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Atlas holds up the world on his shoulders. On what does he stand?

I've heard the ancients depicted the world being supported by 4 elephants which were standing on the back of a turtle. I'm not sure which ancients they were.

I've read that by the 5th century BCE the Greeks were beginning to understand that the world was a sphere. What of the 14th century BCE Greeks -- the ones who fought the Trojans. What did they believe? What did Homer say about the matter?

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    The ancient belief was that Atlas held up the sky. The earth is a modern distortion
    – Mary
    Dec 2, 2023 at 0:10

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In the ancient myths, Atlas is not carrying the world but rather he is holding heaven up over the Earth. He himself is standing somewhere on Earth, most versions of the story locating him at a certain extremity of the world. As for the world itself, it is somewhat complex to explain, but it is probably floating in a field of nothingness, or submerged in an inconceivably vast bulk of water. I elaborate on this further below.

The Cosmic Stack of Animals

The configuration to which you refer, with the elephants and the turtle, appears to be based on European interpretations of Hindu cosmography going back at least until the end of the 1500s AD (or "CE").

Garson O’Toole, in the 2021 article "Tortoises All the Way Down", cites a certain Jesuit, Emmanuelis de Veiga, as describing (in 1599) this conception of the Earth being carried by seven elephants each standing upon tortoises.

A drawing of your particular structure, with the four elephants atop a single turtle, appears in the March 1877 (Vol. 10) issue of the American magazine Popular Science Monthly, labelled as "The Hindoo Earth", in the article "How the Earth Was Regarded in Old Times".

Hindu scriptures contain a variety of rather differing layouts of the cosmos. In the Brahmavaivarta Purāṇa, for instance, the thousand-hooded cobra Śeṣa carries the universe upon his heads while resting upon the cosmic tortoise Kūrma, "but when he is seated over the back of the tortoise, he appears like an elephant" (Brahmakaṇḍha, Ch. 30).

The Skanda Purāṇa seems to describe something similar in which the great god Viṣṇu lifts the Earth up out of the primaeval waters and, "in order to give her {the Earth, i.e.} extra support", he places the elephants of the four cardinal compass-point directions, and "the King of the Serpents", together with the cosmic tortoise in some sort of relation to the Earth.

Wikipedia takes note of a "World Turtle" mytheme occurring in stories also from China and North America.

The Burden of Atlas

When it comes to Atlas's burden in Greek mythology, however, the globe he carries on his shoulders in visual art is the celestial sphere, misinterpreted in the modern day to be the round planet that the Earth later comes to be understood as, rather than the night sky which it is intended to depict.

Particularly in sculpture, it is a rather challenging proposition to portray the abstraction of someone holding up the heavens, and so artists came up with the design of the ancient Titan bearing up the field of constellations in a more evocative format than a flat plane. It's easier to appreciate this in colour, such as in these more modern works below:

Atlas - Fountain - Castle Howard
Atlas statue from the Atlas Fountain at Castle Howard, North Yorkshire, England, with the golden symbols, on the band around the celestial sphere, representing the signs of the zodiac.

Atlas, Royal Palace, Amsterdam
Atlas at the Royal Palace in Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Guercino Atlas
Atlas Holding Up the Celestial Globe, by il Guercino (1646), with the signs of Libra and Cancer most visible above the Titan's head

In Homer's Odyssey, the sky is described as being propped up by pillars, and, in turn, that Atlas holds these pillars, or is in charge of them. Hesiod's Theogony, roughly contemporaneous with Homer, is more explicit than this in telling us that Atlas bears the weight of the sky upon his head and arms, standing at the edge of the Earth, near the Hesperides, nymphs who are associated with the direction of the sunset.

Although various spots in Europe would be linked to Atlas by different writers, the most famous would be the vast mountain range which covers almost the entire swath of northwestern Africa, from what is now the northern half of Tunisia in the east, across northern Algeria, to sweep over almost all of Morocco in the west.

GoogleMaps - Atlas Mountains

These mountains are still today called Atlas, and the Titan is said to either have dwelt somewhere in them, or, going by Ovid's Metamorphoses, he was turned into stone by Perseus and, being so humongous, his body became these mountains.

At any rate this location in Africa was supposed to be the western extremity of the world, which seems, from the descriptions of the Oceanus River in the Theogony, and in Homer's Iliad, and Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound, to have been thought of as a flat disc, with the vast stream of Oceanus encircling all the land therein, creating the (only) three continents, viz: Europe; Libya (i.e. Africa); and Asia (= Anatolia and the Near East).

Anaximander World Map, John Robinson, 1968
Representing this, on p. 32 of his 1968 book An Introduction to Early Greek Philosophy, John Mansley Robinson provides this reconstruction (above) of the world map supposedly published by Anaximander in the 500s BC (or "BCE"). So Atlas would've been a geographical feature in the top-left corner of Libya in this image.

The Shape of the Universe

Zooming out and panning in the Z-axis, p. 10 of Robinson's book interprets Hesiod's description of the universe as below, "finite and symmetrical", with the Theogony having the Earth's surface as far above the depths of Tartarus as the sky is from the Earth.
Hesiod, Theogony - Cosmos, John Robinson

So the scheme as understood here presents the universe as a self-contained sphere inside of which is located the disc-shaped Earth. Covering the expanses of land, sea, and Oceanus River, is the solid dome of the sky, basically an upside-down bowl, with Tartarus being the inverse of this below, like an upside-down sky.

The sun, moon and stars made their movements on the inside of the sky-dome, rising in flaming or gleaming chariots out of one end of the Oceanus to set at the other end of the world, the Sun in particular being described (such as in Apollodorus' Library) as spending the night in a golden goblet in which he sailed his chariot along one half of the Oceanus in order travel back east from the west so that he could begin his daily journey across the sky from there the next morning.

Harris & Platzner 3-Storey Universe

In "The Truth and Falsehood of Myths" (2020), Hansie Wolmarans, cites this image (above) as coming from Stephen Harris and Gloria Platzner's book Classical Mythology: Images and Insights (2012:63). Over here the Atlas Mountains would be the western pillars of heaven.


Where Is It?

Outside of this cosmic sphere there was essentially... nothing: the unfathomable emptiness called Chaos, the "Gap" or "Void," out of which, according to Hesiod, everything else emerged, starting with entities like Gaia (the Earth), who then gave birth to Uranus (Sky) and Pontus (the Sea).

Based on Homer's assertion, in the Iliad, that Oceanus is the source of all the gods, both philosophers and the Orphics would later use this as the basis for the idea that the universe began as a conceptually endless mass of Hydros, "Water." In the cosmogonies of Egypt and Mesopotamia (as well as certain versions of the Hindu creation story, as in the Skanda Purāṇa above) the universe and the gods are similarly said to have been born of a primordial expanse of water.

In this view, then, perhaps, the universe is essentially a tiny sub-aquatic bubble of air, encased above by Uranus (Heaven) and below by Tartarus (the Abyss), maybe with the Oceanus River, and the seas, being some of these primordial waters leaking into the bubble through the sides. (See Hesiod's enigmatic description of the Oceanus as a stream that flows, around both the Earth and the sea, nine times before draining a tenth part of itself into the Underworld river Styx, whereupon the stream's infernal water, being "a great vexation to the gods... runs off the precipice" [Theogony 775-806].)


See also:

  • Comparable to Hesiod's universe (as above), the Worldview of Thales of Miletus, a 3D model by Carlos Clarivan (2016), on FineArtAmerica.
  • Ian Alexander's diagram comparing the cosmology of Thales with that of his pupil Anaximander, on Wikimedia.
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Atlas was holding the sky, not the World. This is a common misconception.

Check it in Wikipedia

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