It’s curious that we compare a human failing to a part of the anatomy that is, paradoxically, very strong. According to ancient Greek legend, Achilles was the son of the sea nymph Thetis and Peleus, King of the renowned warriors known as Myrmidons. Raised by the centaur Chiron, Achilles grew up to become the greatest warrior in the world, famed for his exploits during the Trojan War, in part described by Homer in his epic poem the Iliad.
However, Achilles’ most famous attribute was first mentioned in a text from the first century AD: his invulnerability to injury – except for his heel. According to this tale, his mother, Thetis, attempted to ensure his immortality by dipping the infant Achilles in the River Styx – but his heel, where she held him, was left untouched by the magic water.
So it was that, during the Trojan War, he was killed by an arrow shot into his heel by the Trojan prince Paris, whose elopement with the beautiful (and married) Helen sparked the war with the Greeks.
Common today, the metaphor was first used as recently as 1840, though Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined a similar phrase in 1810 when describing “Ireland, that vulnerable heel of the British Achilles!”
This week is Ancient Greece Week on HistoryExtra!
Join us as we explore one of the world’s greatest civilisations – from the birth of democracy and the ancient Olympics to warfare, the rights of women and the whims of the gods.