Ancient Greek punishments 101: Hold up the world for all eternity
Okay, so, imagine you’re Atlas.
You’re a big, brawny dude, and you are capable of holding the entire world on your shoulders. But you don’t merely hold this orb; no, your task is to keep it spinning throughout all eternity.
By doing so, you also cause the stars to rise and set. Pretty cool job, right? Well, I suspect Atlas would have a thing or two to say about it, since this onerous task was assigned to him as a punishment after Zeus defeated him and his fellow Titans in one of the many mythic struggles Greek gods found themselves in from time to time.
Now, unless you’re really into Greek myths–and if you are, I suggest you read Robert Graves‘ two-volume set, The Greek Myths–most of this is going to sound like melodramatic soap opera, so I am giving you fair warning.
With the Greeks, there’s always a lot of jealousy, bad feeling, revenge, and fairly impossible challenges to be overcome. Of course, if you’re Herakles or Atlas, you redefine the word ‘impossible’, but we are not talking about mere mortals here, you must remember.
What ties Atlas’ story together with Herakles is the common denominator of Zeus, an ambitious god, raised away from his evil father Cronus, who fully intended to kill him. Sadly, Zeus was like a kid living on the streets, since he grew up in caves, protected by his wet nurses only at first, and was then forced to fend for himself for quite awhile. I suspect this gave him a chip on his shoulder.
Anyway, he returned to fight his father and that’s how he got involved with Atlas. Later on, Zeus fathered Herakles, who was a child of his illicit union with Alcmene. Herakles’ name, which means ‘glory of Hera,’ was given to him by his parents in the hopes that it would mollify Hera, Zeus’ perpetually wronged wife. Unfortunately, as you’d expect with the Greek gods, who had strong feelings, Hera hated the poor kid’s guts, and sent serpents into his crib when he was a baby. Herakles, however, killed both of the serpents and, as a precursor to Harry Potter, was a ‘boy who lived.’
He also is said to have been tricked by Atlas into holding up the heavens. During one of Herakles’ labours, he was tasked with retrieving apples from Hera’s garden, overseen by Atlas’ daughters. Atlas willingly handed off his burden to Herakles, and, understandably, did not want it back. Herakles didn’t want the burden of carrying the universe either, of course, and tricked Atlas by pretending to need to adjust his cloak about his neck to make this burden more comfortable. When he put the universe back onto Atlas’ shoulders, poor Atlas was taken in by this ruse and ended up right back where he’d started from.
Herakles is Ancient Greece‘s most memorable hero; we know this because he is immortalised in the heavens that Atlas supports. After all his many labours, Herakles died in a rather complicated way, as befits the Greeks, who could not tell a simple, straightforward story to save their lives. The gist of his death is that he shot a centaur with arrows bearing poison from the Hydra he had just killed. He shot the centaur out of jealousy, since the centaur tried to make off with Herakles’ wife, Deianira. As the centaur lay dying, he gave his poisoned cloak to her, saying “someday, give this to your husband when he is in need.” See? Even in death, those Greeks could get really nasty, kind of like the stuff you see in The Godfather movies.
One day, Deianira unknowingly sends this poisoned cloak to Herakles, and he puts it on, and eventually dies. Ultimately, since the Greeks didn’t have canonization or the ability to confer sainthood upon someone, they glorified his memory by placing him in the heavens, and there he watched over them. Not for all time, of course, not unless you still think of his constellation as “Herakles.”
Read more about Herakles
Read more about Atlas
Read more about Zeus
- Welcome to the Zodiac, Ophiuchus. But Who Are You? (time.com)
- Decoding Ancient Greek Pottery (online.wsj.com)
- Ancient Greek Myths – The Goddess Athena (brighthub.com)
- Making ‘Herakles’ whole after all these years (boston.com)
- Hephaestus (earthpages.wordpress.com)
- Baby Name of the Day: Atlas (appellationmountain.net)
- Gods and priests (oup.com)