1. Education

What Is an Achilles Heel?


Christophe Veyrier Sculpture of Dying Achilles (1683)

Christophe Veyrier Sculpture of Dying Achilles (1683)

CC Flickr User ketrin1407
Question: What Is an Achilles Heel?
What is the mythological reference to an Achilles Heel or Achilles' Heel?
Answer: The story of Achilles includes the attempt by his mother, the nymph Thetis, to make her son immortal. There are various versions of this, including her putting him in fire or water or anointing him, but the one version that has struck the popular imagination is the one with the Achilles Heel.

In the version of Thetis' attempt to immortalize her son, whose surviving written form is first found in Statius' Achilleid 1.133-34 -- not that it wasn't familiar before then, the nymph holds her son Achilles by his left ankle while she dips him in the River Styx. The waters confer immortality on Achilles, on all, but only those surfaces so coated. Unfortunately, since Thetis dipped only once and she had to hold onto the baby, that spot, Achilles' heel, remains mortal. At the end of his life, when the arrow of Paris (possibly guided by Apollo) pierces Achilles' ankle, Achilles is mortally wounded.

An Achilles Heel is therefore a point of vulnerability or a soft spot.

Also see:
"Achilles' Heel: The Death of Achilles in Ancient Myth," by Jonathan Burgess Classical Antiquity , Vol. 14, No. 2 (Oct., 1995), pp. 217-244.

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.