III: The Atlas Myths

Atlas, a central figure in Greek mythology, was a Titan, one of the primeval deities who waged a losing war against Zeus and the Olympian gods. The defeated Atlas was condemned to support the heavens on his head and shoulders forevermore. Over time, he came to be depicted as holding up the earth rather than the heavens.
Another Atlas myth involved an unfortunate encounter with Perseus. The latter had beheaded the snake-haired Gorgon, Medusa, whose appearance was so horrible that viewers were turned to stone. On being denied hospitality by Atlas, Perseus confronted him with the head of Medusa, turning the giant Atlas into a tall mountain whose summit supported the heavens.
The first use of the name Atlas to designate a book of maps was by the great Flemish cartographer, Gerard Mercator, who placed the name and image of Atlas on the title page of his 1595 work. The name was thereafter adopted as the standard term for map volumes, and various images of Atlas were regularly used as embellishments on title pages and frontispieces.

18. Frederick de Wit

This title page portrays Atlas laboriously holding up the heavens. His feet are enveloped in fabric shaped like mountains, a reference to his transformation.


Item 18
Frederick de Wit
Dutch, 1616-1698
Title page from Atlas
Amsterdam, about 1680
Engraving, hand colored
Smith Collection

19. Romein de Hooghe

In the upper right of this elaborate title page, Atlas is seen supporting a celestial sphere, his feet rooted in and merging with a tall mountain. At the bottom are characters from the voyages of Aeneas and Ulysses: Aeolus, god of the winds emerging from a cave with his winds contained in a sack or net; and Scylla, a monster with the head and torso of a beautiful maiden and lower quarters consisting of voracious man-eating dogs. In the center, the goddess Fortune is seen as mistress of the seas, protecting the voyagers by giving navigational assistance and holding Scylla in chains.


Item 19
Romein de Hooghe
Dutch, 16387-1708
Title page from Pieter Mortier, Atlas Maritime
Amsterdam, 1693
Engraving, hand colored
Smith Collection

20. G. Van Houten

In this Dutch waterfront scene Atlas appears as a statue bearing a celestial globe on which are depicted the constellations, the celestial equator, and the ecliptic.


Item 20
G. Van Houten (Designer), active 1683
Pieter Schenk (Engraver), 1645-1715
Title page from Jacobus Robijn, Atlas
Amsterdam, 1683
Engraving, hand colored
Smith Collection

21. Dieu

In the center of this engraving Hercules and Atlas are exchanging the burden of supporting the earth, illustrating a mythological incident in which Hercules temporarily assumed the duty while Atlas retrieved the golden apples of the Hesperides. At the top are allegorical figures of Glory holding a laurel wreath and Renown sounding her trumpet. Unusual personifications of America, Asia, and Africa are seen at the lower right.


Item 21
French, active 1695
Title page from J.A. Dezauche, Atlas Geographique...
Paris, 1789
Smith Collection

22. Z. Webbers

Symbolizing his evolving association with exploration and mapmaking, a statue of Atlas is in the background while a group of geographers and navigators is in the foreground examining a chart of the new world. At the right, in a whimsical touch, the continents are personified as cherubs at play.


Item 22
Z. Webbers (Designer), active 1666
J. Visscher (Engraver), active 1666
Title page from Jan Jansson, Atlas Contractus
Amsterdam, 1666
Engraving, hand colored
Smith Collection

23. Pieter Mortier

In the cleverly designed scene at the left, the figure of Atlas performs a dual role. While he supports the earth as usual, his figure is incorporated into a variant presentation of the four elements. Atlas now represents earth, while in the background Neptune and a Nereid represent water, and an erupting volcano represents fire. Above, air is portrayed by Zeus (Jupiter); he appears to be pointing at Atlas, whom he had sentenced for rebellion, as a warning to potential transgressors. The figure of Renown is seen at the upper right. The remaining scenes are symbolic of learning and discourse.


Item 23
Pieter Mortier
Dutch, 1661-1711
Title page from Atlas Nouveau (Volume 2)
Amsterdam, 1708
Engraving, hand colored
Smith Collection

24. Louis Renard

Atlas's burden is depicted here in the form of a planispherical map of the world. The figure, however, is not that of Atlas, since the lion skin and club are attributes of Hercules. Consequently, this is either a representation of the brief period during which Hercules relieved Atlas of his burden, or an erroneous portrayal of Atlas in the form of Hercules.


Item 24
Louis Renard
Dutch, active 1714-1715
Title page from Atlas de la Navigation et du Commerce...
Amsterdam, [1715]
Engraving, hand colored
Smith Collection