10 of the Greatest Heroes of Greek Mythology | History Hit

10 of the Greatest Heroes of Greek Mythology

Peta Stamper

05 Feb 2023
A pebble mosaic depicting Bellerophon killing Chimaera, c. 300 BC.
Image Credit: Rhodes Archaeological Museum / Public Domain

The heroes of ancient Greek mythology were mortals or demigods (children with one divine parent), exceptional for their intelligence, bravery and strength. But they weren’t simply clever or bold individuals: the Greek heroes were revered for accomplishing incredible feats that helped to better humanity.

The most famous of mortal heroes is Odysseus, whose achievements were so great that he earned his own Homeric poem, the Odyssey. Other heroes include the beloved Heracles as well as the infamous warrior and ‘best of Greeks’, Achilles. Cults that venerated deified heroes such as Heracles and Achilles played an important role in ancient Greek religion.

The heroes of ancient Greek mythology were exalted for their strengths and favoured by the gods. Here are 10 of the most famous.

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1. Heracles

Popularly known by his Roman name ‘Hercules’, Heracles was the son of the god Zeus and a mortal, Alcmene. He famously possessed super strength. Heracles’ heroic victories are called the ‘12 Labours’ and include slaying a 9-headed hydra and taming Cerberus, the hound of Hades.

Unfortunately, Heracles’ wife, worried he might have another lover, smeared a tunic with deadly centaur’s blood, the pain of which drove Heracles to kill himself. When he died, however, he received the honour of going to live with the gods atop Mount Olympus.

2. Achilles

The greatest Greek warrior of the Trojan War, Achilles is the main character of Homer’s poem, the Iliad. His mother, the nymph Thetis, made him almost invincible in battle by dunking him in the River Styx, all except for his heel where she gripped him. While battling the Trojans, Achilles displayed his military skill when he killed Troy’s beloved prince, Hector.

A scene from the Iliad where Odysseus discovers Achilles dressed as a woman and hiding at the royal court of Skyros. From a Roman mosaic dated 4th century BC.

Image Credit: Villa Romana La Olmeda / Public Domain

Despite his victory, Achilles was himself killed when an arrow struck his single vulnerable spot: his heel. The fatal shot came from Hector’s younger brother, Paris, guided by the gods.

3. Odysseus

Odysseus had so many adventures he appears in both Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. A clever and capable warrior, he was nicknamed Odysseus the Cunning. Odysseus was also the rightful King of Ithaca, and after fighting in the Trojan War he spent 10 years struggling to get home to retake his throne.

Along the way, Odysseus and his men faced numerous challenges. These included being kidnapped by a cyclops (who ate some of his men), getting hassled by sirens, meeting the witch-goddess Circe and being shipwrecked. Only Odysseus survived, finally reaching Ithaca.

4. Theseus

Theseus was an Athenian hero who fought the tyranny of King Minos of Crete. Under Minos, Athens had to send 7 men and 7 women each year to be eaten by the Minotaur, a hybrid creature that was part bull, part man. Theseus vowed to defeat Minos, slay the beast and restore Athens’ dignity.

With the help of the Minotaur’s half-sister, Ariadne, Theseus entered the labyrinth where the monster lived, before killing it and escaping. He then united the region of Attica under the city of Athens as its king.

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5. Perseus

Perseus was the son of Zeus, conceived when Zeus disguised himself as a shower of gold to seduce Perseus’ mother, Danae. In revenge, Danae’s husband had her and Zeus’ infant son locked in a coffin and thrown in the sea. Half man and half god, only Perseus survived.

The gods helped Perseus to defeat Medusa, the snake-haired gorgon, who had been cursed to be so ugly she turned anyone who looked directly at her to stone. Perseus cleverly used the reflection of his shield to slay the gorgon and hurried back to rescue the Princess of Argos, Andromeda, from the sea serpent Cetus. A victorious Perseus then married Andromeda.

6. Jason

The son of a deposed king, Jason set out to find the legendary Golden Fleece, which was the fleece of a magical winged ram and was a symbol of authority and kingship. Jason hoped finding the fleece would restore his place on the throne. He gathered a crew of heroes known as the Argonauts, including Atalanta, Hercules and Orpheus, before setting sail. During the quest, Jason fought off dragons, harpies and sirens.

Although Jason’s ultimate victory earned him the status of hero, his happiness was short-lived. Jason deserted his wife, the sorceress Medea, so in revenge she murdered their children, leaving him to die heartbroken and alone.

7. Atalanta

Growing up wild, Atalanta could hunt as well as any man. When the angry goddess Artemis sent the Calydonian Boar to ravage the land, Atalanta defeated the beast. She then joined Jason’s quest as the only woman aboard the ship, Argo.

Atlanta killing the Calydonian boar depicted on terracotta, made and found on Melos and dating back to 460 BC.

Image Credit: Allard Pierson Museum / Public Domain

Atalanta famously vowed to marry the first man who could beat her in a foot race. Hippomenes was able to distract the swift Atalanta using 3 shiny golden apples and won the race, plus her hand in marriage.

8. Orpheus

More a musician than a fighter, Orpheus was an Argonaut on Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece. Orpheus also bravely ventured to the Underworld to bring back his wife, Eurydice, who died after being bitten by a snake.

He approached the Underworld’s rulers, Hades and Persephone, and persuaded Hades to give him a chance to bring Eurydice back to life. The condition was that he could not look at Eurydice until reaching daylight. Sadly, the eager Orpheus forgot they both had to reach the light of day. He looked back at Eurydice only for her to disappear forever.

9. Bellerophon

Bellerophon was the son of Poseidon. He could tame one of Greek mythology’s most notorious creatures, Pegasus, and together they made a powerful team.

Bellerophon was wrongly accused of taking advantage of King Iobates of Lycia’s daughter, Stheneboea. The king set Bellerophon dangerous tasks hoping he would fail but, to Iobates’ surprise, Bellerophon succeeded and was rightfully acquitted.

A fresco depicting Bellerophon and Pegasus defeating the Chimera in one of the tasks set by the King of Lycia.

Image Credit: Berlin Neues Museum / Public Domain

Bellerophon flew to Mount Olympus to claim his rightful place among the gods. Yet Zeus, angered at this blasphemy, attacked Bellerophon who was thrown from Pegasus and left injured for the rest of his days.

10. Aeneas

Aeneas was the son of the Trojan prince Anchises and the goddess Aphrodite. Although a minor character in Homer’s Iliad, Aeneas’ story was worthy of his own epic, the Aeneid, by the Roman poet Virgil. Aeneas led the survivors of the Trojan War to Italy, where he gained a starring role in Roman mythology.

Aeneas’ long voyage involved stops in Thrace, Crete and Sicily before his vessel was shipwrecked near Carthage. There, he met the widowed queen Dido and they fell in love. However, Aeneas was reminded by Mercury that Rome was his goal and abandoned Dido, sailing on to finally reach the Tiber.

Peta Stamper