Atlas in Greek Mythology — The Story of Atlas

Atlas In Greek Mythology

Who is Atlas in Greek Mythology?

ATLAS was a titan, the son of Iapetus and the Oceanid Clymene. Atlas was thought by the ancient Greeks to hold up the sky, and his name means “he who carries”. His famous encounter was with the Greek hero Hercules, one of whose labours was to obtain the golden apples of the HESPERIDES, female guardians of the fruit the mother earth, Gaia, presented Hera at her marriage to Zeus.

Atlas’s Role in the Greek War, Titanomachy

TITANOMACHY - Atlas's involvement

During the war between Zeus and his father, the titan Cronus, a war known famously as the Titanomachy, you would be forgiven for thinking that Cronus, the child devouring monster of a god, was the big bad boss of the battle. However, another titan had adopted this role and served as the leader of all other titans in the war against the rebellious Zeus.

Indeed, Zeus’s most ferocious and deadly enemy on this battlefield was not Cronus at all, but instead the fearsome and powerful son of the titans Iapetus and the Oceanid Clymene. His name was Atlas.

As the son of the Iapetus and Clymene, Atlas is considered to be a second-generation titan. Despite this, he did not lack brute strength and tremendous power. I mean, any being that could give Zeus paws would undoubtedly be a noteworthy adversary.

Homer describes Atlas in the Odyssey as deadly-minded and that he knew the depths of all the seas. He was implying that not only was Atlas dangerous but that he was wise beyond the years of Zeus.

Despite Cronus being the cause of the war in the first place, Atlas was at the centre of the battles, leading the titans against the three Hecatoncheires, who, with their thousand arms, launched boulders at them.

There were also the recently regurgitated Olympians for Atlas and the titans to worry about too. Not to mention the occasional blast from Zeus’s lightning bolts, one that in some legends destroyed Atlas’s brother an equally terrifying titan named Menoetius.

Could this have been the reason why Atlas was so stubborn in leading the charge against Zeus? Or, was it merely a tribal thing, and ‘us against them’ sort of mentality, in which Atlas would have instead stood on the side of the child-eating Cronus simply because he was a titan himself?

We know that not all the titans sided with Cronus in the war. The other brothers of Atlas, Prometheus and Epimetheus took the side of Zeus and avoided much of, if not all, of the conflict.

So, Atlas’s motivations are not necessarily precise. Still, maybe he didn’t much like the idea of having to bow down to a much smaller and perhaps, seemingly inferior being as Zeus.

The Punishment of Atlas

When a battle was done, and Zeus stood victorious, he did not show the surviving titans much mercy at all. When it came to conquering his enemies, Zeus did not treat his opposition’s stragglers with anything but contempt.

The Punishment of Atlas

Hesiod tells us that Atlas suffered a terrible fate at the hands of his conqueror, and that was, to bear on his back forever, the cruel strength of the crushing world and vault of the sky upon his shoulders the great pillar that holds apart the earth and heaven—a load not easy to be born.

So, instead of just being killed off, which I think would have been better for him, Zeus decided to kill a few birds with one stone or with one lightning bolt, I guess.

He established a means to hold up the sky or the heavens and make an example out of Atlas. And who better to make an example out of than the most brutal titan of them all, the war leader, Atlas.

While other titans are seen to incur some nasty punishments, Atlas is the most extreme and perhaps the most famous. With someone holding up the sky, Zeus needn’t have burdened himself with such a huge responsibility. And this, of course, gave Zeus more time to go sleeping around the entire world, with virtually anything with a pulse.

Atlas, meanwhile, was forever forsaken to this endless burden. At the junction of what would become Africa and Europe, he stood as firm as he could, locked in place muscle straining, bones aching, his body in unimaginable agony as the weight of the sky rested on his shoulders.

In other versions, Atlas is described as holding pillars far out in the Atlantic Ocean, which contains the heavens apart from the earth. The name, Atlas, is thought to have meant “very enduring” or “he who carries” by the ancient Greeks and Romans, and this is pretty fitting, given the task that Atlas must endure for the sake of not only himself but for the entire world and all of its inhabitants.

In this case, we can see Atlas is quite a selfless and heroic light, given that despite being defeated by Zeus and despite Zeus’s many children gambolling about beneath him, he never tries to shrug the skies off his shoulders to bring about not just his end but the end of Zeus.

Zeus gives Atlas such a pivotal role in holding up the sky and never once considers that all of their fates would be sealed if Atlas broke free of it. Perhaps he is playing on Atlas’s good nature, knowing that the titan would not drop the sky because he’d be killing himself and everyone else if he did. This show makes Atlas seem more like a tragic protagonist than a vicious villain who waged against Zeus.

There is an honour to Atlas in that he won’t condemn others to be free of his terrible punishment, even if it means killing Zeus in the process. Despite desperately wanting freedom from his burden, he endures it for the sake of everyone else who quite sadly do not even know of his incumbent or at least don’t seem to care.

Why Didn’t Atlas Drop the Sky? — The Lovers and Children of Atlas

The other characters in the mythology hardly mention Atlas, and when others do find themselves in his presence, he usually ends up suffering even more. Another idea is that Zeus has bound Atlas to hold the sky so that even if he wanted to drop it, he couldn’t.

This would make Atlas a prisoner devoid of any free will and curse to hold the heavens. Not because he is morally good and choosing to spare people, but because he doesn’t have a choice.

Atlas here becomes less of a tragic hero and more of a bitterly defeated villain, one whose struggle is almost justified, given that he would not hesitate to destroy everyone, including himself, to be free.

Another idea is that Atlas shares Cronus’s selfishness in that he values his own life too much. He would rather live in such eternal agony forever and ever than end his own life, even if it brought about the relief he indeed craves. Pride becomes another element here to Atlas’s character that he would rather endure the punishment than see himself obliterated, much less be the cause of it.

One last idea is that Atlas will not drop the sky because he would be crushing his daughters if he does. Those he had through the Oceanid nymph Pieone. The goddess nymph Calypso and then the seven sisters—the Pleiades and their children, one being the Greek god Hermes.

In some versions, Atlas was also given children by the Oceanid Aethra, who bought him more daughters known as the Hyades, sisterhood of nymphs who bring the rain, and his only son Hyas.

In some tales, Atlas is also the father of the evening and sunset nymphs known as the Hesperides and sometimes, coined as the Atlantides, after their father.

Some accounts have Atlas condemned to hold the sky at the western edges of the earth, right next to the garden of where the Hesperides lived. So, by this, if he was to shrug the sky off his shoulders, he might very well have felt like he was killing them himself.

Additionally, the Pleiades, after being stalked by Orion, is eventually placed into the sky as a constellation by Zeus. So, you might say that if Atlas were to drop the sky, he would also be plunging his daughters down to their deaths.

Here Atlas gets some nobleness assigned to him, in that he bears this weight not because of his pride or because of his own need for self-preservation, but for the sake of his daughters and grandchildren so that they may live.

In this, Atlas gives up his own life to infinite pain so that his offspring may know the joys of life.

You might say that Atlas sure had a rough deal, and he certainly was not a fortunate titan. Perhaps if he had sided with Zeus, he might have gotten a better deal. Although, if you look at how Prometheus is treated after that, it might not have been for the best after all. But there exists an idea that Atlas was doomed to his fate from the very beginning. From before he was even born, in fact.

In some legends, when Gaia was begging her children to kill Cronus for her, she went to Iapetus and Clymene, who was pregnant with Atlas and his brothers. When the Iapetus and Clymene refused to help Gaia in her quest to murder the terrible Cronus, she cursed a pair of them and, more importantly, cursed their sons. It seems the curse was no simple bluff given how it plays out for the second generation titans.

The Stories of Atlas

In the entirety of Greek mythology, Atlas is only included in two stories. That incorporated two of the greatest Greek heroes, Heracles and Perseus.

The Encounter with Heracles or Hercules

Hercules encounter with Atlas
Source: MET Museum

Many will be familiar with Heracles’ 12 labours, where after being driven mad by Hera, the queen of the gods, Heracles kills his sons and his wife, Megara. After Recovering his sanity, he wished to atone for his grievous mistake. After being advised by the oracle of Delphi, Pythia, to seek employment from the king Eurystheus — Heracles agrees.

It is the king who sets Heracles to perform ten tasks or ten labours. Thus, which he can achieve, but the king disputed the completion of two of these tasks, and so another two were added on.

One was to capture Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the gateway to Hades. The other was to fetch the legendary golden apples of the Hesperides. Those being the daughters of Atlas.

The issue was that Heracles didn’t exactly know where to find the golden apples. But on his journey, he did come across Atlas, still straining under the weight of the sky. Knowing that Atlas was their father, Heracles believed that if anyone knew where to find Hesperides, it would be him.

Atlas did indeed claim to know where they were, but he was pretty tight-lipped about it. Heracles came to a compromise and offered to hold the sky for Atlas whilst Atlas brought the apples to him. Seeing a chance to be free of his burden, Atlas eagerly agreed, so he and Heracles traded places.

Atlas was free! But he did not pick up where he left off in his mission to destroy Zeus and the Olympians, possibly seeing how strong Zeus had grown and probably painfully aware that there were no titans left to lead.

Instead, Atlas did indeed go and get the apples from his daughters and return to Heracles. But when Heracles offered the sky back to him, Atlas declined and said that he would take the apples to the king instead and that this holding up the sky business was now Heracles problem.

Atlas proves here to not only be scheming but also still kind of noble. He could have just walked off after Heracles took hold of the sky and not bothered to come back with the apples at all, but he lives up to his word and even offers to help Heracles complete his quest by taking the apples to the king instead.

You might say that this was a comfort for Heracles by Atlas, who possibly didn’t feel all that good about duping Heracles into this horrible fate but couldn’t stand suffering it himself any longer. It’s almost as if Atlas had reached his breaking point and was so desperate to be free that it was not beneath him to rope someone else in to take on the burden.

I guess you can hardly blame him, but again, at least he tries to offer some peace to Heracles by offering to fulfil his mission—If only Atlas was as smart as he was honourable.

Realizing the gravity of the situation, Heracles pretended to agree to Atlas’s proposal and bore the sky’s weight on his shoulders.

But after a few moments, he asked Atlas to take it back for just a second so that he could place a few pillows on his shoulders to ease the strain. Sensing nothing amiss by this and understanding the need for pillows like no one else can, Atlas took back the sky under the assumption that Heracles would fetch some pillows and come back. Instead, Heracles took the apples and walked off, and Atlas was imprisoned again.

In other versions of this tale, Heracles is far more compassionate, and instead of leaving Atlas to his dreary fate, he builds two great pillars to hold the sky from the earth. Thus, liberating Atlas from his burden.

The Encounter with Perseus

The Encounter of Atlas with Perseus

The second encounter that Atlas has with the Greek heroes is Perseus. This one implies a far more permanent end for the titan. You might say that after having been duped by Heracles, Atlas was far more suspicious of man and in a much worse mood.

Because of this, he refused to let anyone into the vicinity of the golden apples and would become something of a guardian for the elusive treasure. In another version, he is privy to a prophecy by an oracle who tells him that a son of Zeus would come to steal the apples one day.

So, by this, he was hyper-aware of the presence of Perseus, who emerged before him seeking hospitality in the land.

In ancient Greece, the welcoming of guests and the offering of hospitality to weary travellers was a pretty big deal, and to deny a guest of such honours what seemed to be something of sin and something most undoubtedly punishable by the gods.

But because of the prophecy or his suspicions and bitterness after being outsmarted by Heracles, Atlas denied Perseus any form of welcome. Having already slain the gorgon Medusa, Perseus still carried her head in his pouch, and the head was as potent as ever.

Despite being disengaged, Perseus could still use her head as a weapon, in that anyone medusa gazed upon would turn to stone. So, Perseus lifted her head and forced her gaze upon Atlas, who immediately transformed into stone, or as the legend goes into the mountain range in north-west Africa, now known as the Atlas Mountains.

Did Atlas Really Carry the Sky?

Atlas carrying the world or sky on his shoulders

A common misconception is that Atlas was forced to hold the weight of the world on his shoulders and that this has likely spawned out of the fact that he’s been seen in classical art as holding a sphere, which is easily misconstrued as a globe. These spheres are the celestial spheres, which are cosmological models developed by ancient astronomers to demonstrate or reflect stars’ motion.

This idea of Atlas carrying the world may have been further reinforced by what we call a collection of maps, which is also an atlas.

Conclusion

Atlas was most certainly a tragic character in Greek mythology, like much of his fellow titans. He endured great hardship in the wake of the titan defeat and is subjugated to both a gruelling and humiliating fate by the hands of Zeus.

In a way, we can’t help but feel bad for Atlas, given his never-ending punishment, but I suppose we don’t get to see much of what he was like before his sentence. Whilst we understand he was ferocious on the battlefield, can we blame him for defending himself against the rise of the Olympians, who sought to overthrow Cronus and take the world for themselves?

While many of the titans are marginalized compared to the new gods, Atlas sticks out. Most probably because of him being conducive to the survival of every other person. It’s possible the ancient Greeks held Atlas in great reverence to some degree, given that it was he who kept them alive by not dropping the sky on them.

Perhaps, the saddest thing about Atlas is that, in most accounts, after his encounter with Perseus and being turned to stone, he becomes the atlas mountain range where he loses his sentience, his character, and his very being.


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