In Greek mythology, the Titan Atlas was responsible for the task of carrying the sky on his shoulders, which Zeus gave him as punishment. The father of many stars and the protagonist of one of Hercules' famous missions, Atlas was also known as a wise man and the founder of astronomy. According to Plato, the first god Atlantis was named after was king Atlas, and this gigantic god gave his name to the mountain ranges of northern Africa, the great Atlantic ocean, and map compilations.
Named for "Suffering" or "Very Endurable," Atlas was the son of two titans, Lapetus and Clymene (or Themis), and the elder brother of Epimetheus, Menoetius, and Prometheus. In the Theban narrative of these events, Atlas is Niobe's grandfather.
Zeus Punishing Atlas
Atlas was punished by Zeus to carry the heavens because Atlas led the titans in the battle between the Titans and Gods to control the heavens. Similarly, Homer, in his Odyssey, describes Atlas as "death-minded," knowing the depths of all the seas and holding the pillars in the Atlantic Ocean that separates the heavens and the earth.
In his Theogony, Hesiod also describes Atlas as holding the heavens and mentions that he is in the land of the Hesperides (female gods famous for their songs), located in the westernmost part of the world. Later traditions, including Herodotus, associate this deity with the Atlas Mountains in North Africa. Right here, as punishment for lack of hospitality, the Titan Atlas was transformed by Perseus from a shepherd into a gigantic mountain by the deadly gaze of the Gorgon Medusa. This story dates back to the 5th century BC.
Atlas and Hercules
Atlas is also mentioned as the father of many constellations, a great source of wisdom, the founder of astronomy, and the original king of Atlantis in Plato's Critias. Perhaps the most famous legend about Atlas is his role in one of Hercules' famous twelve missions. Eurystheus asked Hercules to bring the golden apples from the legendary gardens of the Hesperides, sacred to Hera and guarded by the fearsome hundred-headed dragon. Following Prometheus' advice, Hercules asked Atlas (Father of the Hesperides in some narratives) to take the apples, while with Athena's help, he bought the Titan time by taking the world on his shoulders for a while.
Understandably, Atlas was reluctant to retake the burden of bearing the world as he returned with the golden apples. The cunning Hercules, however, tricked the god into temporarily relocating and bought himself some cushions to carry this enormous weight more easily. Of course, as soon as Atlas took control of the skies, Hercules returned to Mycenae with his golden booty.
In Greek art, Atlas is featured in depictions of Hercules' missions in the 6th century BC, particularly in a metope from the temple of Zeus at Olympia where it was erected in the gardens of the Hesperides. Similar scenes, especially with his brother Prometheus, were also popular in Greek pottery decoration. In Hellenistic and Roman times, Atlas was often represented as someone with bent knees and back, carrying the world forcefully on his shoulders. Perhaps the most prominent example of this pose is a 2nd-century sculpture now in the Archaeological Museum of Naples.