Paris of the Iliad – Fated to Destroy?

Alexander of Troy, also known as Paris, was the younger brother of Troy’s hero, Hector. Paris, however, did not have the pampered upbringing of his heroic older brother. King Priam and his wife Hecuba did not, in fact, raise Paris themselves

Hecuba, before Paris was born, had a dream that her son carried a torch. Concerned for the future, she turned to a famed seer, Aesacus. The seer informed Hecuba that her dream meant that her son would cause a great deal of trouble. He would eventually bring about the destruction of his home, Troy. 

Hecuba and Priam knew that to save Troy, the infant would have to die. Neither could bring themselves to carry out the deed, so King Priam summoned one of his shepherds, Agelaus. He ordered the shepherd to take the infant into the mountains and dispose of him. Agelaus, like his master, was unable to bring himself to use a weapon against a helpless baby. He laid him on the mountainside and left him to die.

The gods had other plans. A bear found the infant and suckled him. Reports vary, but for between five to nine days, the bear kept the baby fed and alive. When the shepherd returned and found the baby still alive, he believed it was a sign from the gods. Clearly, the infant was meant to survive. The shepherd brought the infant back to his own home to raise as his own. To mollify his royal masters, he took a dog’s tongue back to the king to demonstrate that the baby was dead

Paris of Troy, Shepherd to Prince

Paris stayed with his adoptive father for some time. Like all princes, however, he was not destined to remain in anonymity. It is not clear from the ancient texts how Paris was restored to the royal household. It is possible that the King and Queen recognized him after he was asked to judge a contest or took part in some of the games that were common in Troy at the time. Without his identity being known, one story tells that Paris beat his older brothers in a boxing match, gaining the king’s attention and bringing about his restoration to the royal family.

Paris was still a child when cattle thieves tried to steal from the local farmers. He routed the gang and returned the stolen animals to their rightful owners. From this adventure, he gained the name “Alexander,” which means “protector of men.” 

His strength, ability, and beauty gained him a lover, Oenone. She was a nymph, the daughter of Cebren, a river god. She had studied with Rhea and god Apollo and gained skills in the arts of healing. Even after Paris left her for Helen, she offered to heal any wounds he might receive. Clearly, she still loved her unfaithful lover, even when he left her and sought another. 

Another story of Paris claims that his adoptive father, Agelaus, had a prize bull. He would pit the bull against others, winning every contest. Proud of his animal, Paris offered a golden crown to any who could bring a bull that would defeat the champion. Ares, the Greek god of war, accepted the challenge by turning himself into a bull and winning the contest easily. Paris awarded the crown readily, conceding the victory and proving himself a fair man, a trait that will play into his mythology later in his story and will lead up to the Trojan war.

Paris: The Man, the Legend, the Myths

Paris’ run-ins with gods may have begun in infancy when they sent the she-bear to suckle him on the mountainside, but they continued well into adulthood. Following the incident with Ares, he gained a reputation for being a fair judge. The reputation led him to becoming a judge of the  goddesses. 

Zeus had put on a lavish party in the Pantheon to celebrate Peleus and Thetis’ marriage. All of the gods were invited, save for one: Eris, the goddess of discord and chaos. She was angry at the exclusion and so decided to cause trouble. Eris threw a golden apple, inscribed with a message, into the assembly. The message read “tēi kallistēi,” or “for the fairest.”

Among the vain gods and goddesses, such an incongruous inscription became the catalyst for a brawl. Three powerful goddesses believed they should possess the fine gift, as each considered themselves the “fairest.” Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite were commonly considered the most beautiful goddesses, but none could decide which of them should hold the highest title. Zeus himself was not about to judge the contest, knowing no decision would please any of them and would cause endless strife.

To deflect the argument, Zeus declared a contest, to be decided by the mortal man, Paris. Hermes led the goddesses to bathe in the spring of Mt. Ida. They approached Paris as he herded his cattle on the mountain. The three goddesses were not about to give up the title of “fairest” easily. Paris, enjoying his new role immensely, insisted that they each parade before him naked so that he could determine which would claim the title. The goddesses agreed, but he did not arrive at a conclusion. 

With no compunction for fairness, each of the goddesses offered him a handsome bribe in hopes of winning the attention of Paris. Mythology tells us that Hera offered him ownership of Europe and Asia. Athena, the goddess of war, offered him the wisdom and skill of all the greatest warriors in battle. Aphrodite offered him the love of the most beautiful woman on Earth – Helen of Sparta. Swayed not by the desire for land or skill, Paris chose the third gift, and therefore, Aphrodite won the contest

Paris: Iliad Hero or Villain?

The question of Paris: Iliad hero or villain is a difficult one. On the one hand, he was promised a prize by the goddess. On the other, he was not informed that his prize already belonged to another. Helen of Sparta had a husband. Aphrodite, typical of the gods, did not care whether she had the moral right to offer Helen to Paris. Mythology reveals this kind of carelessness among the gods and goddesses throughout nearly every story about them. So whether the offer was a valid one or not, it was made, and Paris was not about to give up his prize. 

For her part, it is said that goddess Aphrodite did influence Helen’s feelings toward Paris. When he arrived in Troy to kidnap her from her husband’s home, she fell in love with him and, by most accounts, went willingly. However,  Helen’s husband and father were not about to allow the most beautiful woman in the kingdom to be taken without a fight. Helen’s father, Tyndareus, had been advised by the famously clever Odysseus. Before she was married, he made all potential suitors take a vow to defend her marriage. 

Because of Helen’s great beauty, she had many suitors. Many were among the ranks of the Acheean’s most wealthy, skilled, and powerful men. Therefore, when Helen was taken, Menelaus, her husband, had Greece’s strength behind him, a force he wasted no time in mobilizing. The Trojan war was the entirety of a kingdom moving to retrieve a woman, the ultimate patriarchy expression

Paris’ Prize

Although Prince Paris of Troy is expected to battle along with the rest of Troy to maintain his prize, he is portrayed in the Iliad as being cowardly and unskilled in battle. He lacks the courage of his heroic brother Hector. He does not go into combat carrying a sword and shield like the others. He favors the bow over more up-close-and-personal weapons, preferring to strike at his enemy from a distance.

In a sense, his shepherd’s upbringing may have influenced Paris’ fighting style. Shepherds typically fight with a bolo or slingshot, preferring to fight predators with a projectile rather than trying to take on the superior strength of a wolf or bear in hand-to-paw combat. Throughout his life, Paris showed little skill or inclination for fighting. He was shown to be clever and just in his judgements, but his moral character was questionable from when he was asked to judge between the goddesses.

Not only did he take the opportunity to ogle the goddesses, insisting they parade naked before him, but he allowed himself to be bribed. In nearly every other story, either of those actions would have resulted in severe consequences. For Paris, Greek mythology made an exception. This is perhaps the clearest example of the fickle nature of the gods. Everything leading up to the war directed its start. From Paris being saved from his parents’ murderous intentions to his being chosen to judge the contest between the goddesses, the prophecy foretelling his part in starting the war that would be Troy’s downfall seemed orchestrated by fate.

Paris and Achilles

Although there is an emphasis in The Iliad on the heroic actions of Hector and others, Paris and Achilles should, in truth, have been among the main conflicts. Achilles served under Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek army. At a crucial point in the war, he retreated from the field of battle. This action resulted in the death of his friend and mentor Patroclus and several of the Greek’s defeats in battle. 

Following the death of Patroclus, Achilles rejoined the fighting, uniting once more with Agamemnon to take his revenge. The familial relationships become complex on both sides. Agamemnon is the elder brother of Helen’s husband, Menelaus. Hector, for his part, is the elder brother of Paris. The two older brothers lead the clash that is truly a war between the younger siblings. The main conflict is between Paris and Menelaus, but their warrior elder brothers lead the fighting. 

The first time Paris faces Menelaus, it is to hold a duel to end the war. Menelaus, the trained warrior, easily defeats Paris in battle. The gods intervene again, however. The gods are invested in the continuation of the war. Aphrodite, rather than allow Paris to suffer defeat, spirits him away to his own bedchamber, where Helen herself tends his wounds. The gods aren’t going to allow his weakness to sidetrack their vision for the fall of Troy.

Litany of Heroes

Following Paris and Menelaus’ duel, there are several conflicts between heroes that might have led to an end of the war, if not for the gods’ interventions. Menelaus would have won the duel easily had Aphrodite not intervened and spirited Paris away before the fight could end. Since there was no end to the duel, the war continues. 

Paris’ next attempt at battle is with Diomedes, the Scourge of Troy. Born to Tydeus and Deipyle, Diomedes is the king of Argos. His grandfather was Adrastus. He is considered one of the Greek’s greatest heroes. How did a king of another nation become embroiled in the Greek attack on Troy? The answer is simple: he was one of Helen’s suitors, and so was bound by the vow he had made to defend her marriage to Menelaus. 

Diomedes came to the war with 80 ships, the third-largest fleet to join the war behind Agamemnon’s 100 ships and Nestor’s 90. He also brought Sthenelus and Euryalu and armies from Argos, Tiryns, Troezen, and many other cities. He provided the Greeks with a powerful force of both ships and men. He worked alongside Odysseus in several operations and was considered among the greatest of the Greek warriors. A favorite of Athena, he was granted immortality after the war and took his place among the gods’ ranks in post-Homeric mythology.

Other heroes of the epic include Ajax the Great, Philoctetes, and Nestor. Nestor played a relatively secondary but also an important role in the battles. Son of Neleus and Chloris, he was also one of the famed Argonauts. He and his sons, Antilochus and Thrasymedes, fought alongside Achilles and Agamemnon on the side of the Greeks. Nestor’s role was often advisory in nature. As one of the older warriors, he was an important advisor to the younger heroes of the war and was instrumental in the reconciliation of Achilles and Agamemnon.

The Beginning to the End

A cowardly strike can harm even the mighty Diomedes. In one of the Greeks’ charges on Troy, Zeus sends Iris to inform Hector that he must wait for Agamemnon to be injured before attacking. Hector wisely takes the advice and waits until Agamemnon is injured by the son of a man he has killed. He stays on the field long enough to kill the one who wounded him, but the pain forces him to withdraw. 

Recognizing his moment, Hector attacks, driving back the Achaean line. Odysseus and Diomedes manage to rally the troops. A spear thrown by Diomedes stuns Hector and forces his retreat. Paris responds to this attack on his brother by wounding him with an arrow through the foot, an injury that forces Diomedes to withdraw from the fighting.

Hector resumes his attack until Paris wounds the healer Machaon. Hector and Ajax retreat and Nestor begs Patroclus to convince Achilles to rejoin the battling. This plea leads to Patroclus borrowing Achilles’ enchanted armor and leading an attack on the Trojans that leads to Patroclus’ death at Hector’s hand. In his rage and desire for vengeance, Achilles rejoins the fighting and drives the Trojans back to their gates. Eventually, he and Hector do battle, and Hector falls to Achilles

In defiance of tradition and even the gods, Achilles abuses Hector’s body, dragging it naked behind his chariot and refusing to allow the body to be either returned to the Trojans or properly buried. Eventually, Priam himself slips into the camp and begs for the return of his son. Achilles, knowing that he himself is doomed to die on the field of battle like Hector, takes pity on Priam and allows him to take his son’s body back. The two armies are at peace for a few days while both Hector and Patroclus are mourned and properly honored in death.

The Death of Paris

Paris himself did not survive the war. Though he was charged with only three Greek warriors’ deaths, in comparison to Hector’s 30, he would share his brother’s fate. 

One of Helen’s suitors who had vowed to defend her marriage was Philoctetes. Philoctetes was the son of Poeas, one of the Argonauts and a companion to Heracles was dying of the poison of a hydra. He had no one to light the funeral pyre that he had built for himself. It is said that either Philoctetes or his father lit the pyre. Though they expected no payment for this service, Heracles, in his gratitude, gifted them his magic bow and arrows tipped with the deadly poison of the hydra. It was with this gift that Philoctetes shot Paris, wounding him with a poison-tipped arrow. It wasn’t the wound itself that killed him, but rather the poison.

Upon seeing her husband so terribly wounded, Helen took his body back to Mount Ida. She hoped to gain the assistance of Paris’ first wife, the nymph Oenone. Oenone had loved Paris and had vowed to heal him from wounds he might receive. When faced with the woman Paris had abandoned her for, Oenone refused to offer him healing. Eventually, Paris was born back to Troy, where he died. Oenone, upon hearing of his death, came to his funeral. Overcome with regret, she threw herself into the pyre and so perished with the doomed prince.

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