What is the story of Atlas in Classical Mythology?

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Introduction

There are many heroes and gods in the Greek myths, whose name we are familiar with, but we know extraordinarily little about their actual story. This is even though they may have played a particularly important role in Greek mythology and Classical culture. Many of us are familiar with the name Atlas and have a vague idea about his story and role. The fables about the divinity are some of the most important in all Greek mythology and influenced culture, right down to the present day. The story of Atlas is a great example of the protean nature of myths and how they were used to explain and to rationalize the world.

Farense Atlas. 2nd century AD

The story of Atlas

Atlas was one of the older gods of Greece, known as the Titans. They had come to dominate the world and the cosmos after Cronos had usurped his father's throne as King of the Gods. The myth of Atlas is widely believed to have originated before the Hellenes or Greek made their home in Greece. Ancient sources report that he was originally a deity in the Pelasgian Pantheon, these were the original inhabitants of what is modern Greece. There is no one version of the birth of Atlas, but most agree that he was the son of the Titan Iapetus and his wife Clymeme, although some accounts claim that it was the Goddess Asia. Iapetus was the son of Uranus and Gaia and was one of the leading Titans. Atlas had many brothers and the best known of them was Prometheus. In most of the early accounts of his myth, he was married to Pleoine, a nymph. In nearly every account Atlas is portrayed as gigantic and strong, big even for a Titan. Despite his strength, the god was incredibly wise and intelligent. According to Homer ‘he was deep minded’ this was an epitaph that indicated he was far-seeing and possessed great knowledge[1]. He and his wife had numerous children the best known, were the nymphs Hyades, Hyas, and the Pleiades. In some accounts, Atlas fathered the nymph Calypso, who is a character in the Odyssey.

Atlas Two.jpg

Atlas and the war of the gods

When Zeus escaped being killed by his father Cronus, he began to fulfill a prophecy that he would become King of the Gods. When Zeus tried to claim the rulership of the cosmos, he began a ten-year war between him and his siblings and the older deities, the Titans. Atlas was to become the leader of the Titans in their war with Zeus and his allies, the future Olympians. For ten years, they battled each other in a cosmic conflict known as the Titanomachy, for the control of the world. Atlas was the greatest foe of Zeus, who greatly feared him. It appears that the son of Iapetus was a brilliant tactician and leader. During this war, it appears that Atlas fought against his brother Prometheus. However, Zeus was able to secure thunderbolts, from the Cyclopes and this helped him to defeat the Titans and to become the King of the Gods. The Titans were utterly defeated, and Zeus had Cronus and other Titans imprisoned in Tartus, an underworld realm, like the Christian idea of hell [2]. However, it seems that the greatest of the Olympians had special plans for Atlas whom he clearly hated and feared, on account of his great strength and wisdom.

The punishment of Atlas

Zeus did not consign Atlas to Tartarus, but kept him apart, possibly because he knew that he was still a danger and could threaten him and the other Olympians. This fear was probably justified given the great strength of the deity and his cleverness. It was believed that the son of Iapetus would try and rescue the other Titans and begin the war again. Zeus wanted to ensure that he was no longer a threat to his rule and that of the Olympians, named after the new home of the Gods, on Mount Olympus. Zeus condemned Atlas to stand at the very edge of the Earth. Knowing Atlas great strength, he forced the Titan to hold up the sky and the heavens, which was placed on his shoulders by the King of the Olympians [3]. This punishment was to last for all eternity, and in one account Zeus freed some of the Titans, but Atlas was not given a reprieve, Naturally, holding up the heavens was very hard work and Atlas is often shown under great stress trying to keep the sky upright. It was believed that the defeated Titan held up the world in what is known modern Morocco. In the ancient world, this was the westernmost edge of the world, according to the poet Hesiod < ref>Hesiod, Theogony, 8</ref>. There is a widespread misconception that the Titan was sentenced to hold the earth up. This is because many Roman and Greek depictions of the Titan have him holding up a sphere. To the ancient, the sky and the heavens were conceived of as a huge sphere, which later ages interpreted as the globe. People, especially in the Renaissance, believed that the Titan was holding the earth on his broad shoulders. Most Greeks were pre-scientific people and they understood the myth as indicating why the heavens were able to stay fixed above the earth without any supports [4].

Atlas and the Greek heroes

Myths are never fixed, and this is what makes them so enjoyable and also infuriating for scholars. Atlas appears in several myths, that were extremely popular among the Greeks and later the Romans. One that was especially popular involved the great hero Perseus. He was a son of Zeus and he was most famous for killing the Gorgon, Medusa. In one story that is beautifully retold by the Latin poet Ovid, Atlas is not holding up the world but is rather the king of a far-away land. The Titan is visited by Perseus, but Atlas remembers a prophecy, that foretold that he would be overthrown as ruler by a son of Zeus. Atlas began to grow fearful and he forbade Perseus from entering his land [5]. In Greek culture, hospitality was regarded as crucial for civilization, and to deny anyone hospitality was socially unacceptable behavior. Perseus was enraged by this and using the head of the Gorgon he turned Atlas into a huge mountain, and this was named after Atlas. This story is the origin myth of the Atlas Mountains, which are in the modern Kingdom of Morocco. There is another myth about the Titan and a Greek hero. In one myth, Atlas encountered Hercules, possibly the greatest of all the demi-gods and heroes. During one of his labors, which were in atonement for killing his family during a bout of madness, he visited Atlas while he was holding up the sky and heaven. Hercules had been ordered to steal Hera’s golden apples, these happened to be guarded by Atlas daughters[6]. The hero was wary of Hera, the Queen of the Gods, and the wife of Zeus. He knew she hated him because he was born out of an extramarital affair between Zeus and his mother. Hercules was not all brawn and he also had brains and decided to make a bargain with Atlas. He approached the fallen Titan and asked him to steal the golden apples and if he did, he would hold up the sky for him. Atlas was tired of his labor and he welcomed some freedom. The Titan kept his word and managed to persuade his daughters to steal the apples for Hercules. There are two accounts of what happened next and one is that a grateful Hercules built a set of pillars that helped Atlas to bear the strain of lifting the sky. In another tale, Atlas tried to dupe Hercules and have him hold up the sky for all eternity, but the hero foiled his plans and escaped[7].

Gerardus Mercator alt text

The meaning of the story of Atlas

There are many interpretations of the myth and it helped the Greeks to understand their universe at a time when philosophy and science were only slowly emerging. For many ancients, the idea that a fallen god was holding up the sky was plausible. The etymology of the name allows us to understand Atlas’ role in Greek mythology and culture. It is widely believed that the name of the Titan is based on the Ancient Greek for ‘to suffer’ and ‘to endure’ [8]. Atlas symbolized the characteristic of endurance for the Greeks, a quality which they greatly admired. Many later Greek and Romans rationalized the myths in order to provide more sophisticated explanations of the world. The Titans association with the skies led him to be the founder and the god of the science of astronomy. He was widely credited with inventing astronomical instruments such as the astrolabe. There is a close association between astronomy and geography in classical thinking and many ancients claimed him to be the first Geographer. In many mythologies, there are ‘cultural heroes’ who make discoveries and inventions that benefit humanity. The Titan has many of the characteristics of this type of hero and he would have been particularly important to the Greeks, as a result [9]. One of the functions of myth is to order the world and explain the origins of natural phenomena. The myth of Atlas was used in the Classical World to explain the origin of the Atlas Mountains and the Titan was the probable source for the name of the Atlantic Ocean. Because of his association with what is now modern North Africa, the Athenians credited him with the being the first king of Mauretania, a powerful Berber kingdom in antiquity[10]. This is an example of how the myth was used to explain historical events and processes. Plato used the named Atlas for the first king of his fabled Utopia Atlantis. Many people now accept that Atlantis was a parable, created by the great Athenian. It seems that Plato chose to make Atlas the monarch of the island because he personified qualities, endurance, and strength that were considered essential in an ideal philosopher-king [11].

The invention of the Atlas

We are all familiar with the term ‘atlas’ meaning a collection of maps. In the 17th century, cartographers were mapping the world. The great Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594), who produced the first map of the world, compiled a collection of maps. This was the first one ever published. Like so many other intellectuals in the Renaissance, he was fascinated by mythology and named his new collection, after, the first geographer Atlas [12].

Conclusion

Atlas is a good example of how myths are ever-changing and are constantly being adapted by societies, to explain their world and impart cultural and social values. The fables concerning Atlas helped the Greeks and later peoples, including the Romans and Etruscans to explain the world and various events. Atlas is a good example of how the ancients used myth to rationalize the world in a pre-scientific age. He explained the reason that the sky was able to arch over the earth without supports. This fable was also interpreted in ways to explain historical and natural phenomena. The god who was so-cruelly punished by Zeus is also something of a cultural hero. That is, he is believed to be the first geographer and astronomer. To the ancients, these myths were sources of knowledge and values. The figure of Atlas struggling to hold up the sky represented to them the qualities of endurance and power. The popularity of the myth meant that the god vanquished by Zeus was a figure in other myths and was, and indeed remains immensely popular to this day.

Further Reading

Hansen, William F. Classical Mythology: a guide to the mythical world of the Greeks and Romans. Oxford University Press, USA, 2005.

Hard, Robin. The Routledge Handbook of Greek mythology. Routledge, 2019.

References

  1. Homer, Odyssey 4. 5
  2. Hesiod, Theogony, iv
  3. Hesiod, Theogony, 8
  4. . Graves, Robert Greek Myths (Pelican: London, 1997), p 116
  5. Ovid, The Metamorphoses, vii, 6
  6. Graves, p. 118
  7. Graves, p. 115
  8. Hornblower, et al., eds. The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p 34
  9. Graves, p 118
  10. Hornblower, p. 35
  11. Hornblower, p. 35
  12. Keuning, J. (1947). "The History of an Atlas: Mercator. Hondius". Imago Mundi. 4 (1): 37–62