The Story of Atlas

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

Statue of Atlas, Kokolata, Kefalonia
Danita Delimont / Getty Images

The expression "to carry the weight of the world on one's shoulders" comes from the Greek myth of Atlas, who was part of the second generation of the Titans, the oldest gods of Greek mythology. 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.

Atlas in Greek Mythology

Atlas was one of four sons of the Titan Iapoetos and the Okeanid Klymene: his brothers were Prometheus, Epimetheus, and Menoitios. The earliest of the traditions say simply that it was Atlas' responsibility to hold up the sky.

Later reports say that as one of the Titans, Atlas and his brother Menoitios took part in 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. Menoitios 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.

Holding Up the Sky

Different sources vary in their descriptions of how Atlas held up the sky. In Hesiod's "Theogony," Atlas stands at the western edge of the earth near the Hesperides, supporting the sky on his head and hands. The "Odyssey" describes Atlas standing in the sea holding the pillars that keep the earth and sky apart—in this version, he is the father of Calypso. Herodotus was the first to suggest that the sky rested atop Mount Atlas in the western part of northern Africa, and later traditions still report that Atlas was a man who metamorphosed into the mountain.

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 main version of which is found in Apollodorus of Athens's Library. In this legend, Hercules 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 sky onto his own shoulders for a while, giving the Titan a welcome respite.

Perhaps understandably, when returning with the golden apples, Atlas was reluctant to resume the burden of carrying the sky. 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 and his golden booty hot-footed back to Mycenae.

Sources

  • Hard, Robin. "The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology." London: Routledge, 2003. Print.
  • Smith, William, and G.E. Marindon, eds. "Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology." London: John Murray, 1904. Print.