Far to the west, so far that it almost balances on the rim at the edge of the world, lies an island. Being an enchanted place, this particular island is the home of beings not encountered in our own everyday world, but if we are fortunate we may perhaps visit it in our dreams. Were we to do so, we would encounter three beautiful nymphs known as the Hesperides, who are the daughters of the sunset. For when at day’s end the golden sun slips beneath the world to begin its journey through the starry realms of night, the nymphs are the last beings to bid it farewell until the following dawn.
On this enchanted isle grows the sacred tree of Hera, the consort of great Zeus. This remarkable tree, which was grown from the fruit that was a wedding gift from Gaia, the earth goddess, bears apples of pure gold whose possession will grant precious immortality to anyone who owns them. It is the task of the Hesperides to guard these apples well, and to keep a watchful eye on the three nymphs and to make sure that they are fulfilling their task, a huge and terrible serpent twines its glinting coils around the tree’s trunk.
In this idyllic scene we recognize all the elements of enchantment: a sunset island set apart from the world, three beautiful nymphs, a fearsome guardian serpent, and a tree which bears miraculous fruit. It echoes other such scenes familiar to us from other stories and other places: Idun, goddess of spring and rebirth, who, in the Islandic Edda, took care of the golden apples, the poisoned apple in the story of Snow White, and the tree and the serpent that dwells in the Garden of Eden. And like the Eden story in the Book of Genesis, we are aware that in order for things to happen, in order for the story to progress further, the walls of enchantment have to be breached.
On the island of the Hesperides that disruptive influence arrives in the form of the goddess Eris, whose very name means ‘Discord’. Exactly how this troublesome goddess managed what she did is unclear. Perhaps she tricked the guardian serpent, or perhaps she caused some quarrel to break out between the three peaceable nymphs. The result is the same: Eris leaves the enchanted island with one of the apples in her possession. Being the devious goddess that she is, Eris has little interest in keeping the apple for herself. She is, after all, already immortal. No, her plan for the precious apple is much more insidious. The goddess writes on the apple the three beguiling words: “To the fairest”, and tosses it into the midst of a feast of the gods on Olympus.
The goddesses Hera, Aphrodite and Athena naturally all claim that the apple is intended for them, and the mortal, Prince Paris, is brought in to settle the dispute. Beautiful Aphrodite sways the outcome in her favour with a simple but irresistible bribe: she promises Paris the hand of the fairest of mortals, Helen, who would become known as Helen of Troy, if the prince will decide in her favour. With such a prize on offer, the outcome is never in doubt. Paris claims what the goddess of love has granted, kidnaps Helen – and the terrible and tragic seed which leads to the drawn-out and deadly Trojan War is sown.
One small act carried out with mischievous intent can set in motion a whole chain of events whose outcome cannot be foreseen – not even by the individual who set those events in motion. Neither gods nor mortals can control those events, which, like ripples which disturb the surface of a still pond, continue to spread beyond the cause that started them. The three Hesperides must mourn the loss of the precious fruit entrusted to them. But perhaps the apple of Discord did grant a certain measure of immortality. So many centuries later, we still know the names and can relate the stories of those who feature in these ancient tales. And we can trace the events in our own lives which might reflect them, and each in our own way work, like the Hesperides, to come to terms with what has been taken from us.
Painting: The Garden of the Hesperides, by Frederic, Lord Leighton.