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After Zeus defeated Kronos, all Titans on the losing side were punished. Atlas in particular was tasked with holding the celestial sphere for all eternity.

When Herakles later meets him, it's strongly implied that while Atlas isn't chained or anything, he can't leave his post otherwise the skies would come falling. But then, who held the skies before Atlas?

  • 2
    Brilliant question! Welcome to the site! – yannis Dec 4 '15 at 19:09
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    This is a great question. And I can't, off the top of my head, think of any ancient author who answers it directly. Of course, we're trying to apply a chronological logic here where there isn't necessarily any. Reductivism ultimately gets you as far in mythology as in dream analysis. They both have their own 'logic', and it isn't always rationally satisfying. But it can be creatively provocative -- imagine a poem where Herakles asks Atlas this very question! – Peter Dec 11 '15 at 1:32
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The following text is from the wiki:

Atlas and his brother Menoetius sided with the Titans in their war against the Olympians, the Titanomachy. When the Titans were defeated, many of them (including Menoetius) were confined to Tartarus, but Zeus condemned Atlas to stand at the western edge of Gaia (the Earth) and hold up The Heavens on his shoulders, to prevent the two from resuming their primordial embrace. Thus, he was Atlas Telamon, "enduring Atlas," and became a doublet of Coeus, the embodiment of the celestial axis around which the heavens revolve.

As I understand it:

a) In a way, its the moment in creation, that the earth is separated from the heavens (or the opposite). The punishment inflicted by Zeus, for the punished Titans to live in the world of mortals.

b) Atlas holds the celestial sphere to separate Gaia(Earth) from Uranus(Sky). If they united together once more, Gaia might start birthing titans again and the Olympian Gods see that as bad thing.

In both scenarios, they were not separated before Atlas.

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According to the Theoi Project,

Hyperion, Krios, Koios and Iapetos--were posted at the four corners of the earth to hold Sky fast,

even though that was only for the murdering of their father, they were each rewarded a corner of the earth.

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    +1 for the Theoi link. I'm not sure if they held up the sky only when Cronos murdered their father: this theoi page claims that "In this myth these four Titanes personify the great pillars which appear in Near-Eastern cosmogonies holding heaven and earth apart, or else the entire cosmos aloft." This implies that they held up the sky after their father's death. Regardless, good answer! – user62 Dec 14 '15 at 3:55
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Before Atlas held up the sky Ouranos was still alive so basically he kept the sky from falling. But after Kronos over through, him Hyperion, Krios, Koios and Iapetos held up the sky from the 4 corners of the Earth that they were rewarded with for helping kill their father. Upon the Titans defeat, Zeus threw them into Tartarus. Then Zeus chained Atlas and told him that because of his great strength, Atlas would have to hold the sky up himself.

Hope that answers your question.

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