The Fate of Atlas
Updated: May 21
I really enjoyed Greek mythology as a boy, but I was never much interested in Atlas. His brother Prometheus, who created humankind and brought them fire—now, he was exciting! But Atlas was kind of, well, static. He just stands there suffering. He gets a break when Heracles takes his place briefly, but he is tricked by that sly demi-god into resuming his punishment. It not clear what happens to Atlas eventually. Maybe peevish Perseus turns him into a mountain range using Medusa's head. Maybe Heracles builds pillars to hold up the sky in his place.
You might not have known this, but in the original legend Atlas isn't holding up the globe. He is holding up the heavens. Almost everybody gets that wrong, but no matter. This print by Bernard Picart from 1731 gets it right and shows how painful Atlas' fate was.
Atlas never impressed me. He just seemed big and stupid. When I learned more about him, I realized that he wasn't supposed to be stupid at all. He was, for example, the god of mathematics, philosophy, and astronomy, the last no doubt as a result of his time spent under the stars. He was also the king of Atlantis out in the Atlantic Ocean, both of which were named for him. He had quite a CV.
There are myriad statues, paintings, prints, cartoons, tattoos, and video games that feature Atlas. And there are two novels that I know of. Mercifully, in both novels Atlas escapes his fate. In Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged features steel titan Hank Rearden as a metaphorical Atlas. One evening his all-but-sexual lover Francisco has this exchange with him:
“Mr. Rearden,” said Francisco, his voice solemnly calm, “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 his effort the heavier the world bore down on his shoulders—what would you tell him to do?”
“I . . . don’t know. What . . . could he do? What would you tell him?”
Rearden does shrug when he joins the rest of the men of the mind on their strike against the mystic-altruist-collectivist authoritarian regime that has taken over the United States.
Rearden is a fictional example of a real psychological syndrome called the "Atlas personality." According to Wikipedia:
The Atlas personality is typically found in a person who felt obliged during childhood to take on responsibilities (extending beyond normal household chores or looking after siblings) such as providing psychological support to parents, often in a chaotic family situation.
The result in adult life can be a personality devoid of fun, and feeling the weight of the world on their shoulders. Depression and anxiety, as well as oversensitivity to others and an inability to assert their own needs, are further identifiable characteristics. In addition, there may also be an underlying rage against the parents for not having provided love, and for exploiting the child for their own needs.
While Atlas personalities may appear to function adequately as adults, they may be pervaded with a sense of emptiness and be lacking in vitality.
Rearden doesn't quite get to the rage stage, but he definitely doesn't have much fun early on in the story. He enjoys his work and is vital there, but his home life makes him feel miserable, drained, and guilty.
The other novel that features Atlas is the metafictional work Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles, by Jeannette Winterson. This story tells of the long-suffering Atlas along with a version of Heracles, who is portrayed as a thug and a rapist. It is laced with autobiographical comments, digressions about the development of the universe, and so forth. (That's what makes it metafiction.) Atlas ends up adopting Laika, the dog the Soviets sent up to her death in Sputnik. Fate is one of Winterson's themes and (I'm just going to spoil it), one day Atlas wonders what would happen if he were to just put down his burden. And he does. And nothing happens. He's free. The earth goes on turning without him. The End. A bit anti-climactic compared to Atlas Shrugged, but at least the titan escapes his punishment.
What Picart's, Rand's, and Winterson's Atlases have in common is that they are all "really" suffering. The myth is taken at face value. This leads to the question, for me at least, of why so many people like to use a suffering god as a symbol? It's not like Atlas' punishment redeems all of us, as Jesus' is supposed to. Atlas is racked with pain for no reason that has anything to do with us. How do we process Atlas bearing his burden?
Sometimes we don't think of Atlas suffering because he is depicted as a pure symbol. He stands for strength and stability, as in the famous statue at Rockefeller Center:
Notice that in this depiction, Atlas' head is barely bowed and that he only slightly crouching. The globe is hollow so it perhaps does not weigh so much, and the figure is very muscular, suggesting that his burden does not weigh heavy on him. To me he does not look trapped or punished. I believe this Atlas is supposed to make us feel reassured that such a mighty, dependable figure is holding up the world. He is the most stylized of all the Atlases I have seen, with his deco face and abstract globe, so we are not to regard his task as causing suffering, because he is not "real." He is only a symbol.
Sometimes the figure of Atlas is just used in a whimsical manner as an ornament, with no question of suffering at all. This delicate goblet from the Walters Museum is a good example. Here Atlas is struggling to hold up a nautilus shell. It is a real shell. I have no idea how one could drink from this cup without getting wine all over oneself.
It never occurred to me to think of Atlas in a sexual light. His sexuality is ambiguous as far as the issue of suffering goes. He has a masculine body of course, but he just looks so inert. However, in some people's eyes, I think he may seem to be archetypically male because he is the dispensable man who carries the burden for others, the type who uses his body up with hard work so that his family can enjoy comfort. I suppose Atlas could be seen as attractive because he is the strong, silent type that some women love.
Apparently, some men love the Atlas type as well, as we can see from these architectural uses of his figure, called atlantes, whose postures are like Michelangelo's Dying Slave in their obvious homoeroticism. These Atlases do not seem to be suffering—far from it.
I was surprised to learn that John Singer Sargent had done a painting of Atlas, one which is even more erotic than the atlantes. I had always thought of Sargent as a portrait painter of upper-class women, but he did a number of Christian-themed paintings as well as this portrayal of Atlas and his daughters, the Hesperides. The Hesperides are the nymphs of the evening (among other things, for their legends and many and confused), and so it is natural that they are shown sleeping. Their naked figures are recumbent and intertwined, in poses that are at once erotic, lesbian, and incestuous. The Atlas of this painting is the most crushed of all, and unlike most versions he is fully naked. I am not sure of the meaning of this juxtaposition, but to me it seems to invite a lustful and sadistic gaze. All in the name of art. Look closely at the sphere Atlas is carrying and you will see zodiac signs, indicating that Sargent knew that he supported the heavens rather than the earth.
I saved my own favorite portrayal for last. Atlas: Pillar of the World is the creation of Guatemalan sculptor Walter Peter. Born in 1965, Peter specializes in monumental figures such as Dawn, the Giant of Cayalá, a colossus reborn from the earth possessing the key to the secret to happiness, and of course this Atlas:
Peter's Atlas strikes the perfect balance between the realism of Atlas' physique and the symbolism of his holding up the globe. He is happy with his place in the cosmos. His task requires strength and effort, but is not punishment, and he does not suffer from his accepted burden. He gazes benevolently up at a world that is of manageable size. He is graceful. He is masculine without being inappropriately erotic. Notice that he is kneeling on Jupiter. It was Jupiter (Zeus) who sentenced him to his punishment, but Peter's Atlas turns the tables on him.
This is a Randian reading of the myth, in line with Brenner's adherence to Rand's philosophy, because Rand believed that productive titans support the world and deserve to be exalted for it. But there is a twist. Rand situated her giant in a realist world, in a dystopia that scorned him, while Peter puts his in an ideal world in which he can receive his proper esteem. This is the Atlas who does not need to shrug.
One of the fascinating things about mythological figures is how they are reworked over the centuries. Winterson is explicit about her desire to tell the Atlas tale her own way, and Rand frequently rang variations on the old stories. These many versions share a genotype, but that genotype is expressed as dramatically different phenotypes due to the variety of individual matrices in which they gestate. There is the Atlas who is the prisoner of fate and the Atlas who walks away from his fate. And there are even Atlases who do not need to escape their situation at all. If there is one lesson to be gleaned from the archetype in all of its manifestations, it is this: No matter what narrative we may seem to be born in, we are giants, and it is within our power to rewrite our destiny.
If you liked this essay, you might also enjoy my collection of essays about authenticity: Killing Cool: Fantasy vs Reality in American Life, available on Amazon.