Atlas: The Most Famous Titan Of Greek Mythology +12 Facts

Meet Atlas, the most famous Titan of Greek mythology. Discover his origins, powers, fights, and most popular legends.

atlas titan

Atlas: The Titan

In Greek mythology, Atlas (/ˈætləs/; Greek: Ἄτλας, Átlas) was a Titan doomed to hold the celestial heavens for all eternity after the Titanomachy. Atlas also plays a role in the myths of two of the greatest Greek heroes: Heracles (the Roman equivalent is Hercules) and Perseus.

Who was Atlas?

Atlas was one of the most famous Titans, the son of Iapetus and the Oceanid Asia (or, possibly, Clymene). He was the leader of the Titan rebellion against Zeus, and received a fitting punishment after the end of the Titanomachy: he was condemned to eternally hold the sky. Only once, and for a very brief period, did Heracles remove this burden from him. Perseus, probably using the head of Medusa, turned him into the stony Atlas mountain range.

Atlas was also the god who instructed mankind in the art of astronomy, a tool used by navigators in sailing and by farmers to measure the seasons. These roles were often combined, and Atlas becomes the god who turns the sky on its axis, causing the stars to rotate.

Atlas meaning and representation

The name Atlas is of uncertain origin-probably pre-Greek-but the ancient Greeks and Romans seem to have thought it was derived from a similar-sounding Greek root with the meaning “very enduring.”

This is fully consistent with the depiction of Atlas as a huge, bearded man, always slightly bowed and suffering under the weight of the heavens, usually depicted as a globe drawn with the most famous constellations.

History of Atlas the titan god

Atlas was born of the Titans and fought vigorously against Zeus, earning Zeus’ lasting wrath and the punishment of keeping the heavens and earth separate. Eventually, Zeus’ wrath cooled and Atlas was released when the centaur Chyron volunteered to go to the underworld in his place, for reasons that are unclear in the surviving myths.


In Greek mythology, Atlas was a titan who was responsible for carrying the weight of the heavens on his shoulders, a punishment bestowed upon him by Zeus. Atlas was given this task in retribution for leading the Titans into battle, or Titanomachy, against the Olympian gods for control of the heavens.

Atlas and his brother Menoetius sided with the Titans against the Olympians and when the Titans were 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 on the western edge of Gaia (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 that embodied his daily struggle and punishment.

In Homer’s Odyssey Atlas is described as ‘mortal-minded’ and responsible for keeping apart the pillars that support the heavens and the earth. In Hesiod’ s Atlas of Theogony the heavens are found in the far west, on the edge of the world earth of the Hesperides, female deities known for their beautiful songs.


According to Hesiod, Atlas was the son of the Titan Iapetus and the Oceanid Clymene. However, some disagree with him; they say that his mother was another sea nymph named Asia. In any case, he had three brothers (Prometheus, Epimetheus and Menoetius) and possibly as many wives.

Descendants of Atlas

But before the punishment, Atlas was in love with Pleione, one of the Oceanides, the daughters of Oceanus and Tethys, who gave birth to Pleiades, seven in number, who were mentioned by most authors. Their names were Alcyone, Asterope, Celaeno, Electra, Maia, Pleiades Merope and Teygate.

There is another explanation presented by Hyginus who mentions in his Fabulae that Atlas and Pleione actually had twelve daughters and a son Hyas.

Five of them were Hyades and were named after their brother who was killed by a lion and had so afflicted him that they died because of it and were placed among the stars. Their names were Ambrosia, Coronis, Eudora, Phaesyla and Polyxo. And when Hyades died, the rest of the sisters also brought death upon themselves by additional grief and were placed among the stars known as Pleiades.

According to Diodorus Siculus, Atlas also had a brother Hesperus and eventually married one of his daughters named Hesperis. She bore him seven daughters who were named Atlantis, after their father, and Hesperides, after their mother. They were very beautiful and pure and therefore attracted the attention of the Egyptian king who sent pirates to kidnap them. They were later saved by Heracles

Strengths and weaknesses of the atlas

Atlas is very strong but a bit gullible; Hercules easily tricked him into giving him back the weight of the world. Unfortunately he is stuck holding up the world. In this, he shares some characteristics with Sisyphus, who must constantly seek to roll a boulder uphill.

The Titanomachy and the punishment of Atlas

The sons of Iapetus took opposite sides during the Titanomachy: while Prometheus and Epimetheus decided to help Zeus, Atlas and his brother Menoetius sided with the Titans. Eventually, Atlas even managed to become the leader of the rebellion, but that did not go very well for him in the long run, as it brought him the most severe punishment after the defeat of the Titans.


That is, Atlas was condemned to hold up the heavens for all eternity, standing at the western end of the earth, near the garden of his daughters, the Hesperides. Some say that the heavens were placed directly on his shoulders. Others, however, are more merciful, claiming that Atlas actually holds up the two pillars that keep earth and heaven apart.

Myth of the Titan Atlas

Since, obviously, Atlas was not allowed to move one bit, and not many people knew where his abode was; the only myths in which he is included two of the greatest Greek heroes who reached him at the end of the earth.

Encounter with Herakles

The first of these was Heracles. The most famous myth involving Atlas is his role in the twelve Labors of Hercules. Hercules was ordered by King Eurystheus to steal the golden apples from the legendary gardens of the Hesperides. These gardens were sacred to Hera and were guarded by the deadly hundred-headed dragon Ladon.

On the advice of Prometheus, Hercules asked Atlas to collect the apples for him, while Hercules. With the help of Athena, would shoulder the burden of heaven, giving Atlas a respite from his duty and also the freedom to steal the apples.

Upon returning with the apples, Atlas was reluctant to assume his responsibility and attempted to leave Hercules with the burden of heaven on his shoulders. Hercules managed to trick the Titan into temporarily switching places under the pretext of acquiring cushions to put on his shoulders to help him bear the weight.

As soon as the switch was made, with Atlas again carrying the sky, Hercules took the golden apples and ran back to Mycenae. In some versions of the story, Hercules built the Pillars of Hercules to keep the sky away from the earth, relieving Atlas of his burden.

Encounter with Perseus

The second and last hero to visit Atlas was Perseus. In later years, Atlas is associated with the Atlas Mountains in northwest Africa or present-day Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Where legends say that the Titan was transformed from a shepherd into a huge rock mountain by Perseus, using the head of Medusa and his deadly gaze.

According to Ovid, Perseus arrives in the Kingdom of Atlas and asks for refuge, declaring that he is a son of Zeus. Atlas, fearful of a prophecy that warned of a son of Zeus stealing his golden apples from his orchard, refuses Perseus’ hospitality, Atlas denied him. Perseus used the head of the Gorgon Medusa and immediately transformed Atlas into the mountain range of northwest Africa, the Atlas Mountains.

Monuments in homage to the titan of burden

Atlas had no known temples of his own. In Italy, in the Temple of Olympian Zeus at Agrigento, a row of Atlas-like figures supported the roof of the temple. (When “an atlas” is depicted, rather than Atlas specifically, it is usually written in lower case). In modern times, it is widely depicted on monumental statues around the world, usually with the globe in place of the original pillar.


Interesting facts

Due to the association of strength, protection and endurance, many companies have used “Atlas” in their names, although this has lost popularity in recent years. And, of course, according to one etymology, this Greek god gave his name to one of the most common books in the world: the Atlas, which shows maps of that same globe on its shoulders. But the original “Atlas” for the map book seems to be King Atlas of Mauritania, who was depicted in one of the earliest map books.

Atlas also figures in the title of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas shrugging his shoulders” book; shrugging his shoulders, of course, would get the world off his back and relieve him of that responsibility.

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