Background: who is Atlas and why is he important?
Long ago, when Zeus was fairly new to his “King of the Gods” role, the Titans planned to overthrow him. This event was called the Titanomachy and it was said to have lasted 10 years. The two main Titans involved were Kronos (Cronus) and Atlas.
During the battle, the Hecatonchires (the hundred-handed ones) “hurled three hundred rocks, one right after another, from their staunch hands and covered the Titans with a cloud of missiles” (Hesiod’s Theogony) ultimately imprisoning them in Tartarus (the deepest parts of the Earth). Unlike the many other Titans, Atlas was given a different punishment by Zeus simply because of how big a role he played in the war. This role was holding up the sky or heavens.
Then why is he portrayed holding up the Earth?
If you have ever seen representations of Atlas, he is often portrayed holding up the entire world rather than just the sky:
There are a few different reasons that Atlas is portrayed in this way:
- The first is because ‘Atlases’ were defined as a book of maps and became the word closely associated to the world rather than the heavens. Since the word itself adapted a completely different definition, many believed that Atlas held the whole earth rather than the sky. The main reason that books of maps were called Atlases was because the inventor, Gerardus Mercator, dedicated it to King Atlas, creator of the globe. However, the King Atlas that Mercator dedicated the Atlas to was an African king, not the Greek titan.
- The second is more subjective than the other but, it is a completely valid reason. This reason could be because the titan Atlas was meant to personify ‘endurance‘ ( Ἄτλας , Ἄτλαντος = to uphold, support ) and therefore the depiction of holding the Earth was to portray Atlas nobly rather than as a traitor to the gods. Since many historians, including the Roman poet Virgil, believed Atlas’ name had such a virtuous meaning, many artists might have wanted to interpret him in a positive light.
- The last reason is that you might not be looking hard enough! Many times the sphere that Atlas is holding up is actually the celestial sphere, not the world. If that is the case, then he really is holding up the sky! This was a personal mistake I made when briefly looking at statues of Atlas:
These were the main reasons I found as to why Atlas was often portrayed holding up the Earth rather than following the actual mythology and holding up the sky or heavens!
Source for ‘Atlas Carrying the World’:
Gillespie, Rowan. “Atlas Carrying the World , 1988–1988.” Digital image. Past Auction. Accessed August 18, 2019. http://www.artnet.com/artists/rowan-gillespie/atlas-carrying-the-world-bo7UOTsaY42tugHTRPEiJA2.
Source for ‘Atlas in Rockefeller Center’:
Agrella, Chance. “Statue of Atlas at Rockefeller Center.” Digital image. Freerange. Accessed August 18, 2019. https://freerangestock.com/photos/61515/statue-of-atlas-at-rockefeller-center.html.
Additional sources used:
1. “Mauretania.” Wikipedia. August 03, 2019. Accessed August 18, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mauretania. )
2. “Atlas (mythology).” Wikipedia. August 03, 2019. Accessed August 18, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlas_(mythology).