Hecatoncheires: Greek Mythology & Symbol

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The ancient Greeks had an explanation for every natural phenomenon in their world. In this lesson, we'll get to know the Hecatoncheires, and see what role they played in Greek mythology.

The Hundred-Handed Ones

We have a lot of expressions that reveal the limits of being two-handed. ''With one hand tied behind his back'', ''on one hand or the other'', ''I've only got two hands''; we hear it all the time. Well, in Greek mythology, there were at least three beings who definitely didn't have this problem.

The Hecatoncheires were giants, monstrous creatures with 100 hands and 50 heads. They held the clouds, brought storms, and shook the seas, and luckily for the gods, were also counted among the good guys. Now that's an ally who could certainly lend a hand.

The Hecatoncheires in Mythology

So, how exactly do creatures like this come to be? Clearly, they were beings of amazing power. In Greek mythology, extremely powerful creatures who were closely associated with natural forces tended to be children of primordial deities. That's true here, and in fact, the Hecatoncheires were the children of two of the Universe's oldest forces: Uranus (the sky) and Gaea (the earth).

Born of his powerful union, the three Hecatoncheires were named Briareos (the vigorous), Cottos (the striker) and Gyges (the big-limbed). Briareos was also sometimes called Aegaeon. They also had three other brothers, the giants known as the Cyclopes.

According to mythology, Uranus realized that these sons were too powerful for him to control, and threw all the giants back into Gaea's womb. Some versions of the story claimed that he locked them in the fabled pit below the world called Tartaros, the prison of the gods. In other versions, it was Uranus' son (the Titan Kronos) who locked them in Tartaros after he defeated Uranus. Either way, the Hecatoncheires and Cyclopes ended up in this eternal prison and Gaea ended up angry with the Titans.

Kronos' children, the gods, would later rebel against him in an epic battle called the Titanomachy. Zeus led the gods in this battle, but he wasn't alone. Gaea had taught him how to free the Hecatoncheires and Cyclopes from Tartaros, and they fought alongside the gods. When the battle was won, Zeus had the Titans locked in Tartaros. The Hecatoncheires were named the prison's eternal guards, forever watching over the Titans who had once been their jailers.

The Hecatoncheires fought in the battle between the gods and Titans
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Role of the Hecatoncheires

If the Hecatoncheires were the wardens of Tartaros, then they never interacted with people on Earth, right? Actually, the Hecatoncheires were very active on Earth. The Greeks believed that the Hecatoncheires held up the clouds with their hundred hands and that they created the blustery winds with their fifty mouths. It's worth noting that the Greeks had different names for various kinds of winds, so the Hecatoncheires were associated with strong, stormy winds that only blew during a certain time of year. The Greeks also associated mighty sea waves with the Hecatoncheires, particularly Briareos, who was occasionally said to have become an enemy of Poseidon.

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