The Ten Greatest Greek Heroes

How Many Do You Know?

Who was the greatest hero of Greek mythology? Achilles was the greatest hero of the Trojan War, but it's difficult to rank Hercules second to anyone. Besides, in the Iliad I, Nestor says that all the heroes of the Trojan War were second rate compared to giants like Theseus. Read on for my personal picks.

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

1
Hercules - Herakles - Heracles

Hercules
Hercules. Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images

Son of Zeus and nemesis of Hera, Hercules was always too powerful for his foes. He grew up to become the hero who beat the odds time and again, performing amazing feats, and yet was full of human foibles. He even slew his own children (tricked by Hera, of course).

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

2
Achilles

Profile illustration of Achilles
Profile illustration of Achilles. Kean Collection/Getty Images

Achilles was the Greeks' finest warrior in the Trojan War. His mother, the nymph Thetis, dipped him in the River Styx to make him invulnerable in battle—except for ​the spot where she gripped the baby. He died when 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 HeroGenealogy • Amazons • Ghost Stories • Homeric Questions • Olympics • The Lesser Share • A Goddess for Men • Jason's Angels • QuotesOdyssey Bk XI

3
Theseus

Theseus & Minotaur
Theseus & Minotaur. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Theseus was the Athenian hero who liberated his city from the tyranny of King Minos of Crete and his monstrous Minotaur. With the help of the creature's half-sister, Ariadne, Theseus was able to slay the monster and find his way out of its labyrinth.

Learn more: • Theseus' Deeds • Plutarch's Life of Theseus • Hawthorne: Theseus and the Minotaur

4
Odysseus

Odysseus
Odysseus. Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons

Craftier by far than any other hero, but also a very capable warrior, Odysseus was considered second only to Achilles by the Greeks. Odysseus was the one who came up with the Trojan Horse. He was also one of the few Greeks to reach home (Ithaca) after ten years of war and ten 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 Behavior • A Goddess for Men • The Lesser Share

5
Perseus

Perseus
Perseus. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Perseus was the son of Zeus, who impregnated his mother Danae as a shower of gold when Danae's father tried to prevent 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 Perseus • Myth's 3 Families

6
Jason

Jason
Jason. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Jason was another hero with an unfortunate childhood. To win back the throne that was rightfully his, Jason was sent to capture the Golden Fleece. He set out with a band of the greatest heroes the world has ever known—the Argonauts—and had a series of epic adventures.

Learn more: • Profile of Jason • Jason's Angels • Summary of Euripides' 'Medea'Worst Betrayals in Greek MythMedea Murders the Children • Ovid's Jason and Medea • All About the Argonauts

7
Bellerophon

Bellepheron, on Pegasus, spears the Chimera
Bellepheron, on Pegasus, spears the Chimera. Creative Commons - Marsyas at Wikipedia

Bellerophon comes off as a bit of a second-rate Perseus. But he rode the winged horse Pegasus, killed the monster Chimera, and tried to fly Pegasus to Olympus. His grandson Sarpedon was an important ally of the Trojans in the Trojan War.

Learn more: • Profile of Bellerophon

8
Orpheus

Orpheus & Eurydice
Orpheus & Eurydice. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Known more for his music than his fighting ability, Orpheus is a hero for two reasons: He was an Argonaut in Jason's Golden Fleece quest, and he survived a quest that even 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 - Hades and Persephone - and persuaded Hades to give him a chance to bring his wife back to life. He got permission - on condition that he did not look at Eurydice until they reached the light of day.

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.
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 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 five, 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.
Atalanta and Peleus Wrestling. Black-figure Hydria, c. 550 B.C. by the Inscription Painter, at the Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich, Germany. PD Courtesy of Bibi Saint-Pol at Wikipedia.

Greek heroes were overwhelmingly men. There's one female that deserves a place in this Top 10. She is Atalanta, the sole woman aboard Jason's Argo, 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 foot race because she kept stopping to pick up golden apples.

Learn more: • Profile of AtalantaCalydonian Boar HuntAll About the ArgonautsLove Apples