Trojan Epics: 1 Zeus’s plan and a wedding feast

Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678), The Golden Apple of Discord (1633), oil on canvas, 181 × 288 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

The first epic in this cycle is thought to have been recorded after Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, in the Cypria, but it must have existed in oral versions from about 1200 BCE. Although the original has long since been lost, its contents have been partially reconstructed by a succession of scholars. It covers the period between Zeus’s decision to arrange the war against Troy, to the landings of the Greek forces in Trojan territory known as the Troad, at the opening of the war, a span of at least twenty years. In this account, I will also use additional material, and explain the pre-war histories of key figures such as Achilles, Paris, Helen, and of the city itself, as relevant to the epics.

The cycle starts not with the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, nor with their curious courtship, but with the problem that the earth was becoming too heavy because there were too many mortals on it. This is a matter Zeus considers with Themis (distinct from Thetis), a senior Titan and his second partner after Hera. Zeus decides to resolve this problem by setting up a war between the Greeks and the Trojans.

His plan is elaborate, and involves two initial undertakings: marrying the sea nymph Thetis to a mortal, and fathering the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen.

Zeus had taken a fancy to Thetis, for whom he may have been competing with Poseidon. However, Themis had warned him with the prophecy that Thetis would bear a son who would be stronger than his father. The implication for Zeus was dire, that he couldn’t risk getting Thetis pregnant. She would therefore marry the mortal Peleus, who won her over in a bizarre wrestling contest, in which she demonstrated her skills in shape-shifting but had to accept defeat.

The wedding of Peleus and Thetis was to be marked by a feast involving all the Olympian gods, and some more junior. Zeus was to use it to launch the next step in his plan, a beauty contest between three of the goddesses. This would be set up by Eris, Discord, who first had to acquire the prize, a golden apple.

The conventional view of Eris is that she brought discord, strife and conflict, although there may be more to her than that. In the opening of Hesiod’s Works and Days, he refers to two different Eris figures, one the conventional and negative, the other more positive, and concerned with human competition in work, art and achievement, perhaps the friendly rivalry of three goddesses in a beauty contest?

Eris of either kind has seldom been painted.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Triumph of Victory (c 1614), oil on oak panel, 161 x 236 cm, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

One notable appearance is in Peter Paul Rubens’ The Triumph of Victory (c 1614), made when he was young, and the finest painter in Flanders. The Treaty of Antwerp had been signed in 1609, and the city was flourishing in the Twelve Years’ Truce which ensued.

This work was commissioned by the Antwerp Guild of St George, its organisation of archers, so the figure of Mars dominates. His bloody sword rests on the thigh of Victoria, personification of victory. She reaches over to place a wreath (of either oak or laurel) on Mars, and holds a staff in her left hand. At the right, Mars is being passed the bundle of crossbow bolts that make up the attribute of Concord. Under the feet of Mars are the bodies of Rebellion, in the foreground, who still holds his torch, and Discord (Eris), on whose cheek a snake is crawling. The bound figure resting against the left knee of Mars is Barbarism.

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), Time Defending Truth against the Attacks of Envy and Discord (1641), oil on canvas, diam 297 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Poussin’s later tondo Time Defending Truth against the Attacks of Envy and Discord (1641) puts Father Time at its centre, with a firm grip around Truth’s waist, while Envy and Discord (Eris) sit below them, the latter with snakes in her hair resembling Medusa.

The source of Eris’s golden apple was the Garden of the Hesperides, a scene painted by JMW Turner.

The Goddess of Discord Choosing the Apple of Contention in the Garden of the Hesperides exhibited 1806 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), The Goddess of Discord Choosing the Apple of Contention in the Garden of the Hesperides (1806), oil on canvas, 155.3 x 218.4 cm, The Tate Gallery (Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2017), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Turner’s The Goddess of Discord Choosing the Apple of Contention in the Garden of the Hesperides (1806) is the only depiction of this scene that I have discovered. This shows Eris as an older woman, dressed in a red skirt, in the centre foreground. She’s choosing between two golden apples which have just been picked from the surrounding garden by the Hesperides.

The wedding feast was held on Mount Pelion, and attended by most of the gods. The happy couple were given many gifts by the gods, but Eris threw her golden apple ‘of discord’ into the middle of the goddesses, to be given as a reward to ‘the fairest’.

Cornelis van Haarlem (1562–1638), The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis (1593), oil on canvas, 246 x 419 cm, Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Cornelis van Haarlem’s The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis from 1593 segregates the deities into a separate feast in a sacred grove on the left. There is, as yet, no sign of Eris among them, nor of her golden apple. Some of the gods are still among the other guests in the foreground, including Pan (near his pipes, at the left) and Mercury, with his winged hat and caduceus at the right. They seem to be having a good time.

Joachim Wtewael (1566–1638), The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis (date not known), oil on copper, 36.5 x 42 cm, The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

Joachim Wtewael’s undated painting of The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis is great fun, with its aerial band, and numerous glimpses of deities behaving badly. I think I can also spot Eris, about to sow her apple of discord into their midst: she’s in mid-air to the left of centre, the apple held out in her right hand.

Hendrick van Balen (1573–1632) and Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625), The Wedding of Thetis and Peleus (c 1630), oil, dimensions not known, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image by Pascal3012, via Wikimedia Commons.

Hendrick van Balen and Jan Brueghel the Elder combined their skills to paint The Wedding of Thetis and Peleus together in about 1630. Here it’s the innumerable putti who seem to be running riot, and there’s no sign of Eris or her golden apple, as far as I can see.

Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898), The Feast of Peleus (1872-81), oil on canvas, 36.9 x 109.9 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England. Wikimedia Commons.

It’s the most modern version, painted by Edward Burne-Jones as The Feast of Peleus in 1872-81, which sticks most closely to the story. In a composition based on classical representations of the Last Supper, he brings Eris in at the far right, her golden apple still concealed. Every head has turned towards her, apart from that of the centaur behind her right wing. Even the three Fates, in the left foreground, have paused momentarily in their work.

But the most famous painting of this event doesn’t show the wedding at all, only the introduction of the golden apple to a feast of the gods.

Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678), The Golden Apple of Discord (1633), oil on canvas, 181 × 288 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

This is Jacob Jordaens’ The Golden Apple of Discord from 1633, based on a brilliant oil sketch by Rubens. The facially discordant Eris, seen in midair behind the deities, has just made her gift of the golden apple, which is at the centre of the grasping hands, above the table.

At the left, Athena (Minerva) reaches forward for it. In front of her, Aphrodite (Venus), her son Eros (Cupid) at her knee, points to herself as the goddess most deserving of the apple. On the other side of the table, Hera {Juno} reaches her hand out for it too.

With the three goddesses quarrelling over who deserves the Apple, Zeus intervened and proposed that Hermes take them to Mount Ida for a young mortal to judge which of them is the fairest, and wins the golden apple as their prize. The goddesses agree, and good humour is restored.

As planned by Zeus, soon after their wedding, Thetis fell pregnant, and her son Achilles was born.

The much later death of Achilles poses a problem: according to older accounts, its cause was an arrow piercing his foot or ankle, neither of which seem plausible as sites of fatal wounds. Yet no source before the Roman poet Statius explains his vulnerability. It has been claimed that Statius invented the myth that, when Achilles was a young child, his mother Thetis immersed him in the water of the river Styx, to make him invulnerable. However, she had to hold him by part of his body, the left heel, which was therefore left as his only weakness, hence, his Achilles Heel.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Thetis Dipping the Infant Achilles into the River Styx (1630-35), oil on panel, 44.1 x 38.4 cm, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Rubens included this oil sketch in his Achilles series, showing Thetis Dipping the Infant Achilles into the River Styx (1630-35). This is seen taking place in the foreground, while in the middle distance Charon is seen ferrying the dead across the River Styx into the Underworld. Rubens complies with Statius’ story in making Achilles’ left heel the one left vulnerable.

Jan-Erasmus Quellinus (1634–1715), Thetis Dips Achilles in a Vase with Water from the Styx (1668), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Nearly thirty years after Rubens’ death, Jan-Erasmus Quellinus painted his version of Thetis Dips Achilles in a Vase with Water from the Styx (1668). It’s set not on the bank of the River Styx, but at a temple, where Achilles undergoes a baptismal procedure in a huge pot, at the lower left. Thetis appears to be holding the infant, who is almost completely immersed, by his left foot, again in compliance with Statius.

I suspect that Quellinus has engaged in a little deliberate Christianisation of this myth, which may also have made it seem more familiar to those who saw it.

Antoine Borel (1743-1810), Thetis Immerses Her Son Achilles in Water of the River Styx (date not known), oil on canvas, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Antoine Borel’s more traditional account of Thetis Immerses Her Son Achilles in Water of the River Styx was painted at least a century later, in the late eighteenth century, and again has Thetis hold Achilles by his left foot.

In the next episode, I will explain Paris’s origins, and continue the story of the Cypria with its most famous scene, the Judgement of Paris.


ML West (2013) The Epic Cycle, A Commentary on the Lost Troy Epics, Oxford UP. ISBN 978 0 19 966225 8.