Most of the gods and goddesses in Greek legend were associated with positive traits. People would pray to Ares for success in war, to Hebe to preserve their youth, to Nike for victory, and so on. But one goddess was a sign only of bad fortune. This was Eris, the goddess of discord, a most unusual god.
The Trouble Making God
Eris was the goddess of strife, rivalry, and discord. Instead of bringing peace or prosperity, she could cause the slightest disagreement to turn into a quarrel or even all-out war. She stood in opposition to Harmonia, the goddess of peace and harmony.
A Daughter of Darkness
Eris was the daughter of Nyx, the night, and some sources say that her father was Erebus, the darkness. Her family was full of dark forces, including Thanatos, the embodiment of death, Moros, the personification of doom, and Geras, who stood for old age.
A few myths refer to her as the sister of Ares, the god of war. This would have made her part of a different family, that of Zeus and Hera, the king and queen of the gods. This version probably comes from writers mixing up the names of Eris and Enyo, a goddess of war, and so wanting to associate her with Ares. These writers include Homer, the author of the Iliad and Odyssey, who uses the two names interchangeably, showing Eris as a goddess of war.
As the harbinger of discord, pain, and suffering, Eris often accompanied Ares onto the battlefield, urging both sides on for greater destruction. Here she celebrated the dark and destructive side of battle, as opposed to the glory and triumph celebrated by Nike, goddess of victory.
Eris also brought destruction by urging humans to vengeance when they felt wronged. This brought cycles of discord and death.
Eris had many children - spirits called Cacodaemons who brought trouble upon humanity. They were Ate (Ruin), Dysnomia (Anarchy), Horkos (Oath), Lethe (Forgetfulness), Limos (Starvation), Ponos (Hardship), the Algae (Pains), the Amphilogiai (Disputes), the Androktasiai (Manslaughters), the Hysminai (Battles), the Makhai (Wars), the Phonoi (Murders), the Neikea (Quarrels), and the Pseudologoi (Lies).
Eris and the Trojan War
Eris played an important part in the Trojan War.
When the hero Peleus married Thetis, all the other gods and goddesses were invited to the wedding. Eris was not invited as no-one wanted to have strife at a wedding. But this only made things worse, as Eris was offended at being snubbed. She gate-crashed the party, bringing with her a golden apple with the words “For the Fairest” engraved on its side. Then she threw the apple out into the room.
The goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite all believed that they were the fairest. They argued bitterly over who the apple should go to. Eventually, Paris, a Trojan prince, was given the task of choosing between them. They each offered him a bribe, and he chose the one offered by Aphrodite – Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, the most beautiful woman in the world. Aphrodite got the apple and Paris got the girl.
This led to the Trojan war, as Menelaus and his allies fought to get Helen back. Many heroes died and one of the greatest cities in Greece was destroyed. Just by throwing an apple, Eris had brought strife on a city-smashing scale.
Once the war began, Eris became involved again. The gods used her to keep the Greeks fighting, urging them on in battle.
Other Stories of Eris
The Romans included a version of Eris, called Discordia, in their pantheon. Some Roman writers treated her as a goddess of the underworld, a mad and bloodstained figure guarding a cave in the darkness.
Aesop included a reference to Eris in his fables. In this story, Heracles found an apple lying in a mountain pass. Each time he tried to smash it, it grew larger. With the help of the gods, he realised his lesson – that strife and chaos grow greater the more you grapple with them, and the best you can do is to leave them alone.
Hesiod argued that there were two separate beings called Eris. One was the war bringer, a pure force of destruction. The other brought a sort of disharmony that fostered healthy competition. This kind of strife encouraged humans to achieve more than they would otherwise have done.
The strife sown by Eris extended to marriages. In one story, the artist Polytekhnos and his wife Aedon claimed that their love was stronger than that of Hera and Zeus. Hera became angry at this and set Eris upon them. At her urging, they competed to finish their crafts first, betting a female servant on it. Aedon won, but Polytekhnos got angry. He forced himself on Aedon’s sister, Khelidon, then disguised her as a slave to present as the prize. When Aedon realised what had happened, she fed Polytekhnos his own son for dinner. The quarrel continued until the gods turned the whole family into birds.
Eris in Modern Culture
Since the renaissance, Eris has appeared in several works of art, most of them showing the judgement of Paris. Eris herself is usually seen as less prominent than the beautiful goddesses and the war they were about to set in motion.
Eris has a dwarf planet named after her. Discovered in 2005, Eris is part of our solar system and only slightly smaller than Pluto. Given the discord in recent years over whether Pluto should be considered a planet, it seems fitting that discord has been found in the skies.
Unusually for an ancient deity, Eris has become the symbol of a modern religion. Founded in the 1960s, Discordianism is variously regarded as a parody religion, a metaphorical philosophy, or even a legitimate religion. In keeping with its commitment to Eris and discord, Discordianism encourages civil disobedience and schisms between the faithful.
Once the villain of Greek myth, Eris has found a new place as a counter-culture icon.