The Hecatonchires in Greek Mythology
The stories of Greek mythology are not simply tales of the exploits of gods and heroes, as the world that the gods and heroes inhabited was complete with other mythical creatures and mortals.
Some of the mythical creatures that were thought to inhabit Ancient Greece are still famous today, with the likes of the Cyclopes and Centaurs, instantly recognisable. Many other mythical creatures though, are all but forgotten, and the likes of the Hecatonchires are known to only a small percentage of the world’s population.
Greek mythological sources for the Hecatonchires
The lack of fame of the Hecatonchires is perhaps surprising, as they are mentioned in many famous sources from antiquity; including the Bibliotheca (Pseudo-Apollodorus), The Argonautica (Apollonius Rhodius) and Metamorphoses (Ovid). The primary source for the Hecatonchires though comes from Hesiod, in the Theogony, the genealogy of the gods.
The Early Existences of the Hecatonchires
The story of the Hecatonchires begins in the time before the rise of Zeus and the gods of Mount Olympus. The cosmos was relatively new, and the supreme deity of the time Ouranus (god of the sky) would mate with Gaia (goddess of the earth).
Gaia would subsequently give birth to three brothers, who were named Briareos (also known as Aegaeon), Cottus and Gyes; the three brothers being known collectively as the Hecatonchires. At the same time Ouranus and Gaia also became parents to three other brothers, the Cyclopes.
The name Hecatonchires means “hundred handed”, although this might not have been the most noted feature, for they were gigantic in form, and were each said to have sported 50 heads.
Ouranus saw the power, and the ugliness, of the Hecatonchires once born, and fearful for his position as supreme deity, imprisoned his own sons within Tartarus; Tartarus being the hell pit of the underworld. The Hecatonchires would be joined in Tartarus by their brothers, the Cyclopes, as Ouranus was equally afraid of them.
The imprisonment of her children caused much pain to Gaia, both mentally and physically, as Tartarus was to be found deep within her. This was one of the reasons why Gaia would convince her other children, the Titans, to rise up against their father.
Kronos would assume the mantel of supreme deity, but Kronos was as afraid of the Hecatonchires and Cyclopes, as his father had been; and so the Hecatonchires remained imprisoned. This time though, they had a special prison guard, as the dragon Kampe was put in place.
Freedom for the Hecatonchires
The Hecatonchires would only be freed when Zeus and his brothers rose up against their father, Kronos. Zeus needed some allies to aid him in the insurrection, and Zeus received some guidance from Gaia, his grandmother.
Gaia told him that allies awaited him within Tartarus, and so Zeus took the long and dangerous journey to Tartarus, killed Kampe and released the Hecatonchires and Cyclopes from their imprisonment.
The Cyclopes would make the weapons for the Olympian gods, whilst the Hecatonchires took a more active part in the fighting of the Titanomachy. Each Hecatonchire was able to lift up and throw 100 mountain-sized rocks in one go, bombarding the Titans and their allies. The strength of the Hecatonchires was a great boon to Zeus, and ultimately the Olympians were victorious in the war.
The Hecatonchires after the Titanomachy
The Hecatonchires were rewarded for their efforts in the Titanomachy. Poseidon offered Briareos his daughter, Cymopolea, in marriage; and the pair would then be given a palace deep in the Aegean Sea. Cottus and Gyes would also be rewarded with underwater palaces, though theirs were located in the depths of the River Oceanus, the earth encircling river.
The Hecatonchires were also given the task of being prison guards in Tartarus, their erstwhile prison; as in Tartarus, Zeus had imprisoned many of the defeated Titans. In Ancient Greece the three Hecatonchires would also be responsible for the release of storm winds from the depths of Tartarus.
Briareos comes to Zeus' Rescue
Hecatocnhires in Later Myths
After the Titanomachy, the Hecatonchires all but disappear from Greek mythological stories. There are though a couple of occasions when the Hecatonchire Briareos is mentioned.
Homer tells of Briareos once again aiding Zeus. At the time, Poseidon, Hera and Athena were plotting to bind up Zeus, but the Naiad Thetis discovered the plot. Thetis called upon the assistance of Briareos, who came and stood by Zeus, and the mere presence of the gigantic Hecatanochire was enough to dissuade the other gods from continuing with their plans.
Briareos would also act as arbitrator during a dispute between Poseidon and Helios. The two gods were arguing about the division of worship that was to come from Corinth. Briareos made the decision that would see the Isthmus of Corinth given over to Poseidon, whilst the Acrocorinth, the monolithic rock overlooking the city, was given to Helios.
An Explanation of the Hecatonchires
Giants were a common theme in Greek mythology, although they tended to be troublesome for the gods of Mount Olympus, for both the Gigantes and Typhon went to war with the gods. The Hecatonchires though were allied to Zeus and the Olympian gods.
The Hecatonchires were probably simply invented to help the Ancient Greeks explain the world in which they lived in, with the three brothers being the personifications of storms, earthquakes and tsunamis, the natural phenomenon which could throw large rocks around.