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Atlas (Greek: Ατλας, meaning that who suffers, endures, or dares) is the nephew of Cronos and son of Iapetus. He led the Titans in the Titanomachy, he was the strongest Titan of all, and after that loss, he was punished with a special labor - he was to bear the weight of the sky (as a globe) on his shoulders for eternity . His brother and best friend was the Titan Prometheus. By moving the skies slowly, he moved the constellations in the night sky.

In Greek mythology

According to Hesiod, he was a son of Iapetus and Clymene, and a brother of Menoetius, Prometheus, and Epimetheus; according to Apollodorus, his mother's name was Asia; and, according to Hyginus, he was a son of Aether and Gaea. For other accounts see Diod. iii. 60, iv. 27; Plat. Critias, p. 114; Serv. ad Aen. iv. 247.

According to the description of the Homeric poems, Atlas knows the depth of all the sea, and bears the long columns which keep asunder, or carry all around (amphis echousi), Earth and heaven. Hesiod only says, that he bore heaven with his head and hands. In these passages Atlas is described either as bearing heaven alone, or as bearing both heaven and earth; and several modern scholars have been engaged in investigating which of the two notions was the original one.

Much depends upon the meaning of the Homeric expression amphis echousi; if the signification is "the columns which keep asunder heaven and earth," the columns (mountains) must be conceived as being somewhere in the middle of the earth's surface; but if they mean "bear or support all around," they must be regarded as forming the circumference of the earth, upon which the vault of heaven rests.

In either case, the meaning of keeping asunder is implied. In the Homeric description of Atlas, the idea of his being a superhuman or divine being, with a personal existence, seems to be blended with the idea of a mountain. The idea of heaven-bearing Atlas is, according to Letronne, a mere personification of a cosmographic notion, which arose from the views entertained by the ancients respecting the nature of heaven and its relation to the earth; and such a personification, when once established, was further developed and easily connected with other myths, such as that of the Titans.

Thus Atlas is described as the leader of the Titans in their contest with Zeus, and, being conquered, he was condemned to the labor of bearing heaven on his head and hands. Still later traditions distort the original idea still more, by putting rationalistic interpretations upon it, and make Atlas a man who was metamorphosed into a mountain. Thus Ovid relates, that Perseus came to him and asked for shelter, which he was refused, whereupon Perseus, by means of the head of Medusa, changed him into mount Atlas, on which rested heaven with all its stars.[1]

Others go still further, and represent Atlas as a powerful king, who possessed great knowledge of the courses of the stars, and who was the first who taught men that heaven had the form of a globe.[2][3] Although some not a king, but Titan who thought the mortals of astronomy. Hence the expression that heaven rested on his shoulders was regarded as a mere figurative mode of speaking.

At first, the story of Atlas referred to one mountain only, which was believed to exist on the extreme boundary of the earth; but, as geographical knowledge extended, the name of Atlas was transferred to other places, and thus we read of a Mauritanian, Italian, Arcadian, and even of a Caucasian, Atlas. The common opinion, however, was, that the heaven-bearing Atlas was in the north-western part of Africa, and the range of mountains in that part of the world bears the name of Atlas down to this day.

Atlas is said to have been the father of the Pleiades by Pleione, of the Hyades and Hesperides by Hesperis. Calypso, Hyas and Hesperus are likewise called his children. Atlas was painted by Panaenus on the parapet surrounding the statue of the Olympian Zeus; on the chest of Cypselus he was seen carrying heaven and holding in his hands the golden apples of the Hesperides; and on the throne of Apollo at Amyclae he was likewise represented.



  1. Ovid, Metamorphoses 4. 627 ff (trans. Melville) (Roman epic C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) : "Now at dusk, fearing to trust the night, he [Perseus flying on winged sandals] landed on the far Hesperian shore, the realm of Atlas, seeking rest awhile . . . Atlas Iapetionides (son of Iapetos) surpassed all men in giant size. He ruled the world’s last lands and that far sea that greets the panting horses of the sun and welcomed their tired wheels. A thousand herds roamed on his pastures and a thousand flocks, unchecked, untroubled by a neighbour’s bounds; and there were trees whose glittering leaves of gold clothed golden apples under golden boughs. `Good friend’, Perseus addressed him, `if renown of lineage may count, I take my line from Juppiter [Zeus], my father; or if deeds can win your admiration, mine you will admire. I ask for rest and lodging.’ But the giant recalled the oracle which Themis Parnasia had given : `Atlas, a time shall come when from your tree the gold shall be despoiled, and of that spoil a son of Jove shall boast.’ In fear he had walled his orchards all around with massive ramparts and for guardian set an enormous Draco; and drove off all strangers from the borders of his realm. To Perseus too `Away! Begone!’ he cried, `Or you shall find no joy in that renown your lies invent, no joy in Juppiter [Zeus].’, and added force to threats, as Perseus tried fair words at first, then bravely grappled him. But when he found his strength surpassed (for who could match the strength of Atlas?) `Very well!’ he taunted, `If you rate my thanks so low, accept a gift!’ and turned his face away and on his left held out the loathsome head, Medusa’s head. Atlas, so huge, became a mountain; beard and hair were changed to forests, shoulders were cliffs, hands ridges; where his head had lately been, the soaring summit rose; his bones were turned to stone. Then each part grew beyond all measure (so the gods ordained) and on his shoulders rested the whole vault of heaven with all the innumerable stars."
  2. Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4. 26. 2 (trans. Oldfather) (Greek historian C1st B.C.) : "Atlas had worked out the science of astrology to a degree surpassing others and had ingeniously discovered the spherical arrangement of the stars, and for that reason was generally believed to be bearing the entire firmament upon his shoulders. Similarly in the case of Herakles, when he had brought to the Greeks the doctrine of the sphere, he gained great fame, as if he had taken over the burden of the firmament which Atlas had borne, since men intimated in this enigmatic way what had actually taken place."
  3. Suidas s.v. Prometheus (trans. Suda On Line) (Byzantine Greek lexicon C10th A.D.) : "According to the Judges of the Judaeans, Prometheus . . . first discovered scholarly philosophy . . . and Epimetheus, who discovered music; and Atlas, who interpreted astronomy, on account of which they say he holds up the heavens."

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