Achilles' Heel, the Myth

(a myth which has become a physical-medical application)

The myth about the Achilles’ heel was not always presented as the main weakness in his life.

Achilles image
  • Achilles was the son of Thetis and Peleus, the bravest hero in the Trojan war, according to Greek mythology.
  • When Achilles was born, his mother, Thetis, tried to make him immortal by dipping him in the River Styx.
  • As she immersed him, she held him by one heel and forgot to dip him a second time so the heel she held could get wet too.
  • Therefore, the place where she held him remained untouched by the magic water of the Styx and that part stayed mortal or vulnerable.
  • To this day, any weak point is called an "Achilles' heel".
  • We also refer to the strong tendon that connects the muscles of the calf of the leg with the heel bone as the "Achilles' tendon".
  • The term "Achilles' heel" was first used by a Dutch anatomist, Verheyden, in 1693 when he dissected his own amputated leg.

  • Although the above rendition of the Achilles' story is in current vogue, Michael Macrone, in his It’s Greek to Me, tells us that Achilles didn't always have a vulnerable heel.
  • Oh yes, he had a weak spot, but according to the original story about Achilles, Homer, in the Iliad, said it was his pride.
  • Later versions indicate his weakness was his love for the Trojan princess Polyxena.
  • In his Metamorphoses, Ovid suggested that Achilles had a vulnerable spot on his body; but the Roman poet, Statius (c. A.D. 45-96), was the first to imply in a poem that it was his heel.

—Compiled from information located in the following sources:

"Achilles" in Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 1;
William Benton, Publisher; 1968; pagess 89-90.

Words from the Myths by Isaac Asimov; Houghton Mifflin Company;
Boston; 1961; pages 190-191.

Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, Second Edition;
by William and Mary Morris; Harper & Row, Publishers; New York; 1962; page 3.