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Myth Monday - Atlas, the Titan Who Didn't Shrug

By August 20, 2012

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Atlas in Rockefeller Center
Atlas in Rockefeller Center, NYC
C. Gill

Objectivist and novelist Ayn Rand has been in the U.S. news because of the recent vice presidential pick Romney made. His running mate, Ryan, is a fan. Rand wrote other books, but the one most people associate her with is called Atlas Shrugged. This title comes from the following passage in the book:

If you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater the effort the heavier the world bore down upon his shoulders--what would you tell him to do?"

"I ... don't know. What ... could he do? What would you tell him?"

"To shrug."

Okay. Now you know what shrugging and Atlas have to do with one another, but what would happen if Atlas did shrug and why was he burdened with the object, anyway?

In Greek mythology, the Titans and the gods, especially their leader, Zeus, came into conflict. Their main struggle was a ten-year battle known as the "Titanomachy" -- combining the word titan with the Greek word for battle. The gods won and the Titans were punished by being imprisoned in the Greek Underworld region called Tartarus. Zeus singled out the leader of the Titans for special punishment. This leader was Atlas, a brother of Prometheus. Atlas was punished with the task of holding the heavens on his neck, head, and shoulders or of standing deep in the water and separating Sky and Earth.

It had been another one of the Titans who had separated Earth and Sky in the first place, using a sickle handed to him by Mother Earth to castrate Father Sky, after which he released his siblings whom Father Sky had imprisoned deep inside the earth or Tartarus [see Cosmogonies].

Atlas did give a start a few times in Greek mythology, and once completely released his burden when Hercules took it off his hands for a brief time, but the implication of shrugging is that Earth would be crushed from the weight of the collapse of the heavens upon it. Here are some instances when Atlas didn't exactly shrug, but came close [sources: Theoi]:

Quintus Smyrnaeus, Fall of Troy 11. 415 ff (trans. Way) (Greek epic C4th A.D.) :
"Olympian Zeus himself from heaven in wrath smote down the insolent bands of Gigantes grim, and shook the boundless earth, Tethys and Okeanos, and the heavens, when reeled the knees of Atlas neath the rush of Zeus."

Ovid, Metamorphoses 2. 296 ff (trans. Melville) (Roman epic C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"[When Phaethon driving the chariot of the sun set the earth aflame :] Even Atlas fails, his shoulders scarce sustain the flaming sky."

I've explained a shrugging Atlas from the perspective of the denizens of our planet. This doesn't explain what shrugging means to titans in the novel. For that you'll have to read the book or post in the comments.

Previous 2012 Myth Mondays:

  1. Hercules Hurls His Guest
  2. Scylla
  3. Olympics Origins II: Myrtilos
  4. Hercules the Giant-Killer
  5. The First Tyrant
  6. The King and the Harpies
  7. The Dawn Goddess Loves a Mortal
  8. Vediovis
  9. Even a Boar Wishes to Kiss Adonis
  10. Hero and Leander
  11. Who Were the Argonauts?
  12. The Chimera
  13. Narcissus and Echo
  14. How Perseus Fits In
  15. Hesiod and the Bestiary
  16. The First Olympics Origins I
  17. Dionysus and the Return of Hephaestus
  18. Zeus, the Recent Victor of the Titanomachy, Wins Once More in Hesiod's 'Theogony'
  19. Atlas, the Titan Who Didn't Shrug
  20. Troilus and ... Polyxena
  21. Who Is the Virgo?

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