"Helen I saw, for whom so many ruthless Seasons revolved; and saw the great Achilles, Who at the last hour combated with Love. Paris I saw, Tristan"

Helen of Troy
Public DomainHelen of Troy - Credit: Evelyn de Morgan
(Canto 5, lines 63-67)

Helen, the epitome of beauty in ancient Western mythology, is said to have been the daughter of Zeus and Spartan queen Leda. Theseus, king of Athens, admired her beauty so much that he abducted her, but she was brought back by the brothers Castor and Pollux. Later, she was married to Spartan king Menelaus, but was again abducted, this time by Paris, son of Trojan king Priamus, which was the direct cause of the Trojan war. After Paris' death, she married again to Deiphobus, Paris' younger brother, who gave her up to Menelaus again after the fall of Troy. After Menelaus' death, the story tells that she was driven away from Sparta and fled to Rhodes and the protection of her friend Polyxo, who however ordered her death by hanging in order to avenge her husband, who died in the Trojan war.

Achilles was possibly the most famous and powerful heroic figure in all of Greek mythology. He was the son of the Myrmidon king Peleus and sea nymph Thetis. To make him invincible, Thetis dipped him in the underworld river Styx: because of this, only the ankle she held while doing this remained vulnerable to weapons. A story tells that the wounds inflicted by his spear could be cured by rust from the same weapon. He went to Troy and fought with the Greeks, where he killed the Trojan commander Hector and dragged his body three times around the city to show his victory. Later, he fell in love with Trojan king Priamus' daughter Polyxena and proposed to her; during their marriage ceremony, Paris fired one of Hercules' poisoned arrows at his ankles, leading to his death.

Paris judging between the three goddesses.
Public DomainParis judging between the three goddesses. - Credit: Enrique Simonet
Homer describes Paris as a rather cowardly man with a certain feminine beauty. The legend said that Zeus let Paris decide who was the most beautiful among three goddesses: his wife Hera; Athena, goddess of wisdom and strategy; or Aphrodite, the love goddess. Paris chose Aphrodite, who helped him abduct Helen in return. There are two differing accounts on his death: one tells that he was killed by Achilles' son Pyrrhus; another says that he abandoned his first wife, Oenone, out of love for Helen. During the Trojan war he was wounded by a poisoned arrow fired by Philoctetes and sought the help of Oenone, who was skilled in the art of healing. However, she refused to help him and he died of his wounds.

Tristan was one of the knights of the Round Table of king Arthur. According to the story about him, he was trusted by his uncle King Mark of Cornwall with the mission of bringing him his bride Iseult, the princess of Ireland. After accidentally drinking a love potion intended for the spouses-to-be, they fall irrevocably in love with each other. When their love is discovered by Mark, the couple are banished from the castle. In the end, Mark forgives Iseult, but kills Tristan with a poisoned lance. The poet Boccaccio is to be credited with the fanciful idea that after Tristan was poisoned, Iseult came to see him and died too because of an all too intense embrace.