The Titan Atlas in Greek Mythology

Updated on March 30, 2018
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

For thousands of years, the stories of Greek mythology have educated and entertained. Even today, the adventures of heroes and Olympian gods are still being read. These heroes and gods needed an antagonist to face off against, and one of the most famous of these antagonists was Atlas.

Atlas is one of the most recognisable characters from Greek mythology, yet people are often confused about his role in Ancient Greece. This is hardly surprising, as many contradictory stories are told about him.

Atlas Holding Up Celestial Globe

Atlas holding up the celestial globe - Guercino (1591–1666)  PD-art-100
Atlas holding up the celestial globe - Guercino (1591–1666) PD-art-100 | Source

Atlas’ Family Tree

Although he was not part of the famous Olympian group of deities, as Atlas was a second-generation Titan and an antagonist or enemy of Zeus, Atlas was still a god,

Atlas was the son of the Titan Iapetus and his Oceanid wife, Clymene. Lapetus was one of the rulers of the cosmos during the “Golden Age”, when his brother, Kronos, was considered supreme ruler. With Clymene, Iapetus became father to four Titan sons; Atlas, Menoetius, Prometheus and Epimetheus.

Atlas was regarded as one of the strongest and most powerful of all Titans, even eclipsing the strength of the first generation Titans. Atlas’s role in the cosmos was as the Titan of astronomy and navigation.

Atlas himself was named as the father of the Pleiades, the seven beautiful mountain nymphs. Atlas is also occasionally mentioned as father to Hyas and the Hyades, Calypso and the Hesperides.

The Titanomachy

Joachim Wtewael - The Battle Between the Gods and the Titans  PD-art-100
Joachim Wtewael - The Battle Between the Gods and the Titans PD-art-100 | Source

The Titanomachy

The Golden Age of the Titans would come to an end when Zeus led his siblings in an uprising against their father and the other Titans. Battle lines were drawn and nominally it was the Titans versus Zeus and his allies.

Atlas would, alongside Menoetius, join with his father and uncles in fighting Zeus; although Prometheus, who possessed an element of prophetic ability, and Epimetheus, remained neutral during the war.

Due to his immense strength, Atlas would command the battlefield forces of the Titans during the war, and would lead from the front.

Despite Atlas’ strength, after ten years of fighting Zeus and his allies emerged victorious.

Punishment of Atlas

Allegorie, Radierung, um 1700 - Meister J. K. PD-art-100
Allegorie, Radierung, um 1700 - Meister J. K. PD-art-100 | Source

Atlas’ Punishment

As victor Zeus set about punishing those who had fought against him; with punishment tending to be imprisonment for eternity in Tartarus.

Atlas was given a special punishment, partially because he had been at the forefront of the fight, but also partially because of his immense strength.

During the ten years of the Titanomachy Uranus (sky) had been weakened and was no longer able to hold himself aloft by himself. Thus Atlas was tasked with holding aloft the celestial globe for eternity. Subsequently, Atlas was to be found in the area of the Atlas Mountains in North Africa.

People often believe that Atlas is holding the earth on his shoulders, and the Titan is often depicted in this way, but the original stories of Ancient Greece make it clear that it was the sky.

Atlas and Heracles

The end of the Titanomachy was the end of the story for many of the Titans, but Atlas would subsequently appear in further stories of Greek mythology. These stories were written by various writers, and it is often impossible to reconcile each story with other events in Greek mythology.

The most famous story of Atlas involves his encounter with the Greek hero Heracles.

Heracles was undertaking his Eleventh Labour, when he was advised by Prometheus that in order to retrieve the Golden Apples from the garden of Hera, he would need the assistance of Atlas. The garden of Hera was tended to by the Hesperides, possibly the offspring of Atlas, and was guarded by the dragon Ladon.

Heracles, therefore, goes to Atlas and offers to hold the heavens aloft temporarily whilst Atlas retrieves the Golden Apples for him. Atlas willing agrees to the deal offered by the Greek hero and succeeds in retrieving the apples. Atlas though has no wish to be lumbered with the heavens on his shoulders once more and offers to take the apples back to King Eurystheus for Heracles.

Heracles realises that he has to do something or else he will never be free of his burden, and so asks the Titan to hold the heavens briefly whilst he adjusts his cloak into a more comfortable position. Atlas stupidly agrees, and before you know it, the Titan is once again burdened with holding the celestial sphere for eternity.

Other versions of the myth have Atlas simply telling Heracles where to find the garden of Hera, Heracles subsequently doing all the work himself. Another tale also has Heracles building the Pillars of Heracles to release Atlas from his eternal punishment.

Atlas Turned to Stone

The Perseus Series: Atlas Turned to Stone - Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898) PD-art-100
The Perseus Series: Atlas Turned to Stone - Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898) PD-art-100 | Source

Atlas and Perseus

The second most famous story about Atlas involves his encounter with Perseus, another of the great Greek heroes. Perseus was returning to Serifos when he encountered the Titan, but the Titan was less than hospitable to the tired hero. In a moment of anger, Perseus removed the head of Medusa, and Atlas was turned into stone.

The stories of Atlas’ encounters with Perseus and Heracles cannot be reconciled though, as Perseus was Heracles’ grandfather, and the Titan was certainly not stone when the grandson traveled to North Africa.

Mercator's Atlas

Gerhard Mercators (1512–1594) PD-art-100
Gerhard Mercators (1512–1594) PD-art-100 | Source

Confusion about Atlas

The confusing timeline of Atlas has been explained in part by the fact that there was more than one Atlas mentioned in ancient sources. There was an Atlas who was a son of Poseidon, but more famously there was a legendary king Atlas as well.

King Atlas was king of Mauretania, an area that equates to modern day Morocco. This Atlas was highly skilled in mathematics, astronomy and philosophy. To make sense of the Perseus/Atlas myth it is often suggested it was the king who was visited by the hero, rather than the Titan.

The existence of King Atlas also brings about the confusion as to whether Atlas holds the sky or the earth upon his shoulder. In the 16th Century, the Flemish cartographer, Gerardus Mercator named his collection of maps after the Mauretanian king, but the image of the Greek Titan was the one used to illustrate the work; the Titan holding the terrestrial globe.

Symbolism

The name of Atlas is still recognised today, even if the connection with maps is wrong. The name is often used to depict immense strength.

Even in modern collections of stories from Greek mythology, Atlas is still an oft depicted character, and the Titan plays a surprisingly prominent role for a non-Olympian god. He was a god who was never in favour with Zeus.

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