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The First Beauty Pageant Is Found in Greek Mythology

greek myth art first beauty pageant judgement of paris
The Judgement of Paris, which was likely the first ancient Greek beauty pageant, set off one of the most important narratives in mythology. Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1638-9. Credit: Public Domain

While beauty contests such as Miss Universe and Miss America may seem like thoroughly modern inventions, their roots can actually be found in ancient Greek mythology with the judgement of Paris.

The Judgement of Paris, which was likely the world’s first beauty pageant, set off one of the most important narratives in ancient Greek mythology.

The results of the contest, during which mortal Paris had to decide which goddess, Hera, Athena, or Aphrodite, was most beautiful, led to the Trojan War, the details of which are laid out in Homer’s epic poem the Iliad.

The story of the Judgement of Paris was a popular one in Ancient Greece, and ancient authors such as Homer, Xenophon, Euripides, and Aristotle wrote about the myth.

According to most sources, the beauty contest came about due to one simple act by Eris, the goddess of discord.

The trouble began when Zeus decided to organize a wedding banquet for Achilles’ parents, Peleus and Thetis. When contemplating the guest list, Zeus thought it would probably be best not to invite Eris, as she could ruin the party.

The golden apple sows discord amongst the goddesses

When she received news of this, Eris was enraged. She decided to enact her revenge and spoil the wedding banquet, but her actions ended up resulting in a ten-year-long war.

The goddess, looking to cause trouble due to her perceived slight, threw a golden apple into the crowd at the wedding. The act may seem insubstantial, except for the fact that the fruit had the word “καλλίστῃ” (kallistēi) emblazoned on it, which means “to the most beautiful woman.”

The Modern Greek term for a beauty pageant, “καλλιστεία” (kallisteia), also comes from the same word.

Upon seeing the golden apple, three goddesses, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, all claimed the prize as their own.

After a quarrel, the goddesses decided they needed an impartial judge to determine who really was the most beautiful, and they asked Zeus.

Zeus, however, was reluctant to get involved in the competition between his wife, Hera, and daughters Athena and Aphrodite.

Yet the king of the gods remembered that the mortal named Paris, who was from the famed city of Troy in Asia Minor, was a very fair judge.

In a contest regarding the beauty and quality of bulls, the young shepherd admitted that the god Ares’ entry was far better than his own without hesitation.

Paris to be the judge in the first beauty pageant

Notably, despite the fact that Paris was the son of Trojan King Priam and his wife, Hecuba, he was raised in the countryside. In fact, his birth was considered to be an evil omen, so Paris was exiled form his family home and raised by shepherds.

It only became known that Paris was the son of the Trojan king after the shepherd won a boxing match against one of Priam’s other sons. After seeing his son, the King welcomed him back to the city.

Hence, Zeus proposed that they consult with the mortal to determine which goddess was the fairest.

The three goddesses, accompanied by Hermes, made their way to Mount Ida, where they bathed in a spring before meeting with Paris.

As Paris began to judge the three beautiful goddesses, they each tried to win his favor by offering him bribes.

Hera offered to give Paris incredible power by making him the king of Asia and Europe, Athena proposed to give him wisdom, and Aphrodite offered him the most beautiful woman in the world.

Faced with such tempting bribes, Paris eventually chose Aphrodite and awarded her with the golden apple. In doing so, he inspired both Hera’s and Athena’s wrath.

Judgement of Paris sets off Trojan War

Keeping her end of the bargain, Aphrodite told Paris that the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, was now his.

There was only one problem, however. Helen was already married to Menelaus, king of Sparta.

In order to retrieve his “prize,” Paris traveled to Sparta under the guise of diplomacy between Troy and the city-state.

There, depending on the ancient source, Paris either kidnapped or seduced the Spartan queen and whisked her back with him to Troy.

After discovering that his wife had been taken by the Trojan, Menelaus assembled his troops and called on his brother, Agamemnon, king of the Mycenaeans, and all other kings in Greece to join him on a military mission to Troy to retrieve his wife.

The fateful beauty pageant brought about ten years of fighting, and the Greeks besieged the city of Troy for a decade before finally gaining access to the city by using the famous Trojan horse.

Although many scholars have debated whether or not the Trojan War as we know it from the works of the great poet Homer truly occurred, it is generally agreed upon that the Trojan War as described in the Iliad and the Odyssey can be considered a myth.

During the war, Menelaus nearly killed Paris in single combat, but the Trojan youth, a favorite of Aphrodite, was rescued at the last minute by the goddess.

Paris, some sources say with the help of Apollo, went on to kill the Greek hero Achilles by shooting an arrow in his only weak spot, the ankle.

The scene of the Judgement of Paris is quite a popular one in Western art history, partly because it allowed painters to depict three beautiful nude women. It was also frequently depicted on ancient Greek vases and in Roman art.

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