Ancient Greek Mythology and Buddhist Art
Hesiod: the Hundred-handed Ones
8th century BC, ancient Greece | 17th century, Tibet
From the union between the Greek goddess Earth and the Sky god came three brothers, and each had a hundred arms and fifty heads.
The ancient Greek poet Hesiod described in the eighth century BC the gods that existed before the Olympians. From the union between the goddess Earth and the Sky god came three brothers, Kottos, Gyes and Briareus. Each had a hundred arms and fifty heads. The Sky god hid each of these creatures beneath the ground and Mother Earth, in her anger, incited her son Cronos to emasculate his father in revenge.
Among those older deities whom the Olympians had banished to the furthest edges of the world were the giants and the Gorgons. The dreadful Echidna was a sister of the Gorgons, above the waist a beautiful maiden and below it a huge snake. She gave birth to Cerberus, the hound of Hades, a dog with three heads. She also bore the Lernaean Hydra, a creature with the body of a dog and with nine snaky heads.
A statue of the protective snake god Naga at the Royal Palace at Phnom Penh in Buddhist Cambodia shows a many-headed snake.
Eastern religions such as Buddhism, that believe in the reincarnation of the soul into a new body on this Earth, often depict their deities with many heads and many arms. For example, a seventeenth century Tibetan depiction of the Buddhist deity Guhyasamaja Akshobhyavajra has many heads and arms. And it is easy to see how the representation of someone who has lived through many notable lives might be chosen to be shown in such a way. A hundred-handed one?
The Tibetan god Guhyasamaja Akshobhyavajra. 17th century. Rubin Museum of Art, New York City.
An 8th century BC account of the gods in Hesiod's Theogony from: Wender, Dorethea Schmidt, 1973. Hesiod: Theogony ∑ Works and Days. Theognis: Elegies. Translated from ancient Greek with an introduction. Penguin Books Limited. Theogony, pp 23–57. The Hundred-handed Ones, p 28 [147–77].