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When we think of the word Atlas, most of us think of colorful books of maps. In fact, those very collections of maps were named after the Greek God, Atlas, who was punished by Zeus to bear the sky on his shoulders. Atlas is one of the most unique and interesting deities of Greek mythology. He has a role in various adventures, but the most interesting ones are his encounters with Zeus, Heracles, and Perseus.
History of Atlas
Historians and poets have different stories to tell, with regard to the origins of the Greek Titan god, Atlas. According to the most dominant narrative, Atlas was the son of Iapetus and Clymene, the pre-Olympian deities. He fathered several children, the notable ones being, Hesperides, Hyades, Pleiades, and Calypso.
In another perspective, Atlas was born to the Olympian God Poseidon and Cleito. He then became the king of Atlantis, a mythical Island that disappeared under the sea.
Other historians claim that Atlas in fact was from a region in Africa, and later became its king. This narrative became increasingly prominent during the Roman Empire, when the Romans began associating Atlas with the Atlas Mountains.
Atlas and the Titanomachy
The most significant and notable event in Atlas’ life was the Titanomachy, a ten-year battle between the Titans and the Olympians. The Olympians wanted to overthrow the Titans and gain control of the earth and heavens, which resulted in a war. Atlas sided with the Titans, and was one of the most skilled and strong warriors. The battle between the Olympians and Titans was long and bloody, but eventually the Titans were defeated.
While most of the defeated Titans were sent off to Tartarus, Atlas had a different punishment. To punish him for his role in the war, Zeus commanded Atlas to hold up the celestial skies for eternity. This is how Atlas is most often depicted – bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders with a look of resigned suffering.
Atlas and Perseus
Many poets and writers narrate the encounter between Atlas and Perseus, one of the greatest Greek heroes. According to them, Perseus wandered into the lands and fields of Atlas, who tried to drive him away. Perseus became enraged by Atlas’ unwelcoming attitude and used Medusa’s head to turn him into stone. Atlas then transformed into a large mountain range, which we now know as the Atlas Mountains.
Another version narrates the encounter between Atlas and Perseusin a different way. According to this narrative, Atlas was the king of a large and prosperous kingdom. Perseus went to Atlas in need of protection and shelter. When Atlas heard that a son of Zeus had come, he forbade him from entering his lands. Atlas didn’t’ allow Perseus into his kingdom, due to the fear of a prophecy, regarding one of Zeus sons. When Atlas refused to admit Perseus, he became very angry and turned Atlas into a mountain.
These two versions are slightly different in terms of the way the story is narrated. However, both the stories revolve around the attitude of Atlas towards Perseus, and the latter’s rage, which transforms Atlas into a mountain range.
Atlas and Hercules
Atlas had a very notable encounter with the Greek god Heracles. According to Greek mythology, Heracles had ten labors to complete, and one of them involved Atlas. Heracles was required to get golden apples from the Hesperides, who were the daughters of Atlas. Since the apple grove was guarded by Ladon, a powerful and vicious dragon, Heracles required Atlas’ help, to complete the task.
Heracles made a deal with Atlas, that he would take over and hold the heavens while Atlas would find him some of those golden apples from the Hesperides. Atlas readily agreed, but only because he wanted to trick Heracles into holding the sky forever. Once Atlas got the apples, he volunteered to deliver them himself to help Heracles.
The intelligent Heracles, suspecting this was a trick, but deciding to play along, agreed to the suggestion of Atlas, but asked him to hold the heavens for just a moment, so that he could get more comfortable, and bear the weight of the skies for a longer period of time. As soon as Atlas took the heavens from Heracles shoulders, Heracles took the apples and ran away.
In another version of the story, Heracles built two pillars to hold the skies, and relieve Atlas from his burden.
The Abilities of Atlas
In all the myths and stories surrounding Atlas, he’s described as a strong, and muscular God, who had the power to hold up the celestial heavens. In the battle between the Titans and Olympians, Atlas was considered to be one of the strongest warriors. It’s also believed that Atlas was much stronger, even than the mighty Heracles, who had needed Athena’s help to hold the skies. Atlas’ physical prowess has been much admired and used as an emblem of strength and perseverance.
A lesser known fact is that, Atlas was also known to be a man of intelligence. He was very skilled in a wide range of subjects such as philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy. In fact, many historians claim that he invented the first celestial sphere, and the study of astronomy.
Contemporary Significance of Atlas
Today, the idiom “carrying the weight of the world on one’s shoulders” is used to refer to people who have a burdensome life or wearisome responsibilities. This idiom has become a popular term for contemporary psychologists, who use it to define a childhood of problems, toils and burdens.
This motif of endurance is also the major theme of “Atlas Shrugged”, a novel written by Ayn Rand. In the novel, Ayn uses the metaphor of Atlas to describe social and economic exploitation. In the book, Francisco tells Rearden, to put down the weight on his shoulders, and participate in the strike, rather than serving people who solely exploit the people for their own interests.
Atlas in Art and Modern Culture
In Greek art and pottery, Atlas is predominantly depicted together with Heracles. A carved image of Atlas can also be found in a temple in Olympia, where he stands in the gardens of the Hesperides. In Roman art and paintings, Atlas is depicted as holding up the earth or the celestial skies. In modern times, Atlas has been reimagined in various ways, and features in several abstract paintings.
If you’re wondering how Atlas became connected with maps, it comes from Gerardus Mercator, a 16th century cartographer, who published his observations about earth under the title Atlas. In popular culture, Atlas is used as a motif of endurance, to transcend beyond physical and emotional pain.
Below is a list of the editor’s top picks featuring the statue of Atlas.
Atlas was the Titan of endurance, strength and astronomy.
Atlas’ parents are Iapetus and Clymene
Atlas’ consorts are Pleione and Hesperis.
Yes, Atlas has several children including the Hesperides, Hyades, Pleiades, Calypso and Dione.
In the western edge of Gaia where he carries the sky.
This is because he has been punished by Zeus for his role during the Titanomachy where he sided with the Titans against the Olympians.
Atlas had three siblings – Prometheus, Menoetius and Epimetheus.
Atlas means suffering or enduring.
Atlas certainly lives up to his name as the Greek god of endurance. He survived through the toughest battle, the Titanomachy, and proved his bravery by standing up against two of the mightiest Greek gods, Perseus and Heracles.