Once upon a time, around 1250 BC, toward the end of the Bronze Age in Greece, three goddesses were having an argument (said the Greeks). The goddesses Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera were arguing about which one of them was the most beautiful. They agreed to choose a human man and let him decide. More or less at random, the goddesses picked Paris, the youngest son of King Priam of Troy, to be their judge. Paris was working as a shepherd, alone in the fields with his sheep.
Each of the goddesses offered Paris a bribe to get him to vote for her. Athena offered him wisdom. Hera offered him power. But Aphrodite offered him the most beautiful woman in the world, and Paris voted for her.
Here’s a video about the Judgment of Paris and the Trojan War, made by two tenth-graders
So Aphrodite had to come through on her promise. She sent Paris to go visit the Greek king of Sparta, Menelaus (men-uh-LAY-us). Menelaus was married to Helen, who was the most beautiful woman in the world. Menelaus and Helen welcomed Paris kindly, and gave him dinner and let him stay the night in their house. But during the night Paris convinced Helen to run away with him (because Aphrodite made her agree). He took her back to Troy with him and married her, even though she was already married to Menelaus.
Learn by doing: Did Paris make the right choice? Why?
More about Helen of Troy
The Iliad of Homer (Oxford Myths and Legends), by Barbara Leonie Picard. A retelling of the story.
The Trojan War, by Olivia E. Coolidge (2001). Clear and interesting retelling. Includes the episodes that aren’t in the Iliad (like Paris, and the Trojan Horse).
Troy, by Adele Geras (2001). A young adult novelization of the story, from the point of view of the Trojans.
Approaches to Teaching Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, by Kostas Myrsiades (1987).
The Iliad (Penguin Classics) by Homer. Translated by Robert Fagles. A great translation!