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The Story of Paris in Greek Mythology

Updated on August 21, 2016
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

Paris in Greek Mythology

The name of Paris is perhaps not a well known one, but he was a central figure in one of the most famous stories, the Trojan War.

Paris was a prince of Troy, and his abduction of Helen was said to have brought destruction upon his home city; for Helen was the woman who launched a 1000 ships, and soon Achaean heroes were surrounding Troy.

The Birth of Paris

Paris was the son of King Priam of Troy, and Hecuba; Priam was a king who was said to have fathered 50 sons and 50 daughters. So amongst the famous siblings of Paris were Hector, Cassandra, Helenus and Deiphobus.

When Hecuba was pregnant with Paris she had a premonition, a dream of a flaming torch spreading fire through the city of Troy. This premonition was interpreted by the Trojan seer Aesacus, who foretold that the unborn son would bring about the destruction of Troy, and urged that he put to death as soon as he was born.

When Paris was born though, neither Priam nor Hecuba could kill their newborn son, and so the task was put upon the shoulders of the shepherd Agelaus.

Agelaus though had not the will to deliberately kill the baby boy, and so instead the shepherd decided to let nature do the job for him, and so Paris was left exposed upon Mount Ida. When Agelaus returned to the spot where he had left Paris five days later though, the shepherd found the Trojan prince still alive.

Agelaus then decided to raise Paris as his own son, although King Priam and Hecuba were told that their son was dead.

Paris

The Trojan Prince Paris - Antoni Brodowski - PD-art-100
The Trojan Prince Paris - Antoni Brodowski - PD-art-100 | Source

Paris Back in King Priam's Court

Paris would grow up amongst the shepherds on Mount Ida, and the boy learned their skills. As he matured, Paris became known for being handsome, but also for being intelligent and fair.

Some stories also tell of the bravery of Paris in dealing with predators and bandits whilst protecting the animals in his care.

Paris would eventually be reconciled with his true father, although in ancient sources this reconciliation is rarely expanded upon. The most likely story sees him being recognised after taking part in funeral games held in Troy, where Paris won a number of different events.

Paris and Oenone

Paris and Oenone - Reyer Jacobsz. van Blommendael (1628–1675) - PD-art-100
Paris and Oenone - Reyer Jacobsz. van Blommendael (1628–1675) - PD-art-100 | Source

Paris Marries

In the early part of Paris’ life he would wed a Naiad, river nymph, named Oenone. Oenone was a nymph of Mount Ida, and was blessed with the gift of prophecy, as well as great healing skill. Oenone would tell her husband never to go to Sparta, the nymph predicting the starting place of Paris’ downfall.

The Judgement of Paris

Paris would come to prominence when he acted as a judge in a contest between two bulls. It was a contest between Paris’ own bull, and a strange bull; unbeknownst to Paris, this bull was the god Ares in disguise. Rightly though, Paris would choose the strange bull over his own, awarding it the prize.

This fairness would cause the god Zeus to choose Paris once again as a judge; this time though the contest was not between bulls, but was a beauty contest for goddesses.

At the wedding feast of Thetis and Peleus, the goddess of Strife, Eris, had thrown a golden apple amongst the assembled guests. On the golden apple was the words “for the fairest”, and three goddesses, Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, claimed it.

Zeus was too wise to make such a judgement about who was the most beautiful goddess himself, and so he called on the services of Paris.

Each of the goddesses had their own natural beauty, but none of them were willing to leave such a judgement to chance, and so they offered bribes to Paris.

Hera offered the Trojan prince dominion over the mortal world; Athena would offer Paris all known skills and warrior ability; whilst Aphrodite offered Paris most beautiful woman.

Paris abandoned the fairness that he was famous for, and chose Aphrodite and her bribe; a judgement call that would cause Hera and Athena to forever be against the Trojan prince.

The Abduction of Helen

Aphrodite now had to live up to her promise. At the time, the most beautiful woman was Helen, a daughter of Zeus and Leda. By the time of the Judgement of Paris though, Helen had already gotten married to Menelaus, and was now the queen of Sparta.

Nevertheless, Paris would travel to Sparta, forgetting the warning of his own wife; and there the Trojan prince would either abduct Helen, or induce her to leave Sparta for Troy with him. At the same time, Paris was also said to have carried off a significant amount of treasure from Menelaus’ palace.

The abduction of Helen, would see the Suitors of Helen come together and a thousand ships were launched to retrieve the wife of Menelaus.

Paris Abducts Helen

The Abduction of Helen - Giovanni Francesco Romanelli (1610–1662) - PD-art-100
The Abduction of Helen - Giovanni Francesco Romanelli (1610–1662) - PD-art-100 | Source

Paris Returns to Troy

When Paris arrived back at Troy with his prize, he was chastised by his brother Hector, who knew that war was now inevitable

When the Achaean forces arrived at Troy, there was a moment when war could have been avoided, for the emissaries of Agamemnon, commander of the Greek forces, asked for the return of what had been stolen. Paris was willing to return the stolen treasure, but he steadfastly refused to give up Helen.

Hector and Paris

Paris and Hector - Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (1751–1829)  - PD-art-100
Paris and Hector - Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (1751–1829) - PD-art-100 | Source

Paris and the Defense of Troy

Having brought the Achaeans to the very walls of Troy it might be assumed that Paris would be prominent amongst the defenders, but the Trojan prince was not held in high-esteem by either side.

During the ten year Trojan War, the exploits of his brother Hector, and brother-in-law Aeneas, easily outshone Paris’ deeds; and even other brothers, including Deiphobus and Helenus, are portrayed as being more heroic.

Hector was at the centre of the Trojan defences, but had little faith in the fighting abilities of his brother, but Hector did manage to convince Paris to eventually fight Menelaus one-on-one. Menelaus was by no means the strongest of the Greek heroes, but Paris’ skills lay with the bow and arrow, and in hand-to-hand fighting, Menelaus easily bested Paris. Before Paris could be killed by Menelaus though, the Trojan prince was rescued by Aphrodite. Despite being bested, Paris still refused to give Helen up.

In the surviving works about the Trojan War Paris is named as having killed two opposing heroes; Hector, on the other hand, was said to have killed 30. The first of these Greek heroes killed by Paris was Menethius, the son of Areithuos and Philmedusa; but is the second hero killed who is more famous, for this Greek hero was Achilles.

Achilles was considered to be the greatest hero on the Greek side, a warrior that even Hector could not defeat. Paris though was said to have killed him by firing an arrow into an unprotected part of Achilles’ body, now universally assumed to be his heel. Ancient writers though would claim that the god Apollo had helped Paris kill Achilles, either by guiding the arrow to its mark, or by firing the arrow himself.

An alternative ending for Achilles sees the Greek hero killed when Paris organised an ambush for the hero in the temple of Apollo; Achilles having been lured into the ambush because of his love for one of King Priam’s daughters, Polyxena.

Aphrodite Rescues Paris

The Rescue of Paris - Johann Heinrich Tischbein the Elder (1722–1789) - PD-art-100
The Rescue of Paris - Johann Heinrich Tischbein the Elder (1722–1789) - PD-art-100 | Source

The Death of Paris

Paris himself would ultimately meet his own death at the hands of another noted Greek hero, Philoctetes.

Philoctetes was the most highly skilled archer on the Greek side, and he was equipped with the bow and arrows of Heracles. An arrow of Philoctetes would hit Paris, but it was not the hit that would kill Paris, but the arrows were tipped with the blood of the Hydra, and so Paris was slowly poisoned.

According to some sources, Helen would ask Oenone to heal Paris’ wound, but the nymph refused to do so. Oenone had of course been abandoned by Paris when he had taken Helen.

Paris would die of his wound in Troy; and when his funeral pyre was lit, Oenone would throw herself upon it. Whether this act of sacrifice was out of love for Paris, or for remorse about not healing is wound is not clear.

Of course, Hecuba’s premonition about Paris being the cause of the destruction of Troy came true, for shortly after the death of Paris, the ruse of the Wooden Horse was used, and Troy would be sacked and burned.

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