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Homeric world (5)

Gods & demigods


He was the father of Calypso, who held the pillars, that kept the earth and heaven apart (Od. 1.52).

Atlas (Atlas). "Bearer" or "Endurer." The son of the Titan Iapetus and Clymene (or, according to another account, Asia), brother of Menoetius, Prometheus, and Epimetheus. In Homer he is called "the thinker of mischief," who knows the depths of the whole sea, and has under his care the pillars which hold heaven and earth asunder. In Hesiod he stands at the western end of the earth, near where the Hesperides dwell, holding the broad heaven on his head and unwearied hands. To this condition he is forced by Zeus, according to a later version, as a punishment for the part which he took in the battle with the Titans. By the ocean nymph Pleione he is father of the Pleiades, and by Aethra of the Hyades. In Homer, the nymph Calypso is also his daughter, dwelling on the island Ogygia, the navel of the sea. Later authors make him the father of the Hesperides, by Hesperis. It is to him that Amphitrite flies when pursued by Poseidon. As their knowledge of the West extended, the Greeks transferred the abode of Atlas to the African mountain of the same name. Local stories of a mountain which supported the heaven would, no doubt, encourage the identification. In later times, Atlas was represented as a wealthy king, and owner of the garden of the Hesperides. Perseus, with the head of Medusa, turned him into a rocky mountain for his inhospitality. In works of art he is represented as carrying the heaven, or (after the earth was discovered to be spherical) the terrestrial globe.

This text is from: Harry Thurston Peck, Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities. Cited Nov 2002 from The Perseus Project URL below, which contains interesting hyperlinks


Atlas was a Giant, one of the four sons of the Titan and the Oceanide Clymene. He took part in the fight between Giants and Gods and, as a punition, Zeus condemned him to support the heavens upon his shoulders. He was said to live in the far Occident, in the country of the Hesperides (who were said to be his daughters from his wife Hesperis), near mount Atlas, and this is where he was met by Heracles and picked for him the Golden Apples while Heracles was taking his place to sustain the heavens. With Pleione, a daughter of Ocean and Tethis, Atlas was the father of the Pleiades and Hyades.
   In his Histories, IV, 184, Herodotus mentions a Mount Atlas so high and so cloudy at the top at all times that it is impossible to see its summit, and that the local residents, called Atlantes, present as the pillar on which the heavens rest. He adds that these so-called Atlantes are the last people whose name he knows along the westbound road from Libya to the Pillars of Heracles (the westernmost boundary of the world known to the Greeks), and he is the first writer known to us to use the name “Atlantic Ocean” for the sea past the Pillars of Heracles (Histories, I, 202). Herodotus doesn't mention the hero Atlas in his description of the Libyan mountain, but the way the story is told, with the mention of that mountain sustaining the heavens, does everything to suggests that he is implicitely offering a ”rationalistic” explanation of the legend.

Bernard Suzanne (page last updated 2001), ed.
This extract is cited July 2003 from the Plato and his dialogues URL below, which contains interesting hyperlinks.

Atlas, according to Hesiod (Theog. 507, &c.), a son of Japetus and Clymene, and a brother of Menoetius, Prometheus, and Epimetheus; according to Apollodorus (i. 2.3), his mother's name was Asia; and, according to Hyginus (Fab. Pracf.), he was a son of Aether and Gaea. For other accounts see Diod. iii. 60, iv. 27; Plat. Critias, p. 114; Serv. ad Aen. iv. 247. According to the description of the Homeric poems, Atlas knows the depth of all the sea, and bears the long columns which keep asunder, or carry all around (amphis echousi), earth and heaven (Od. i. 52). Hesiod only says, that he bore heaven with his head and hands (Comp. Aeschyl. Prom. 347, &c.; Paus. v. 18.1, 11.2). In these passages Atlas is described either as bearing heaven alone, or as bearing both heaven and earth; and several modern scholars have been engaged in investigating which of the two notions was the original one. Much depends upon the meaning of the Homeric expression amphis echousi; if the signification is "the columns which keep asunder heaven and earth", the columns (mountains) must be conceived as being somewhere in the middle of the earth's surface; but if they mean "bear or support all around", they must be regarded as forming the circumference of the earth, upon which the vault of heaven rests apparently. In either case, the meaning of keeping asunder is implied. In the Homeric description of Atlas, the idea of his being a superhuman or divine being, with a personal existence, seems to be blended with the idea of a mountain. The idea of heaven-bearing Atlas is, according to Letronne, a mere personification of a cosmographic notion, which arose from the views entertained by the ancients respecting the nature of heaven and its relation to the earth; and such a personification, when once established, was further developed and easily connected with other myths, such as that of the Titans. Thus Atlas is described as the leader of the Titans in their contest with Zeus, and, being conquered, he was condemned to the labour of bearing heaven on his head and hands (Hesiod, l c.; Hygin. Fab. 150). Still later traditions distort the original idea still more, by putting rationalistic interpretations upon it, and make Atlas a man who was metamorphosed into a mountain. Thus Ovid (Met. iv. 630,&c., comp. ii. 296) relates, that Perseus came to him and asked for shelter, which he was refused, whereupon Perseus, by means of the head of Medusa, changed him into mount Atlas, on which rested heaven with all its stars. Others go still further, and represent Atlas as a powerful king, who possessed great knowledge of the courses of the stars, and who was the first who taught men that heaven had the form of a globe. Hence the expression that heaven rested on his shoulders was regarded as a mere figurative mode of speaking (Diod. iii. 60, iv. 27; Paus. ix. 20.3; Serv. ad Aen. i. 745; Tzetz. ad Lycophr. 873). At first, the story of Atlas referred to one mountain only, which was believed to exist on the extreme boundary of the earth; but, as geographical knowledge extended, the name of Atlas was transferred to other places, and thus we read of a Mauritanian, Italian, Arcadian, and even of a Caucasian, Atlas (Apollod. iii. 10.1 ; Dionys. i. 61; Serv. ad Aen. viii. 134). The common opinion, however, was, that the heaven-bearing Atlas was in the north-western part of Africa, and the range of mountains in that part of the world bears the name of Atlas down to this day. Atlas is said to have been the father of the Pleiades by Pleione or by Hesperis, of the Hyades and Hesperides by Aethra, and of Oenomaus and Maea by Sterope (Apollod. iii. 10.1; Diod. iv. 27; Serv. ad Aen. viii. 130). Dione and Calypso, and Hyas and Hesperus, are likewise called his children (Hom. Od. vii. 245; Hygin. Fab. 83). Atlas was painted by Panaenus on the parapet surrounding the statue of the Olympian Zeus (Paus. v. 11. Β§ 2); on the chest of Cypselus he was seen carrying heaven and holding in his hands the golden apples of the Hesperides; and on the throne of Apollo at Amyclae he was likewise represented (Paus. v. 18.1, iii. 18.7).

This text is from: A dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology, 1873 (ed. William Smith). Cited Oct 2005 from The Perseus Project URL below, which contains interesting hyperlinks

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