One of Heracles's twelve labors was to retrieve the golden apples from the Hesperides, the "Daughters of the Evening". The only one who'd know where they are is the titan Atlas, who was condemned to hold the heavens on his shoulders as punishment for siding with his fellow titan Kronos.

The chapter was an interesting one in its own right, but there is a snag. Heracles was supposed to be a descendant of Perseus, yet the latter was said to use the head of Medusa to turn him into stone (or the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, take your perspective.)

So how could Atlas still be flesh and blood in Heracles's time when the hero's ancestor turned him into rock?


1 Answer 1


These are two different, conflicting and thus contradictory versions based on variant traditions.

The older tradition is the one in which Heracles actually interacts with the Titan Atlas, who helps him to procure the apples of the Hesperides.

In the later version, in which Perseus had turned Atlas to stone generations before Heracles' birth, Heracles himself acquires the apples after a fight with the guardian dragon of the Hesperides' garden, which is sometimes located in the mountains which Atlas' body had become.

The oldest mention of this second version that I have encountered is a fragment of the 5th-century BC poet Polyeidus preserved in the 12th-century AD encyclopaedia called the Etymologicum Magnum, wherein Atlas is called simply "a shepherd" who was turned to stone by Perseus. The fullest surviving account of this version of which I am aware is given to us by the Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses (written roughly 400 years after Polyeidus).

William Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology says that:

In the Homeric description of Atlas, the idea of his being a superhuman or divine being, with a personal existence, seems to be blended with the idea of a mountain. The idea of heaven-bearing Atlas is, according to Letronne, a mere personification of a cosmographic notion, which arose from the views entertained by the ancients respecting the nature of heaven and its relation to the earth...

[L]ater traditions distort the original idea still more, by putting rationalistic interpretations upon it, and make Atlas a man who was metamorphosed into a mountain. Thus Ovid (Met. iv. 630,&c., comp. ii. 296) relates, that Perseus came to him and asked for shelter, which he was refused, whereupon Perseus, by means of the head of Medusa, changed him into mount Atlas, on which rested heaven.

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