According to Hesiod,1 a son of Iapetus and Clymene, and a brother of Menoetius, Prometheus, and Epimetheus; according to Apollodorus,2 his mother's name was Asia; and, according to Hyginus,3 he was a son of Aether and Gaea. For other accounts see Diodorus Siculus, Plato, and Servius.4
According to the description of the Homeric poems, Atlas knows the depth of all the sea, and bears the long columns which keep asunder, or carry all around (ἀμφὶς ἔχουσι, amphis echousi), earth and heaven.5 Hesiod only says, that he bore heaven with his head and hands.6 In these passages Atlas is described either as bearing heaven alone, or as bearing both heaven and earth; and several modern scholars have been engaged in investigating which of the two notions was the original one. Much depends upon the meaning of the Homeric expression ἀμφὶς ἔχουσι; if the signification is "the columns which keep asunder heaven and earth," the columns (mountains) must be conceived as being somewhere in the middle of the earth's surface; but if they mean "bear or support all around," they must be regarded as forming the circumference of the earth, upon which the vault of heaven rests apparently. In either case, the meaning of keeping asunder is implied.
In the Homeric description of Atlas, the idea of his being a superhuman or divine being, with a personal existence, seems to be blended with the idea of a mountain. The idea of heaven-bearing Atlas is, according to Letronne, a mere personification of a cosmographic notion, which arose from the views entertained by the ancients respecting the nature of heaven and its relation to the earth; and such a personification, when once established, was further developed and easily connected with other myths, such as that of the Titans. Thus Atlas is described as the leader of the Titans in their contest with Zeus, and, being conquered, he was condemned to the labor of bearing heaven on his head and hands.7
Still later traditions distort the original idea still more, by putting rationalistic interpretations upon it, and make Atlas a man who was metamorphosed into a mountain. Thus Ovid8 relates, that Perseus came to him and asked for shelter, which he was refused, whereupon Perseus, by means of the head of Medusa, changed him into Mount Atlas, on which rested heaven with all its stars. Others go still further, and represent Atlas as a powerful king, who possessed great knowledge of the courses of the stars, and who was the first who taught men that heaven had the form of a globe. Hence the expression that heaven rested on his shoulders was regarded as a mere figurative mode of speaking.9
At first, the story of Atlas referred to one mountain only, which was believed to exist on the extreme boundary of the earth; but, as geographical knowledge extended, the name of Atlas was transferred to other places, and thus we read of a Mauritanian, Italian, Arcadian, and even of a Caucasian, Atlas.10 The common opinion, however, was, that the heaven-bearing Atlas was in the north-western part of Africa, and the range of mountains in that part of the world bears the name of Atlas down to this day.
Atlas is said to have been the father of the Pleiades by Pleione or by Hesperis, of the Hyades and Hesperides by Aethra, and of Oenomaus and Maea by Sterope.11 Dione and Calypso, and Hyas and Hesperus, are likewise called his children.12
Atlas is depicted on various Greek vases. The scene were Heracles briefly takes over from Atlas and the latter brings him the apples of the Hesperides can be found on a metope at the temple of Zeus at Olympia (fifth century BCE). A marble statue at Naples shows Atlas bearing the globe. Atlas was painted by Panaenus on the parapet surrounding the statue of the Olympian Zeus;13 on the chest of Cypselus he was seen carrying heaven and holding in his hands the golden apples of the Hesperides; and on the throne of Apollo at Amyclae he was likewise represented.14
- Theogony, 507 ff.
- The Library i, 2.3.
- Fabulae: Preface.
- Diodorus Siculus. Historical Library iii, 60; iv, 27; Plato. Critias p. 114; Servius on Virgil's Aeneid iv, 247.
- Odyssey i, 52.
- Comp. Aeschylus. Prometheus Bound, 347 ff.; Pausanias. Description of Greece v, 18.1, 11.2.
- Hesiod, l.c.; Hyginus. Fabulae, 150.
- Metamorphoses iv, 630, ff., comp. ii, 296.
- Diodorus Siculus. Historical Library iii, 60; iv, 27; Pausanias. Description of Greece ix, 20.3; Servius on Virgil's Aeneid i, 745; Tzetzes on Lycophron, 873.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library iii, 10.1; Dionysius, i, 61; Servius on Virgil's Aeneid viii, 134.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library iii, 10.1; Diodorus Siculus. Historical Library iv, 27; Servius on Virgil's Aeneid viii, 130.
- Homer. Odyssey vii, 245; Hyginus. Fabulae, 83.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece v, 11.2.
- ibid. v, 18.1; iii, 18.7.
- Aken, Dr. A.R.A. van. (1961). Elseviers Mythologische Encyclopedie. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
- Smith, William. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly.
This article incorporates text from Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) by William Smith, which is in the public domain.