Atlas is a fascinating figure in Greek mythology. Though he was not one of the main gods, he was still an essential part of the natural order. Many important features in the modern world, including the Atlantic Ocean, Atlas mountains, and atlas maps, are named after Atlas.
Who Is Atlas?
Atlas is a Titan, so he is part of the group of gods that came before the Olympians like Zeus. These gods fought against the Olympians for control of the earth, and they were defeated. Most of the Titans were thrown into Tartarus, but Zeus allowed Atlas to remain on earth because he needed someone to hold up the sky. For most of Greek mythology, Atlas’ main function is to support the sky and keep it from landing on the earth.
Atlas was the one holding up the sky, but he was not technically a god of the sky or earth. Instead, he was typically represented as being the god of endurance and strength. He was originally given the task of holding up the sky as a punishment, but over the years, he became respected for not giving up and letting the sky drop down and crush humans.
The Historical Origins of Atlas
The name of Atlas is very old, and tales of this god seem to have existed long before Grecian society was fully formed. Most of what is known about Atlas comes from mentions of him in myths and stories about other Grecian heroes and gods. As far as archaeologists can tell, Atlas never had his own temples, and there was not a significant cult following around him. Though he did not have a huge group of worshippers, he was seen as a sort of patron figure by many Greeks and Romans. Athletes, laborers, and others who relied on their strength highly valued Atlas.
The Symbols of Atlas
Atlas’ main symbol is simply the world itself. In some versions of mythology, he is shown crouching underneath a globe that is balanced on his shoulders. The globe may either have the continents on it to represent the earth, or it may have constellations on it to represent the sky itself. In other versions, Atlas is shown balancing or holding a pillar. This pillar is meant to be a support that holds up the sky and keeps it from falling onto the earth below. All images of Atlas show him as a heavily muscled man. He is normally shown as being middle aged with long, curly hair and a long beard.
The Family of Atlas
The Greek collection of gods is one big family, and Atlas is one of the oldest members in this family. He was the son of Iapetus, a Titan that was born from the union of Uranus and Gaia, the original sky and land gods. Atlas’ mother was Clymene, one of the three thousand daughters born of the ocean. Due to his parents, Atlas was the cousin of Zeus and all of his siblings.
Over the years, Atlas had many relationships. His two main consorts were Hesperis, a Greek goddess of the hours and seasons, and Pleione, an ocean nymph. With Hesperis, Atlas fathered the Hesperides, a group of somewhere between three to seven daughters who were nymphs of the evening. Through Pleione, Atlas was the father of the Hyades, a group of rain nymphs, and the Pleiades, seven sisters who were turned into stars. With other women, Atlas fathered several daughters, including Dione, Calypso, and Maera. His only known son is Hyas, a mythological archer.
Mythology About Atlas
In his role as the supporter of the sky, Atlas has shown up in many myths over the years. Here are a few of the main stories that feature Atlas.
The Titanomachy was the long war fought between the Titans and the Olympiads. This war started because Zeus was trying to overthrow his father, Cronus. Atlas chose to fight on the side of the Titans, since his father was a Titan. He was was one of the main leaders who lead the Titans into battle against Zeus. After Zeus had finally one, he sentenced Atlas to hold up the sky for all of time. Some sources say this was meant to be an especially unpleasant punishment for one of the leaders of the Titans, while others say Zeus selected Atlas because he was impressed by his strength.
Atlas and Perseus
After defeating Medusa, Perseus was wandering the earth when he encountered Atlas. Atlas had heard that a son of Zeus would steal golden apples from his daughters, so he tried to harm Perseus. To escape, Perseus used the head of Medusa to turn Atlas into stone. Apparently, this was not permanent, since Atlas shows up in another myth talking to Perseus’ great grandson.
Atlas and Heracles
Heracles was tasked with getting golden apples from Hera’s garden which was guarded by the daughters of Atlas. To get help with this task, Heracles agrees to hold the sky for a few moments while Atlas goes to get the apples from his daughters. Atlas plans to run off and leave Heracles stuck with the sky, but Heracles tricks him into taking it back by pretending he just needs Atlas to hold the sky for a minute while Heracles puts padding on his shoulders. In some versions of this myth, Heracles feels bad for Atlas and builds the Pillars of Heracles to hold up the sky and let Atlas stop holding the sky.