The Titan Atlas, from Greek mythology, carried something very heavy, possibly the weight of the world, on his shoulders. This was a punishment that came down from Zeus, king of the Gods. Zeus punished another Titan with having his liver eaten each day by a bird. Since the Titans were immortal, the liver grew back -- each and every day. Likewise, Atlas' punishment was meant to last forever.
It is often said that Atlas carried the world on his shoulders, but it might be more accurate to say he carried the heavens on his shoulder. It presents an interesting, insoluble puzzle to try to figure out where Atlas would have to stand to carry the world on his shoulders. In the ancient world view, where the Mediterranean was the heart of the world, oceans surrounded the inhabited area and it is possible to picture Atlas standing in the world-circling oceans holding up the world, perhaps to keep it from sinking. In the Odyssey Book I, attributed to Homer, Atlas is pictured standing in water. However, in this same version, Atlas doesn't hold the world, but pillars separating Earth and Heaven.
When Hercules (who saved the Titan Prometheus from Zeus' liver-loving eagle) must fetch the apples of the Hesperides, he requires the help of Atlas. Atlas agrees on condition that Hercules assume his heavy burden while Atlas goes. Hercules agrees, the Titan Atlas goes off, fetches the apples, returns, and then tells Hercules he's tired of holding the heavy burden so Hercules can take over. Nothing about what Zeus will do when Atlas defies him again, but it's unnecessary since Hercules outsmarts Atlas. Hercules tells Atlas that he'll hold it -- whatever it is -- but he needs to put up a pad on his shoulders first, so could Atlas just take it back for a sec, please? Atlas foolishly agrees. Hercules picks up the apples and goes blithely on his way.
Here are some sources on the weight Atlas carries on his shoulders:
- "It is an island covered with forest, in the very middle of the sea, and a goddess lives there, daughter of the magician Atlas, who looks after the bottom of the ocean, and carries the great columns that keep heaven and earth asunder. This daughter of Atlas has got hold of poor unhappy Ulysses...."
Homer Odyssey I.52-54
- "And Atlas through hard constraint upholds the wide heaven with unwearying head and arms, standing at the borders of the earth before the clear-voiced Hesperides; for this lot wise Zeus assigned to him."
Hesiod Theogony 517-20.
- "I feel the weight
Of Atlas' woes, my brother in the west
Shouldering the pillar that props heaven and earth,
No wieldy fardel for his arms to fold."
Prometheus Bound, by Aeschylus 347-50
- Pythian 4.289-90. Pindar. Steven J. Willett. 2001.