Atlas has been a persistent figure in Western art, literature and philosophy. The geographer Gerardus Mercator published his work as a dedication to Atlas, after which the term “Atlas” became synonymous with a collection of maps. In the Northern parts of Africa, a scenic mountain range was named the Atlas Mountains by Europeans explorers.
Atlas gets so much respect and attention due to the fact that he is the titan who holds up the sky, preventing it from falling onto the Earth and killing us all. But how did he get there, and why does the sky need to be held up?
In Greek mythology the sky and earth are not two inanimate objects. Rather, they are two primordial beings, older than even the titans. Gaia (the earth) and Uranus (the sky) created the titans through their intimate union. Their desire to be together is still so strong that without a force to separate them, they will unite once more. Hence the necessity for a strong and immortal being to carry the sky upon his shoulders.
The Birth of the Titans
Gaia and Uranus gave birth to the titans, the immortal beings who ruled the world before the gods of Olympus. Atlas is a grandson of Uranus and Gaia. His father was the titan Lapetus and his mother was the nymph Clymene. Atlas was the brother of the infamous titans Prometheus and Epimetheus and lesser-known Menoetius. He is also the father of many nymphs including Calypso, Dione, The Hesperides, The Hyades and The Pleiades
The titans were the undisputed rulers of the universe for many years till they were challenged by the Olympian deities led by Zeus. For 10 years these two parties fought a brutal war for supremacy. In later years, this war would be known as the titanomachy.
While Prometheus and Epimetheus sided with the Olympians, Atlas decided to align with the titans. However, Atlas’ role in the titanomachy as a commander of the titan forces was comparable to that of even Kronos. Many sources state that the Olympians feared Atlas’ might.
As valiantly as he may have fought, Atlas and the titans were eventually defeated and the Olympians established themselves as the rulers of the universe. Zeus is known for being very unforgiving towards those who oppose him, and the titans were no exception. All of them aside from Atlas were banished to Tartarus, the deepest and darkest pit in hell.
The Punishment of Atlas
Atlas alone received a special punishment. He could stay out of the underworld, but instead he had to bear the weight of the sky on his shoulders. While Atlas’ role in the titanomachy clearly proves he has the strength to perform this task, there has been some debate as to why he does not simply drop the sky and leave. Perhaps the simplest response is that Zeus has cursed him to remain in that position in the same way that he keeps the other titans locked in Tartarus.
However, other authors have a more compelling and philosophically appealing theory. That is the idea that Atlas holds up the sky out of love for the beings on Earth that would die if he let go. After all, his daughters still roamed the Earth at the end of titanomachy. This theory portrays Atlas as an unsung hero, and is perhaps the reason why his story has persisted unlike those of the other titans.