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Atlas was tasked with supporting the world on his shoulders. Source: rudall30 / Adobe Stock.

Atlas: The God with the World on His Shoulders

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Atlas is one of the most famous Titans in Greek mythology. He is best-known for bearing the sky on his shoulders, a punishment inflicted on him by Zeus following the Titanomachy. Although Atlas’ punishment is the most famous myth revolving around this Titan, there are several other myths in which he is featured.

Atlas is also commonly depicted in art, especially in sculpture, and may be easily recognized. This is due to the fact that he is traditionally portrayed as supporting a globe on his back. Sculptures of Atlas can be seen in different parts of the world.

Atlas’ Lineage

In Hesiod’s Theogony, Atlas is said to be the son of Iapetus and Clymene. Iapetus was the son of Uranus and Gaia, and therefore was a brother of Cronus. Iapetus was one of the four Titans who seized hold of Uranus, and held him down, while Cronus castrated him with a sickle.

Clymene, on the other hand, was an Oceanid, i.e. a daughter of Oceanus and Tethys, and is sometimes called Asia. According to Hesiod, apart from Atlas, Clymene bore Iapetus three other children – Menoitios, Prometheus, and Epimetheus.

The sons of Iapetus, with the exception of Epimetheus, were all punished by Zeus. In the Theogony, “The lawless Menoitios was sent down to the darkness by wide-seeing Zeus with a smoking bolt, because of his wickedness and overbearing strength…. And he bound crafty Prometheus in inescapable fetters, grievous bonds, driving them through the middle of a pillar. And he set a great winged eagle upon him, and it fed on his immortal liver, which grew the same amount each way at night as the great bird ate in the course of the day”.

While Menoitios was punished for his hubris, and Prometheus for tricking Zeus (for the benefit of humankind), Atlas was punished for the role he played in the Titanomachy. This was the great war that was fought between the Titans and the Olympians. The Titanomachy, which lasted for 10 years, ended with the defeat of the Titans.

Atlas was punished for the part he played in Titanomachy. (Eloquence / Public Domain)

Atlas was punished for the part he played in Titanomachy. (Eloquence / Public Domain )

As a consequence, the Titans, with the exception of Prometheus and Themis, who had sided with the Olympians, were punished. The defeated Titans were imprisoned in Tartarus, the deepest region of the underworld.

Atlas’ Punishment

Unlike his fellow Titans, Atlas was not imprisoned in Tartarus. According to some sources, Atlas was the leader of the Titans, and therefore had a special punishment waiting for him at the end of the war. It is also said that this punishment was chosen because Atlas was renowned for his great strength.

Thus, Atlas was forced by Zeus to hold up the sky,

“Atlas, under strong constraint, holds up the broad sky with his head and tireless hands, standing at the ends of the earth, away by the clear-voiced Hesperides, for Zeus the resourceful assigned him this lot.”

Atlas and the Hesperides. (Mattes / Public Domain)

Atlas and the Hesperides. (Mattes / Public Domain )

It has been speculated that Atlas, as the bearer of the sky, may have initially been the personification of a cosmographic motion, formed by the way the ancient Greeks understood the nature of heaven, and its relation to the earth. It was only at a later time that the character and role of Atlas was developed and incorporated into other myths.

Atlas and Persus

This idea seems plausible, as writers who came after Hesiod added their own myths to the figure of Atlas. One of these, for instance, is found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The Roman poet recounts a story in which Atlas encounters the hero Perseus.

In the myth, Perseus, having slain the Gorgon Medusa, was flying across the desert of Libya, where he (inadvertently, perhaps) caused venomous snakes to spawn from the ground, “the other [i.e. Perseus], (as he bore the viperous monster-head) on sounding wings hovered a conqueror in the fluent air, over sands, Libyan, where the Gorgon-head dropped clots of gore, that, quickening on the ground, became unnumbered serpents; fitting cause to curse with vipers that infested land”.

As Perseus was being blown around by the constantly changing winds, he decided to rest for the night in the western end of the earth, which was believed to be Atlas’ domain. According to Ovid,

“There dwelt huge Atlas, vaster than the race of man: son of Iapetus, his lordly sway extended over those extreme domains, and over oceans that command their waves to take the panting coursers of the Sun and bathe the wearied Chariot of the Day. For him a thousand flocks, a thousand herds over wandered pasture fields; and neighbor tribes might none disturb that land. Aglint with gold bright leaves adorn the trees, – boughs golden-wrought bear apples of pure gold.”

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Apart from embellishing the myth of Atlas, Ovid seems to have ‘freed’ the Titan from the task of carrying the sky on his back. In fact, this task is only given to Atlas at the end of the story. In any case, Perseus requests shelter from Atlas, and reveals that he was a son of Zeus.

Atlas, however, recalled a prophecy by Themis that warned him to be on his guard against a son of Zeus,

“O Atlas! mark the day a son of Jupiter [Zeus] shall come to spoil; for when thy trees been stripped of golden fruit, the glory shall be his.”

Having received this prophecy, the Titan built solid walls around his orchard, got a dragon to keep perpetual guard over his golden apples, and expelled any stranger who came to his land. Therefore, Atlas told Perseus to leave his land and tried to expel him by force. Perseus realized that there was no use talking to Atlas and that he would lose if he engaged in a contest of strength with the Titan.

Perseus, however, had a secret weapon – Medusa’s decapitated head, which he used to petrify Atlas,

“He said no more, but turning his own face, he showed upon his left Medusa's head, abhorrent features. – Atlas, huge and vast, becomes a mountain – His great beard and hair are forests, and his shoulders and his hands mountainous ridges, and his head the top of a high peak; – his bones are changed to rocks. Augmented on all sides, enormous height attains his growth; for so ordained it, ye, O mighty Gods! who now the heavens’ expanse unnumbered stars, on him command to rest.”

Perseus had the head of Medusa during his encounter with Atlas. (Jastrow / CC BY-SA 2.5)

Perseus had the head of Medusa during his encounter with Atlas. (Jastrow / CC BY-SA 2.5 )

Atlas and Heracles

Perseus was not the only hero to have met Atlas. As a matter of fact, the son of Zeus mentioned in Themis’ prophecy did not refer to Perseus, but to Heracles, a descendant of Perseus. The hero encounters the Titan as part of his Twelve Labours. For his 11th labor , Heracles was required to obtain the golden apples of the Hesperides.

Unlike Ovid’s account (where the apples are said to belong to Atlas), the apples in this story are said to have been a wedding gift by Hera to Zeus. The apples were to be found in the Garden of the Hesperides, Hera’s orchard, and guarded by a hundred-headed dragon called Ladon, as well as the Hesperides, the nymphs of the evening. According to some sources, the Hesperides were the children of Atlas.

Hercules stealing the golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides. (Zaqarbal / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Hercules stealing the golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides. (Zaqarbal / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The first task Heracles had to accomplish was to locate the Garden of the Hesperides, as he had no idea where it was situated. As a consequence, he traveled widely, across Libya, Egypt, Arabia, and Asia, having many adventures along the way. For example, at one point, Heracles was stopped by Kyknos, a son of Ares, who demanded a fight with the hero.

Although Heracles complied, the fight was broken up by a thunderbolt. After this encounter, Heracles continued his journey to Illyria, where he seized Nereus, a sea god, since he knew the location of the garden. Although Nereus transformed himself into all kinds of creatures in an attempt to escape, Heracles did not loosen his grip.

Eventually, Nereus gave up and revealed the location of the garden. According to some versions of the myth, the garden is located at the western edge of the earth, while others place it beyond the earth’s northern end.

As Heracles continued his journey to the Garden of the Hesperides, he came to the rock on Mount Caucasus, where Prometheus was chained by Zeus. Heracles killed the eagle that tormented the Titan and set him free. In gratitude, Prometheus told him the secret to getting the apples.

Therefore, when Heracles arrived at his destination he did as Prometheus told. Instead of getting the apples himself, Heracles asked Atlas to get them for him. In return, Heracles held the sky up for Atlas while he was away. This benefitted both parties, as Heracles did not need to face the apples’ guardians and the task temporarily relieved Atlas of his burden.

Heracles holding the world for Atlas. (FA2010 / Public Domain)

Heracles holding the world for Atlas. (FA2010 / Public Domain )

When the Titan returned, he told Heracles that he would take the apples himself to Eurystheus, thereby completing the labor for the hero. He also had the cheek to tell Heracles to continue holding up the sky for the rest of eternity. Heracles cunningly played along, agreeing to go on bearing the sky on his shoulders forever.

Heracles, however, made a small request, asking the Titan if he could hold the sky for one moment, so that he may turn his cloak into a sort of padding for his shoulders, thereby making the task less uncomfortable. Atlas agreed to do so but once the sky was back on Atlas’ shoulders, Heracles picked up the apples and returned home.

In some versions of the tale, Heracles did not request Atlas’ aid but went and pluck the apples himself. In yet another variation of the myth Heracles builds two pillars to hold up the sky thereby freeing Atlas from his punishment.

Atlas in Art

Atlas is frequently presented in art especially in sculpture. The Titan can be easily recognized due to the fact that he is almost always depicted carrying a globe on his shoulders.

This globe may be either a terrestrial or celestial one. As Atlas was punished to support the sky on his back, a celestial globe would be appropriate.

It is a common misconception, however, that Atlas was punished to carry the earth on his back. This is evident in the fact that he is sometimes depicted carrying a terrestrial globe.

One of the most famous sculptures of Atlas is the Farnese Atlas, which is housed today in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy. The sculpture is believed to be a 2nd century AD Roman copy of a Greek original and is named after the wealthy Italian Farnese family. The celestial globe on the back of this sculpture is considered to be one of the oldest depictions of the sky as the ancients saw it.

Farnese Atlas. (Re probst / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Farnese Atlas. (Re probst / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The depiction of Atlas is not limited to Classical art, as he is found in modern art as well. An example of the latter is Lee Lawrie’s Atlas, a bronze sculpture in Rockefeller Centre, New York. The sculpture was installed in 1937.

Lee Lawrie’s Atlas statue. (Another Believer / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Lee Lawrie’s Atlas statue. (Another Believer / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

It may be mentioned that in addition to the Titan, there is a lesser-known Atlas in Greek mythology. According to Plato, there was an ancient king by the name of Atlas. This king was a son of Poseidon and was the first king of the legendary Atlantis. The name of the island city, and the ocean it was situated in, i.e. the Atlantic Ocean, are said to be derived from the name of this king.

Atlas was an important figure in Greek mythology. He was a well-known figure, especially in comparison to his fellow Titans.

This is reflected in the myths that he is featured in, as well as his depiction in art. In the latter, he is still relevant even till this day, as evident in the modern sculptures of this Titan.

Furthermore, due to Atlas’ globe (both terrestrial and celestial), the Titan has been associated with both cartography and astronomy. An ‘atlas’, for instance, is a book of maps or charts. Atlas is also sometimes thought to be the inventor of astronomy.

Lastly, it is from Atlas that both the sunken city of Atlantis and the Atlantic Ocean derive their names. It should be remembered, however, that this Atlas was a son of Poseidon rather than the Titan.

Top image: Atlas was tasked with supporting the world on his shoulders. Source: rudall30 / Adobe Stock.

By Wu Mingren

References

Atsma, A. 2017. Atlas. [Online] Available at: https://www.theoi.com/Titan/TitanAtlas.html

Atsma, A. 2017. Hesperides. [Online] Available at: https://www.theoi.com/Titan/Hesperides.html

Atsma, A. 2017. Klymene. [Online] Available at: https://www.theoi.com/Titan/TitanisKlymene.html

Gill, N. 2019. The Story of Atlas . [Online] Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/greek-god-who-carried-world-shoulders-117215

greekgodsandgoddesses.net. 2016. Atlas. [Online] Available at: https://greekgodsandgoddesses.net/gods/atlas/

GreekMythology.com. 2020. Atlas. [Online] Available at: https://www.greekmythology.com/Titans/Atlas/atlas.html

Hesiod and West, M. (trans.). 1988. Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Day . Oxford University Press.

New World Encyclopedia. 2016. Atlas (mythology) . [Online] Available at: https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Atlas_(mythology)

Ovid and More, B. (trans.). 1922. Ovid’s Metamorphoses . [Online] Available at: http://www.theoi.com/Text/OvidMetamorphoses1.html

Plato and Partenie, C. (edited). 2009. Plato’s Myths . Oxford University Press.

Quartermain, C. 2018. The Titan Atlas in Greek Mythology . [Online]
Available at: https://owlcation.com/humanities/The-Titan-Atlas

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2020. Atlas. [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Atlas-Greek-mythology

Wagner, B. 2019. Battle of the Gods, When Titans Took on Zeus . [Online] Available at: https://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends-europe/titanomachy-0012714

Wilson, A. 2016. The Farnese Atlas . [Online] Available at: http://www.electrummagazine.com/2016/09/the-farnese-atlas/

www.greek-gods.org. 2018. Atlas (the heaven-bearer) . [Online] Available at: https://www.greek-gods.org/titans/atlas.php

www.perseus.tufts.edu. 2020. The Apples of the Hesperides . [Online] Available at: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/Herakles/apples.html

Comments

Hey There Mr. Wu Mingren,

There is a revolving door so to speak where The Book's Enoch are emerging I wasn't kidding when I said that I'm a fledgling when discussing this specific set of Bible Book's, I'm beginning to see certain beings a whole lot different.

I look forward to sharing more from these Book's.

Talk to you again Goodbye for now.

Hi Mr. Wu Mingren,

I hope that you'll take a moment out to read Enoch when I first read it I felt as though my jaw drop because I read about Asphodel & Tartarus located in a 3rd Heaven by Enoch 2 The Book of The Secrets of Enoch, it is on the opposite side of the Elysian Field's an interesting note God appoints various angels with specific task to perform there's no mention of a Cerberus dog at least not yet, there is however Angels who in turn guard over both Heavenly realms.

Enoch 1 describes a great mountain massive in size that Erebus is geographically nearby but, I think this mountain is
Mt. Olympus it's referred to in Enoch 1 as The Mountain of God.

So essentially Asphodel, the Elysian Field's, Erebus, Tartarus, Hell, and Mt. Olympus all located in what I'll refer to as God's country someday it'll be Home for some.

I've got to do more reading so I can find out which fallen angel of the 200, Watchers name means Earthshaker in Hebrew.

Hi Mr. Wu Mingren,

I forgot when Genesis 6, said that the Earth was filled with violence that is exactly what the Watcher Angels and Their Children doing those Baraquiels children and other like then in addition to the killing were Raping and kidnapping Adam and Eve's children in Seth's bloodline it is recorded that is what they were doing to PEOPLE.

Hi Mr. Wu Mingren,

Dagon the fish god? According to The Book of Giant's known as Enoch 3 Aphrodite and other women like her were human.

The Book of Giant's expands far more on the stories that are considered to be myths. The one thing that stands out the most is that these Son's of God identified as The Ancient of Days on Daniel chapter 7, apparently they didn't just marry Human Women they were marrying She-Animals too which is where Dagon came from.

The Titan's the off-spring of those Watchers continued on with this practice, so they too married both Human Women and She-Animals from every known species on Earth that would include the fish.

Since the number of The Watchers stands at 200, anyone of them could be there father.

I still think however, that the Angel Satal is Atlas.

The angel, in Jubilees stated In the beginning of the pre-flood era up until Tower of Babel The Universal language was Hebrew when the languages changed it resulted in the names of those 200 Angels as well their families were changed.

For instance we know the name of Dagon but what was Dagon's Hebrew name in The World before The Flood? Which of the 200 angels was his father? The questions are answered in The Book's of Enoch.

Enoch 1 deals with The Watchers, their judgement that'll befall them as a result of their Sins and Azazel He was the Chief architect behind leading his 199, brother's in Sin; and the near annihilation of Us on Earth. Plus, the first time Enoch interacts with The Living God face to face.

Enoch 2 deals with him being translated in to Heaven so He would not see death. Oh and that God numbers the vast Heaven's that ate out there.

Enoch 3 Deals with The Book of Giant's but, this book gives you a little more names to work with such as Baraquiel means Lightening Giver. All the Zeus' that I've seen all have a lightening bolt in their hand. The Baals have lightening Spear like weapons on their hands this was why Baraquiel aka Baal was identified as a weather deity.

It is all in Enoch just how bad the World was in those days. The Acts of those Angels are recorded in Enoch, Noah, Jubilees, and Jasher who is mentioned by name in The Book of Joshua. I mean there is even a Gilgamesh made known in the sacred Texts.

All the Enoch's are free online. Enoch 1 are in PDF files so you have to download them to read them.

Enoch 2 is called The Book of the Secrets of Enoch.

Enoch 3 is the Book of Giant's, The Book of Giant's Sacred-Texts.com this Biblical Account is Written in the language of Hebrew & Aramaic happily this reading is in English.

Please note that as I've read these particular Bible Book's, I am learning as I go but, through The Book of Giant's, now I know that Baraquiels name means Lightening Giver and since you pointed out Dagon was said to be Baal's, father I'm thinking that Baraquiel might be Dagon's father. I think that the Cannanites, The Philistines, and the Phoenicians reversed their roles in the Family.

"The Caananites and the Phoenicians referred to Baal as a weather deity somet weird figuring of this thing has been found with some kind of spear oh and a marduk deity had the same kind of spear meanwhile, over, in Greece, zeus either, had a spear or a thunderbolt in his hands always shown with biceps"

Now please take no offense in my refutation, as I mean none, but it's very hard to argue that despite the similarities in Zeus, Baal, and Marduk and even the evidence that they inspired each other's designs, epitaphs, and stories the gods were pre existing in their respective cultures and separate.

Your mention of Marduk is actually very counter to your argument. Babylon at the time of writing the flood Tiamat-Marduk purposefully gave Marduk the names of other chief gods in order to phase gods like Enlil (stationed in Nippur) out of importance. They would later take this further and in certain writings suggest that Marduk was a supreme god and that the other gods were facets of him.

Baal furthermore was not a supreme god and was second to first Dagon, his father in certain writings, and El, the head of the Canaanite pantheon who calls Baal his favorite warrior. Furthermore Baal was dying and rising god something found not as a major part of other chief gods, (which he was not) except for perhaps Osiris.

Zeus is particularly sketching as the Greek writers much like many Near Eastern writers would say that two gods were the same despite mythological differences. The Greeks/Romans claimed that Odin=Mercury, Mars=Ares, Bastet/Hathor=Artemis, and finally that the Christian Yahweh=Zeus. These comparisons typically ignored that major traits of certain gods, Mercury was not head of the pantheon, Artemis was a virgin, Ares in his Greek incarnation was typically hated by the Greeks, and the Jews hated the concept of Zeus and lecherous rapist being their Yahweh.

This especially must take into account that there are several Zeus's and several Baals depending on where on these areas you lived. There are many conflicting stories of Zeus which later try to codify, was Zeus the father of Aphrodite or was she an earlier goddess, was Zeus's son Dionysus even his son (we have what seem to be old rustic depictions of Dionysus as equivalent to Pan), and a plethora of other such material. Zeus wasn't even originally the head of the pantheon in archeological records, Poseidon was. The Greeks had a concept of a rather feeble unimportant sky god, and considered earth and underworld gods more important (Poseidon as the earth shaker).

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