"Why should a keen yearning for lovely beauty distress her [Athena], to whom Klotho had assigned a marriageless and childless virginity."This question has vexed me for months. It has prompted its own share of hack fiction on my part (see Athena's Illiad Parts 1 & 2) and a slew of UPG revolving around what feel like conversations with the Goddess on good days and slow descents into madness on bad ones.
~Telestes, Fragment 805 (from Athenaeus, Scholars at Dinner)
I can understand Aphrodite and Hera's claims to the golden apple inscribed KALLISTI: for the fairest. Both Goddesses were associated with golden apples in myth. Hera was said to own the Garden of the Hesperides which housed the orchard in which the apples grew. Aphrodite is sometimes named the owner of this orchard as well, and She uses the apples to good effect in the myth of the marriage of Atlanta. In addition to this, cases can be made for both Aphrodite and Hera as the "fairest" of Goddesses. Aphrodite's beauty is legendary, and Hera is praised as the cow-eyed and white-armed perfect bride.
So why did Athena, who has no prior mythological associations with golden apples and who is praised for Her wisdom, skill, and cunning over Her fairness of countenance insist on claiming the KALLISTI apple?
In my experiences with Athena She has presented Herself as a maintainer of peace. Her associations with war come from a place of skill, strategy, and a love for heroic deeds. She seems to abhor strife. She is noted as the greatest weaver, and serves in this role like a latter day Fate. When contrasted with Ares, Athena becomes a preserver Deity, whereas Ares serves as a destroyer.
But surely a Goddess as wise and thoughtful as Athena would have known that the KALLISTI apple would cause nothing but strife?
Athena has a special role on Olympus. She is the wearer of the aegis, which She shares with Zeus, and is the only God that Zeus trusts to wield his lightning bolts. Athena is the keeper of powerful relics. In the folds of the aegis are the head of the gorgon Medusa and the kista of the Arrephoria, both of which no mortal can look upon. One turns men to stone, the other drives them mad.
When the KALLISTI apple rolled into the wedding feast of Peleus and Thetis I propose that Athena knew fully well how powerful it was. She saw that it was an instrument of strife and would bring a terrible fate to all who looked upon it. Her wisdom said to claim the apple as Her own, to keep it safe in Her aegis with the other weapons of Olympus.
It was not vanity that brought Athena to the Judgment of Paris, but Her deep wisdom.