In Greek mythology, Atlas was a Titan condemned to hold up the sky for eternity after the Titanomachy.
Although associated with various places, he became commonly identified with the Atlas Mountains in northwest Africa (modern-day Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia). He was the son of the Titan Iapetus and the Oceanid Asia or Clymene.
He had many children, mostly daughters, the Hesperides, the Hyades, the Pleiades, and the nymph Calypso who lived on the island Ogygia. According to the ancient Greek poet Hesiod, he stood at the ends of the earth towards the west.
Sources describe Atlas as the father, by different goddesses, of numerous children, mostly daughters. Some of these are assigned conflicting or overlapping identities or parentage in different sources.
- By Hesperius:
- By Pleione (or Aethra):
a son, Hyas
- By one or more unspecified goddesses:
According to Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths, the Pelasgians believed the creator goddess Eurynome assigned Atlas and Phoebe to govern the moon.
Hyginus emphasizes the primordial nature of Atlas by making him the son of Aether and Gaia.
The Punishment of Atlas
Atlas and his brother Menoetius sided with the Titans in their war against the Olympians, the Titanomachy.
When the Titans were defeated, many of them (including Menoetius) were confined to Tartarus, but Zeus condemned him to stand at the western edge of Gaia (the Earth) and hold up the sky on his shoulders.
Thus, he was Atlas Telamon, “enduring Atlas,” and became a doublet of Coeus, the embodiment of the celestial axis around which the heavens revolve.
A common misconception today is that he was forced to hold the Earth on his shoulders, but Classical art shows him holding the celestial spheres, not a globe; the solidity of the marble globe borne by the renowned Farnese Atlas may have aided the conflation, reinforced in the 16th century by the developing usage of atlas to describe a corpus of terrestrial maps.
Encounter with Heracles
One of the Twelve Labors of the hero Heracles was to fetch some of the golden apples which grow in Hera’s garden, tended by Atlas’ daughters, the Hesperides, and guarded by the dragon Ladon.
Heracles went to him and offered to hold up the heavens while he got the apples from his daughters.
Upon his return with the apples, however, He attempted to trick Heracles into carrying the sky permanently by offering to deliver the apples himself, as anyone who purposely took the burden must carry it forever, or until someone else took it away.
Heracles, suspecting Atlas did not intend to return, pretended to agree to Atlas’ offer, asking only that he take the sky again for a few minutes so Heracles could rearrange his cloak as padding on his shoulders.
When he set down the apples and took the heavens upon his shoulders again, Heracles took the apples and ran away.
King of Mauretania
Atlas was also a legendary king of Mauretania, the land of the Mauri in antiquity roughly corresponding with the modern Maghreb. In the 16th century, Gerardus Mercator put together the first collection of maps to be called an “Atlas” and devoted his book to the “King of Mauretania“.
He became associated with Northwest Africa over time. He had been connected with the Hesperides, “Nymphs” which guarded the golden apples, and Gorgons both of which lived beyond Ocean in the extreme west of the world since Hesiod’s Theogony.
Diodorus and Palaephatus mention that the Gorgons lived in the Gorgades, islands in the Aethiopian Sea. The main island was called Cerna and modern-day arguments have been advanced that these islands may correspond to Cape Verde due to Phoenician exploration.
The Northwest Africa region emerged as the canonical home of the King via separate sources. In particular, according to Ovid, after Perseus turns Atlas into a mountain range, he flies over Aethiopia, the blood of Medusa’s head giving rise to Libyan snakes.
By the time of the Roman Empire the habit of associating Atlas’ home to a chain of mountains, the Atlas mountains, which were near Mauretania and Numidia, was firmly entrenched.
King of Atlantis
According to Plato, the first king of Atlantis was also named Atlas, but that Atlas was a son of Poseidon and the mortal woman Cleito.
The works of Eusebius and Diodorus also give an Atlantean account of Atlas. In these accounts, Atlas’ father was Uranus and his mother was Gaia. His grandfather was Elium “King of Phoenicia” who lived in Byblos with his wife Beruth. He was raised by his sister, Basilia.
The identifying name Aril is inscribed on two 5th-century BCE Etruscan bronze items, a mirror from Vulci and a ring from an unknown site.
Both objects depict the encounter with Atlas of Hercule, the Etruscan Heracles, identified by the inscription; they represent rare instances where a figure from Greek mythology is imported into Etruscan mythology, but the name is not. The Etruscan name Aril is etymologically independent.