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Summary Article: Atlas (“Very Enduring”)
from Dictionary of Classical Mythology

One of the TITANS, the son of IAPETUS and an Oceanid, Clymene or Asia; father by the Oceanid Pleione of the PLEIADES and the goddess-nymph CALYPSO, and by the Oceanid Aethra of Hyas and the HYADES. Because of his defiance of Zeus in the Titans’ revolt against the Olympians, Atlas was condemned to hold up the sky for all eternity. This he did at the far ends of the earth, near the garden of the HESPERIDES, either by supporting the sky directly on his head and hands, or by bearing the weight of the pillars which held the sky up from the earth.

Only once was he ever relieved of his burden, when HERACLES came to steal the Hesperides’ golden apples for Eurystheus. Heracles offered to hold the sky for him if only he would fetch the apples from the Hesperides’ garden, so Atlas happily relinquished his weary load and went off to pick the golden fruit (Fig. 90). In fact he planned never to take up his burden again and told Heracles that he himself would deliver the apples to Eurystheus, but Heracles easily tricked the gullible Titan. He asked Atlas to take hold of the sky for just a moment, while he made himself more comfortable with a padded cushion for his head, and the dull-witted giant took back his load, never to set it down again. Heracles seized the fruit and made good his escape.

Another legend explains how the Titan was turned into Mount Atlas, the highest peak in the Atlas range of northwest Africa. He had been warned that one day a son of Zeus would come and steal the golden apples; so when PERSEUS, son of Zeus and Danae, passed by and asked for hospitality, Atlas turned him away. Perseus showed him the head of the GORGON Medusa, which turned him into the huge mountain high enough and strong enough to support the sky with all its stars.

Atlas holding up the sky occurs in art from the sixth century BC. In Hellenistic and Roman art he strains to support the globe. The Titan about to hand his great burden over to Heracles was the subject of one of the panels painted by Panaenus around Pheidias’ statue of Zeus at Olympia. In the Middle Ages, Atlas was believed to have taught men astrology because of his association with the sky and the stars. His name has entered modern parlance in two ways: it was used for a volume of maps after he was depicted with the world on his back in a sixteenth-century “atlas” by the Flemish geographer Mercator; and in architecture an “atlas” (plur. atlantes) is a column in the form of a male figure, used to support a roof or crossbeam (the male counterpart of a caryatid). Because of his never-ending burden, Atlas has become a symbol of endurance.

[Homer, Odyssey 1.51–4; Hesiod, Theogony 507–20, 744–50; Pindar, Pythian 4.289–90; Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 347–20, 425–30; Herodotus 4.184; Euripides, Ion 1–4, The Madness of Heracles 403–7; Apollodorus 1.2.3, 2.5.11, 3.10.1; Diodorus Siculus 3.60.2; Pausanias 1.33.5–6, 3.18.10, 5.10.9, 5.11.5, 5.18.4; Vergil, Aeneid 4.246–51; Ovid, Metamorphoses 4.631–62.]

Text © Jennifer R. March 2014, illustrations © Neil Barrett 2014

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