Atlas is a well-known figure in Greek mythology, even if many people aren’t familiar with all the details of his story. The image of the Titan holding up the world is famous and his name is still used in cartography.
This popular image, however, is not all there is to the story of Atlas. In fact, the idea of Atlas holding up the world was never a part of his legend!
So if all you know about Atlas is that a book of maps was named after him, keep reading! These four lesser-known parts of his story show his real importance in the world of ancient Greece!
Many modern and Renaissance images show the Titan Atlas holding the globe on his shoulders. The literal weight of the world is part of his legend.
But the Greeks did not actually believe that Atlas held the world on his shoulders.
During the war between the gods of Mount Olympus and the Titans, Atlas had been a commander in the army of Cronos. While the other Titans were imprisoned in Tartarus after their loss, Zeus had another role in mind for Atlas.
Atlas was given a role that had previously been held by four other Titans. He was tasked with holding the heavens, not the earth, on his shoulders.
The Titans were the children of Ouranos, the primordial god of the heavens. He was Atlas’ grandfather.
When Ouranos was overthrown, the Titans had lifted him in the air to keep him away from Gaia, the mother goddess of the earth. Four Titans had held the heavens aloft, one at each of the four cardinal directions.
Most versions of Greek cosmology said that the four Titans had only held Ouranos until enormous pillars were erected to take their place. When Atlas was punished, however, he was made to take the place of this support system.
Some ancient writers claimed that the Titan held the entire sky on his back. Others implied that he had to hold one of the pillars, which was uneven with the others.
So how did the image of Atlas holding the earth become so ingrained in the modern imagination?
In ancient Greek cosmology, the heavens were a dome that rested above the earth. Tartarus was similarly a dome underneath the earth, so the three parts of creation together made a sphere.
In art, Atlas was sometimes shown holding the entire sphere rather than a dome. This was especially true in later eras when astronomers often charted the stars on a sphere.
It was one of these maps of the heavens that was shown in the most famous image of Titan, a sculpture known as the Farnese Atlas. The swirling details of the celestial sphere on his shoulders makes the shape resemble a globe.
While Greek scholars recognized that the world was a sphere, this was not how traditional cosmology depicted it. The modern view of Atlas holding the weight of the world on his shoulders is based on later misunderstandings of Greek images, not the original mythology of the Titan.
As the Titan who held the heavens in the sky, it is unsurprising that Atlas was closely associated with the stars.
According to many myths, several of the stars in the night sky were the children of Atlas. Among his many children were nymphs who became stars including the Pleiades, the Hyades, and Maera.
He was also said to be the father of the Hesperides, the garden-tending nymphs of the sunset. His only son, Hyas, was placed in the stars as the constellation Aquarius.
The story goes that Atlas watched his daughters and his son move through the heavens. Over the thousands of years that he held the dome of the sky, more constellations joined them.
By watching their movements for so long as their literal supporter, Atlas began to recognize the patterns in their movement. He learned to chart their courses through the sky, making him the first astronomer.
Some writers went on to say that Atlas also realized that this information could be valuable to people on earth. Because the stars followed set routes on a predictable schedule, they provided a point of reference from below.
By seeing where the stars were in the sky, a person could determine the date. The stars were the first accurate measure of long periods of time.
And, importantly for the people of the Mediterranean, the stars could also be used to tell direction. While the sun could be used during the day, the stars could give precise information at night.
With this knowledge, Atlas further expanded on the knowledge of astronomy. He made it a practical science that could be applied to setting calendars and navigation.
Ancient people also believed there was another practical application for the movement of the stars.
Atlas’ brother Prometheus was, according to many stories, gifted with prophetic foresight. According to some myths, Atlas also used both his natural abilities and his knowledge of the cosmos to similar ends.
According to some myths, Atlas himself took a place in the stars after he was freed of his burden. While the constellation known as the Kneeler is most often said to be the image of Heracles, some people believed that it was Atlas struggling under the weight of the heavens.
While the traditional view of Atlas as a leader of the Titan army is well-known, some variations on his story gave him a powerful position on earth as well.
Some later writers claimed that Atlas had once been a king on earth. While he was linked to various places, he was most often called the king of Mauretania.
Although early Greek writers had placed the site of Atlas’ punishment at the edge of the world, a place where earth, the sea, and the sky all met, the tradition of linking him with Northwest Africa gradually became widespread.
To the Greeks and Romans, Northeast Africa was well-known. They had traded with Egypt and its neighbors for thousands of years.
The western coast of the continent was more mysterious, however. It was at the very edges of the known world.
For this reason, many legendary places were associated with the far west.
Heracles, for example, received aid from Atlas to get the apples from the garden of the Hesperides, some of the Titan’s daughters. As sunset nymphs they lived in the west, so it could be assumed that their father was nearby.
Perseus sought out the same garden and, according to some later writers, encountered Atlas as well.
A late addition to the story claimed that Perseus passed by Atlas somewhere between the Gorgon’s lair at the edge of the world and the kingdom of Aethiopia on Africa’s eastern coast. This would, again, place Atlas somewhere in Northwest Africa.
According to this legend, the hero had used the Gorgon’s head to turn the Titan to stone. While earlier myths had seen Atlas freed after some time, this version of the story said that his punishment ended when he became a mountain.
This legend emerged during the Roman Era, when the link between Atlas and Mauretania had been firmly established. The mountains of Northwest Africa are still called the Atlas Mountains because they were created when Perseus turned the Titan to stone.
Atlas also gave his name to two places that might surprise some modern audiences.
We are familiar with the word atlas being applied to a collection of maps. The first such set to be compiled by Mercator was dedicated to the ancient “King of Mauretania” as the first to study geography.
Inside the cover of the atlas, however, there is a feature that many people don’t realize is also named for the Titan. The Atlantic Ocean got its name from the legendary Greek character.
In Greek, atlantic roughly translates as “the sea of Atlas.” It was so named because it was, to the Greeks, in the far west where they imagined the Titan stood.
Another famous place was named for Atlas in ancient Greece, although it does not appear on any modern maps.
The lost city of Atlantis bore a name that translated as “the island of Atlas.” Just as he was linked to North Africa, the Titan was also sometimes said to have ruled the legendary Atlantian culture.
While some later writers assumed this to be the Titan of legend, Plato was clear in saying that the first king of Atlantis was not the familiar character.
King Atlas, Plato said, was a son of Poseidon and a mortal woman named Cleito. Later writers continuously changed this detail, however, and eventually the legendary king of the lost island was conflated by the Titan with whom he shared his name.
Although many people now believe that the Titan Atlas held the world on his shoulders, in Greek writings he actually held the dome of the heavens. This task, which had previously been the responsibility of four of Cronos’ brothers, was imposed upon him as punishment for serving the Titans in the war Zeus waged against them.
Greek sculptors often depicted his burden as a sphere, both for symbolic and aesthetic reasons. Because of this, later views mistook it for a globe and the idea of the Titan carrying the weight of the world became widespread.
In fact, Atlas was much more connected to the sky in Greek mythology than he was to the earth. Although he lived in a liminal space where the earth, heavens, and sea met, many of his myths emphasized his connection to the sky.
Several of his daughters, for example, were nymphs who became stars. Some people even believed that Atlas himself was later immortalized in this way.
More prevalent was the idea that Atlas’ study of the stars and their movements made him the founder of many branches of science. He was credited with being the first astronomer, the first to apply the movement of the stars to navigation, and the first to use them to measure time.
When Atlas was linked to the earth, it was usually not to the Greek world. Instead, he was associated with the distant land of Mauretania.
Northwest Africa was the most remote place imaginable to many Greeks. Many myths supposedly took place there that were linked to Atlas, just as the visits of Heracles and Perseus to the garden of the Hesperides.
Atlas became so closely linked with this region that its mountains are still called by his name today. One later story said that the tallest peak of the Atlas range was actually the Titan, who was turned to stone by Perseus.
This link to the west also preserved the Titan’s name. The Atlantic Ocean was named for him.
While the mythical land of Atlantis was also named for Atlas, Plato was clear that this was the name of another, mortal king. Later writers conflated the characters, however, and the Titan was sometimes said to have founded the legendary kingdom.