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Greek Mythology : Atlas Bears The Heavens On His Shoulders


Atlas was the son of the Titans Iapetus and Clymene, and his siblings were Epimetheus, Menoetius and Prometheus. Atlas also fathered the nymph Calypso and Maia who was one of the Pleiades and mother of the messenger god Hermes.

Atlas and his brother Menoetius sided with the Titans against the Olympians and when the Titans were eventually defeated many of them were confined to Tartarus ( a deep abyss used as a dungeon) including Atlas’ brother. However, Atlas had a different fate, and Zeus condemned Atlas to stand at the Western edge of Gaia (the Earth) and hold the heavens on his shoulders to prevent the two from resuming their primordial embrace. He was Atlas Telamon, or ‘enduring Atlas,’ a name embodying his daily struggle and punishment.

In Homer’s Odyssey Atlas is described as ‘deadly-minded’ and is responsible for holding the pillars which hold the heavens and earth apart. In Hesiod’s Theogony Atlas holds the heavens in the far west, edge of the world land of the Hesperides, female deities known for the beautiful singing. In later years, Atlas is associated with the Atlas Mountains in, Northwest Africa or modern day Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, where legends say the Titan was transformed from a shepherd into a huge rock mountain by Perseus, using the head of Medusa and her deadly stare.

In this story, Atlas was the father of the Hesperides, nymphs and guardians of the tree of golden apples. The earth goddess Gaea gave the tree of golden apples to Hera as a wedding present and placed it in a secret location; nevertheless, an oracle told Atlas that a son of Zeus would one day steal the golden apples guarded by his daughters. To prevent this Atlas refused to let anyone visit his home and when Perseus asked for hospitality in his land, Atlas denied him. Perseus used the head of the Gorgon Medusa and immediately transformed Atlas into the mountain range in North West Africa, the Atlas Mountains.

golden apple

The most famous myth involving Atlas is his role in the Twelve Labours of Hercules. Hercules was commanded by King Eurystheus to steal the golden apples from the fabled gardens of the Hesperides. These gardens were sacred to Hera and guarded by the deadly hundred-headed dragon Ladon. On the advice of Prometheus Hercules asked Atlas to retrieve the apples for him, while Hercules, aided by Athena would take the burden of the heavens on his shoulders giving Atlas a respite from his duty and also the freedom to steal the apples.

Upon returning with the apples, Atlas was reluctant to resume his responsibility and attempted to leave Hercules with the weight of the heavens on his shoulders. Hercules managed to trick the Titan into swapping places temporarily under the guise of acquiring cushions to put on his shoulders to aid in the weight bearing. As soon as the switch was made, with Atlas once again carrying the heavens Hercules took the golden apples and ran back to Mycenae. In some versions of the story, Hercules instead built the Pillars of Hercules to hold the sky away from the earth, liberating Atlas from his burden.

Other Interesting Facts:

  • A common misconception today is that Atlas was forced to hold the Earth on his shoulders, not the heavens
  • Atlas was associated with Atlantis by Pluto, and the first king of Atlantis was said to be named Atlas
  • Atlas was known as being ‘stout-hearted,’ strong, resilient and only a little gullible
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Zeus is the sky and thunder god in ancient Greek religion, who rules as king of the gods of Mount Olympus. His name is cognate with the first element of his Roman equivalent Jupiter. His mythologies and powers are similar, though not identical, to those of Indo-European deities such as JupiterPerkūnasPerunIndra and Thor.

Zeus is the child of Cronus and Rhea, the youngest of his siblings to be born, though sometimes reckoned the eldest as the others required disgorging from Cronus’s stomach. In most traditions, he is married to Hera, by whom he is usually said to have fathered AresHebe, and Hephaestus. At the oracle of Dodona, his consort was said to be Dione, by whom the Iliad states that he fathered Aphrodite. Zeus was also infamous for his erotic escapades.

These resulted in many divine and heroic offspring – AthenaApolloArtemisHermesPersephoneDionysusPerseusHeraclesHelen of TroyMinos, and the Muses.

He was respected as an allfather who was chief of the gods and assigned the others to their roles: “Even the gods who are not his natural children address him as Father, and all the gods rise in his presence.” He was equated with many foreign weather gods, permitting Pausanias to observe “That Zeus is king in heaven is a saying common to all men”. Zeus’ symbols are the thunderbolt, eagle, bull, and oak. Zeus is frequently depicted by Greek artists in one of two poses: standing, striding forward with a thunderbolt leveled in his raised right hand, or seated in majesty.


Calypso was a nymph in Greek mythology, who lived on the island of Ogygia, where, according to the Odyssey, she detained Odysseus for seven years.


Hermes is the god of trade, heraldry, merchants, commerce, roads, thieves, trickery, sports, travelers, and athletes in Ancient Greek religion and mythology; the son of Zeus and the Pleiad Maia, he was the second youngest of the Olympian gods (Dionysus being the youngest).

Hermes was the emissary and messenger of the gods. Hermes was also “the divine trickster” and “the god of boundaries and the transgression of boundaries, … the patron of herdsmen, thieves, graves, and heralds.” He is described as moving freely between the worlds of the mortal and divine, and was the conductor of souls into the afterlife. He was also viewed as the protector and patron of roads and travelers.


Perseus was the son of Zeus and Danaë, the daughter of Acrisius, King of Argos. Disappointed by his lack of luck in having a son, Acrisius consulted the oracle at Delphi, who warned him that he would one day be killed by his daughter’s son. In order to keep Danaë childless, Acrisius imprisoned her in a bronze chamber, open to the sky, in the courtyard of his palace. Zeus came to her in the form of a shower of gold, and impregnated her. Soon after, their child was born: Perseus—”Perseus Eurymedon, for his mother gave him this name as well”.

Fearful for his future, but unwilling to provoke the wrath of the gods by killing the offspring of Zeus and his daughter, Acrisius cast the two into the sea in a wooden chest. Danaë’s fearful prayer, made while afloat in the darkness, has been expressed by the poet Simonides of Ceos. Mother and child washed ashore on the island of Serifos, where they were taken in by the fisherman Dictys (“fishing net”), who raised the boy to manhood. The brother of Dictys was Polydectes (“he who receives/welcomes many”), the king of the island.

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Medusa was a monster, generally described as a winged human female with living venomous snakes in place of hair. Those who gazed upon her face would turn to stone. Most sources describe her as the daughter of Phorcys and Ceto, though the author Hyginus makes her the daughter of Gorgon and Ceto.

Medusa was beheaded by the hero Perseus, who thereafter used her head, which retained its ability to turn onlookers to stone, as a weapon until he gave it to the goddess Athena to place on her shield. In classical antiquity the image of the head of Medusa appeared in the evil-averting device known as the Gorgoneion.


Hera is the goddess of women, marriage, family, and childbirth in ancient Greek religion and myth, one of the Twelve Olympians and the sister-wife of Zeus. She is the daughter of the Titans Cronus and Rhea. Hera rules over Mount Olympus as queen of the gods. A matronly figure, Hera served as both the patroness and protectress of married women, presiding over weddings and blessing marital unions. One of Hera’s defining characteristics is her jealous and vengeful nature against Zeus’ numerous lovers and illegitimate offspring, as well as the mortals who cross her.

Hera is commonly seen with the animals she considers sacred including the cow, lion and the peacock. Portrayed as majestic and solemn, often enthroned, and crowned with the polos (a high cylindrical crown worn by several of the Great Goddesses), Hera may hold a pomegranate in her hand, emblem of fertile blood and death and a substitute for the narcotic capsule of the opium poppy. Scholar of Greek mythology Walter Burkert writes in Greek Religion, “Nevertheless, there are memories of an earlier aniconic representation, as a pillar in Argos and as a plank in Samos.”


Gaea is the personification of the Earth and one of the Greek primordial deities. Gaia is the ancestral mother of all life: the primal Mother Earth goddess. She is the immediate parent of Uranus (the sky), from whose sexual union she bore the Titans (themselves parents of many of the Olympian gods) and the Giants, and of Pontus (the sea), from whose union she bore the primordial sea gods.


Prometheus is a Titan, culture hero, and trickster figure who is credited with the creation of man from clay, and who defies the gods by stealing fire and giving it to humanity, an act that enabled progress and civilisation. Prometheus is known for his intelligence and as a champion of mankind and also seen as the author of the human arts and sciences generally. He is sometimes presented as the father of Deucalion, the hero of the Greek flood story.


Hercules is a Roman hero and god. He was the Roman equivalent of the Greek divine hero Heracles, who was the son of Zeus (Roman equivalent Jupiter) and the mortal Alcmene. In classical mythology, Hercules is famous for his strength and for his numerous far-ranging adventures.

greek gods and goddesses

Posted in History, Mythology

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