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The Debunker: Did Atlas Hold Up the Earth?

Ken Jennings, of Jeopardy! fame, was a trivia-obsessed ten-year-old, and now he’s raising a few quiz kids of his own. This month he launches a new series of amazing-facts books for kids, The Junior Genius Guides. Since the first two books in the series introduce young readers to Maps and Geography and Greek Mythology, respectively, we’ve asked him to set us straight this month and debunk some popular misconceptions about classical mythology, which has always been all Greek to us. Myths about myths?! May Zeus have mercy on our souls.

The Debunker: Did Atlas Hold Up the Earth?

The Titan Atlas probably has the worst job in Greek mythology. You’ve seen him in statues and on the cover of unreadable Ayn Rand books, hoisting that giant ball on his shoulders night and day. But you might be surprised to find that, in ancient myths, Atlas does not hold up the Earth. Consider: if he did, what would he stand on?


Atlas, in fact, stands at the western edge of the world holding up the heavens, not the Earth. This is his punishment for trying to overthrow the gods in an uprising called the Titanomachy. In subsequent myths, the poor guy just keeps getting crapped on. Heracles gives him a short break, but then tricks him back onto the job with the lamest of pretexts. (“Sure, I’ll hold up the sky for you, but can you fill in for me for just a second while I adjust my cloak? Thanks bro. See ya.”) Perseus later uses the head of Medusa to turn Atlas to stone, a story the Greeks used to explain the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.

In classical sculptures of Atlas, yes, he is holding up a globe. But a closer look will reveal that it’s always the celestial globe, the star-studded dome that the Greeks imagined covering the world. The association of Atlas with the earth later became stronger thanks to the books of maps called atlases—but that’s yet another misconception at work! The Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator, who first coined the word “atlas” for a collection of maps, actually had in mind a different guy altogether. He was thinking of the mythical African king named Atlas, who was said to have invented the globe. He may be a Titan, but poor Atlas doesn’t get no respect, no respect, I tell you.

Quick Quiz: What British rock band received 2013 Grammy and Golden Globe nominations for its hit single “Atlas,” from the Catching Fire soundtrack?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings’s Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He’s also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o’ Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.

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