Even those with only a passing knowledge of the myths of Ancient Greece know something of the Titans – the primordial deities, children of Uranus and Gaia, who gave rise to (and were ultimately replaced by) the Olympians. Twelve in number, the first generation of these gods included Cronus, Oceanus, and Hyperion, among others. And their descendants included more familiar figures such as Atlas and Prometheus.
But Uranus and Gaia had more offspring than just the Titans. According to Hesiod, they actually had 18 children – the 12 original Titan gods, and an additional six monstrous siblings. They also produced the three Cyclopes, most known from Odysseus’ encounter with one in Homer’s Odyssey (though Homer’s version seems far removed from earlier, less savage descriptions of the one-eyed giants).
The other three were creatures seldom spoken of in Greek mythology, and mostly unknown to all but the most ardent students of it. These are the Hecatoncheires, or the Hundred-Handed Giants – and it’s time to give a moment’s notice to these fearsome creatures.
Who are the 100 Handed?
Hesiod gives the names of the three Hecatoncheires as Kottos, Briareus, and Gyges in his Theogony. Depending on the source, the three were either the first- or last-born children of Uranus and Gaia. They are described, like their brothers the Cyclopes, as being of immense size and mighty strength, and each having fifty heads and a hundred arms.
The names given to them are consistent across multiple accounts and sources, with minimal variation, though Homer also calls Briareus by the name Aegaeon in the Iliad (calling this the name by which mortals know him, while Briareus was his name among the gods). And while Homer’s association of the second name with Briareus is perhaps the most explicit, there is some evidence that it was known as an alternate name for Briareus for centuries before Homer’s put quill to parchment.
If his brothers had alternate names as well, there’s no record of them. Indeed, there’s not much at all about Gyges and Kottos outside the context of the Hecatoncheires acting as a group. Only Briareus/Aegaeon has any significant details or stories of his own.
First Among Brothers
Of the three brothers, only Briareus was described as having a wife – Cymopolea, a daughter of Poseidon and (though this is the only known mention of her) presumed to be a sea-nymph. This is, according to Hesiod, because “he was good” – presumably meaning better than his brothers, in some sense.
He was said to have mediated a territorial dispute between Poseidon and Helios regarding the Isthmus of Corinth. And when the other Olympians planned to imprison Zeus, the sea goddess Thetis fetched Briareus to Olympus to intimidate the other gods into abandoning their plan.
He was in some accounts credited with the invention of metal armor, and seems to have been depicted as working a forge underground in the manner of Hephaestus. He was also, somewhat confusingly, said to be buried under Mount Etna and the cause of occasional earthquakes. The belt which Heracles obtained from the Amazon queen Hippolyta had originally belonged to Briareus’ daughter Oeolyca (which, combined with accounts of his smithing, at least hints he may have made it).
Briareus also makes other cultural appearances not connected with the Hecatoncheires. Plato makes brief mention of him in Laws, and the poet Nonnus would refer to him as late as the 5th Century A.D. Even later, Dante cast Briareus as the giant in the Ninth Circle of Hell in his Divine Comedy and Miguel de Cervantes mentions him in Don Quixote.
All of this, and some vague and contradictory references found in various works, seem to suggest that Briareus was something more than his brothers. There is, in fact, some reason to believe that he was a pre-Greek sea-god, ultimately supplanted by Poseidon in Greek myths. And he was known to have worshippers on the island of Euboea, as Briareus in Carystus, and as Aegaeon in Chalcis – though whether this was worship of the Hundred-Handed son of Uranus or a forgotten god using the same names is murky.
Indeed, the name Aegaeon (literally, “he from the Aegean Sea”) was sometimes applied to Poseidon himself. Adding to the confusion, someone called Aegaeon was also supposedly defeated by Poseidon near Phrygia and entombed there, with his great crypt being spotted by the passing Argonauts in Apollonius’ Argonautica. That would seem to further cement the idea that Aegaeon/Briareus was an older god later conflated with the most prominent of the Hecatoncheires after he was replaced in mythology by the Greek sea god Poseidon.
But Were They Gods?
Like the Cyclopes, the Cottos, Briareus, and Gyges are not gods in the typical sense. As such, they did not have divine domains of their own – not in the way that, say, the Titan Iapetus was the god of mortality, or Themis the goddess of order and justice.
As noted above, however, Briareus had clear associations with the sea, and seems to have been borrowed and recast from myths of an earlier sea-god. It is implied that he lived in the sea (hence why it was a sea goddess that brought him to Olympus), and Aelian, in chapter 5 of his Varia Historia, puts forth a claim attributed to Aristotle that the Pillars of Hercules were originally called the Pillars of Briareus and only later renamed in honor of the hero.
Other sources associate the Hecatoncheires with storms and Greece’s stormy season, depicting them as wielding dark clouds and blustering winds. There are also scattered references associating them with other destructive natural forces, such as earthquakes, and they seem to have been a convenient symbol for chaotic, destructive power in general. This again, potentially ties in with the Hecatoncheires, or at least Briareus, being possibly related to earlier myths of storm-gods similar to Baal.
The Story of the Hecatoncheires
Uranus had no more love for his hundred-handed sons than he did for any of his other children. Fearful of being usurped by his offspring, he imprisoned each one deep beneath the earth as soon as they were born.
Cronus would eventually break this cycle, and would castrate Uranus and overthrow his father. This freed Cronus and his fellow Titans, who ascended to be the original Greek gods, but left the Hecatoncheires imprisoned (in some versions, Cronus did free them, but then imprisoned them again later).
Repeating history, Cronus swallowed each of his own newborn offspring to ensure they didn’t overthrow him. Zeus, secretly hidden from Cronus by his mother, avoided this fate and – once grown – returned to force the Titan to regurgitate his other children.
This kicked off the Titanomachy, or the ten-year war between the Titans and the Olympian gods. And the Hundred-Handed Ones went on to play a crucial role in its resolution.
Brothers in War
The Titanomachy raged on for ten years of fierce fighting with no resolution, as neither Olympians nor Titans could find the upper hand. But Gaia told Zeus that he could end the war in victory if he had the help of the Hecatoncheires.
Acting on his grandmother’s advice, he traveled down to Tartarus, where the Hecatoncheires had been imprisoned by their father. Zeus brought them nectar and ambrosia, with which he won the Hundred-Handed Ones over to his side and exacted their promise to stand with the Olympians against Cronus.
Zeus freed his new allies, and the Hundred-Handed Ones joined in the war, hurling hundreds of boulders at the Titans, and burying them under a barrage of stones. With the fierce strength of the Hecatoncheires on their side, Zeus and the other Olympians quickly vanquished the Titan gods.
The war had now ended, but the Hecatoncheires still had a role to play. Zeus rounded up the vanquished Titans and – somewhat fittingly – bound them beneath the earth, in the same prison in Tartarus where the Hundred-Handed Ones had been held.
There, encircled by a bronze fence and three rings of darkness, the Titans would be imprisoned for all eternity. And the Hecatoncheires, in a further twist of ironic justice, took up the role of their wardens, ensuring the Titans never escaped their captivity (though Hesiod’s account has only Kottos and Gyes remaining at the gates of Tartarus, with Briareus living above with his wife).
Variations of the Tale
There are a few alternate versions of the story of the Hecatoncheires found in different accounts. Notably the poet Virgil, in his Aeneid, has the Hecatoncheires fighting on the side of the Titans rather than the Olympians.
Likewise, the lost epic Titanomachy has Briareus fighting against the Olympians (and, presumably, his brothers). And Ovid would similarly relate a tale of Briareus attempting to conquer the Olympian gods via a sacrifice, being thwarted when birds under Zeus’ command stole the sacrificial bull’s entrails, preventing Briareus from completing his ritual.
Apollodorus, in his Bibliotheca, adds a detail to the freeing of the Hecatoncheires not found in the earlier accounts. When Zeus came down to Tartarus to free the Hundred-Handed, he had to slay their warden, Campe – a grotesque female monster that seems quite similar to Echidna – before winning them over with nectar and ambrosia.
The Elusive Giants
Despite their unique description and their central role in some of the key parts of early Greek mythology, they remain little-known. Aside from Briareus – likely due to contamination by earlier myths – there is little about them beyond their supporting role in the Titanomachy.
But they are nonetheless fascinating, and the contradictions and fragmented references only make them more so. Perhaps they do represent earlier storm-gods incorporated into Greek myth, or perhaps those elements just attached to them as the attributes of many Greek gods did later to their Roman counterparts. Whatever the case, there is nothing else quite like them in mythology, and that alone makes them worth learning about.