Atlas in Greek Mythology

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Atlas was a legendary Titan in Greek mythology. Indeed, this mythological character appears in many compelling stories, from the tale of the exploits of the hero Herakles (Hercules), to the myth that claims he supported the sky on his shoulders. Why is Atlas so popular in myth and legend? Read on to learn the answer.

According to the Greek poet Hesiod, Atlas was the son of Iapetos and the Oceanid Clymene. This makes Atlas the brother of some notable Titans, including Prometheus and Epimetheus. Hesiod’s Theogony features this information about the birth of Atlas:

“Iapetos took as his wife the fair-ankled Clymene,
daughter of Okeanos, and shared her bed,
and she bore him Atlas, a son of invincible spirit…”

(Hesiod, Theogony, lines 507-09)

After this brief mention of Atlas’s birth, Hesiod continues his description of the Titan with one of the most memorable stories about Atlas - the tale of how he was forced to hold up the heavens. According to Hesiod:

“By harsh necessity, Atlas supports the broad sky
on his head and unwearying arms,
at the earth’s limits, near the clear voiced Hesperides,
for his is the doom decreed for him by Zeus the counselor.”

(Hesiod, Theogony, lines 517-20)

It is interesting to note that another of the legendary myths in which Atlas played a part also involves the Herperides. For it was one of the labors of Herakles to obtain the apples that were guarded by these nymphs who watched over the Golden Apple tree. In the legend, Atlas offered to assist Herakles in this task. The Titan then proposed a plan - he would retrieve the apples if Herakles would, in return, hold up the sky in his place. The hero Herakles agreed to this deal. However, Atlas had ulterior motives for helping. He would have left Herakles holding the heavens, but the hero either forced or tricked Atlas into taking back his burden. And so Atlas resumed his role as the tireless Titan who supported the sky on his shoulders.

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