A Summary and Analysis of the Myth of Atlas and the Heavens

Literature

How did Atlas, the figure from Greek mythology, come to give his name to a book of maps? And how did he give his name to one of the most famous geographical features in the world? Let’s take a closer look at the Atlas myth. Atlas was a Titan who was punished by being made to carry the heavens on his shoulders; but what does this story mean? First, a brief outline and summary of the myth, followed by an analysis of its meaning.

Myth of Atlas: plot summary

Atlas was a giant. In many versions of the myth he was the son of Iapetus and Clymene (though some writers give the sea nymph, Asia, as his mother). Whether Atlas was a Titan or not depends on how strictly one interprets the definition of ‘Titan’, as well as which version of myth we follow: the Titans were, strictly speaking, the six children of the god Uranus and the goddess Gaia, and in one rendering of Greek mythology, Atlas was one of Uranus’ sons. Alternatively, since Iapetus was himself a Titan it seems churlish not to acknowledge that Atlas, his son, was also a Titan. Either way, he was enormous, and lived during the time preceding the arrival of the Olympians.

Being a giant, Atlas sided with the giants in the protracted war that took place between the gods and the giants: a war which the giants lost. Zeus, who led the Olympians and thus ushered in a new age, condemned Atlas, as the leader of the rebellious Titans, to an eternal punishment: he must carry the sky or heavens on his shoulders for the rest of time. Zeus’ defeat of the Titans heralded the end of the Titanomachy and the arrival of the Olympians as divine rulers over the world.

Atlas’ story didn’t end there. He also features in the exploits of Heracles (better known by his Roman name, Hercules), when Hercules tricked Atlas into retrieving some of the golden apples of the Hesperides for him. He offered to help shoulder Atlas’ burden for the Titan, while Atlas went off and stole the apples from the garden. But when Atlas returned with the fruit, he was reluctant to resume his burden, telling Hercules to keep hold of the heavens as he’d had enough of carrying them about.

So Hercules tricked Atlas by initially agreeing to the request, but asking that Atlas take the heavens back onto his shoulders for just a moment while Heracles adjusted his cloak (or added a cushion behind his head). Atlas, clearly not the brightest of Titans, agreed, whereupon Heracles strolled off with the apples Atlas had retrieved for him.

Myth of Atlas: analysis

The Titans often end up being given terrible eternal punishments for angering the gods, and the emergence of the Olympians, with Zeus as their head god, is a kind of origin-story explaining how the most famous group of ancient Greek deities came to rule over the world.

So Atlas’ fellow Titan, Prometheus, famously stole the flare of eternal fire from Mount Olympus in, of all things, a tube of fennel, giving the secret of fire to mortal men (although technically, if we’re being pedantic, he gave fire back to man). For this act he was punished by Zeus:

chained to a rock and then subjected to the agonising ordeal of having his liver pecked out by an eagle. His liver would grow back every night, so Prometheus would have to endure the same fate every day. The punishment is designed to show Zeus’ all-powerful nature. The message is clear: don’t mess with Zeus and the gods of Olympus.

The punishment of Atlas is less gruesome, but was still designed to last for eternity (although Prometheus, at least, was eventually let off early for good behaviour, as we reveal in the post linked to in the above paragraph). But Atlas, too, eventually escaped his punishment, following his encounter with Perseus, the famous hero who slew the Gorgon, Medusa.

As we explore in our discussion of the Medusa myth, even gazing at the face of Medusa was enough to turn people to stone. On his way back from his adventure, with the severed head of Medusa in his possession, Perseus asked Atlas for hospitality, but the Titan refused him. So Perseus, annoyed, showed Medusa’s head to him, and Atlas was transformed into a rock – usually, in many versions of the myth, the rocks that now form the Atlas Mountains in north Africa, named after the Titan.

Atlas has given his name to a range of mountains, but that isn’t the most famous, or the largest, geographical feature which is named after him. The Atlantic Ocean, in the works of Stesichorus and Herodotus from antiquity, was called the ‘Sea of Atlas’ or ‘the Atlantic sea’, in reference to the ocean beyond the Pillars of Hercules (at the western end of the Mediterranean). Quite why they chose Atlas is not clear, but the Titan’s great size, and his ability to carry the heavens above him, probably had a lot to do with it.

How did Atlas come to lend his name to a collection of maps? That was all down to the sixteenth-century Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator, who applied that name to his book of maps published in 1595. But although many atlases published since have shown the Titan struggling to carry the world on his shoulders, we now know that it was the skies rather than the earth that Atlas had to bear.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

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