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Friday, 14 March 2014

Looking at Atlases

Do you recognise this fellow on the right? If you think you do, then you have probably fallen for the same wrong belief that I have accepted for most of my life. Here's the low-down, but don't worry: it turns out that we are in good company!

The first Atlas was a particularly strong person, the brother of Prometheus, and like Prometheus, he was a giant. Atlas was given the task of holding up the sky, after the gods of Olympus defeated the Titans in battle. Set to this task in some undefined place to the west of the Mediterranean Sea, Atlas even lent his name to the ocean he stood in, which we still call the Atlantic Ocean.

The ancients assumed that part of the sky rested on some very high mountains in Morocco, still called the Atlas Mountains, while Mount Atlas was the tallest of that range. One legend says that Atlas was turned into the mountain after he refused accommodation to Perseus after Perseus had killed and beheaded the Gorgon Medusa.

The head was a useful trophy, as anybody who saw the Gorgon's face was turned to stone, and the incommoded and unaccommodated Perseus flashed the severed head at Atlas, who promptly became a mountain.

There was just one small problem: even the ancient Greeks knew that the world was no flat slab, but an orb, a globe, and around 150 BC, they even had a good estimate of the size of our planet, so there was very little need for Atlas in the thinking of scholars, but to the common folk, the world was flat, and remained so until sailors started sailing around it , around 500 years ago, which kept Atlas gainfully employed, so far as the common folks were concerned.

Once the sailors started going off and filling in bits of the map where once there were only dragons, there was a need for new maps, showing the true relationships of the parts of the world, and globes became popular. When Mercator published a book of flat maps, his son illustrated the cover with a picture of the world globe, held aloft on the shoulders of a strong man. From supporting just the sky, Atlas now had the task of supporting the whole world. It is perhaps from this mapping context that we get the drawing paper size called Atlas, which is 26 inches by 34 inches, or the same as eight sheets of foolscap.

Back to our man-mountain, though, the Perseus-Medusa-Mount Atlas tale has another problem. A second Greek legend says that later, when Heracles was given the task of obtaining the golden apples of the Hesperides, he approached a distinctly non-mountainous Atlas for help. Atlas asked Heracles to take over the load-bearing task while he, Atlas, fetched the apples. Then on his return, Atlas told Heracles that he was fed-up with carrying the load, and that he, Heracles, could carry on holding up the heavens.

He may have been physically strong, but Atlas was not very bright. Well, to be honest, he was seriously thick in the noggin department, so when Heracles said in his most affable tone that he agreed, but would Atlas take over for a moment while he, Heracles arranged a pad for his head, Atlas took the load for a bit, and as you may have guessed, Heracles made off, taking the apples of the Hesperides with him.

That eminent playwright of the appropriately named Globe theatre, Shakespeare, has Cleopatra speaking of Mark Antony as "the demi-Atlas of this earth", while in the third part of Henry VI, Warwick the king-maker tells Edward "Thou art no Atlas for so great a weight" — in this case, the weight of the kingdom, which Warwick plans to take away from Edward.

Milton mentions Atlas as a high mountain in Book 4 of Paradise Lost, to give the idea of a giant Satan. And Charles Atlas, of course, made his fame as a strong man. All in all, it seems that time has taken away the load-bearing role that Atlas once had, leaving just the strong-man aspect — except in one case.

That venerable guide to all things in the human body, Gray's Anatomy, tells us that "The first cervical vertebra is named the atlas because it supports the globe of the head." In other words, even though the load-bearing function is recalled, it is in terms of the picture on the cover of Mercator's atlas book, rather than in terms of what a rather thick-witted Titan really had to do in older days.


  1. Wonderful stuff, Peter! Thanks for taking the trouble.
    Incidentally... Here is an interesting piece that you may not have read before:

    1. No, I hadn't read it, though I know the correctional map. Some of the early mappers of Australia had east at the top: one of these was Francis Barrallier who will appear here within 24 hours. He was French...

      Quite a few historical maps of Australia that I saw at the National Library of Australia exhibition that closed a could of weeks back did not have north at the top.