The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Atlas’


By Dr Oliver Tearle

Why is an atlas called an atlas? Where does the word come from? And what connects atlases, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Atlas Mountains?

To determine the origin of the word atlas, we need to go back to the world of the ancient Greeks, more than two thousand years ago when the Greek civilisation was the greatest on the earth. And we need to learn a little about one of the giants from their mythology, a figure named Atlas.

Atlas was a giant: one of the race of giants in Greek myth known as the Titans. He was the son of Uranus (at least in many versions of the myth), making him a Titan, for the sons of Uranus were given that title. The Titans ruled the world and lorded it over everything until the arrival of the Olympians, who were led by Zeus. The Olympians supplanted the Titans and became the dominant power in the world.

A war broke out between the reigning Titans and the Olympians. Because he was a Titan himself, Atlas naturally fought on their side: indeed, he even led the army. Zeus, who led the victorious Olympians, was in charge of determining Atlas’ punishment for being on the losing side. He thus condemned Atlas to an eternal punishment: he must carry the sky or heavens on his shoulders for the rest of time.

The punishment of Atlas was designed to last for eternity, but Atlas would eventually escape his punishment, when the plucky hero Perseus, who slew the Gorgon, Medusa, stopped by. When Atlas refused to offer Perseus hospitality, Perseus – affronted by this singular act of bad manners – held aloft the gruesome severed head of Medusa and promptly turned Atlas to stone, since it was the fate of all who gazed upon Medusa to become (literally) petrified.

Atlas was thus transformed into a large rock. The rocks that now form the Atlas Mountains in north Africa were named after the Titan. And that is how the Atlas Mountains got their name.

But there is an even better-known part of the world which bears Atlas’ name. The Atlantic Ocean was known in ancient times as the ‘Sea of Atlas’ or ‘the Atlantic sea’, in reference to the ocean beyond the Pillars of Hercules. And so that mighty ocean is also named after Atlas.

But of course, there is another famous thing which Atlas gave his name to. And that is the atlas itself: a book of maps. Why do we call a book of maps an ‘atlas’, though? What is the origin of this convention?

How did Atlas come to lend his name to a collection of maps? Well, curiously, it didn’t mean that initially. The earliest sense of ‘Atlas’ (capitalised in honour of the Titan himself) listed in the Oxford English Dictionary refers to someone ‘who supports or sustains a great burden; a chief supporter, a mainstay’ (OED). The OED cites Thomas Nashe from 1589: ‘I dare commend him to all that know him, as … the Atlas of Poetrie.’

Obviously, this sense of ‘Atlas’ alludes to Atlas’ punishment, having to bear the burden of the heavens upon his broad shoulders.

Atlas then gave his name to the uppermost cervical vertebra supporting the skull – again, because Atlas supported the heavens.

Meanwhile, on the Continent in the sixteenth-century, the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator used the name Atlas in reference to his book of maps, published in 1595.

Indeed, an early volume was said to depict Atlas on the cover, bearing the weight of the heavens on his shoulders, except the illustration in question (which is from the frontispiece to the book, rather than on its front cover) doesn’t show Atlas supporting the heavens but instead standing, legs astride, with the world (literally) at his feet.

So although people have often assumed that the Titan struggled to carry the world on his shoulders rather than the heavens, this isn’t because of Mercator. Mercator’s atlas didn’t show any such thing. But somehow, the connection between the world and Atlas became established, and Atlas would thereafter forever give his name to cartographic books mapping out the world.