Atlas: The God with the World on His Shoulders
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.
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 )
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.
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.”
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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.”
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 )
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 )
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 )
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 )
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.
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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
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