Comments on comparative mythology 3, about trifunctionality and the Judgment of Paris

2020.02.28 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. In the previous post, Classical Inquiries 2020.02.21, at §9, I introduced the idea of “trifunctionality,” applied by the linguist Georges Dumézil in his analysis of myths about three kinds of “sins” committed by the hero Hēraklēs in the course of performing his otherwise exemplary heroic exploits. In terms of this idea, Hēraklēs committed his three “sins” by violating the three social “functions” of (1) sovereignty, (2) warfare, and (3) what I described in the previous post, at §10, as “reproductivity.” In the present post, I will offer an explanation for the wording I used to describe the “third function,” and I will do so while moving beyond the myths about Hēraklēs and concentrating instead on a different Greek myth—this one, about the Judgment of Paris. In this myth as well, Dumézil finds an example of trifunctionality, analyzing the challenge faced by the hero Paris in having to choose which of three rival goddesses—Hērā or Athena or Aphrodite—is supreme. For an example of the many visual retellings of this myth, I have chosen for the lead illustration here a vase painting that shows a scene where Paris is confronted by the three contending goddesses, each one of them arriving at the scene in her own personalized chariot. These three goddesses, as we will see, stand for the three “functions” of trifunctionality. In my essay, I will focus on the oldest attested verbal retelling of this myth, deployed near the end of the Homeric Iliad.


Attic red-figure pyxis lid: panorama of all three goddesses arriving in their chariots drawn by customized chariot-teams. Unattributed, ca. 425–375 BCE. Copenhagen, National Museum, 731.
Attic red-figure pyxis lid: panorama of all three goddesses arriving in their chariots drawn by customized chariot-teams. Unattributed, ca. 425–375 BCE. Copenhagen, National Museum, 731. Drawing by Valerie Woelfel.





§1. Although trifunctionality, as Dumézil showed in numerous publications, is a prominent feature of myths transmitted in languages that linguists classify as “Indo-European,” he found it difficult to find clear examples in the case of ancient Greek myths, even though the Greek language is relatively more conservative, as a language, than most other surviving languages that belong to the Indo-European “family” of languages. This difficulty experienced by Dumézil is described most clearly in his Mythe et épopee I (1968 [1995:607–614]), where he goes out of his way to observe that the epic traditions of ancient Greece, represented primarily by the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey, show remarkably few traces of trifunctionality—especially by comparison with the epic traditions of ancient India—except for one shining example, which is, a passing reference in Iliad 24 to the Judgment of Paris.

§2. In Iliad 24.25–29, it is said in passing that Hērā, Poseidon, and Athena each held an eternal grudge against the city of Troy (25–27), all on account of the atē or ‘derangement’ of the Trojan prince Paris (27), who had offended the two goddesses Hērā and Athena by saying negative things about them while saying positive things about the goddess Aphrodite (29–30):

ὃς νείκεσσε θεὰς ὅτε οἱ μέσσαυλον ἵκοντο,
τὴν δ’ ᾔνησ’ ἥ οἱ πόρε μαχλοσύνην ἀλεγεινήν

… who [= Paris/Alexandros] blamed [neikeîn) the goddesses [= Hērā and Athena] when they came to his pastoral station,
while he praised [aineîn] the one [= Aphrodite] who gave him wantonness that caused grief.

§3. In my own published comments on Dumézil’s model of trifunctionality as attested in Greek myths, the first example I ever cited was this same myth about the Judgment of Paris: I did so in my contribution to a Festschrift published in honor of Dumézil (Nagy 1981;144, 145n), mentioned already in the previous posting, and then, more broadly, in a book about Greek mythology and poetics (Nagy 1990:16–17).

§4. In those comments of mine, however, I argued that Dumézil’s Indo-European model of trifunctionality is workable in the myth about the Judgment of Paris only when we view it in the context of another Indo-European model that is likewise at work here. In terms of this other model, there is a contrast being made in the lines I just quoted, Iliad 24.29–30, between the negative wording of Paris about Hērā and Athena, which reflects the poetics of blame, and his positive wording about Aphrodite, which reflects the poetics of praise. Such a contrast, as we will now see, is relevant to an essential aspect of the third function in the trifunctionality of the myth about the Judgment of Paris.

§5.  As background for my argumentation, I epitomize the relevant comments I made, with bibliography, in A Sampling of Comments on the Iliad and Odyssey (2017):

§5A. On Iliad 3.100. The word eris ‘strife’ here refers to the Trojan War in general (there is a comparable reference in Pindar Paean 6.50–53). The speaker is Menelaos the Achaean, who claims a juridical grievance on the part of the Achaeans against the Trojans. In terms of the thinking revealed by these words, the beginning of the strife was the abduction of Helen, wife of Menelaos the Achaean, by Paris the Trojan. Accentuating the idea that this juridical grievance of Menelaos was an affair of state is the reference to Paris here by way of his princely name, Alexandros. In royal Hittite correspondences where the Hittite king speaks to and about the king of Ahhiyawa—which is the Hittite way of referring to the land of the Achaeans—we find occasional references to a princely figure by the name of Alaksandu, which is the Hittite pronunciation of Alexandros (Nagy 2015.07.22§25). The eris or ‘strife’ between the Achaeans and the Trojans was caused by ‘my strife’— according to Menelaos the Achaean. To say it more precisely in his words, at Iliad 3.100, the Trojan War was εἵνεκ’ ἐμῆς ἔριδος ‘because of my strife [eris]’. Correspondingly, the arkhē or ‘beginning’ of the strife as begun by Paris=Alexandros was ‘his beginning’ of that strife. To say it again more precisely in the words of Menelaos, again at Iliad 3.100, the beginning of the Trojan War was Ἀλεξάνδρου ἕνεκ’ ἀρχῆς ‘because of the beginning [arkhē] on the part of Paris=Alexandros’. Here it is important to compare what was narrated in the Cypria, which is an epic belonging to a set of epics known as the epic Cycle. In the Cypria of the epic Cycle as also in the Iliad, the Trojan War is likewise seen as eris ‘strife’. As we read in the plot-summary of the Cypria in Proclus 102.13–19 (ed. Allen 1912), it all began at a feast celebrating the marriage of Thetis and Peleus—a marriage that led to the conception of Achilles himself. It was the Will of Zeus that Eris ‘Strife’ personified would bring about a neikos ‘quarrel’ among the gods that would ultimately result in the Trojan War (Proclus 102.14/15 on Eris/neikos). As we see further in the plot-summary of the Cypria, Proclus 102.14–19, the Eris/neikos extends to the figure of Paris, who has to make a judgment: he has to choose which one of three contending goddesses—Hērā, Athena, and Aphrodite—is the best of them all.

§5B. On Iliad 24.25–30. The Judgment of Paris is retold, most concisely, in these lines. To repeat what I said at §2 in commenting on lines 29–30, the fact that Paris chose Aphrodite means that he aimed negative words at Hērā and Athena, as expressed by the verb neikeîn ‘blame, quarrel with’ at line 29 (νείκεσσε), while he aimed positive words at Aphrodite, as expressed by the verb aineîn ‘praise’ at line 30. These verbs aineîn ‘praise’ and neikeîn ‘blame, quarrel with’ express the social as well as the poetic significance of praise and blame respectively, and this significance can be reconstructed as an Indo-European tradition in its own right (Nagy 1979:219 and 1990:16–17).

§5C. On Iliad 24.55–63. Hērā is speaking here, and we see in her wording a reference to a primal story that is connected to the Judgment of Paris. It is the story about the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, the mortal and immortal parents-to-be of Achilles. As we read in the plot-summary of the Cypria in Proclus 102.13–19 (ed. Allen 1912), there was eris ‘strife’ at the feast celebrating the marriage of Thetis and Peleus. It was the Will of Zeus that Eris ‘Strife’ personified would bring about a neikos ‘quarrel’ among the gods that would ultimately result in the Trojan War (Proclus 102.14/15 on Eris/neikos). That strife centered on the competition involving Hērā and Athena and Aphrodite, culminating in the Judgment of Paris.

§6. In terms of Dumézil’s formulation in Mythe et épopee I (1968 [1995:607–614]), this myth about a competition involving the three goddesses is shaped by the idea of trifunctionality, and I have summarized the basics of this idea in the previous posting, at §10:

Society as reflected in Indo-European languages tends to subdivide along the lines of three “functions”:

(1) sovereignty and its sacredness, validated by the authority of priests or priestesses

(2) warfare

(3) reproductivity of humans, of animals, and of vegetation, especially as exemplified in the institution of marriage, in pastoralism, and in agriculture.

As Dumézil notes in his Mythe et épopee I (1968 [1995:607–614]), each of the three goddesses involved in the competition to be judged by Paris represents one of these three functions: Hērā stands for the first function, which is sovereignty, and Athena stands for the second function, which is warfare, while Aphrodite stands for the third function, which is what I call reproductivity. My choice of the word “reproductivity” approximates the idea of “fertility,” which can easily be linked with the sexuality of the love goddess Aphrodite.

§7. But I choose to say “reproductivity” or even “fertility” instead of “sexuality” in analyzing the third function in the myth about the Judgment of Paris, since the promise of sex that comes with the choice of Aphrodite for Paris does not come with fertility—in terms of the myth about this judgment. Aphrodite will reward Paris, yes, by making it possible for him to have sex with Helen, but this gift will not bring him fertility. In other myths, by contrast, as we see for example in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, the gift of sex from Aphrodite does in fact bring fertility: the goddess herself has sex with the shepherd Anchises and gives birth to Aeneas, who is destined to become the ancestor of a never-ending succession of dynastic descendants, as Aphrodite herself foretells (lines 191–197). Unlike Aeneas, by contrast, Paris does not get to produce any dynastic descendants with Helen.

§8. Thus the praising of Aphrodite by Paris brings him no lasting reward, only the ephemeral pleasures of sex, while his blaming of Hērā and Athena dooms not only this hero but also the city of Troy.

§9. Thus the third function, chosen by Paris when he chose Aphrodite, is in this case incomplete, since he gets only sex, not fertility or reproductivity. I would even say that Paris commits a “sin” against the third function by opting for a scenario that offers only sex but not fertility. I compare here the “sin” committed by Hēraklēs when he tries to marry the princess Iole without formally divorcing his wife Deianeira. I repeat here what I said in the previous posting at §9 about the trifunctional “sins” of Hēraklēs as narrated by Diodorus of Sicily (4.8–30):

(A) Hēraklēs violates a sovereign function linked with Zeus when this hero momentarily hesitates to accept the god’s plan for him to follow the orders of Eurystheus as king by performing Labors imposed by this king. Even though Eurystheus is inferior to Hēraklēs as a hero, he is socially superior to Hēraklēs because he is king.

(B) Hēraklēs violates a war-making function linked with Zeus when this hero murders another hero, Iphitos, by way of trickery.

(C) Hēraklēs violates a reproductive function linked with Zeus when this hero disregards the protocols of courtship by attempting to marry the princess Iole without formally divorcing his wife Deianeira.

§10. Here too, as in the case of Paris, a hero undervalues fertility by way of overvaluing the sexual aspect of the third function. Such undervaluing is a “sin” against the third function, and the negative attitude toward such a “sin” in the myths about these two heroes is an aspect of the overall Indo-European tradition of trifunctionality. The third function must be protected against such “sins.” But how to protect? Here is where the poetics of praise and blame, representing another Indo-European tradition, can interweave with the Indo-European tradition of trifunctionality. The third function—and in fact all three functions— are protected by the poetics of praise and blame, where the absence and the presence of “sins” can be praised and blamed respectively. The negative attitude of the Homeric Iliad, as poetry, toward the “sin” of Paris is a striking example of such poetics, where we see Paris being blamed in terms of the myth. His “sin” in the Iliad is to praise in an incomplete way the power of Aphrodite, since he views her only as a source of sexuality, not of fertility. His poetics of praise and blame are thus mistaken, since he praises an incomplete Aphrodite and, symmetrically, he blames an incomplete Hērā and an incomplete Athena. As we will see in postings still to come, Hērā too has affinities with the third function, and so too does Athena.


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