Greatest Heroes in Greek Mythology
The stories from ancient Greece about heroes such as Achilles and Perseus are considered by many as some of the most fascinating epics of the ancient world. Next to the gods and goddesses, those heroes were revered for their amazing feats and unbridled desire to protect the most vulnerable people. From battling the Nemean lion to defeating the fierce Minotaur, the heroes below are considered the greatest in Greek mythology.
For someone who once literally carried the entire world on his shoulder, it comes as no surprise that Heracles (or Hercules in Roman mythology) comes in at the number one on our list of greatest heroes in Greek mythology.
By virtue of him being a demigod, Hercules’ bravery and power was close to the one possessed by a god. Per the various accounts of the myths, the Greek Titan Atlas is the only character to possess more strength than Hercules.
Heracles was said to have been born out of an extramarital affair Zeus, king of the Olympian gods, had with a mortal called Alcmene, the granddaughter of Perseus.
Hercules is most known for embarking on a very daunting set of adventures known as the 12 labors. In one of those labors, he successfully obtained the magical girdle of the fierce Amazonian queen Hippolyta. In another labor, he faced the Lernaean Hydra, a ferocious monster who grew two more heads whenever its head was cut off.
READ MORE: Hercules and the Augean Stables
He performed all those herculean tasks while carefully navigating the impediments placed in his way by Hera, the queen of Mt. Olympus and the very jealous wife of Zeus.
As it was common with many Greek heroes, Hercules had a tragic end after he caught up in flames and died. Thinking she was smearing a love potion on the shirt of Hercules, the Greek hero’s very jealous wife, Deianeira, accidentally killed Hercules. It turned out that love potion was in fact a magical substance that had been mixed with the poisonous blood of vengeful centaur.
The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that Hercules, after his death, ascended to Mount Olympus to live among the gods forever.
Did you know: Hercules is actually the name ancient Romans gave to the Greek hero Heracles, son of the Zeus?
READ MORE: Sons of Zeus in Greek Mythology
Without a shred of doubt, Greek hero Achilles was the greatest warrior during the 10-year Trojan War. Born to the water nymph Thetis (daughter of the Titan Tethys), Achilles towered above all his contemporaries in terms of speed, technical abilities and finesse. It was said in the myth that his presence in the Trojan War helped tip the scale in favor of the Greeks.
But for his most vulnerable part, i.e. his heel, Achilles was an indestructible fighter. According to the myths, his mother was frustrated by the possibility of having half-mortal children as her husband Peleus was a mortal. Therefore, Thetis decided to make Achilles immortal by dipping his entire body in the River Styx (one of the five rivers in the Underworld). Except for his heel, the body part she had to hold so she could dip him in the river, Achilles’ entire body could not be harmed.
During the Trojan War, the Greek hero single-handedly destroyed thousands of Trojan fighters, including the great Trojan prince and commander Hector, whose body Achilles dragged around the walls of Troy.
Unfortunately, Achilles died towards the later stages of the battle after Trojan prince Paris shot an arrow at him, striking Achilles in his heel, the only vulnerable part of his body. Today, the term “Achilles heel” is used in modern languages to describe a minute but the most vulnerable part of a system.
Perseus is most known in Greek mythology as the hero who slew the terrifying gorgon Medusa. A son of the almighty Zeus himself, Perseus born after Zeus had disguised himself and impregnated his mother Danae. As a result, Perseus was considered a demigod with superhuman powers.
During his quest to slay the hideous gorgon Medusa, Perseus received some help from a number of Olympian gods, including Hermes who gave him a pair of flying sandals to aid in his adventure. Originally a beautiful maiden and then later cursed by Athena, Medusa was described as so hideous that one look at her could turn the person to stone.
Perseus sharp movements and demigod abilities allowed him to outmaneuver Medusa before cutting off her head. The Greek hero then took the severed head and rode to save Andromeda from the sea creature Cetus. Subsequently, Perseus and Andromeda tied the knot and lived happily ever after.
It has been said that Perseus gave the severed head of Medusa to the goddess Athena.
The Trojan War could boast of a great deal of brave fighters and warriors, most notably Odysseus. Like Achilles, Odysseus was one of the leading fighters on the side of the Greeks.
Following the war, Odysseus, who was by the way the king of Ithaca, failed to return to home to his wife and son. According to Homer’s epics – both the Iliad and the Odyssey – Odysseus and his comrades wandered for years trying to find their way back to Ithaca. During that time, the Greek hero faced several challenges, including facing off with a Cyclops called Polyphemus (a son of Poseidon) and later the sirens. Additionally, he and his crew were shipwrecked.
In the end, Odysseus finally made it back home. All the time that he was gone, the men of his kingdom, believing that Odysseus was dead, stayed in his house as they tried to win the favor of his wife. Upon returning, Odysseus, with the help of his son, killed all those suitors and thereafter put his house in proper order.
Jason and the Argonauts embarked on an adventure to find the Golden Fleece. Pelias had vowed to give back Jason the throne were he to find the very elusive Golden Fleece.
The sheer difficulty of the task assigned to Jason is one of the reasons why Jason is considered one of the greatest heroes in Greek mythology. Jason and the Argonauts had to sail very vast seas while at the same time navigating through the perils of the seductive singing Sirens. He and the Argonauts also had to defeat a number of harpies and dragons.
In the end, Jason’s wits and bravery helped him secure the fleece, although with the help of his future wife, the Sorceress Medea. His later part of his life was quite tragic as he had left his wife, who went on to kill their children. The Greek hero is said to have lived a very lonely life and later died from heartbreak.
Athenian hero Theseus was most known for wrestling against a number of fierce monsters. However, he’s most remembered for standing up to the tyrannical rule of King Minos of Crete. According to the myth, the city of Athens, on a yearly basis, were forced to send seven men and seven women to Crete in order to feed the carnivorous appetite of the Minotaur, a bloodthirsty beast who only fed on humans.
Aided by the beautiful Ariadne, the half-sister of the Minotaur, Theseus was able to fashion out a magic thread that enabled him safely navigate through the labyrinth, the home of the Minotaur. Upon coming face-to-face with the beast, Theseus had to call on every shred of bravery in him. In the end, the Athenian prevailed, cutting down the Minotaur with his bare hands and powerful club. By so doing he saved Athenians the horrible ordeal of sending fourteen young people to their deaths every year.
READ MORE: 9 Popular Myths about Ariadne
Orpheus is a very unique character in Greek mythology. The offspring of Calliope and Greek god Apollo, Orpheus was perhaps the only Greek hero to be an extremely gifted musician. He inherited this trait of his from his father, Apollo, the Greek god of light, poetry, music and prophecy.
According to the myth, Orpheus was such a good player of the lyre that he could tame wild animals with his music abilities. It was even said that he could make rivers and streams remain motionless.
A member of Jason’s Argonauts, Orpheus embarked on many journeys with his fellow Greek hero Jason, proving himself very vital in Jason’s adventure to secure the Golden Fleece.
Orpheus is said to be the only mortal to successfully make it to the Underworld and have interactions with Hades and Persephone, the king and queen of the Underworld respectively. Orpheus’ goal was to bring back his dead wife, Eurydice, who had passed away from a snake bite.
The Greek hero was able to persuade Hades and Persephone to let Eurydice head back to the land of the living on one condition. The condition was that Orpheus had to walk in front of his wife and not look back at her until they made it out of the Underworld. Sadly, the Greek hero failed at doing so as he could not resist taking a sneak peak at his wife. And so Orpheus wife disappeared for good, never to be united with Orpheus again.
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Known as the Greek hero who tamed the wild winged stallion called Pegasus, Bellerophon was a Corinthian-born warrior in Greek mythology. A demigod, Bellerophon was born to Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea.
It’s been said that Bellerophon was a favored son of the gods as he was given extremely good looks, making him a beloved figure among mortals.
In the myths, he received a divine gift – the winged stallion Pegasus – from his father Poseidon. And with the aid of the Greek goddess Athena, Bellerophon successfully tamed the horse. In his subsequent adventures, Pegasus proved very useful in keeping him safe as he slayed the Chimera monster, a fire-breathing blend of goat, lion, and snake.
Bellerophon was also tasked by Iobates, the king of Lycia, to fight against a number of terrifying groups of warriors, including the Amazons, the Solymi, and the Carian pirates.
After all those adventures, Bellerophon convinced himself that he rightful place was amongst the Greek gods on Mount Olympus. Therefore, he flew tried to fly Pegasus very in order to make his way to the gods. Zeus found his hubris unacceptable and caused a gadfly to bite the rear ear of Pegasus. The irritation caused the horse to throw Bellerophon off his back. Bellerophon fell down to earth and died.
Did you know: The ancient Greeks believed that the famous white winged-horse, Pegasus, was born out of the severed neck of the Gorgon Medusa?
With a few exceptions in the form of the Amazons, Greek mythology does not have plentiful women heroes, i.e. heroines. This is the more reason why Atalanta is regarded as a very important figure in the myths.
This Greek heroine was an unbelievable hunter that it was common for ancient Greeks to compare her prowess to Artemis, the Greek goddess of the moon and the hunt.
READ MORE: Greek goddess Artemis and the hunter Orion
According to the myths, Atalanta was born to Schoeneus of Boeotia and Clymene of Arcadia. Following her birth, she was suckled by a she-bear as her father had abandoned her.
It was also believed that she famously killed the Calydonian Boar that was sent by Artemis to ravage the land. The heroine showed nerves of steel and chased the animal until she finally pierced it with one of her arrows.
Atalanta was also a member of Jason’s Argonauts that went on a number of daring adventures.
Perhaps what she is most famous for was the challenge she put out there, vowing to marry the first man who could outrun her in a footrace. After several men had failed, Hippomenes successfully won her over after he used three golden apples of the Hesperides to distract her.
A colossal figure from the Trojan War, Aeneas was described in the poet Virgil’s Aeneid as the founder of a city in Rome. Following the capitulation of Troy at the hands of a Greek alliance, the Trojan and his comrades fled the city in time just before it was ransacked by the Greeks. According to myths, Aeneas received some help from the Greek deities such as Poseidon, Apollo and Aphrodite in his journey away from Troy, making him one of the few Trojans who was not killed, captured or enslaved by the Greeks.
Hector was the brave and chivalrous Trojan prince and commander who famously defended the city of Troy to his last breath. Born to King Priam and Queen Hecuba, Hector had numerous siblings, including Prince Paris of Troy, Helenus, and Cassandra, the priestess of Apollo.
This mythical Trojan hero was believed to have killed more than three thousand Greek fighters during the Trojan War. According to Homer’s Iliad, Hector came out tops in number of one-on-one combats, including his famous duels with the Greek warriors Protesilaus and Patroclus.
His run of good form came to an end when he faced the demigod and Greek hero Achilles. In what was perhaps the most famous duel in Greek mythology, Achilles, with the slight help of Athena, narrowly defeats Hector. The body of the Trojan hero was then fastened to the chariot of Achilles and then dragged around the walls of the city of Troy.
Homer’s Iliad was full of praise for the fallen Trojan hero, describing Hector as the ideal warrior who devoted his entire life to the defense of his people.
Cadmus was a Phoenician who is widely known in Greek mythology as the founder of Thebes. This meant that he was the first king of Thebes. His name often times means “from the east”.
This Greek hero was born to Agenor, the king of Phoenicia. As a result he was the brother of Europa. When Europa was kidnaped by Zeus, king of the gods, Cadmus was given the task of finding his sister. After years of searching and wandering in vain, Cadmus visited the Oracle of Delphi. The Phoenician prince was ordered to stop searching for his missing sister and settle in Boeotia. Legend has it that it was in Boeotia that Cadmus founded the city of Thebes.
At Thebes, Cadmus famously killed a vicious dragon that had killed many of his men. He then buried the dragon teeth in the ground. Shortly after, a group of armed warriors, known as the Spartoi, emerged from the ground. No sooner had they emerged than did the warriors begin to fight each other until there were only five warriors left.
Cadmus then called on the services of the five warriors to help him build the citadel Thebes (the Cadmea).
The story goes on to say that Cadmus married Harmonia, daughter of Ares and Aphrodite. Together with Harmonia he bore five children – Polydorus, Ino, Agave, Autonoe, and Semele. Cadmus and his Harmonia were transformed into black snakes and sent to live in the Elysian Fields (also known as the Islands of the Blessed).
Read More: Greatest Greek Gods and Goddesses
Frequently Asked Questions about Greek Heroes and Heroines in Mythology
Greek mythology is rich with tales of heroism, bravery, and challenges. These heroes and heroines, through their stories, provide timeless lessons and insights into human nature and the interplay between mortals and gods.
Which Greek heroines are most renowned?
Prominent Greek heroines encompass Medea, Antigone, Helen of Troy, Atalanta, and Penelope.
What are the Twelve Labors of Hercules?
These are a series of tasks Hercules was commanded to complete as penance, including the Nemean Lion’s slaying and the capture of the Golden Hind.
Why is Achilles’ heel famous?
As an infant, Achilles’ mother dipped him in the River Styx to make him invulnerable, holding him by his heel. Thus, his heel remained his only vulnerable point, leading to his death.
What is the story of Theseus and the Minotaur?
Theseus navigated the Labyrinth of King Minos to slay the Minotaur, using a ball of thread given by Ariadne to find his way out.
What challenges did Odysseus face returning from the Trojan War?
During his 10-year journey back to Ithaca, Odysseus encountered various challenges, including the Cyclops Polyphemus, the Sirens, and the sorceress Circe.
Why did Helen’s abduction lead to the Trojan War?
Helen of Troy, considered the world’s most beautiful woman, was abducted by Paris of Troy. Her husband Menelaus, along with a coalition of Greek forces, waged war against Troy to retrieve her.
Who are some warrior heroines in Greek myths?
Atalanta, a skilled huntress who participated in the Calydonian Boar hunt, and the Amazons, a tribe of warrior women, are classic examples.
How did Perseus defeat Medusa?
Assisted by divine gifts, Perseus used a mirrored shield to view Medusa without turning to stone and beheaded her.
Were there any heroines who defied the gods?
Yes. For instance, Antigone defied King Creon’s orders, invoking divine law to ensure her brother, Polynices, received a proper burial.