Atlas, the God Who Carried "The Weight of the World"

The Story of the Titan Atlas

Atlas in Rockefeller Center
Atlas in Rockefeller Center. Corinne Gill

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. Actually, Atlas did not carry "the weight of the world;" instead, he carried the celestial sphere (the sky). The Earth and celestial sphere are both spherical, 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.

According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, Atlas is also associated 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, though, 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.

Atlas is also closely associated with Hercules. Hercules, a demigod, had saved Atlas's brother, the Titan Prometheus, from an eternal torture ordered by Zeus. Now, Hercules needed the help of Atlas to complete one of the 12 labors required of him by Eurystheus, the king of Tiryns and Mycenae. Eurystheus demanded that Hercules bring him apples that were owned by Zeus and guarded by the beautiful Hesperides. The Hesperides were Atlas's daughters, and only Atlas could obtain the apples safely.

Atlas agreed on the condition that Hercules would assume his heavy burden while Atlas gathered the fruit. After returning with the apples, Atlas told Hercules that, now that he was rid of his terrible burden, it was Hercules's turn to bear the world on his shoulders.

Hercules told Atlas that he would gladly take on the burden of the skies. He asked Atlas to hold the sky just long enough for Hercules to adjust a pad for his shoulders.

Atlas foolishly agreed. Hercules picked up the apples and went blithely on his way. 

 

 

 

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Gill, N.S. "Atlas, the God Who Carried "The Weight of the World"." ThoughtCo, Jun. 29, 2017, thoughtco.com/greek-god-who-carried-world-shoulders-117215. Gill, N.S. (2017, June 29). Atlas, the God Who Carried "The Weight of the World". Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/greek-god-who-carried-world-shoulders-117215 Gill, N.S. "Atlas, the God Who Carried "The Weight of the World"." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/greek-god-who-carried-world-shoulders-117215 (accessed January 16, 2018).