“Atlas – a Symbol of Respect: Part 1” by Beatrice Palmieri

Beatrice Palmieri is a student from the Department of Classical Philology and Italian Studies at the University of Bologna – an institution that is our great friend and partner in many initiatives, incl. the Our Mythical Childhhood project and the Cluster: The Past for the Present. Beatrice came to the Faculty of “Artes Liberales”, University of Warsaw, in February 2020 for her Erasmus training within the Our Mythical Childhood project. Despite the lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, she managed to accomplish her training and all the classes successfully and she also contributed to our new initiative for the pandemic times (and hopefully for later, too) Find the Force, by preparing the Italian versions of the activities we are creating for children and their parents and tutors who search for entertaining education (see Colora le Muse). 

The present text on Atlas (in two parts) is a work written by Beatrice for the OMC Seminar, in the cycle entitled ambiguously Antiquity in Crisis: the students chose some motifs from mythology, ancient history, or philosophy and they reflected on their meaning in the current circumstances. Their papers show the potential of Classical Antiquity as a source of reflection, joy, and education – all most needed always, and when the world is in crisis – all the more so… 

Shortly before the world stopped, I had just left for what would later prove to be an extraordinary Erasmus, to say the least – in the true etymological sense of the term. Warsaw was the city I had chosen as a destination for this academic and life experience, and it was also the city that welcomed me during this very particular period.

fot. Mirosław Kaźmierczak (10)
Fot. Mirosław Kaźmierczak, (c) University of Warsaw

Generally, Erasmus thrives on the “physical” part, which has to do with moving, traveling, coming in contact with new people, and another more “spiritual” one, which sees us both exchanging experiences with others and dealing with ourselves and our fears and emotions: Erasmus at COVID-19’s times, however, was mainly about experiences of the second type. 

The suspension of the historical moment, living in a time that seems to have stopped, in which we no longer distinguish the days and things happen in a continuous and inseparable flow – perpetual being – lead us almost inevitably to consider our being in the world and the way we consider the value of time. And it is easy for the mind to wander in these eternal temporal flows that bind present to past; and where our thought could land, if not in the time of myth, timeless time par excellence? 

During a normal day of quarantine, I remembered that, as soon as I arrived in Warsaw with my family, we visited the Royal Castle in the Old Town.

Royal Castle in Warsaw Old Town [source]

In one of the many marvelous rooms, the statue of a man stood out, bent over himself, intent on holding up a globe of a bright, beautiful blue color. He was Atlas, I told my brother. I could not say why, but the image of that man, apparently so big, but at the same time so dignifiedly subjected to the weight of the delicate celestial sphere, touched me deeply. And that same chord sounded weeks later, when during the forced isolation in which the whole world found itself, it occurred to me that perhaps, at that moment, we were all a bit in the condition of Atlas. 

Warsaw on the lockdown (movie by Damian Popławski)

“The greatness of man lies for us in the fact that he carries his destiny as Atlas carried the celestial vault on his shoulders” – Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

John Singer Sargent – Atlas and the Hesperides [source]

Hesiod, in Theogony, says that Atlas led the army of the Titans against Zeus, and the latter, after winning the war for the dominion of Olympus, punished him with an exemplary punishment: Atlas was condemned to support with only the strength of his arms the weight of the whole cosmos and the celestial vault. For a sort of retaliation, the one who had previously tried to perpetuate an unjust and cruel dominance – that of Cronos – is now forced to keep on his shoulders, under his responsibility, a delicate balance between values totally opposite to those he tried to preserve

Pałac Tyszkiewiczów, University of Warsaw [source]

The cosmological role of his punishment is to keep Heaven and Earth separate avoiding a return to the primordial Chaos, that is, an absence of creation and, therefore, of values. Atlas then becomes a fundamental figure of balance and no longer disharmony, of care and no longer neglect, of welcome and no longer of brutal refusal, of acceptance and no longer disdainful rebellion. It is as if Zeus had wanted to give the possibility of redemption to him alone: Atlas is now a symbol of respect for the cosmos, because only he, with tireless strength, has the inescapable responsibility to bear on his shoulders that wonderful combination of energies that it is the union between starry Heaven and fertile Earth. 

fot. Mirosław Każmierczak (86)_©Uniwersytet Warszawski
Fot. Mirosław Kaźmierczak, (c) University of Warsaw

To be continued… 

Post prepared by Beatrice Palmieri (Università di Bologna), intro by Katarzyna Marciniak, placed by Dorota Rejter.