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Top 10 Heroes of Greek Legend


Achilles was the greatest hero to the Greeks in the Trojan War, but Hercules overcame so many obstacles that it is hard to rank him second to any. Besides, in Iliad I Nestor says that all the heroes of the Trojan War are second rate compared with earlier ones like Theseus. This list is mine, however, and 21st century prejudices are in play, so Achilles supersedes Theseus. In this list I will show the major claim to fame of each of these heroes.

For fun, try my quiz: Which Greek Hero Are You?

1. Hercules - Herakles - Heracles

"Hercules and the Hydra" by Antonio del Pollaiolo.
Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Hercules was outwitted by his nemesis Hera from before the time he was born. After his birth she tried to destroy him by putting snakes in his crib, but he was too powerful even then. He grew up to become the hero who beat the odds time and again, performed amazing, often helpful tasks, and yet was full of human foibles, even to the point of having to expiate the horrible crime of murdering his own children (under the guidance of Hera, of course).

Learn more: • What You Need to Know About HerculesLabors of HerculesMadness and AtonementMore You Should Know About HerculesWomen in Hercules' LifeHercules and the OlympicsDeath of HerculesApotheosis of Hercules

2. Achilles

Hector and Achilles Fighting

Achilles was the Greek's best warrior in the Trojan War. His nymph mother, Thetis, held him by his heel when she dipped him in the River Styx. This left him vulnerable in one spot on his body. When he fought in the Trojan War he was unbeatable, until the gods guided the hand of Paris to shoot an arrow into Achilles' heel.

Learn more: • Achilles (Glossary Entry)Achilles - The Loves, Weak Spot, Transvestism, and Valor of a Greek HeroGenealogyAmazonsGhost StoriesHomeric QuestionsOlympicsThe Lesser ShareA Goddess for MenJason's AngelsQuotesOdyssey Bk XI

3. Theseus

Theseus and the Minotaur
Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Theseus was the hero of Athens who saved the people from having to send off their sons and daughters as human sacrifices to the monstrous Cretan minotaur. With the help of the creature's half sister, Ariadne, Theseus was able to slay the monster and find his way out of the labyrinth. He took Ariadne with him when he left, but abandoned her to a better fate and caused his own father, the king of Athens, to commit suicide.
Learn more: • Theseus' DeedsPlutarch's Life of TheseusPressfield: 'Last of the Amazons'Hawthorne: Theseus and the Minotaur

4. Odysseus

Marble head of Odysseus
Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons.
Craftier by far than any other hero, but also a very capable warrior. Odysseus was the wily hero of the Greeks whom they considered second only to Achilles. Odysseus was the one who came up with the idea of the Trojan Horse. He was also one of the few Greeks to reach his homeland of Ithaca, after 10 years of war and 10 years of troubles at sea. He was a descendant of Hermes, god of thieves.
Learn more: • Odysseus (Glossary Entry)The OdysseyOdysseus in the UnderworldHomeric QuestionsHeroic BehaviorA Goddess for MenThe Lesser Share

5. Perseus

Perseus Wearing Hermes' Hat
Perseus was the son of Danae and Zeus. For a hero, having Zeus for a father was not unusual, but Zeus impregnated his mother as a shower of gold because Danae's father had tried to prevent his daughter from just such a liaison. After a bleak childhood, Perseus was helped by the gods to obtain the deadly head of snaky-tressed Medusa. With the help of her head he could then turn anyone he wished to stone.
Learn more: • Perseus ProfileAndromedaAthena Favors PerseusMyth's 3 Families

6. Jason

Jason brings Pelias the Golden Fleece. Apulian red-figure calyx crater, 340 BC–330 B.C.
Public Domain. Courtesy of Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons.
Jason was another hero with an unfortunate childhood. To win back the throne he rightfully should have had, he was sent to capture the golden fleece. He set out with a band of the greatest heroes the world has ever known and had a series of adventures worthy of epic. Eventually, with the help of the witch Medea, he took the fleece.
Learn more: • Profile of JasonJason's AngelsSummary of Euripides' 'Medea'Worst Betrayals in Greek MythMedea Murders the ChildrenOvid's Jason and MedeaAll About the Argonauts

7. Bellerophon

Bellerophon, Pegasus, and the Chimera. Attic red-figure epinetron.
Creative Commons - Marsyas at Wikipedia.
Bellerophon is a little short of status among the heroes becoming a bit of a second-rate Perseus. He rode on the winged horse Pegasus; killed the Chimera monster, and tried to fly Pegasus to Olympus. His grandson Sarpedon was an important ally of the Trojans in the Trojan War. Sarpedon scolds the Trojan prince Hector in Iliad Book V.

The Iliad Book VI has this to say about Bellerophon's family of origin:

"There is a city in the heart of Argos, pasture land of horses, called Ephyra, where Sisyphus lived, who was the craftiest of all mankind. He was the son of Aeolus, and had a son named Glaucus, who was father to Bellerophon, whom heaven endowed with the most surpassing comeliness and beauty. But Proetus devised his ruin, and being stronger than he, drove him from the land of the Argives, over which Jove had made him ruler."
Learn more: • Profile of Bellerophon

8. Orpheus

Orpheus and Eurydice, by  Federico Cervelli
Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Orpheus is a hero for two reasons: he was counted among them in the Golden Fleece quest of the Argonauts and he survived a quest that even the more obviously heroic Theseus failed. Orpheus went to the Underworld to retrieve his wife, Eurydice, who had just died of snakebite. He made his way to the Underworld's royal couple, charming all in his passage with his extraordinary musical skill. Then Orpheus persuaded Hades to give him a chance to bring his wife back to life. He got permission -- on condition that he not look at Eurydice until they reached the light of day. While Orpheus failed to accomplish his mission, he returned to life without need of human intervention.
Learn more: • Profile of Orpheus

9. Cadmus

Cadmus and the Dragon. At the Louvre. Side A of a black-figured amphora from Euboea, c. 560-550 B.C.
PD Courtesy of Bibi Saint-Pol at Wikipedia.
Cadmus was the Phoenician founder of Thebes. He had set off on his adventures to find his sister Europa, but failed. When he settled down in Boeotia, in fulfillment of an oracle, he lost his men to a dragon (serpent) of Ares. Cadmus killed the dragon, planted its teeth and watched as armed men (the Spartoi) emerged from the ground. They fought each other down to a final 5 who helped Cadmus found Thebes. Cadmus married Harmonia, daughter of Ares, but Ares wasn't finished punishing the family of Cadmus for killing his dragon.
Learn more: • Profile of CadmusThe Founding of ThebesSlaying the DragonThe Theban Stories

10. Atalanta

Atalanta and Peleus Wrestling. Black-figure Hydria, c. 550 B.C.
PD Courtesy of Bibi Saint-Pol at Wikipedia.
Greek heroes were overwhelmingly men. In this top 10 list, the one noteworthy female athlete deserves a place. She is Atalanta, the sole women who sailed with Jason on his quest for the golden fleece, according to some. This paved the way for the return trip with the witch Medea of Colchis on board. Atalanta is also the hunter who first pierced the Calydonian Boar. Atalanta is best known, however, for losing a race because she kept stopping to pick up golden apples. As a result of losing the race, she was obligated to marry Melanion (or Hippomenes).
Learn more: • Profile of AtalantaCalydonian Boar HuntAll About the ArgonautsLove Apples

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