N ever was such a wedding-feast known as that of Pēleus and Thĕtis. And no wonder; for Peleus was King of Thessaly, and Thetis was a goddess—the goddess who keeps the gates of the West, and throws them open for the chariot of the Sun to pass through when its day's journey is done.
Not only all the neighboring kings and queens came to the feast, but the gods and goddesses besides, bringing splendid presents to the bride and bridegroom. Only one goddess was not there, because she had not been invited; and she had not been invited for the best of all reasons. Her name was Atē, which means Mischief; and wherever she went she caused quarreling and confusion. Jupiter had turned her out of heaven for setting even the gods by the ears; and ever since then she had been wandering about the earth, making mischief, for they would not have her even in Hades.
"So they won't have Me at their feast!" she said to herself, when she heard the sound of the merriment to which she had not been bidden. "Very well; they shall be sorry. I see a way to make a bigger piece of mischief than ever was known."
So she took a golden apple, wrote some words upon it, and, keeping herself out of sight, threw it into the very middle of the feasters, just when they were most merry.
Nobody saw where the apple came from; but of course they supposed it had been thrown among them for frolic; and one of the guests, taking it up, read aloud the words written on it. The words were:—
"For The Most Beautiful!"
"What a handsome present somebody has sent me!" said Juno, holding out her hand for the apple.
"Sent you?" asked Diana. "What an odd mistake, to be sure! Don't you see it is for the most beautiful? I will thank you to hand me what is so clearly intended for Me."
"You seem to forget I am present!" said Vesta, making a snatch at the apple.
"Not at all!" said Ceres; "only I happen to be here, too. And who doubts that where I am there is the most beautiful?"
"Except where I am," said Proserpine.
"What folly is all this!" said Minerva, the wise. "Wisdom is the only true beauty; and everybody knows that I am the wisest of you all."
But it's for the most beautiful!" said Venus. "The idea of its being for anybody but Me!"
Then every nymph and goddess present, and even every woman, put in her claim, until from claiming and disputing it grew to arguing and wrangling and downright quarreling: insults flew about, until the merriment grew into an angry din, the like of which had never been heard. But as it became clear that it was impossible for everybody to be the most beautiful, the claimants gradually settled down into three parties—some taking the side of Venus, others of Juno, others of Minerva.
"We shall never settle it among ourselves," said one, when all were fairly out of breath with quarreling. "Let the gods decide."
For the gods had been silent all the while; and now they looked at one another in dismay at such an appeal. Jupiter, in his heart, thought Venus the most beautiful; but how could he dare decide against either his wife Juno or his daughter Minerva? Neptune hated Minerva on account of their old quarrel; but it was awkward to choose between his daughter Venus and his sister Juno, of whose temper he, as well as Jupiter, stood in awe. Mars was ready enough to vote for Venus; but then he was afraid of a scandal. And so with all the gods—not one was bold enough to decide on such a terrible question as the beauty of three rival goddesses who were ready to tear out each other's eyes. For Juno was looking like a thunder-cloud, and Minerva like lightning, and Venus like a smiling but treacherous sea.
"I have it," said Jupiter at last. "Men are better judges of beauty than the gods are, who never see anything but its perfection. King Priam of Troy has a son named Paris, whose judgment as a critic I would take even before my own. I propose that you, Juno, and you, Minerva, and you, Venus, shall go together before Paris and submit yourselves to his decision, whatever it may be."
And so it was settled, for each of the three goddesses was equally sure that, whoever the judge might be, the golden apple was safe to be hers. The quarrel came to an end, and the feast ended pleasantly; but Ate, who had been watching and listening, laughed in her sleeve.
Troy, where King Priam reigned, was a great and ancient city on the shore of Asia: it was a sacred city, whose walls had been built by Neptune, and it possessed the Pallădium, the image of Minerva, which kept it from all harm. Priam—who had been the friend of Hercules—and his wife Hecuba had many sons and daughters, all brave and noble princes and beautiful princesses; and of his sons, while the bravest and noblest was his first-born, Hector, the handsomest and most amiable was Paris, whom Jupiter had appointed to be the judge of beauty.
Paris, unlike his brothers, cared nothing for affairs of State, but lived as a shepherd upon Mount Ida with his wife Œnone, a nymph of that mountain, in perfect happiness and peace, loved and honored by the whole country round, which had given him the name of "Alexander," which means "The Helper." One would think that if anybody was safe from the mischief of Ate, it was he.
But one day, while he was watching his flocks and thinking of Œnone, there came to him what he took for three beautiful women—the most beautiful he had ever seen. Yet something told him they were more than mere women, or even than Oreads, before the tallest said—
"There is debate in Olympus which is the most beautiful of us three, and Jupiter has appointed you to be the judge between us. I am Juno, the queen of gods and men, and if you decide for me, I will make you king of the whole world."
"And I," said the second, "am Minerva, and you shall know everything in the whole universe if you decide for me."
"But I," said the third, "am Venus, who can give neither wisdom nor power; but if you decide for me; I will give you the love of the most beautiful woman that ever was or ever will be born."
Paris looked from one to the other, wondering to which he should award the golden apple, the prize of beauty. He did not care for power: he would be quite content to rule his sheep, and even that was not always easy. Nor did he care for wisdom or knowledge: he had enough for all his needs. Nor ought he to have desired any love but Œnone's. But then Venus was really the most beautiful of all the goddesses—the very goddess of beauty; no mortal could refuse anything she asked him, so great was her charm. So he took the apple and placed it in the hands of Venus without a word, while Juno and Minerva departed in a state of wrath with Paris, Venus, and each other, which made Ate laugh to herself more than ever.
Now the most beautiful woman in the whole world was Helen, step-daughter of King Tyndărus of Sparta, and sister of Castor and Pollux: neither before her nor after her has there been any to compare with her for beauty. Thirty-one of the noblest princes in Greece came to her father's Court at the same time to seek her in marriage, so that Tyndarus knew not what to do, seeing that, whomsoever he chose for his son-in-law, he would make thirty powerful enemies. The most famous among them were Ulysses, King of the island of Ithăca; Diomed, King of Ætolia; Ajax, King of Sălămis, the bravest and strongest man in Greece; his brother Teucer; Philoctētes, the friend of Hercules; and Mĕnĕlāus, King of Sparta. At last, as there was no other way of deciding among them, an entirely new idea occurred to Ulysses—namely, that Helen should be allowed to choose her own husband herself, and that, before she chose, all the rival suitors should make a great and solemn oath to approve her choice, and to defend her and her husband against all enemies thenceforth and forever. This oath they all took loyally and with one accord, and Helen chose Menelaus, King of Sparta, who married her with great rejoicing, and took her away to his kingdom.
And all would have gone well but for that wretched apple. For Venus was faithful to her promise that the most beautiful of all women should be the wife of Paris: and so Menelaus, returning from a journey, found that a Trojan prince had visited his Court during his absence, and had gone away, taking Helen with him to Troy. This Trojan prince was Paris, who, seeing Helen, had forgotten Œnone, and could think of nothing but her whom Venus had given him.
Then, through all Greece and all the islands, went forth the summons of King Menelaus, reminding the thirty princes of their great oath: and each and all of them, and many more, came to the gathering-place with all their ships and all their men, to help Menelaus and to bring back Helen. Such a host as gathered together at Aulis had never been seen since the world began; there were nearly twelve hundred ships and more than a hundred thousand men: it was the first time that all the Greeks joined together in one cause. There, besides those who had come for their oath's sake, were Nestor, the old King of Pylos—so old that he remembered Jason and the Golden Fleece, but, at ninety years old, as ready for battle as the youngest there; and Achilles, the son of Peleus and Thetis, scarcely more than a boy, but fated to outdo the deeds of the bravest of them all. The kings and princes elected Agamemnon, King of Mycenæ and Argos, and brother of Menelaus, to be their general-in-chief; and he forthwith sent a herald to Troy to demand the surrender of Helen.
But King Priam was indignant that these chiefs of petty kingdoms should dare to threaten the sacred city of Troy: and he replied to the demand by a scornful challenge, and by sending out his summons also to his friends and allies. And it was as well answered as that of Menelaus had been. There came to his standard Rhesus, with a great army from Thrace; and Sarpēdon, the greatest king in all Asia; and Memnon, king of Æthiopia, with twenty thousand men—the hundred thousand Greeks were not so many as the army of Priam. Then Agamemnon gave the order to sail for Troy: and Ate laughed aloud, for her apple had brought upon mankind the First Great War.
And now I seem to be waking from a dream which is fading away. The gods are becoming shadows, vanishing farther and farther away from man. I could tell you, if I would, the story of how Troy was taken and burned after ten years of fighting, and how Priam and his sons were slain; of the wonderful adventures of Ulysses by sea and land before he returned home; of the deeds of Achilles and Hector; of how the few Trojans who escaped the slaughter followed Prince Æneas into Italy, where he made a kingdom, and was the forefather of Rōmŭlus, who built the city of Rome; which brings us from Mythology—the stories of gods and heroes—into History—the stories of men. All these things came from Ate's apple: yes, even the history of Rome, and of England, and of all the world.
You will read in the great poems of Homer the story of the siege of Troy and the wanderings of Ulysses; and in the "Æneid" of Virgil—to my mind the very greatest of all poems—the whole story of Æneas. But my stories end where the great poets begin theirs. I seem, as I have said, to have been dreaming a long dream: and before I quite wake I see the gods growing fainter and fainter, year by year and century by century, while men and women believed in them less and less, until—when they were well-nigh forgotten, or thought of only as poets' fables—there came a great loud cry which made the whole world sigh and tremble:—
"Pan is Dead!"
men heard all Nature cry; and they knew it to mean that the last of the gods was no more; that a new time had come for the world. And that same night a star rose into sight at Bethlehem, and stood over the manger where a young Child lay.
And yet, gone and lost though the gods be, you will be very blind indeed if you never catch a glimpse of a Dryad in the woods or of an Oread on the hill; if you never think of Hercules when things seem against you and hard to understand; if you do not see in Perseus the true knight that a true man should strive to be. What more shall I say before I lay down my pen? Only that these stories are not nonsense—no, not one of them; that the more one thinks of them the wiser he is; and that I love them so much, and think so much of what made me begin them, that I cannot believe that I have come to the end.