As with many mythological tales, details vary depending on the source. The Iliad (24.25–30) alludes to the Judgement as a story which was familiar to its audience, and a fuller version was told in the Cypria, a lost work of the Epic Cycle, of which only fragments (and a reliable summary) remain. The later writers Ovid (Heroides 16.71ff, 149–152 and 5.35f), Lucian (Dialogues of the Gods 20), and Hyginus (Fabulae 92), retell the story with skeptical, ironic or popularizing agendas. But it appeared wordlessly on the ivory and gold votive chest of the 7th-century tyrant Cypselus at Olympia, which was described by Pausanias as showing
The subject was favoured by painters of Red-figure pottery as early as the sixth century BC, and remained popular in Greek and Roman art, before enjoying a significant revival, as an opportunity to show three female nudes, in the Renaissance.
It is recounted that Zeus held a banquet in celebration of the marriage of Peleus and Thetis (parents of Achilles). However, Eris, goddess of discord, was uninvited. Angered by this snub, Eris arrived at the celebration, where she threw a golden apple (the Apple of Discord) into the proceedings, upon which was the inscription καλλίστῃ ("for the fairest one").
Three goddesses claimed the apple: Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. They asked Zeus to judge which of them was fairest, and eventually Zeus, reluctant to favour any claim himself, declared that Paris, a Phrygian mortal, would judge their cases, for he had recently shown his exemplary fairness in a contest in which Ares in bull form had bested Paris's own prize bull, and the shepherd-prince had unhesitatingly awarded the prize to the god.
Thus it happened that, with Hermes as their guide, all three of the candidates appeared to Paris on Mount Ida, in the climactic moment that is the crux of the tale. After bathing in the spring of Ida, each attempted with her powers to bribe Paris; Hera offered to make him king of Europe and Asia, Athena offered wisdom and skill in war, and Aphrodite, who had the Charites and the Horai to enhance her charms with flowers and song (according to a fragment of the Cypria quoted by Athenagoras), offered the love of the world's most beautiful woman (Euripides, Andromache, l.284, Helena l. 676). This was Helen of Sparta, wife of the Greek king Menelaus. Paris accepted Aphrodite's gift and awarded the apple to her, receiving Helen as well as the enmity of the Greeks and especially of Hera. The Greeks' expedition to retrieve Helen from Paris in Troy is the mythological basis of the Trojan War.
According to tradition , "cow-eyed" Hera was indeed the most objectively beautiful. Hera was the Goddess of the marital order and of cuckolded wives, amongst other things. Hera was often portrayed as the shrewish, jealous wife of Zeus, who himself often escaped from her controlling ways by cheating on her with mortal and immortal women.
Aphrodite was effortlessly sexual, both beautiful and charming; thus her ability to sway Paris and her position as Goddess of Love were more palatable to Paris.
Athena's beauty is rarely commented upon in the myths, perhaps because Greeks held her up as an asexual being, being able to "overcome" her "womanly weaknesses" in order to become both wise and talented in war (both considered male domains by the Greeks). Her rage at losing makes her join the Greeks in the battle against Paris's Trojans, a key event in the turning point of the war.
Seen purely as a story, such as is recounted in Bulfinch's Mythology, the Judgement of Paris is simply an amoral episode in which Paris' skill for sound judgment (for which the gods approved him) is overcome by appeals to his lust; thus a lengthy and blood-soaked war revolves upon a series of apparently trivial episodes, each adding to the inertia that drives events to their inevitable and tragic conclusions.
Alternatively, the narrative can be seen as a rationalized series of episodic causes and consequences that has been developed to embed within a human timeframe, and to explain, a moment of epiphany that occurs in a suspended moment out of time that artists endeavor to recapture in an icon (illustration): a blissfully fortunate mortal is confronted by a trinity of goddesses and a transcendent gift, the "apple", is exchanged. The story appears to be the result of an interpretation of an archaic iconic image representing such an ecstatic moment, which logically must have preceded the narrative invented to explicate it.
In the archaic prototypical stories antedating the Judgement of Paris, the gift is imparted by the deity, like the pomegranate that the Goddess offers on Minoan seal-impressions, and the mortal the recipient. As such, the classic telling of the Judgment of Paris is an example of mythic inversion, in which the apple becomes his to award.
The mytheme of the Judgement of Paris naturally offered artists the opportunity to portray three ideally lovely women in undress, as a sort of beauty contest, but the myth, at least since Euripides, rather concerns a choice among the gifts that each goddess embodies: a subtext of the bribery involved is ironic, and a late ingredient.
In each allusion to the Judgement of Paris or narrative account, an aspect of Paris' sojourn as a shepherd-exile that is never linked to the explication of the central moment is his connection with the nurturing nymph of Mount Ida, Oenone.
Cilea's 1902 opera, Adriana Lecouvreur, includes a ballet sequence, "The Judgment of Paris."
The "Judgment of Paris" may have inspired a second season episode of Gilligan's Island ("Beauty Is As Beauty Does") in which Gilligan must cast the deciding vote in a beauty contest between Ginger, Mary Ann, and Mrs. Howell.