Nathan (vovat) wrote,

Atlas Supreme

I originally thought of making this post as an immediate follow-up to my earlier entry about ancient cosmology, but I ended up delaying it due to getting caught up in holiday mythology during December. Everyone knows Atlas as the guy holding up the world, right? Well, actually, what he's holding up is a celestial sphere. In other words, he supports the SKY, not the Earth.

Atlas is a Titan who was punished for his part in the Titanomachy (or possibly a later rebellion against the Olympians), and forced to stand on the edge of the Earth and hold up the heavens. That raises the question of where the heavens were back before that. Maybe it was a world in which Belinda Carlisle was correct, and Heaven was a place on Earth. Actually, Wikipedia suggests that Zeus's goal in giving Atlas this job was to make sure that Gaia and Ouranos (the personified Earth and Sky, respectively, as well as the parents of the original Titans) wouldn't have any more children. In some portrayals of Atlas, though, he's not a dim-witted strong man, but rather a wise keeper of knowledge, and guardian of the pillars of the sky. It's this take on Atlas, who was seen as a particular expert in geography and astronomy, that led to his name being associated with maps. Apparently, the word that Homer used to describe Atlas' duty in respect to the celestial pillars most literally translates simply to "has," which could support the idea of his being a keeper OR a physical supporter.

One of the heroic myths in which Atlas makes an appearance is that of Perseus, who used Medusa's head to turn him to stone. Was this an act of revenge for Atlas' refusal of hospitality, a mercy killing to relieve the Titan of his constant burden, or just random jerkiness on Perseus' part? Well, that depends on who's telling the story. Regardless, he was turned into Mount Atlas in Africa. And the lack of continuity in Greek mythology rears its ugly head again when we come to the story of Hercules (or, more accurately, Herakles, since I'm using Greek names for the other characters) meeting a very much alive Atlas, who has Herakles temporarily take his place in holding up the skies. He thinks he can force Herakles to take this position permanently, but the demigod tricks the Titan into taking back his burden. So where's the continuity problem here? Well, most sources say that Herakles was a descendant of Perseus, so the chronology doesn't add up.

In addition to the Atlas Mountains, the Titan was also the namesake for the Atlantic Ocean, and probably the lost continent of Atlantis as well. Plato actually explained Atlantis as a kingdom founded by a different Atlas, the son of Poseidon, but I think it's more likely that he simply took the name of his sunken continent from that of the ocean. After all, the name "Atlantic" was known to have been used for the ocean by Herodotus, some time prior to the birth of Plato.

Next week, I think I'll take a more thorough look at the myth of Perseus, a favorite story from my own childhood.
Tags: history, mythology

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