“Atlas – a Symbol of Respect: Part 2” by Beatrice Palmieri

Beatrice Palmieri is a student from the Department of Classical Philology and Italian Studies at the University of Bologna. She accomplished her Erasmus training within the Our Mythical Childhood project at the Faculty of “Artes Liberales”, University of Warsaw, in the 2nd term of the academic year 2019/2020, during the lockdown. She contributed to our new initiative for the pandemic times (and hopefully for later, too) Find the Force (see Colora le Muse). For the Part 1 of her text on Atlas see here.

The Atlas myth is present in today’s culture perhaps more than we imagine. Before even mentioning the world of culture, it is enough to consider how we are made, since our body already contains a suggestion: in fact, the first vertebra of the spine that connects our skeleton to the skull is called atlas. According to a fairly intuitive metaphor, our head, seat of our thoughts, dreams, and the nodal point of our exchange with the world around us, is compared to the globe that Atlas supports with the strength of his arms alone. This image, perhaps precisely because it touches us so closely and is a real and common experience, makes us think well about the great responsibility assumed by this small vertebra which bears a weight that is as tiring as it is essential:

Atlas [source].

If we move from human anatomy to geography, we will easily see how the myth of Atlas has left an indelible mark in this area too. According to Ovid’s version, Perseus, after fighting against the Gorgon, sought rest in the region of Hesperia, where the Titan Atlas reigned. Since he did not appear hospitable, Perseus showed him the head of the Medusa and Atlas petrified turning into a mighty mountain “and the whole sky with its innumerable stars rested on him”: thus Mount Atlas was born, a mountain range that extends for about two thousand five hundred kilometres the length of North-Western Africa:

Mount Atlas [source].

Its location can be easily verified by opening any geographical atlas, and you will immediately notice how it too owes its name to the son of the Titan Iapetus: this is because Gerardo Mercatore decided to put on the title page of the first collection of geographical maps, published in Rome in 1595, the image of Atlas, bent and fully committed to supporting the world. From that moment on, the term “atlas” defines all the collections of geographical maps in general, on which children and adults learn about formation of the world in which we live, characteristics of the land we inhabit, both as individuals and as mankind:

Mercator_Atlas_1595_page_5_main_frontispiece (1)
Frontispiece di Atlas sive Cosmographicae Meditationes de Fabrica Mundi et Fabricati Figura [source].

Finally, wanting to move on to the reception of the myth in a more strictly cultural, literary and cinematographic context, we note how this is re-examined in a less literal way compared to how it is taken up by the areas previously mentioned. The figure of Atlas is reinterpreted through different lenses which often have in common the portraying of the Titan in the act of releasing the grip, a sort of alternative and possible ending that no ancient author had shown us before. Take for example the TV series Pollon, taken from the Japanese manga of the same name: wandering through the lands of ancient Greece, the little daughter of Apollo runs into the immense figure of Atlas intent on supporting the sky. Intrigued by the strange occupation of the god, Pollon begins to converse with him and learns of his eternal condemnation. Moved, she intends to hold the sky in place for a moment but is crushed by the enormous weight of the sky:

The episode is thus structured in a series of tests which Pollon is subjected to by Zeus, who punishes her for causing such serious damage. A similar episode is found in a comic book published in Corriere dei Piccoli dating from 1978, Piccolo Zeus, created by the writer and screenwriter Sergio Crivellaro. The great saga tells of the adventures of Piccolo Zeus that follow one another in an ironic plot halfway between classical mythology and different genres (superheroes, souls, science fiction, etc.), in which the theme of Titanomachy is taken up among many others. The first opponent of Piccolo Zeus is in fact Titan, escaped from his prison – an asteroid of Tartarus, with whom, however, unlike the Hesiodic plot, he allies himself to defeat various opponents who will gradually present themselves along their way. The first of their adventures as allies has to do with Atlas: the evil Ares kicked the giant causing the fall of the celestial vault that it supported (consistent with the classical tradition). The two friends therefore work to put Atlas back on his feet and thus restore his initial balance:

Fragment of Piccolo Zeus [source].

Faced with these two simple examples, we have to ask the question: what would happen if Atlas really let go and the celestial vault collapsed on us? In both analyzed episodes, the Titan abandons his task due to an external force that temporarily relieves him from his sentence, but this exemption cannot last for a long time: that of Atlas is a drama and, at the same time, a necessity, and the Titan always returns to continue fulfilling his responsibility with acceptance and perseverance. And perhaps it is precisely this attitude that makes this myth resound still today, especially if one reads the current situation with a magnifying glass which is inspired by it: we mortals have tried to impose a violent dominion over nature and the cosmos, and now, almost as a counterpoint, precisely by that Nature that we were trying to invade, we are being punished, condemned to have to support a weight that is perhaps too big for us, but that affects us all. We have to remodel our habits, our being in the world, and to do this there was perhaps a need to reset everything, stop for a moment the frenetic rhythm in which we were immersed and moved almost by inertia, making an act of difficult sacrifice but necessary.

This time, perhaps, we need to learn to maintain a balance that is very subtle and delicate, and underlies the human condition: we must take care of our planet now, in this moment of difficulty and suspension, but above all when this situation will be over, what we learned is to persist, like Atlas, in keeping the balance we experienced as extremely fragile. Our current condition turns out to be dramatic in that it makes us confront our weaknesses, but at the same time it hides a necessary requirement: will we be able to welcome it and accept, as Atlas, with boldness and perseverance?


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

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