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In Greek mythology, Atlas was a Titan, one of the race of gods who ruled before Zeus and the Olympians. Most of the well-known Titans — Oceanus, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, Thea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, Tethys, Cronus, and Rhea — were children of Uranus and Gaea. But two members of the next generation — Prometheus and Atlas, the sons of the nymph Clymene and the Titan Iapetus — were also counted among the group.
Hesiod is the first to mention the 12 Titans, and an early and important reference comes in the Theogeny of Hesiod, when Prometheus says in lines 384–388:
For lo! my mind is wearied with the grief
Of that my kinsman Atlas, who doth stand
In the far West, supporting on his shoulders
The pillars of the earth and heaven, a burden
His arms can ill but hold ...
Prometheus is describing Atlas’s punishment for joining in the rebellion against Zeus. Having been the guardian of the pillars of heaven which upheld the sky, he then is forced to hold up the sky himself.
This punishment figures prominently in one of the labors of Hercules. Hercules is sent to procure the Golden Apples of the Hesperides — nymphs who were Atlas’s daughters — as the 11th or final of his 12 labors, depending on which author is being consulted. Hercules needed the Titan to get the apples, but he couldn’t fetch them with the sky on his shoulders. So Hercules was induced to hold the sky while Atlas brought back the apples.
When Atlas returned, however, he was unwilling to resume his punishment. He proposed that he would deliver the apples on Hercules’ behalf. Fearing that the Titan would never return, Hercules pretended to agree, and asked if he could just hold the sky for a moment so Hercules could adjust the lion skin on his shoulders a bit to create better padding. Atlas agreed, put down the apples, and took the sky from Hercules, who snatched up the apples and hurried off to complete his labor.
Atlas also appears in the story of Odysseus in Homer’s The Odyssey. In this story, he is the father of Calypso, the nymph who kept Odysseus on her island after his shipwreck, hoping to make him her husband. But Odysseus prefers to return to his wife, Penelope.