The Story of Atlas

The Titan Condemned to Carry "the Weight of the World on His Shoulders"

Statue of Atlas, Kokolata, Kefalonia, Ionian Islands, Greece
Danita Delimont / Getty Images

The expression "to carry the weight of the world on one's shoulders" comes from the Greek myth of Atlas. Atlas was one of the Titans, the first of the gods. However, Atlas did not actually carry "the weight of the world;" instead, he carried the celestial sphere (the sky). The Earth and celestial sphere are both spherical in shape, which may account for the confusion.

Why Did Atlas Carry the Sky?

As one of the Titans, Atlas and his brother Menoetius were part of the Titanomachy, a war between the Titans and their offspring (the Olympians). Fighting against the Titans were Olympians Zeus, Prometheus, and Hades.

When the Olympians won the war, they punished their enemies. Menoetius was sent to Tartarus in the underworld. Atlas, however, was condemned to stand at the western edge of the Earth and hold the sky on his shoulders.

The Ancient History Encyclopedia also associates Atlas with a mountain range:

Later tradition, including Herodotus, associates the god with the Atlas Mountains in North Africa. It was here that, in punishment for his gross lack of hospitality, the Titan was transformed from a shepherd into a huge rock mountain by Perseus using the head of the Gorgon Medusa with her deadly stare. This story may go back to the 5th century BCE.

The Story of Atlas and Hercules

Perhaps the most famous myth involving Atlas is his role in one of the celebrated twelve labors of Hercules. The hero was required by Eurystheus to fetch the golden apples from the fabled gardens of the Hesperides, which were sacred to Hera and guarded by the fearsome hundred-headed dragon Ladon.

Following the advice of Prometheus, Hercules asked Atlas (in some versions the father of the Hesperides) to get him the apples while he, with the help of Athena, took the world onto his shoulders for a while, giving the Titan a welcome respite.

Perhaps understandably, when returning with the golden apples, Atlas was reluctant to reassume the burden of carrying the world.

However, the wily Hercules tricked the god into swapping places temporarily while the hero got himself some cushions to more easily bear the tremendous weight. Of course, as soon as Atlas was back holding the heavens, Hercules with his golden booty, hot-footed back to Mycenae.