In Greek Mythology, Atlas was a Titan who was responsible for bearing the weight of the heavens on his shoulders, a punishment bestowed on him by Zeus. Atlas was given this task in retribution for him leading the Titans into battle, or Titanomachy, against the Olympian Gods for control of the heavens.
Atlas was the son of the Titans Iapetus and Clymene, and his siblings were Epimetheus, Menoetius and Prometheus. Atlas also fathered the nymph Calypso and Maia who was one of the Pleiades and mother of the messenger God Hermes.
Atlas and his brother Menoetius sided with the Titans against the Olympians and when the Titans were eventually defeated many of them were confined to Tartarus ( a deep abyss used as a dungeon) including Atlas’ brother. However, Atlas had a different fate, and Zeus condemned Atlas to stand at the Western edge of Gaia (the Earth) and hold the heavens on his shoulders to prevent the two from resuming their primordial embrace. He was Atlas Telamon, or ‘enduring Atlas,’ a name embodying his daily struggle and punishment.
In Homer’s Odyssey Atlas is described as ‘deadly-minded’ and is responsible for holding the pillars which hold the heavens and earth apart. In Hesiod’s Theogony Atlas holds the heavens in the far west, edge of the world land of the Hesperides, female deities known for the beautiful singing. In later years, Atlas is associated with the Atlas Mountains in, Northwest Africa or modern day Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, where legends say the Titan was transformed from a shepherd into a huge rock mountain by Perseus, using the head of Medusa and her deadly stare.
In this story, Atlas was the father of the Hesperides, nymphs and guardians of the tree of golden apples. The earth goddess Gaea gave the tree of golden apples to Hera as a wedding present and placed it in a secret location; nevertheless, an oracle told Atlas that a son of Zeus would one day steal the golden apples guarded by his daughters. To prevent this Atlas refused to let anyone visit his home and when Perseus asked for hospitality in his land, Atlas denied him. Perseus used the head of the Gorgon Medusa and immediately transformed Atlas into the mountain range in North West Africa, the Atlas Mountains.
The most famous myth involving Atlas is his role in the Twelve Labours of Hercules. Hercules was commanded by King Eurystheus to steal the golden apples from the fabled gardens of the Hesperides. These gardens were sacred to Hera and guarded by the deadly hundred-headed dragon Ladon. On the advice of Prometheus Hercules asked Atlas to retrieve the apples for him, while Hercules, aided by Athena would take the burden of the heavens on his shoulders giving Atlas a respite from his duty and also the freedom to steal the apples. Upon returning with the apples, Atlas was reluctant to resume his responsibility and attempted to leave Hercules with the weight of the heavens on his shoulders. Hercules managed to trick the Titan into swapping places temporarily under the guise of acquiring cushions to put on his shoulders to aid in the weight bearing. As soon as the switch was made, with Atlas once again carrying the heavens Hercules took the golden apples and ran back to Mycenae. In some versions of the story, Hercules instead built the Pillars of Hercules to hold the sky away from the earth, liberating Atlas from his burden.
Other Interesting Facts:
- A common misconception today is that Atlas was forced to hold the Earth on his shoulders, not the heavens
- Atlas was associated with Atlantis by Pluto, and the first king of Atlantis was said to be named Atlas
- Atlas was known as being ‘stout-hearted,’ strong, resilient and only a little gullible
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