Atlas: The Titan God Who Holds Up the Sky

Atlas, straining under the celestial sphere, is a figure from the early Greek myth that many would recognize. The Greek god has a story that is often misunderstood and a history that includes golden sheep, pirates, and modern libertarians. From ancient Africa to modern America, the Greek Titan has always had relevance to society.

What is Atlas the Greek God Of?

Atlas was known as the god of endurance, “bearer of the heavens”, and teacher of astronomy to mankind. According to one myth, he literally became the Atlas Mountains, after being turned to stone, and was commemorated in the stars.

The Etymology of the Name “Atlas”

As the name “Atlas” is so ancient, it is difficult to know the exact history. One etymological dictionary suggests that it means “to bear” or “to lift”, while some modern scholars suggest that the name comes from the Berber word “adrar”, which means “mountain.” 

Who Were the Parents of Atlas in Greek Mythology?

Atlas was the son of the Titan Iapetus, brother of Cronus. Iapetus, also known as “the piercer” was the god of Mortality. The mother of Atlas was Clymene, also known as Asia. Another of the elder Titans, Clymene would go on to become a handmaiden of the Olympian god, Hera, as well as personify the gift of fame. Iapetus and Clymene also had other children, including Prometheus and Epimetheus, the creators of mortal life on Earth.

What is the Myth of Atlas About?

The most famous myth involving Atlas would be the punishment given to him by Zeus for leading the Titanomachy. The entire story of Atlas, however, starts well before his punishment and continues for years afterward, even beyond the time when he is freed from his punishment and allowed to play other roles in Greek mythology.

Why Did Atlas Fight in the Titanomachy?

Atlas was described as the “stout-hearted son” of Iapetus and it can be assumed his bravery and strength made him a natural choice. While Prometheus chose to fight on the side of the Olympians, Atlas stayed with his father and uncle.

No ancient writer details any story about how Atlas was chosen as the leader of the war. Multiple sources contest that he led the Titans against wise Zeus and his siblings at Mount Olympus, but why the elder gods chose a second-generation Titan is unknown.

READ MORE: Zeus Family Tree: The Family Tree of the King of the Gods

It could be that Atlas was chosen because of his superior knowledge of the stars, making him an expert at navigation and travel. Even today, a military leader with a superior understanding of troop movement is more likely to win a battle.

Why Did Atlas Give Hercules the Golden Apples?

Among Hercules’ famous labors, he was to retrieve the golden apples of the Hesperides. According to Pseudo-Apollodorus, the apples were to be found in the fabled gardens of Atlas (the Hyperboreans).

The following tale is created from passages found in a range of classical literature, including Pseudo-Apollodorus, Pausanias, Philostratus the Elder, and Seneca:

Through his labors, Hercules/Heracles had previously saved Prometheus from his chains. In return, Prometheus offered him advice on how to obtain the famed golden apples of the Hesperides. The apples, found in the garden of Atlas, among the Hyperboreans, were guarded by a Dragon. While some suggest that Hercules killed the dragon, other stories tell of a feat far more impressive.

READ MORE: Hercules Family Tree: The Lineage of the Legendary Hero

To save himself from the fight, Prometheus suggested that Hercules enlist Atlas to do his work for him. Atlas is described as being found “bowed over and crushed by the weight and that he was crouching on one knee alone and barely had strength left to stand.” Hercules asked Atlas if he would be interested in a bargain. The deal was that, in return for a few golden apples, Hercules would remain holding up the sky while Atlas was freed forever.

Hercules had no problem holding the weight of the heavens. Was it because he had not been holding up the skies for centuries? Or was the hero perhaps stronger than the strongest Titan? We will never know. We do know that, after liberating Atlas and taking the heavens on his shoulders, “the burden of that immeasurable mass [did not] bend his shoulders, and the firmament rested better on [his] neck.”

Atlas fetched a few golden apples. When he returned, he found Hercules comfortably resting the heavens on his shoulders. Hercules thanked the Titan and made one last request. As he was to remain forever, he asked if Atlas would take the sky for a short while so Hercules could get a pillow.After all, he was just a mortal, not a god.

Atlas, fool as he was, took the sky, and Hercules left with the apples. Atlas was trapped once more, and would not be free again until Zeus released him along with the other Titans. Zeus built pillars to hold up the heavens, and Atlas became the guardian of those pillars, while free of physical torment. Hercules gave the apples to Eurystheus, but the goddess Athena took them immediately for her own. They would not be seen again until the tragic tale of the Trojan War.

How Did Perseus Create the Atlas Mountains?

As well as meeting Hercules, Atlas also interacts with the hero Perseus. Fearful that his apples will be stolen, Atlas is quite aggressive toward the adventurer. Atlas is turned to stone and becomes what is now known as the Atlas Mountain Range.

Atlas plays a minor role in the Perseus myth in stories written during the Roman Empire, with the most well-known telling found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In this tale, Heracles has yet to take the apples of gold, and yet the conclusion suggests Heracles’ tale could never happen. This kind of contradiction occurs often in Greek mythology so should be accepted.

Perseus had been traveling on his winged boots when he found himself in the land of Atlas. The garden of Atlas was a beautiful place, with lush lands, thousands of cattle, and trees of gold. Perseus begged of the Titan, “Friend, if high birth impresses you, Jupiter is responsible for my birth. Or if you admire great deeds, you will admire mine. I ask for hospitality and rest.”

The Titan, however, had remembered a prophecy that told of someone who would steal the golden apples and be called “the son of Zeus”. He was not aware that the prophecy referred to Heracles, rather than Perseus, but had made plans to protect his orchard anyway. He surrounded it with walls and had it watched over by a large dragon. Atlas refused to let Perseus pass, and yelled, “Go far away, lest the glory of the deeds, that you lie about, and Zeus himself, fail you!” He tried to physically push the adventurer away. Perseus tried to calm the Titan and convince him that he had no interest in the apples, but the Titan grew angrier still. He enlarged himself to the size of a mountain, his beard becoming trees and his shoulders into ridges.

Perseus, offended, pulled out Medusa’s head from his bag and showed her to the Titan. Atlas turned to stone, like all those who gazed upon her face. The Atlas Mountain Range can be found today in Northwest Africa, and they separate the Mediterranean and Atlantic coastlines from the Sahara Desert.

Who Were the Children of the Titan Atlas?

Atlas had several famous children in Greek mythology. Atlas’s daughters included the mountain nymphs known as the Pleiades, the famed Kalypso, and the Hesperides. These female deities played many roles in Greek mythology, often as antagonists to Greek heroes. The Hesperides also protected the golden apples at a time, while Calypso captured the great Odysseus after the fall of Troy.

It might be recognized that a number of these children of Atlas became a part of the night sky, as constellations. Maia, the leader of the seven Pleiades, would also become a lover of Zeus, giving birth to Hermes, the fleet-footed messenger of the Olympian gods.

Is Atlas the Strongest Titan?

While Atlas is not the most powerful of the Titans (that role would go to Cronus himself), he is known for his great strength. Atlas was powerful enough to hold up the sky with his own brute force, a feat only ever equaled by the great hero, Heracles.

The ancient Titan was also seen as a great leader and was well respected by his elders, despite being of the second generation of the old gods. Even his aunts and uncles followed him in battle in the war against the Olympians.

Why Does Atlas Carry the World?

Carrying the heavens on his shoulder was a punishment for the younger Titan for his leadership in the Titanomachy. You might think it was a horrible punishment, but it did allow the young god to escape the torments of Tartarus, where his father and uncle were kept instead. At least he was able to continue to play a role in the universe and could be visited by the great heroes of ancient civilization.

Atlas: Greek Mythology or Greek History?

Like many stories and characters in Greek mythology, some ancient writers believed there may have been a real history behind them. Specifically, Diodorus Siculus, in his “Library of History”, Atlas was a shepherd with great scientific prowess. The story, according to Diodorus Siculus, has been paraphrased below.

The Story of Atlas, Shepherd King

In the country of Hesperitis, there were two brothers: Atlas and Hesperus. They were shepherds, with a large herd of sheep with golden-colored fleece. Hesperus, the older brother, had a daughter Hesperis. Atlas married the young woman, and she bore him seven daughters, who would become known as “the Atlantines”.

Now, Busiris, the king of the Egyptians, heard about these beautiful maidens and decided that he wanted them for himself. He sent pirates to kidnap the girls. Before they were to return, however, Heracles had entered the land of Egypt and killed the king. Finding the pirates outside of Egypt, he killed them all and returned the daughters to their father.

So moved with gratitude towards Heracles, Atlas decided to give him the secrets of Astronomy. For, while he was but a shepherd, Atlas was also quite a scientific mind. According to the ancient Greeks, it was Atlas who discovered the spherical nature of the sky, and so passed on to Heracles this knowledge, and how to use it to navigate the seas.

When ancient Greeks said that Atlas bore “the entire firmament upon his shoulders”, they referred to him as having all the knowledge of the heavenly bodies, “to a degree surpassing others.”

Did Atlas Hold Up the Earth?

According to Greek mythology, Atlas never held up the earth but instead held up the heavens. The heavens, in Greek mythology, were the stars in the sky, everything beyond the moon. The Greek poet Hesiod explained that it would take an anvil nine days to fall from the heavens to Earth, and modern mathematicians have calculated that the heavens must then begin approximately 5.81 × 105 kilometers away from Earth.

READ MORE: Who Invented Math? The History of Mathematics

The mistaken belief that Atlas ever held up the Earth itself comes from the many works of ancient Greece and Rome, showing Atlas struggling under the weight of a globe. Today, when we see a globe we think of our planet, rather than the stars around it.

Other Variations of Atlas in Ancient History

While the Titan Atlas is who we think of today, the name was given to other characters in ancient history and mythology. These characters most certainly overlapped with the Greek god, with Atlas of Mauretania perhaps being a real figure who inspired the stories then written by Diodorus Siculus.

Atlas of Atlantis

According to Plato, Atlas was the first king of Atlantis, the mythological city that got swallowed by the sea. This Atlas was a child of Poseidon and his island was found beyond the “Pillars of Hercules”. These pillars were said to be the furthest the hero had traveled, as going beyond was too dangerous.

Atlas of Mauretania

Mauretania was the Latin name given to northwestern Africa, including modern-day Morocco and Algiers. Populated by the Berber Mauri people, who were predominantly farmers, it was taken over by the Roman Empire in approximately 30 BC.

While the first known historical king of Mauretania was Baga, it was said that the first King was Atlas, a great scientist who would trade information and livestock with the Greeks. That the Greeks had named The Atlas Mountains before the Roman conquest adds to this story, as does Diodorus’ history of a shepherd-king.

Why Do We Call a Collection of Maps an Atlas?

German-Flemish geographer Gerardus Mercator published “Atlas: or cosmographical meditations upon the creation of the universe and the universe as created” in 1595. This collection of maps was not the first collection of its kind, but it was the first to call itself an Atlas. According to Mercator himself, the book was named after Atlas, “The King of Mauretania.” Mercator believed that this Atlas was the man from whom the myths of the Titans arose, and sourced most of the story of Atlas from Diodorus’ writings.

Atlas in Architecture 

The “Atlas” (“Telamon” or “Atlant” being other names) has come to define a very specific form of architectural work, in which the figure of a man is carved into the supporting column of a building. This man may not represent the ancient Titan himself but often represents other Greek or Roman figures.

While early precursors to Atlantes came from monoliths in Egypt and Caryatids (which used female figures), the first male columns can be seen at the Olympeion temple to Zeus, in Sicily. However, by the end of the Roman Empire, these artworks fell out of popularity.

READ MORE: The Fall of Rome: When, Why and How Did Rome Fall?

The late Renaissance and Baroque periods saw a rise in Greco-roman art and architecture, which included Atlantes. The most famous examples today can be seen at the entrance to the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, and the Porta Nuova, Palermo. Some Italian churches also use Atlantes, in which the figures are Roman-Catholic saints.

Atlas in Classical Art and Beyond

The myth of Atlas holding up the celestial sphere is also an extremely popular subject for sculpture. Such statues often show the god bowing under the weight of a giant globe, and represent the struggles of men.

An impressive example of such a statue is the “Farnese Atlas”, which resides at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. This statue is especially important as the globe offers a celestial map. Made around 150 AD, the constellations are likely a representation of a lost star catalog by ancient Greek astronomer, Hipparchus.

The most famous example of such a statue is “Atlas”, Lee Lawrie’s bronze masterpiece that sits in the courtyard at Rockefeller Center. Fifteen feet tall, and over seven tonnes in weight, the statue was built in 1937 and has become a symbol of the “Objectivism” movement, first put forward by author Ayn Rand.

READ MORE: Ancient Greek Art: All Forms and Styles of Art in Ancient Greece

Atlas in Modern Culture

Atlas, and the visual depictions of the god, appear often in modern culture. Despite his military leadership for the elder gods, his punishment of “holding up the sky” is often seen as “a consequence of defiance”, while his name is most often connected today with “carrying the burdens of the world.”

What is Atlas Shrugged About?

“Atlas Shrugged”, by Ayn Rand, was a 1957 novel about a revolt against a fictional dystopian government. It followed the vice president of a failing railroad company as she tries to come to terms with the failures of her industry, and discovers a secret revolution of great thinkers.

The novel is a 1200-page “epic” that Rand considered her “magnum opus.” It contains many long philosophical passages, including a long speech at the end which sets out Rand’s philosophical framework now known as “Objectivism.” The book is today considered one of the most influential texts in libertarian and conservative politics.

Ironically, Rand uses the title because, to her, the enduring Atlas represented those responsible for the running of the world and were punished for it. The image is used as a metaphor for responsible people suffering, rather than those who abused power being punished by successful rebels.

What Was the Atlas Computer?

One of the first supercomputers in the world, the Atlas Computer was first used in 1962 as a joint initiative by the University of Manchester and Ferranti International. The Atlas was one of the first computers to have a “virtual memory” (which would retrieve information from a hard drive when necessary), and used what some consider to be the first “operating system”. It was eventually decommissioned in 1971, and parts can be seen on display at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, near Oxford.

Atlas, the powerful Titan, and leader of the war against the Olympian gods may be best known for holding up the sky. However, his stories are far more complex, with the Greek god playing a role in the adventures of Heracles, Perseus, and Odysseus. Whether he was a second-generation deity or the King of North Africa, the Titan Atlas will always play a role in our culture and art going forward.

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