Atlas, The Greek Titan

by Marianne Mesina

Have you ever wondered how the skies stay aloft above the earth? In Greek Mythology, a Titan named Atlas explains it all. He was known as “the bearer of the skies”, holding up the heavens on his bare shoulders. Carrying the heavy sky seemed tough enough, but imagine having to do so for all eternity! Well the Titan Atlas didn’t have to imagine this, because unfortunately for him, he had to live with that punishment until forever ended.
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Atlas is best illustrated and is mostly seen as a strong man holding up the earth instead of the skies


Atlas was the son of the first generation Titans, Iaepetus and Klymene (also known as “Asia” in Apollodorus). He had three brothers - Prometheus, Menoetius, and Epimetheus. Atlas did not have a close relationship with his brothers, considering the fact that later on when the Titans declared war on the gods, Atlas sided with Cronus and the Titans while Prometheus and Epimetheus (often referred to as the “twin titans” because of their inseparability), sided with Zeus and the gods. The three Titans each possessed unique characteristics, personalities, and stories, with Prometheus being illustrated as the clever, witty one, Epimetheus as the foolish, materialistic one, and Atlas as the bearer of the skies. Prometheus was considered as the clever and intelligent one because he found a way to steal fire from Zeus and gave it to the humans whom he loved. As punishment, Zeus bounded him to a rock and ordered a majestic eagle to come and pick at his liver each day for all eternity. His liver would grow back the next day; therefore the eagle would come back every day and pick at his endless supply of liver for all perpetuity. Epimetheus was depicted as the foolish and materialistic one because when it came time to give humans traits (which the “twin Titans” were in charge of doing), Epimetheus found himself blank minded and lacked foresight. Although there are a lot of other stories on the “twin Titans”, Atlas’s other brother, Menoetius, did not have as many and stood less known compared to his other three Titan brothers. (Theoi.com)

Atlas was the leader of the Titans during the war against Zeus and the gods (Low, pg. 9). For ten years, the plain of Thessaly had been a battle site of the war between the Titans and the gods. It all started when Gaia and Uranus fell in love and bore six boys and six girls. The youngest of the twelve was Cronus, who would later on become one of the most powerful figures in Greek history. Although Gaia and Uranus had twelve strong wonderful children, they also gave birth to six, terrifying creatures. Uranus treated the six horribly, which caused Gaia to urge on her children to overthrow their father. Later on, Cronus ended up overthrowing Uranus, becoming the next leader of the earth, sky, time, and age. Then, Cronus and his sister, Rhea, had children (which would become the gods and goddesses), but Cronus devoured all five of them because he had been warned that he was destined to be overthrown by his own son, just like how he overthrew his own father, Uranus. Frightened, he decided to eat all of his children to make sure he can maintain his power. What Cronus didn’t know was that Rhea hid their sixth son, Zeus, with the help of her mother, Gaia. When Zeus grew up, he saved his other siblings who were inside Cronus’s stomach by poisoning Cronus and making him throw them up. With the help of his freed siblings, Zeus and the other gods fought the Titans for a decade. Leading the Titans was Atlas, who made sure that Zeus’s attacks would not go unanswered and leading the gods was Zeus, who struck his enemies with his massive thunderbolt. Although both sides fought as hard as they could, the long battle ended with Zeus and the gods claiming victory and the Titans were punished harshly. (Bingham, pg. 12)


While most of the creatures and Titans who lost the war to the gods were sent to Tartarus by Zeus, Atlas was given a special and severe kind of punishment. Zeus punished him with the misery of carrying the skies upon his shoulders for all eternity. In Greek Mythology, this explains why the skies stay above the earth and why the earth and the skies never collide. Atlas could not do anything else but hold up the skies; a punishment that made Atlas known to be the “bearer of the skies” or “bearer of the heavens”. Some Greek tales even state that he is the inventor of astronomy
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Atlas, the "Father of Astronomy"
, being the master of those stars that shine in the sky which he holds up. It is said that he is responsible for the rotation of the skies from day and night, causing the stars to move. Atlas was best known for his relation to the stars and skies. (www.theoi.com)

Other legends say that he was also the King of Africa because he was believed to be holding up the skies in the northwestern part of Africa where Mount Atlas lies (hence the name Mount “Atlas”). There were also stories illustrating Mount Atlas being Atlas himself – that Perseus turned the Titan into stone (in this case, a mountain) using Medusa’s head. It is told in one Greek tale that after Perseus had slain Medusa’s head off, he journeyed on and ran into Atlas in the northwest part of Africa. He hoped for rest and food from the Titan, but the Titan remembered a warning from the oracle that a son of Jove would come and steal a golden fruit from his garden. Frightened, he tells him to get lost, which drove Perseus mad. He held up the gorgon Medusa’s head towards the Titan and turned him into a mountain – his beard transformed into a forest, his shoulders, arms, and hands became cliffs, his bones altered to rocks, and his face the summit. This was the transformation of Atlas from a living Titan to a Mountain. (www.rickwalton.com)

Holding up the skies for all eternity, Atlas would take any chance just to pass his burden onto someone else. Atlas actually had this chance, but was outsmarted by the great Heracles. The great Heracles, also known as Hercules, was the son of Zeus and Alcemen. He is a well known Greek figure, possessing great strength, which he used to perform his twelve great labors. One of those labors was to get the golden apples of Hera.
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Golden Apple of Hera
The apples were located in the garden of Hesperides and when Hercules asked Prometheus, Atlas’s brother, where he can find the garden, he suggested that he should see Atlas in Mount Africa, where Atlas serves his punishment of carrying the skies. Prometheus also alerted him that a mortal may not pick the apples himself for the apples were mother earth’s gift to Hera. Hercules journeyed to Mount Africa to see Atlas, keeping in mind what Prometheus had informed him. When he got there, he asked the Titan Atlas if he could go to the garden of Hesperides to go and get the apples for him and he would hold up the sky for Atlas while he’s gone. Gladdened Atlas agreed to do his favor, deviously planning to make Heracles take his spot for the rest of time. Atlas then took off to the garden and brought back the apples. Still needing to journey back with the apples, Hercules asked Atlas to hand over the apples so he could get going. Atlas, working his plan, replied that he would go bring them back for him. What Atlas didn’t know was that Hercules was already one step ahead of him. He had already figured Atlas’s plan, therefore he came up with a counter trick. He approved of Atlas’s suggestion, replying “just hold up the sky for a minute while I make a pad for my shoulders. They are getting sore” (Low, pg 106), as if he was really planning to hold up the skies for all eternity. Gullible Atlas was fooled by Heracles and did what he had planned for him to do. Atlas held up the sky once again and as he was doing so, Heracles snatched the apples and ran off with them. Dumbfounded Atlas watched him get away with wrath as he realized that he wasted his chance of freeing himself from his cruel punishment from Zeus. (Low, pg. 106)

The Titan Atlas was known for a lot of things in Greek Mythology. “Bearer of the skies”, “Bearer of the Heavens”, “King of Africa”, and “Father of Astronomy” are just a few titles that the Titan holds. Throughout his time, he had undergone many challenges and endeavors, but in the end, being the leading general of the evil Cronus caused him a punishment worth a lifetime. Atlas may not be illustrated as a good guy, but he sure is known for doing the world a favor: for making sure that our skies stay aloft above our earth.




Work Cited

-Atsma, Aaron J. "ATLAS : Greek Titan God Bearer of the Heavens ; Mythology ; Pictures."THEOI GREEK MYTHOLOGY, Exploring Mythology & the Greek Gods in Classical Literature & Art. Theoi Project, 2000-2001. Web. 29 Nov. 2011. <http://www.theoi.com/Titan/TitanAtlas.html>
-Lindemans, Micha F. "Atlas." Encyclopedia Mythica: Mythology, Folklore, and Religion. MCMXCV, 03 Mar. 1997. Web. 05 Dec. 2011. <http://www.pantheon.org/articles/a/atlas.html>
-DeWitt Starnes and E. W. Talbert, Classical Myth and Legend in Renaissance Dictionaries (1955).
-"Atlas, in Greek Mythology." EBSCO Publishing Service Selection Page. Columbia, Jan.-Feb. 2011. Web. 05 Dec. 2011. <http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?vid=9> (Could Not find author)
-http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlas_(mythology)
-Bingham, Jane. Classical Myth: a Treasury of Greek and Roman Legends, Art, and History. Edison, NJ: Chartwell, 2007. Print.
-Low, Alice, and Arvis L. Stewart. The Macmillan Book of Greek Gods and Heroes. New York: Aladdin, 1994. Print
-Rick, Walton. "Perseus and Atlas." Rick Walton's Home Page. 27 Sept. 2003. Web. 13 Dec. 2011. <http://www.rickwalton.com/authtale/bmyth030.htm>.