How the Mighty Fall: The Hubris of 6 Greek Heroes

Many Greek heroes were destroyed by their own hubris, from Achilles, Bellerophon, and Odysseus, to Arachne, Icarus, and Phaethon.

Oct 23, 2021By Bethany Williams, BA Classics and English, MA Literature
hubris of greek heroes

 

Hubris, or fatal pride, was the downfall of many Greek heroes in ancient myth. In classical mythology, hubris was considered a very dangerous shortcoming; it was an act of arrogance, usually where the hero attempted to assume godlike status. The gods of Greek mythology did not look favorably on mortals who overstepped or bragged a bit too much! The ancient Greeks considered hubris a fatal flaw that brought tragedy upon heroes… and commonly led to their death. The punishment for hubris was often a shocking reminder of human limitations and mortality. As such, hubris was a prime topic for Greek tragedy.

 

Read on to learn about some of the myths in which hubris led various Greek heroes to their doom.

 

1. Achilles: A Warning for Greek Heroes

greek heroes charles antoine coypel fury of achilles
Fury of Achilles by Charles-Antoine Coypel, 1737, via The Hermitage Museum

 

Let’s start with one of the most famous Greek heroes: Achilles. In the Iliad, Achilles was the most skilled Greek fighter; his victories and prowess earned him the title of “best of the Achaeans.” When his war prize, a girl named Briseis, was taken from him, he angrily vowed not to fight against the Trojans. In Greek tradition, the war prize bestowed by the Achaean army was indicative of a warrior’s honor. Therefore, when Briseis was taken, Achilles’ honor was symbolically damaged. Hence, proud Achilles was deeply insulted.

 

Achilles’ refusal to fight caused untold losses for the Greeks. Achilles was by far the best fighter and he had trained his band of warriors, the Myrmidons, to be just as fierce. The removal of Achilles and the Myrmidons shattered the confidence of the Greek army. This led to the Trojans’ success.

 

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Achilles vows:

 

“Someday, I swear, a yearning for Achilles will strike
Achaea’s sons and all your armies! […] 

when your hordes of fighters drop and die
[…] Then—
then you will tear your heart out, desperate, raging
that you disgraced the best of the Achaeans!”

 

Due to countless losses, Achilles’ right-hand man Patroclus became increasingly distressed. He repeatedly begged Achilles to let him go in Achilles’ stead and lead the Myrmidons into battle. Reluctantly, Achilles agreed.

 

achilles moving patroclus
Achilles Removing Patroclus’ Body From the Battlefield, print by Léon Davent, 16th century, via the MET Museum

 

However, whilst Patroclus was winning glory on the battlefield — and what’s more, while wearing Achilles’ own armor — he was killed. Achilles was thrown into despair at the death of his φίλος, which means “beloved.”

 

In grief and rage, Achilles wreaked havoc on the Trojan plains. However, since Troy was not fated to fall by the hands of Achilles, the gods saw fit to end Achilles’ life. And so, as Achilles approached the Trojan walls, he was struck down by Paris’ arrow, guided by the God Apollo. Achilles’ excessive pride (hubris) was a warning for Greek heroes.

 

2. Odysseus

greek heroes jelgersma odysseus ulysses shipwrecked storm
Ulysses (Odysseus) Shipwrecked by Tako Hajo Jelgersma, via the British Museum

 

Unlike other Greek heroes, Odysseus’ pride did not cause his death — just a lot of unnecessary toil. For other Greeks, returning from the Trojan war, the journey was a short sail across the Aegean Sea, perhaps a week. For Odysseus, it should have been similar, but instead, it took him ten years.

 

While sailing home, Odysseus and his crew were trapped in a cave by Polyphemus, the Cyclops. A giant boulder too heavy to move sealed the entrance. So, Odysseus, “wiliest of men,” devised a plan. Odysseus was very famous among Greek heroes for his cleverness and cunning mind. This was the source of his pride.

 

When Polyphemus returned, Odysseus got the Cyclops very drunk in the Cyclops’ own store of wine. Chatting amicably and drunkenly, Polyphemus asked Odysseus for his name. Odysseus ingeniously told him, “Outis” which means “Nobody.” Once Polyphemus had fallen into an intoxicated sleep, Odysseus stabbed him in the eye, blinding the Cyclops. In distress, Polyphemus called out to the other Cyclops on the island. When the other Cyclops came to help, they asked what was wrong. But Polyphemus replied, “Nobody is hurting me!”

 

The next time Polyphemus opened the boulder door, the crew snuck out. Once safely aboard his ship, Odysseus’ hubris got the better of him; he wanted recognition for his clever trick. He shouted to Polyphemus, “my true name is Odysseus the son of Laertes!” 

 

Polyphemus angrily retorted that his mighty father — the God Poseidon — would heal his eye. Then, Odysseus overstepped the worst boundary. He insulted a god. High on his success, he taunted that the sea god could not heal his eye! Big mistake. Polyphemus called on Poseidon to make the journey home for Odysseus as difficult as possible. Poseidon, angry at the pride of Odysseus, complied.

 

3. Bellerophon: The Most Legendary of Greek Heroes

greek heroes battista tiepolo bellerophon pegasus
Bellerophon on Pegasus by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1743-50, via Palazzo Labia, Venice, via the Web Gallery of Art

 

Bellerophon was one of the most legendary Greek heroes, and his narrative is a heart-breaking Greek tragedy. This hero was especially proud of himself for taming the winged horse named Pegasus. This was an exciting feat: to befriend a wild horse, to ride such a spirit, to fly! His new companion could take him to places that others only dreamed of.

 

Before meeting Pegasus, Bellerophon was given the deadly task of killing the fire-breathing Chimaera. This beast was a terrifying amalgamation of animals: the body and head of a lion, a snake for a tail, and a goat’s face protruding from its body.

 

The night before facing the monster, Bellerophon prayed to the goddess Athena for help. She obliged, told him where to find Pegasus, and left beside him a golden girdle. With this help from Athena, Bellerophon was able to find and tame the animal. Together, the winged horse and the hero were able to defeat the Chimaera.

 

Bellerophon was breaking boundaries left, right, and center. He had befriended Pegasus, he had defeated the Chimaera; what could stop him now? He yearned to see Olympus, the home of the Greek gods, and so he urged Pegasus to fly higher and higher and higher…

 

The gods didn’t like that. To them, Bellerophon was clearly overstepping his place as one of the mortal Greek heroes. They sent a fly to sting Pegasus, and so the horse bucked, throwing Bellerophon many miles to the ground. Bellerophon was not killed, as the gods wished for him to suffer further. Instead, he was crippled, and left to wander the earth in search of his beloved Pegasus. Alas, Pegasus never returned to him.

 

4. Phaethon

greek tragedy goltzius phaeton four disgracers
Phaeton, from The Four Disgracers by Hendrick Goltzius, 1588, via the Metropolitan Museum

 

Phaethon was the son of Helios, the God of the Sun. In honor of his lineage, the Greek hero’s name meant “radiant.” Despite having such an illustrious lineage, the people of Phaethon’s town were skeptical. No one believed that Phaethon was actually the son of the esteemed sun god. Phaethon’s image did not appear to be on par with other Greek heroes, and so, Phaethon was taunted incessantly.

 

Stung by their disbelief, Phaethon prayed to Helios for some way to prove that he was his father. In pity at his son’s plight, Helios swore that he would grant Phaethon one wish — anything he wanted. Now, in Greek myth, it was never a good idea for a god, one who commands such vast power, to offer “anything” to a naïve, hurting human.

 

Delighted by his father’s promise, Phaethon asked if he could drive the Sun God’s chariot through the heavens for a day. This was not just any chariot — it was responsible for the movement of the sun. According to ancient Greek belief, Helios would bring the sun into the sky during the day, heating the land, and then pull it below the ground for the night, allowing the cool night air to settle. Helios was bound to his promise —he had no choice but to grant Phaethon his wish.

 

Phaethon began the ascent, but the horses were unused to his command. They proved to be too unruly and out of control. In the upheaval, Phaethon drove too close to the earth, scorching the land. The myth is that he created the Sahara Desert. Before he could torch any more land, Zeus struck him down with a lightning bolt. And thus, in a true Greek tragedy, Phaethon’s hubris caused his ultimate downfall.

 

5. Arachne 

greek tragedy della bella pallas and arachne
Pallas (Athena) and Arachne by Stefano della Bella, via the British Museum

 

Arachne: the name is so close to Arachnid; aptly so, for Arachne was the first spider. But before she was a spider, she was a woman with a certain skill — weaving. From humble beginnings, Arachne first learned the art of weaving as a young girl, and she soon became an expert. She became renowned for her ability to bring life to tapestry. An awed observer of Arachne’s work commented that Arachne must have been blessed by Athena, the goddess of craft and weaving. Arachne scoffed in denial and claimed that it was her own talent.

 

Unfortunately, Arachne did not stop there. Unbeknownst to her, the observer was actually the goddess herself. And so, Arachne fell prey to hubris… she even challenged the goddess herself to a weaving competition. The goddess then revealed herself, but Arachne only blushed slightly; she was still very determined to prove that her skill was superior.

 

Arachne did not retract her challenge and the weaving began. Athena wove a glorious depiction of the gods in their most celebrated moments: Zeus on his mighty throne, Poseidon bringing forth spring water, Athena being bestowed the city of Athens, Victory bestowing celebratory crowns, Queen Hera striking down offenders, and so on.

 

In reply, Arachne wove a depiction of the gods committing their worst acts. She wove harrowing scenes of lust and violence; the gods, Zeus, Poseidon, and Dionysius to name a few, who deceived women in order to sleep with them, disguised as bulls, flames, showers of gold, etc.

 

Athena was devastated by the scenes on Arachne’s tapestry, and so she tore the work to pieces. Angered by both the excellence of Arachne’s skill and her refusal to give Athena due credit for blessing her with the skill, Athena transformed Arachne into a spider.

 

6. Icarus

greek heroes bernard picart fall of icarus
The Fall of Icarus, copy after Bernard Picart, c.1730, via the British Museum

 

The myth of Icarus begins with a father and son trapped in the prison of a malicious king. Daedalus, the father, was a genius inventor. One time, he assisted the Greek hero Theseus to escape from King Minos’ labyrinth.

 

As punishment, King Minos threw Daedalus and his young son Icarus into the labyrinth. Daedalus, ever the wise craftsman, formulated a plan to escape. He collected up feathers and waxed them together to create wings. Once the wings were ready — one pair for Daedalus, and one for Icarus — Daedalus gave Icarus some strict instructions:

 

“Let me warn you, Icarus, to take the middle way, in case the moisture weighs down your wings, if you fly too low, or if you go too high, the sun scorches them.” 

 

Excited at the prospect of flying and escaping imprisonment, Icarus hastily agreed to his father’s warnings. And so, Icarus and Daedalus began their flight. At first, Icarus followed his father, staying clear of the waves, and not flying too close to the sun. However, as the exhilaration of freedom and flight coursed through young Icarus, he became reckless with pride — he began to swoop higher and higher.

 

“His nearness to the devouring sun softened the fragrant wax that held the wings: and the wax melted: he flailed with bare arms, but losing his oar-like wings, could not ride the air. Even as his mouth was crying his father’s name, it vanished into the dark blue sea.”

 

Icarus was lost to the sea. Daedalus called for him again and again, but soon noticed the feathers drifting around on the waves. He later found Icarus’ body and named the nearby island after his lost son, Icaria, a harrowing addition to the Greek tragedy.

 

Greek Heroes, Hubris, and Greek tragedy: What’s the Warning?

wilhelm tischbein seven heads of heroes
Seven Heads of Greek Heroes by Wilhelm Tischbein, 1801-5, via the British Museum

 

There are countless instances of hubris in the lives of Greek heroes and in Greek tragedy: Niobe, the woman who boasted of having more children than Leto — the mother of Apollo and Artemis — was punished with the murder of her children; Pentheus, who refused to worship Dionysius was in return torn apart by his own mother who had been driven into a frenzy; Narcissus, who insulted the gods by rejecting the advances of Echo, was cursed to fall in love with his own reflection and so he wasted away, transfixed by his own image.

 

The list goes on. In the end, these myths and the tragic fates of all involved demonstrate the danger of hubris and the importance of humility. Hubris led to the disruption of the natural order, and in response, would bring forth inescapable nemesis, the vengeance of the gods.



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By Bethany WilliamsBA Classics and English, MA LiteratureBethany is a Masters student, currently studying the adaptation of Greek myth in modern literature. She is a graduate of Classics and English (BA), during which she studied Ancient Greek language, classical reception within its own time and throughout history, as well as Greek and Roman history. Apart from her studies, she has an appreciation for art, philosophy, and travel. She may be based in England, but her heart is in Greece.