchas if he should give forth bad news (to Agamemnon that he must return his concubine Chryseis). So Agamemnon was likely already slightly irritated with the actions of his most powerful but also most overbearing warrior. Oh, and they had been fighting together for nine years during which time they had sacked 23 cities. So, tensions were riding fairly high. Agamemnon, fresh with the knowledge that he had to return his concubine Chryseis to her father, Chryses, was understandably annoyed and took it out on the person annoying him most: Achilleus. The question, however, was: was this an intelligent and strategic decision by Agamemnon as a leader? Clearly, he had to assert his authority in some way over the openly disrespectful Achilleus, but in taking his concubine, Achilleus retreats from the war and in fact–through his mother–turns the will of Zeus against the Achaians. So, in a way, the question of the rectitude of Agamemnon’s actions is self-answering.
This has been the first of weekly conversations with students. This year we will feature seminars on Homer’s Iliad, Odyssey, Vergil’s Aeneid, Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes and more!
*Even though Herodotus suggests that Paris perhaps wished to steal Helen to make up for some injury done to Troy by the Achaians in a past generation, this theory is given little light in our discussion.