One of the single most important events in Greek mythology was the Titanomachy. The war against the Titans established Zeus and the Olympians as the rulers of the world and the official pantheon of Greek culture.
Legend says that the Olympians nearly lost this war, however. After ten years of a stalemate, they had to enlist powerful new allies to help them defeat their father and his kin.
The Cyclopes brought valuable tools, but the Hecatoncheires offered strength. The hundred-armed giants fought alongside the gods of Olympus and helped them win a decisive victory.
That is, according to the most common version of the story.
There are several different mentions of the Hecatoncheires in Greek literature. While some change only minor details, others portray them as entirely different, even allied with the opposing side.
These conflicting stories offer a new view not only of the Hecatoncheires, but also of their possible origins in Greece’s most ancient history.
According to the Greek creation story, Gaia and Uranus had eighteen children together.
The first twelve were the Titans. They were strong, beautiful, and perfectly formed.
The other six, however, were considered monsters by their father.
The three Cyclopes were one-eyed giants. They were skilled craftsmen and inventors, but Uranus thought they were hideous.
The three Hecatoncheires were even more unusual in appearance. Their name means “Hundred-Handers” and they were enormous giants with dozens of limbs.
Most sources name the three Hecatoncheires. They were Cottus, Gyges, and Briareus. Homer adds that Briareus was sometimes called Aegaeon, while Hesiod says that he was also named Obriareus.
Uranus was so disgusted by his giant sons that he had them locked away. He imprisoned them in the dark pit of Tartarus.
This infuriated Gaia, who loved her children regardless of their appearance. When Uranus would not agree to free her sons, she appealed to the Titans.
Cronos agreed to overthrow his father, assisted by Gaia and his brothers. Uranus was castrated and forcibly separated from the goddess of the earth.
Cronus did not honor his agreement to free the Cyclopes and the Hecatoncheires, though. Gaia grew increasingly frustrated the longer her sons were imprisoned.
When Zeus and the Olympian gods rose up against their father’s rule, Gaia again supported the revolt. According to some sources she told Zeus about the giants herself, while others claimed that she passed the message on through Prometheus.
Zeus went to Tartarus and freed the Hecatoncheires and the Cyclopes. He and his brothers were rewarded for finally setting their uncles free.
The three Cyclopes had created wondrous items that would aid the Olympians in their war efforts. The Hecatoncheires, meanwhile, had no such inventive skills but pledged themselves as fighters.
The three brothers proved to be excellent allies in battle. With their large size and multiple limbs, they pelted the Titans with hundreds of boulders and other thrown projectiles.
As Gaia had predicted, the Olympians were able to defeat their father with the help of her monstrous sons.
The Titans who had fought against Zeus were taken prisoner and imprisoned in Tartarus. The Hecatoncheires, who had so recently been in that same pit, were stationed as their guards.
The most common narrative of the war between the Titans and the Olympian gods casts the Hecatoncheires as valuable allies to Zeus and his peers. This was not the only version of the story, however.
Older records say that the hundred-handed giants did not side with the Olympians at all. Instead, Cronus kept his promise to Gaia and freed them to support his cause.
The epic poem Titanomachy has been lost, but later writers referenced it in their works. They wrote that, according to the author of that poem, Aegaeon was a son of Pontus rather than Uranus and supported Cronos.
Centuries later, Virgil and Ovid cited Greek sources when similarly claiming that Briareus had fought alongside the Titans.
Appollonius of Rhodes mentioned Aegaeon in his account of the journey of the Argonauts. They supposedly passed by the giant’s tomb, which had been erected at the site of his defeat at the hands of Poseidon.
This seems to imply that there were varied traditions about the Hecatoncheires.
Some historians believe that the names of the Hecatoncheires may provide some insight into their origins and why some legends about them are contradictory.
Aegaeon in particular provides an interesting example of how the Hecatoncheires’ story seems to vary.
The name Briarius comes from a root word that means “strong,” which gives little insight into the character’s origins or affiliations. The frequent use of the name Aegaeon instead, however, provides much more information.
The name Aegaeon would seem to be related to the sea. It almost certainly has the same root word as the most important body of water in the Greek World, the Aegean Sea.
The same root is found in the words for things related to water, such as “shore” and “waves.” The name Aegaeon is more than likely a reference to the sea as well.
In fact, Aegaeon is well-attested as relating to water in the name of another god. It is sometimes used as an epithet for Poseidon, the god who was said to have killed Aegaeon in one account.
The Titanomachy also referred to the giant as a son of Pontus rather than Uranus. Pontus was a primordial sea god and the father of ancient deities like the Old Man of the Sea.
The name could have two translations from the ancient Greek language. While the first, “From Aegae” is unlikely, the translation of “Son of Aegaeus” seems possible.
All of these would seem to indicate that at least one of the Hecatoncheires has a much different origin than is given in the common account. Instead of an imprisoned son of Uranus, Briareus/Aegaeon seems to be a sea god.
Cottus and Gyges could also be references to other figures in mythology.
Cottus’s name is similar to that of Cotys, a Thracian goddess of war. Gyges could be taken from the name Ogyges, who ruled the first people to settle Attica.
If all of these interpretations are true, the three Hecatoncheires could refer to three powers that predated the arrival of the Greeks in the area. They would be a god of the sea, a goddess of war, and a human, or possibly divine, king.
Historians believe that this may be a remnant of the story of how the Greeks conquered their future homeland. Their fight against the native people was remembered by giving the names of their chief gods to a group of unusual giants.
Some have even theorized that one or more of these gods may have been depicted with many arms in pre-Greek art. While there is no archaeological evidence for this, such gods are well-attested from the Near East and India.
In this interpretation, the earlier story that the Hecatoncheires were enemies of the gods represents the initial fight between pre-Greek people and the invading Greek settlers. Their gods were replaced with the Olympians, as with Poseidon defeating Aegaeon and becoming the god of the sea.
By the time of writers like Hesiod, however, this history had been forgotten. Because the Hecatoncheires had been written as strong allies who could entice the support of Gaia, the story was rewritten to make them loyal to Zeus.
In the Titanomachy, the Hecatoncheires were three giant sons of Uranus and Gaia. Their imprisonment inspired the goddess of the earth to support rebellions first against Uranus, then against the Titans.
Zeus finally freed the Hecatoncheires and their brothers, the Cyclopes. Their gifts and power helped the Olympians to win the war.
The Hecatoncheires were installed as guards over the Titans locked in Tartarus. It was the same prison they had been locked in.
While this is the most often-told story of the gods’ succession, however, it is not the only one.
Early Greek sources claimed that the Hecatoncheires did not fight alongside the Olympians, but against them. Instead of helping Zeus, they were allies of the Titans.
These sources also give different names and origins for some of the three giants.
These alternative names and details like Briareus, also called Aegaeon, to the sea. Cottus and Gyges, meanwhile, could be likened to an ancient war deity and a mythical king.
One possible interpretation is that the Hecatoncheires were based on the gods of the culture that the first Greek settlers in the Peloponnesian defeated. They were initially cast as enemies of the Olympians, and therefore of the Greek culture.
As the history was forgotten, however, writers saw the Hecatoncheires as powerful beings. They were recast as allies of the gods so their strength could be a reason the gods won the war.