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Atlas. That dude is pretty goddamn strong. Or is he? I mean, you have to be OUTSIDE the world in order to hold the damn thing up. Does that mean he’s in space? Does the earth weigh anything out there? How does he survive? What, exactly, does he even stand on? I think I need to sit down…

The story of Atlas is actually much different than most people realize. I’ve used the more modern interpretation of Atlas holding up the earth for the sake of comedy but in Classical literature and art, Atlas was tasked with holding up the sky. Kind of a bit harder to make a joke out of that, but hey, that’s what this space is for: clarification.

There are a few stories in Greek myth that mention the Titan, the first being the story of the war between the Gods and their predecessors. Atlas, like most of the Titans, sided against the Gods and, after their defeat, was punished accordingly. Atlas was given the rather joyless task of supporting a pillar between his shoulders that would keep the heavens from crashing down on the earth. He spent a great deal of time like this until Heracles (read: Hercules) showed up asking for his help. The hero had been asked to retrieve the golden apples of the Hesperides, but was unable to acquire them without the help of Atlas. When asked for his assistance, Atlas was happy to help as long as Heracles could support the sky while he was away. Heracles took the sky up and Atlas went off to retrieve the apples, successfully. While free, he realized just how great it was to be rid of his thankless job and told Heracles he’d have to stay like that for a while. Heracles agreed, happily, but asked if he could retrieve a cushion for his shoulders first. Atlas accepted, taking the pillar back and giving Heracles the golden apples. Heracles wandered off and left Atlas to his work, never to return. Pretty clever move for a guy not known for his brains.

Anyway, this is where we’ve got the phrase “He’s got the weight of the world on his shoulders.” Like most things, it’s a slightly twisted version of the classical idea, but it works.

Personally, I prefer the classical interpretation. It seems somehow more elegant.

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