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Atlas in Greek Mythology: Story & Facts

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  • 0:00 Origins of Atlas
  • 0:51 Story of Atlas
  • 2:23 Facts About Atlas
  • 3:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

What does a bunch of maps have to do with Greek mythology? In this lesson, discover the story of Atlas, the bearer of the Heavens, and how he has had such an impact on how people look at the world.

Origins of Atlas

Atlas was the son of the Titan Iapetos and Klymene. This would mean that he and his brothers - Menoitios, Prometheus, and Epimetheus - belong to the same generation of Greek deities as Zeus and the other Olympians; however, Atlas decided to side with Kronos and the remaining Titans during the Titanomachy. Once the Olympians eventually won in their war against the Titans, Atlas and the others were individually punished. Since he was well-known for his great stature and endurance, Atlas was bound at the Western frontier of Earth and forced to hold the Sky apart from her for all time. Before his banishment, Atlas fathered several children, including Kalypso, the Pleiades, the Hyades, and the Hesperides.

Story of Atlas

Versions of Atlas's story actually differ on whether or not he was father of the Hesperides; nevertheless, the location of their garden on the Western boundary of Earth has always led to strong associations with Atlas. For this reason, many of the earliest oral versions of his tale were also tightly connected to Heraklean myth. As one of his famous Twelve Labors, Herakles (Hercules) must retrieve Hera's golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides, but instead of picking them himself, he enlists the help of Atlas. While the Titan is gathering the fruit, the mighty hero agrees to take his place in holding up Heaven, yet when Atlas returns, he is reluctant to resume his duty. In the end, Herakles tricks Atlas into taking back the celestial sphere and continues on his journey.

One legend of Atlas involves another Greek hero and plays an important role in Greco-Roman rationalizing, or the process of storytelling for the purpose of reasoning with the natural world. In this myth, Perseus has also come for the apples guarded by the Hesperides. This time, though, Atlas attempts to drive the hero away, but Perseus uses the head of Medusa to turn him to stone. This metamorphosis results in the formation of the rugged Atlas Mountains that run through present-day Morocco and coastal Algeria and Tunisia. These peaks were imagined to be the arms of Atlas holding up the Sky, and as he transformed, it is said his beard became the trees across the mountains, while his hair formed the snow-covered summits.

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