Greek Titan

Atlas

Atlas was a Greek Titan famed for his prodigious strength and endurance, condemned to shoulder the heavens for eternity. He once passed the burden of holding up the world to the hero Hercules, but was tricked into taking it back.

By Thomas Apel and Avi KapachLast updated on Nov. 21st, 2021
Atlas, Greek Titan (3x2)
  • Why did Atlas have to hold the world on his shoulders?

    Bearing the weight of the world was the punishment given by Zeus after Atlas fought alongside the rest of the Titans against the Olympians.

  • How did Hercules trick Atlas?

    Hercules got Atlas to take the world back by asking for a moment to pad his own shoulders before relieving Atlas of his burden.

  • Who was Atlas in God of War 2?

    Atlas was one of the major villains the hero Kratos faced in the video games God of War 2 and God of War: Chains of Olympus.

The son of Iapetus and Clymene, Atlas was a Titan famed for his prodigious strength and intelligence. Having been defeated by the Olympians in the Titanomachy, Atlas was condemned to bear the weight of the celestial sphere for all eternity. He was a popular figure in Greek mythology, and appeared in the stories of heroes such as Heracles and Perseus. Closely associated with the earth and other heavenly bodies, Atlas was also a master of astronomy, geography, and navigation.

Etymology

The name “Atlas” was likely the result of joining the prefix a- with the ancient Greek word tlēnai, meaning “to bear.” The latter may have been used in reference to Atlas’ reputation as the bearer of the celestial sphere. Some modern scholars, however, insist that Atlas’ name is pre-Greek in origin.1

An alternative etymology suggests a North African origin for Atlas’s name, and ties it to the Atlas Mountains in northwestern Africa. According to this theory, the Greek name “Atlas” was derived from adrar, the Berber word for the mountains that resonated so strongly with the mythic figure.

Atlas Mountain range

Atlas Mountains range, as seen in Morocco.

ErWin / CC BY-ND 2.0

Pronunciation

  • English
    Greek

    Atlas

    Ἄτλας

  • Phonetic
    IPA

    [AT-luhs]

    /ˈætləs/

Epithets

Atlas was often given the epithet Telamōn (“enduring”), due to his toils as the bearer of heaven.2

Attributes

A figure of prodigious strength, Atlas famously bore the world on his shoulders and was renowned for his wit and wisdom. According to a number of ancient sources, such as Diodorus of Sicily’s Library of History, Atlas was a master philosopher, mathematician, astrologer and astronomer. Some sources have even described Atlas as the inventor of astronomy: “For Atlas had worked out the science of astrology to a degree surpassing others and had ingeniously discovered the spherical nature of the stars.”3

Family

Atlas had a large family with many distant connections. According to the best-known tradition, he was the son of the Titan Iapetus and the Oceanid Clymene;4 there was, however, another version in which his mother was Asia (also an Oceanid).5 Atlas had several brothers, including Prometheus, Epimetheus and Menoetius. In some traditions, Atlas’ father Iapetus also fathered Anchiale,6 Buphagus,7 and Dryas.8

Atlas had a number of lovers, including Hesperis, Pleione, and the Oceanid Aethra. With Hesperis,9 Atlas sired the mysterious Hesperides, who were sometimes known as the Atlantides.10 With either Pleione11 or Aethra,12 Atlas had seven daughters known collectively as the Pleiades (Maia, Electra, Taygete, Alcyone, Celaeno, Sterope and Merope), who achieved fame as the companions of Artemis, and would later transform into stars to elude the amorous pursuits of the hunter Orion.13 

Atlas also had other daughters, including Calypso,14 an enchantress famed for her seven-year affair with Odysseus; Dione;15 Maera;16 and the Hyades, a group of nymphs known as rain-makers.17 Atlas had a son named Hyas, an archer and hunter, with either Pleione18 or Aethra.19

Family Tree

  • Parents
    father
    mothers
    • Clymene
    • Asia
  • Siblings
    brothers
    sister
    • Anchiale
  • Consorts
    lovers
    • Aethra
    • Hesperis
    • Pleione
  • Children
    son
    daughters
    • Hyas
    • Calypso
    • Dione
    • Hesperides
    • Hyades
    • Maera
    • Pleiades

Mythology

Origins

Though much about Atlas’s origins remains unclear, Hesiod’s established his mythic role as it was understood in the seventh century BC, when his epic Theogony was composed. According to Hesiod, Atlas fought alongside his kin in the Titanomachy, when the Olympians rose up in arms against the Titans. Ultimately, the Titans fell to the usurpers’ superior strength, and Zeus meted out punishments to all who had opposed him. Atlas was tasked with supporting the “celestial sphere”—that is, the heavens or the sky.

The Celestial Atlas of Andreas Cellarius in 1660

The earth-centric sphere of the universe, imagined here in The Celestial Atlas of Andreas Cellarius in 1660, describes the view as "Ptolemaic," or according to the Greek astronomer and scientist Ptolemy, who lived in Roman Egypt in the 1st century CE.

Stanford University Libraries / Public Domain

As Hesiod wrote, “And Atlas through hard constraint upholds the wide heaven with unwearying head and arms, standing at the borders of the earth before the clear-voiced Hesperides; for this lot wise Zeus assigned to him.”20

Atlas and the Heroes

Heracles

While Atlas had no myths to call his own, he did make several appearances in the tales of Greek heroes. During Heracles’ Twelve Labors, Atlas aided Heracles in retrieving a set of golden apples. The apples, which were kept in Hera’s garden, were tended by the Hesperides, Atlas’s daughters (hence their name, the “Apples of the Hesperides”). Atlas agreed to fetch the apples, asking only that Heracles hoist the celestial sphere while he was away.

When an unburdened Atlas finally returned with the apples, he saw an opportunity to be free of his curse forever. He tried to trick Heracles, offering to deliver the apples with the intention of leaving Heracles to the bear his eternal burden. Heracles saw through the ruse, however, and asked Atlas to hold the celestial sphere for a moment while he rearranged his cloak. Relieved of his tremendous load, Heracles stole away with the golden apples and left Atlas to bear the weight of the heavens once more.

Hercules Relieving Atlas of the Globe

Hercules Relieving Atlas of the Globe, c. 1530, by German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder.

National Gallery of Art, Washington / Public Domain

In another version, however, Heracles built the Pillars of Heracles to hold up the sky.21 He thus freed Atlas from his punishment, just as he freed Atlas’ brother Prometheus from the eagle sent every day to eat his liver. There were also other traditions in which Atlas was eventually released from his punishment.22

Perseus

Atlas also appeared in a tale of Perseus, the legendary hero of early Greek lore. According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Perseus traveled to Atlas’s kingdom in northwestern Africa and demanded shelter, claiming that he was the son of the great Zeus. Atlas refused, as he had received a prophecy foretelling the downfall of his kingdom at the hands of one of Zeus’s offspring. In his rage, Perseus used Medusa’s head to transform Atlas into a stony mountain range—the Atlas mountains. Ovid described this scene in vivid detail:

Although he dared not rival Atlas' might, Perseus made this reply; “For that my love you hold in light esteem, let this be yours.” 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.23

Other Interpretations

There were some “rationalizations” of the myth of Atlas circulating in the ancient world. According to some authors, Atlas was a wise king who ruled in north Africa. Because had an expansive knowledge of astronomy, he was figuratively said to hold the heavens on his shoulders.24

Pop Culture

Atlas has remained a prominent figure in modern popular culture. The name of the Atlantic Ocean can be traced to Atlas, albeit indirectly. The ancients called this body of water the “Ocean of Atlas,” and it is from this title that the current name is derived. The same was true of the Atlas mountains, which Ovid believed to be the physical form of the petrified Titan. The term “atlas” is also used to refer to a book of maps. This usage originated in the sixteenth century, when Gerardus Mercator—father of the Mercator projection—dedicated his map of the world to the ancient Titan once tasked with holding up the heavens.

The iconic image of Atlas bearing the world on his shoulders has been depicted in countless statues, most notably in Rockefeller Center, New York City. Depictions of the Titan have also appeared throughout European architecture, where they are used in place of (or at the top of) a column, making it appear as though Atlas is supporting the structures above.

Rockefeller Center Atlas

This well-known Art Deco statue of Atlas holding the world sits outside the Rockefeller Center in New York, a center and symbol of capitalism. It was sculpted in 1937 by Lee Lawrie and Rene Paul Chambellan.

PortableNYCTours / CC BY-SA 4.0

Atlas was, rather ironically, appropriated by Ayn Rand in her dystopian novel Atlas Shrugged (1957).

Further Reading

Primary Sources

Greek

  • Homer: The earliest mention of Atlas is in the eighth-century BC epic Odyssey, in which he is said to hold up the columns supporting heaven and earth and is named as the father of Calypso.

  • Hesiod: The seventh-century epic Theogony describes Atlas’ role in the Titanomachy and his subsequent punishment.

  • Pindar: Atlas is mentioned in Pythian Ode 4 (462 BC).

  • Aeschylus: The fifth-century BC tragedy Prometheus Bound (attributed to Aeschylus, though its true authorship is uncertain) describes the punishment Zeus’ punishment of Prometheus. At several points Prometheus and others make reference to the terrible punishment already exacted upon Prometheus’ brother Atlas.

  • Strabo, Geography: A late-first-century BC geographical treatise and an important source for many local Greek myths, institutions, and religious practices from antiquity.

  • Pausanias, Description of Greece: A second-century CE travelogue; like Strabo’s Geography, an important source for local myths and customs.

Roman

  • Virgil: Atlas and his descendants are mentioned at several points in the Aeneid (19 BC).

  • Ovid: Atlas and his myth are mentioned in the poems Metamorphoses and Fasti (both c. 8 CE). 

  • Hyginus: The Astronomica (first or second century CE) mentions Atlas and his genealogy.

Mythological Handbooks (Greek and Roman)

  • Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History: a work of universal history, covering events from the creation of the cosmos to Diodorus’ own time (mid-first century BC). Different interpretations of the myth of Atlas are given in Books 3 and 4.

  • Apollodorus, Library: a mythological handbook from the first century BC or the first few centuries CE. There are several references to Atlas.

  • Hyginus, Fabulae: A Latin mythological handbook (first or second century CE) which includes sections on the myths of Atlas and his children.

Secondary Sources

References

Notes

  1. Robert S. P. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 163.

  2. Servius, On Virgil’s “Aeneid” 1.741, 4.246.

  3. Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 4.27.5, translated by Charles Henry Oldfather, https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Diodorus_Siculus/4B*.html (accessed April 8, 2021).

  4. Hesiod, Theogony 507.

  5. Lycophron, Alexandra 1283; Apollodorus, Library 1.2.3. In yet another version, Atlas was the son of Gaia and Aether (Hyginus, Fabulae preface).

  6. Stephanus of Byzantium, Ethnica s.v. “Anchiale.”

  7. Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.27.17.

  8. Hyginus, Fabulae 173.

  9. Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 4.27.2.

  10. There were other versions of the Hesperides’ parentage, however. Some said they were the daughters of Nyx (Hesiod, Theogony 215) or Nyx and Erebus (Hyginus, Fabulae preface; Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 3.44). Other sources made them the daughters of Phorcys and Ceto (Scholia on Apollonius of Rhodes’ “Argonautica” 4.1399) or Zeus and Themis (Scholia on Euripides’ “Hippolytus” 742).

  11. Hesiod, Works and Days 383; Ovid, Fasti 5.79ff.

  12. Hyginus, Astronomica 2.21.4.

  13. These are the names recorded in Aratus, Phaenomena 254–68; Apollodorus, Library 3.10.1; Hyginus, Astronomica 2.21.5, and seem to have been accepted by most ancient authorities. However, according to another source, the Pleiades were daughters of an Amazon queen and were called Coccymo, Glaucia, Protis, Parthenia, Maia, Stonychia and Lampado (Scholia on Theocritus’ Idylls, 13.25).

  14. Homer, Odyssey 1.52; Apollodorus, Epitome 7.24.

  15. Hyginus, Fabulae 82, 83. This Dione seems to be distinct from the Dione named as the mother of Aphrodite in Homer’s epics.

  16. Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.12.7, 48.6.

  17. Eratosthenes, Catasterisms 14; Hyginus, Astronomica 2.21.4 (with Aethra); Hyginus, Fabulae 192 (with Pleione). But other traditions gave the Hyades different parents.

  18. Hyginus, Fabulae 192.

  19. Ovid, Fasti 5.181; Hyginus, Astronomica 2.21.4.

  20. Hesiod, Theogony 515–20, translated by H. G. Evelyn-White, https://www.theoi.com/Text/HesiodTheogony.html (accessed April 8, 2021).

  21. Strabo, Geography 3.5.5.

  22. Pindar, Pythian Ode 4.290ff.

  23. Ovid, Metamorphoses 4.653–62, translated by Brookes More, https://www.theoi.com/Text/OvidMetamorphoses4.html#8 (accessed April 8, 2021); see also Polyidus, fragment 837. It is interesting to note that the myth of Atlas and Perseus is incompatible with the myth of Atlas and Heracles: since Perseus lived before Heracles (he was one of Heracles’ ancestors), Atlas would have already been turned to stone by the time Heracles came to ask for help fetching the Apples of the Hesperides. Such lapses and inconsistencies are common in Greek mythology.

  24. Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 3.60, 4.27; Pausanias, Description of Greece 9.20.3; Servius, On Virgil’s “Aeneid” 1.745; John Tzetzes, On Lycophron’s “Alexandra” 873.

Citation

“Atlas.” Mythopedia. Accessed on December 23, 2021. https://mythopedia.com/topics/atlas

About the Authors

Thomas Apel Profile Photo

Thomas Apel

Writer and Historian

Thomas Apel is a historian of science and religion who received his PhD in History from Georgetown University

Avi Kapach Profile Photo

Avi Kapach

Scholar and Educator

Avi Kapach is a writer, scholar, and educator who received his PhD in Classics from Brown University

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