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Hecatoncheires

The Hecatoncheires, also called the “Hundred-Handers,” were three children of Gaia and Uranus, named Cottus, Briareus, and Gyges. With fifty heads and one hundred arms each, these creatures were a force to be reckoned with and played an important role in the war between the Titans and Olympians.

By Avi Kapach9 min read • Last updated on Apr. 19th, 2022
  • The Hecatoncheires each had one hundred arms and fifty heads.

  • Though the Hecatoncheires were brothers of the original Twelve Titans, they were not regarded as Titans themselves.

  • The Hecatoncheires actually fought with the Olympians during the Titanomachy, the decade-long war between the Olympians and Titans. After the war, the Olympians rewarded the Hecatoncheires for their help.

The Hecatoncheires (“Hundred-Handers”) were sons of Gaia and Uranus; in most sources, their names are given as Cottus, Briareus (or Aegaeon), and Gyges (or Gyes). Their appearance was quite terrifying: they boasted fifty heads and one hundred arms each. Along with their brothers the Cyclopes, the Hecatoncheires were imprisoned by the earliest rulers of the cosmos—first Uranus, and then Cronus and the Titans. They were finally released by Zeus, whom they helped overthrow the Titans.

#Names and Etymology

The name “Hecatoncheires” (singular “Hecatoncheir”) is derived from the Greek words hekaton (“one hundred”) and cheir (“hand” or “arm”). However, the earliest sources to describe the Hecatoncheires never referred to them collectively by this term, instead using their individual names.

The name of the first of the Hecatoncheires, Cottus, was a common name in Thrace, a region north of Greece known for its harsh winters and warlike tribes. It may be related to the name of the Thracian goddess Cotys.1

The second of the Hecatoncheires had two names: Briareus and Aegaeon. Homer’s Iliad explains the two names by saying that Briareus was the name used by the gods and Aegaeon the one used by mortals.2 To make matters even more confusing, however, the poet Hesiod never calls him Aegaeon but uses both Briareus and Obriareus. 

The first of these names, Briareus (or Obriareus), may derive from the Greek briaros, meaning “strong” or “fierce”;3 according to Martin West, the o- in “Obriareus” is simply an old prepositional affix.4 Other scholars, however, have argued that the name Briareus/Obriareus is pre-Greek.5 

The first part of the second name, Aegaeon, is the root aeg- or aig-, which is found in many Greek words associated with the sea, including aigialos (“shore”) and aiges or aigades (“waves”). This could suggest an association with the Aegean Sea, the city of Aegae, or even the god Poseidon (who was sometimes called Aegaeon).6

The name of the last of the Hecatoncheires is Gyges or, in some texts, Gyes. Martin West has argued that the name “Gyges” is the more correct form, possibly related to the name of the mythical Attic king Ogyges. The alternative “Gyes” perhaps came about from an association with the Greek work gyion, meaning “limb” (so that “Gyes” would designate “one strong in his limbs”).7

#Pronunciation

  • English
    Greek

    Hecatoncheires

    Ἑκατόγχειρες

  • Phonetic
    IPA

    [he-kuh-TON-kheer-eez]

    /ˌhɛ kəˈtɒn xɪər iːz/

  • English
    Greek

    Cottus

    Κόττος

  • Phonetic
    IPA

    [KO-tuhs]

    /ˈkɒ təs/

  • English
    Greek

    Briareus

    Βριάρεως

  • Phonetic
    IPA

    [breye-ER-ee-uhs]

    /braɪˈɛərɪəs/

  • English
    Greek

    Gyges

    Γύγης

  • Phonetic
    IPA

    [JAHY-jeez]

    /ˈdʒaɪ dʒiːz/

#Attributes

The Hecatoncheires, or “Hundred-Handers,” took their name from the one hundred arms they each had. They also possessed fifty heads apiece and were terrifyingly strong. In the Theogony, Hesiod describes them as 

great and doughty beyond telling... presumptuous children. From their shoulders sprang a hundred arms, not to be approached, and fifty heads grew from the shoulders upon the strong limbs of each, and irresistible was the stubborn strength that was in their great forms.8

For many years, the Hecatoncheires were imprisoned beneath the earth. Eventually, however, they were freed by Zeus. 

The Hecatoncheires helped Zeus and the Olympians defeat the Titans and cast them into Tartarus. In some traditions, the Hecatoncheires then became the guards of the imprisoned Titans,9 though in other versions they settled down in the “Ocean’s foundations.”10

#Family

The Hecatoncheires were the offspring of Gaia—one of the first beings of the Greek cosmos and the embodiment of the earth—and her consort Uranus, the embodiment of the sky. Their siblings included the three Cyclopes (Brontes, Steropes, and Arges) as well as the original Twelve Titans (Coieus, Crius, Cronus, Hyperion, Iapetus, Mnemosyne, Oceanus, Phoebe, Rhea, Tethys, Theia, and Themis).

Briareus, the most prominent of the Hecatoncheires, married Poseidon’s daughter Cympoleia; according to some traditions, he fathered the nymphs Aetna11 and Oiolyca by her.12

#Family Tree

#Mythology

#Origins

The Hecatoncheires—Cottus, Briareus, and Gyges—were the offspring of the primordial deities Gaia and Uranus. Born with fifty heads and one hundred arms each, they were hated and feared by their father, Uranus. Together with their brothers (the Titans and the one-eyed Cyclopes), the Hecatoncheires were imprisoned by Uranus, who “used to hide them all away in a secret place of Earth so soon as each was born, and would not suffer them to come up into the light.”13

This act of cruelty enraged Gaia, and she urged her children to punish their father. Cronus, the youngest Titan, took up her cause and lopped off Uranus’ genitals with a sickle. He then made himself the new ruler of the cosmos.

#The Titanomachy

Despite Cronus’ victory, the Hecatoncheires (and the Cyclopes) remained in their prison beneath the earth and were only freed once Cronus’ son Zeus rose up against the Titans.14 According to Hesiod, the war between Zeus and the Titans—the Titanomachy—had already been raging for ten years when Gaia told Zeus that he would only win with the help of the imprisoned Hecatoncheires and Cyclopes. 

Zeus heeded Gaia’s advice and immediately freed the Hecatoncheires and Cyclopes. In gratitude, they agreed to help him in his war against the Titans. The Cyclopes fashioned a mighty lightning bolt and gave it to Zeus to be his weapon. The Hecatoncheires, meanwhile, took up arms and made quick work of the Titans. Hesiod gives a powerful rendition of the scene in his Theogony:

And amongst the foremost Cottus and Briareos and Gyes insatiate for war raised fierce fighting: three hundred rocks, one upon another, they launched from their strong hands and overshadowed the Titans with their missiles, and hurled them beneath the wide-pathed earth, and bound them in bitter chains when they had conquered them by their strength for all their great spirit, as far beneath the earth as heaven is above earth; for so far is it from earth to Tartarus.15

The Hecatoncheires thus proved instrumental in helping Zeus win the Titanomachy. Afterwards, Zeus became the ruler of the cosmos. Together with his siblings, he went to live on Mount Olympus, from which the new order of gods derived its name: the Olympians.

What happened to the Hecatoncheires after that is obscure. Hesiod says that they went to live at “Ocean’s foundations.”16 But Apollodorus writes that the Hecatoncheires stood guard over the Titans imprisoned in Tartarus.17

#Briareus

The only one of the Hecatoncheires who had an independent mythology is Briareus. According to a story known only from Homer’s Iliad, Briareus once came to Zeus’ rescue when the other Olympians tried to overthrow him. Bound and helpless, Zeus would have been supplanted as ruler of the cosmos, but the sea goddess Thetis enlisted Briareus’ help (who, as Homer obscurely notes, was also called Aegaeon by mortals18). With his hundred arms, Briareus easily freed Zeus from his bonds; Zeus then immediately sprang up, grabbed his thunderbolt, and, with Briareus at his side, forced the gods back into line.19

Flaxman briareus 1795

Illustration of a myth recounted in Book 1 of Homer's Iliad: Briareus is summoned by Thetis to help Zeus when the other Olympians try to overthrow him. By John Flaxman (1795).

Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

There is another obscure myth involving Briareus. It tells of how the sea god Poseidon and the sun god Helios got into a dispute over some land in Corinth. Briareus was brought in as an arbitrator and ruled that the hilltop site of the city, the Acrocorinth, belonged to Helios, while the surrounding land, the Isthmus, belonged to Poseidon.20

Other sources claimed that Briareus lived (or was imprisoned) under Mount Etna in Sicily, and that he caused an earthquake every time he shifted his weight or moved his many arms.21

There is yet another tradition, preserved only on a single scrap of papyrus, according to which Briareus was the inventor of armor.22

#Other Traditions

Today, the main source for the mythology of the Hecatoncheires is Hesiod’s Theogony; however, a very different tradition was preserved in another ancient epic, the Titanomachy. Although the text no longer survives, some details are known about its basic outline. For example, it recounted a tradition in which Aegaeon—the Hecatoncheir identified with Briareus—was a son of Gaia and Pontus rather than Gaia and Uranus; this version of Aegaeon/Briareus, moreover, was an ally of the Titans rather than the Olympians during the Titanomachy.23

Remnants of this alternative tradition—in which Aegaeon/Briareus (and possibly the other Hecatoncheires as well) fought against the Olympians—can be found in a handful of sources, most of them Roman.24

#Pop Culture

The Hecatoncheires—especially Briareus—have appeared in a handful of pop culture adaptations. Briareus, for example, features in The Battle of the Labyrinth, one of the books in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.

The Hecatoncheires have also inspired similar many-armed creatures in various other media, including role-playing games (Dungeons and Dragons, Promethean), video games (Final Fantasy, Ace Combat) and manga and anime (Appleseed, Ghost in the Shell).

#Further Reading

#Primary Sources

Today, the most important source for the Hecatoncheires is Hesiod’s Theogony, but in the ancient world it was only one tradition among many. Another detailed account of the mythology of the Hecatoncheires was likely located in the Titanomachy, another epic written during the Archaic period (ca. 800–490 BCE), but this work has regrettably been lost.

Greek

  • Homer: The story of how the Hecatoncheir Briareus helped Zeus escape his bonds when the other Olympians tried to overthrow him is told in Book 1 of the Iliad (eighth century BCE).

  • Hesiod: The Theogony (seventh or sixth century BCE) is the most complete source for the mythology and genealogy of the Hecatoncheires.

  • Callimachus: In his fourth Hymn (third century BCE), Callimachus claims that Briareus lives beneath Mount Etna and causes earthquakes whenever he moves.

  • Pausanias, Description of Greece: A second-century CE travelogue and an important source for local myths and customs. It is our only source for the myth of Briareus’ intervention in Poseidon and Helios’ dispute over Corinth.

Roman

  • Virgil: In Book 6 of the Aeneid (19 BCE), Virgil places the Hecatoncheir Aegaeon among the monsters living at the gates of the Underworld.

  • Ovid: Ovid regularly imagines the Hecatoncheires as enemies of the Olympian gods—for example, in his Fasti and Metamorphoses (both ca. 8 CE).

Mythological Handbooks (Greek and Roman)

  • Apollodorus, Library: A mythological handbook from the first century BCE or the first few centuries CE with references to the Hecatoncheires.

  • Hyginus, Fabulae: A Latin mythological handbook (first or second century CE) that includes sections on the Hecatoncheires.

#Secondary Sources

Gantz, Timothy. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources. 2 vols. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin, 1955.

Nünlist, René. “Hekatoncheires.” In Brill’s New Pauly, edited by Hubert Cancik, Helmuth Schneider, Christine F. Salazar, Manfred Landfester, and Francis G. Gentry. Published online 2006. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e505970.

Rose, H. J. A Handbook of Greek Mythology. London: Methuen, 1929.

Simon, Erika. “Hekatoncheires. In Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, Vol. 4, 481–82. Zurich: Artemis, 1992.

Smith, William. “Aegaeon.” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed July 7, 2021. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DA%3Aentry+group%3D5%3Aentry%3Daegaeon-bio-1

Theoi Project. “Hekatonkheires.” Published online 2000–2017. https://www.theoi.com/Titan/Hekatonkheires.html.

#References

Notes

  1. Martin L. West, Hesiod: Theogony (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), 209–10.

  2. Homer, Iliad 1.403–4.

  3. West, Hesiod, 209–10.

  4. West, Hesiod, 210.

  5. Robert S. P. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 239.

  6. Robert L. Fowler, “Αἰγ- in Early Greek Language and Myth,” Phoenix 42 (1988): 95–113.

  7. West, Hesiod, 210.

  8. Hesiod, Theogony 147–53, trans. H. G. Evelyn-White.

  9. Apollodorus, Library 1.2.1; according to many, this is the correct interpretation of Hesiod, Theogony 734–35.

  10. Hesiod, Theogony 816, trans. H. G. Evelyn-White. Cf. Ion of Chios, frag. 741 Campbell; here, it is said that Aegaeon (another name for Briareus) lives in the sea and is even a son of Thalassa, the feminine personification of the sea.

  11. According to Demetrius of Callatis (BNJ 85 F 4), who also (mistakenly?) calls Briareus one of the Cyclopes.

  12. Simonides, frag. 299 Campbell.

  13. Hesiod, Theogony 156–57, trans. H. G. Evelyn-White. In some sources, the Titans were not imprisoned with the Hecatoncheires and Cyclopes.

  14. In one tradition, Cronus initially freed them after overthrowing Uranus only to imprison them again some time later (Apollodorus, Library 1.1.4–5).

  15. Hesiod, Theogony 713–21, trans. H. G. Evelyn-White.

  16. Hesiod, Theogony 816, trans. H. G. Evelyn-White.

  17. Apollodorus, Library 1.2.1; according to many, this is the correct interpretation of Hesiod, Theogony 734–35.

  18. Specifically, the passage says that Briareus is called Aegaeon because “he is mightier than his father” (Homer, Iliad 1.404, trans. H. G. Evelyn-White). The exact meaning of this phrase has been much debated: could the Iliad be following a tradition in which Poseidon (rather than Uranus) was the father of Briareus? Poseidon was sometimes called Aegaeon or Aegaeus, and “Aegaeon” could mean “son of Aegaeus.” This explanation would make sense in the context of the passage because Poseidon was one of the gods who had conspired against Zeus; Homer could in effect be saying that Briareus/Aegaeon was able to save Zeus because he was stronger than Poseidon, who had tried to overthrow Zeus. For this interpretation, see scholia on Homer’s Iliad 1.404. Modern scholars are generally hesitant to adopt this suggestion, though suitable alternatives are lacking (see, for example, G. S. Kirk, Homer, Mark W. Edwards, Richard Janko, John Bryan Hainsworth, and Nicholas James Richardson, The Iliad: A Commentary, Vol. 1: Books 1–4 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 94–95; Robert L. Fowler, “Αἰγ- in Early Greek Language and Myth,” Phoenix 42 (1988): 95–113).

  19. Homer, Iliad 1.398ff.

  20. Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.1.6, 2.4.6.

  21. Callimachus, Hymn 4.141–46; Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana 4.6. Note that some traditions made Briareus the father of the nymph Aetna, who gave Mount Etna its name (see above).

  22. P.Oxy. X 1241 col. IV.

  23. Eumelus, frag. 3 West.

  24. Antimachus, frag. 14 Matthews; Virgil, Aeneid 10.565–68; Ovid, Amores 2.1.11–18, Fasti 3.793–808, 4.593; Statius, Thebaid 2.595–601; Servius on Virgil’s Aeneid 6.287, 10.565.

Citation

Kapach, Avi. “Hecatoncheires.” Mythopedia, April 19, 2022. https://mythopedia.com/topics/hecatoncheires

About the Author

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Avi Kapach

Scholar and Educator

Avi Kapach is a writer, scholar, and educator who received his PhD in Classics from Brown University