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Atlas: The God with the World on His Shoulders

Atlas: The God with the World on His Shoulders

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Atlas is one of the most famous Titans in Greek mythology. He is best-known for bearing the sky on his shoulders, a punishment inflicted on him by Zeus following the Titanomachy. Although Atlas’ punishment is the most famous myth revolving around this Titan, there are several other myths in which he is featured.

Atlas is also commonly depicted in art, especially in sculpture, and may be easily recognized. This is due to the fact that he is traditionally portrayed as supporting a globe on his back. Sculptures of Atlas can be seen in different parts of the world.

Atlas’ Lineage

In Hesiod’s Theogony, Atlas is said to be the son of Iapetus and Clymene. Iapetus was the son of Uranus and Gaia, and therefore was a brother of Cronus. Iapetus was one of the four Titans who seized hold of Uranus, and held him down, while Cronus castrated him with a sickle.

Clymene, on the other hand, was an Oceanid, i.e. a daughter of Oceanus and Tethys, and is sometimes called Asia. According to Hesiod, apart from Atlas, Clymene bore Iapetus three other children – Menoitios, Prometheus, and Epimetheus.

The sons of Iapetus, with the exception of Epimetheus, were all punished by Zeus. In the Theogony, “The lawless Menoitios was sent down to the darkness by wide-seeing Zeus with a smoking bolt, because of his wickedness and overbearing strength…. And he bound crafty Prometheus in inescapable fetters, grievous bonds, driving them through the middle of a pillar. And he set a great winged eagle upon him, and it fed on his immortal liver, which grew the same amount each way at night as the great bird ate in the course of the day”.

While Menoitios was punished for his hubris, and Prometheus for tricking Zeus (for the benefit of humankind), Atlas was punished for the role he played in the Titanomachy. This was the great war that was fought between the Titans and the Olympians. The Titanomachy, which lasted for 10 years, ended with the defeat of the Titans.

Atlas was punished for the part he played in Titanomachy. (Eloquence / )

As a consequence, the Titans, with the exception of Prometheus and Themis, who had sided with the Olympians, were punished. The defeated Titans were imprisoned in Tartarus, the deepest region of the underworld.

Atlas’ Punishment

Unlike his fellow Titans, Atlas was not imprisoned in Tartarus. According to some sources, Atlas was the leader of the Titans, and therefore had a special punishment waiting for him at the end of the war. It is also said that this punishment was chosen because Atlas was renowned for his great strength.

Thus, Atlas was forced by Zeus to hold up the sky,

“Atlas, under strong constraint, holds up the broad sky with his head and tireless hands, standing at the ends of the earth, away by the clear-voiced Hesperides, for Zeus the resourceful assigned him this lot.”

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Atlas and the Hesperides. (Mattes / )

It has been speculated that Atlas, as the bearer of the sky, may have initially been the personification of a cosmographic motion, formed by the way the ancient Greeks understood the nature of heaven, and its relation to the earth. It was only at a later time that the character and role of Atlas was developed and incorporated into other myths.

Atlas and Persus

This idea seems plausible, as writers who came after Hesiod added their own myths to the figure of Atlas. One of these, for instance, is found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The Roman poet recounts a story in which Atlas encounters the hero Perseus.

In the myth, Perseus, having slain the Gorgon Medusa, was flying across the desert of Libya, where he (inadvertently, perhaps) caused venomous snakes to spawn from the ground, “the other [i.e. Perseus], (as he bore the viperous monster-head) on sounding wings hovered a conqueror in the fluent air, over sands, Libyan, where the Gorgon-head dropped clots of gore, that, quickening on the ground, became unnumbered serpents; fitting cause to curse with vipers that infested land”.

As Perseus was being blown around by the constantly changing winds, he decided to rest for the night in the western end of the earth, which was believed to be Atlas’ domain. According to Ovid,

“There dwelt huge Atlas, vaster than the race of man: son of Iapetus, his lordly sway extended over those extreme domains, and over oceans that command their waves to take the panting coursers of the Sun and bathe the wearied Chariot of the Day. For him a thousand flocks, a thousand herds over wandered pasture fields; and neighbor tribes might none disturb that land. Aglint with gold bright leaves adorn the trees, – boughs golden-wrought bear apples of pure gold.”

Apart from embellishing the myth of Atlas, Ovid seems to have ‘freed’ the Titan from the task of carrying the sky on his back. In fact, this task is only given to Atlas at the end of the story. In any case, Perseus requests shelter from Atlas, and reveals that he was a son of Zeus.

Atlas, however, recalled a prophecy by Themis that warned him to be on his guard against a son of Zeus,

“O Atlas! mark the day a son of Jupiter [Zeus] shall come to spoil; for when thy trees been stripped of golden fruit, the glory shall be his.”

Having received this prophecy, the Titan built solid walls around his orchard, got a dragon to keep perpetual guard over his golden apples, and expelled any stranger who came to his land. Therefore, Atlas told Perseus to leave his land and tried to expel him by force. Perseus realized that there was no use talking to Atlas and that he would lose if he engaged in a contest of strength with the Titan.

Perseus, however, had a secret weapon – Medusa’s decapitated head, which he used to petrify Atlas,

“He said no more, but turning his own face, he showed upon his left Medusa's head, abhorrent features. – Atlas, huge and vast, becomes a mountain – His great beard and hair are forests, and his shoulders and his hands mountainous ridges, and his head the top of a high peak; – his bones are changed to rocks. Augmented on all sides, enormous height attains his growth; for so ordained it, ye, O mighty Gods! who now the heavens’ expanse unnumbered stars, on him command to rest.”

Perseus had the head of Medusa during his encounter with Atlas. (Jastrow / CC BY-SA 2.5 )

Atlas and Heracles

Perseus was not the only hero to have met Atlas. As a matter of fact, the son of Zeus mentioned in Themis’ prophecy did not refer to Perseus, but to Heracles, a descendant of Perseus. The hero encounters the Titan as part of his Twelve Labours. For his 11th labor , Heracles was required to obtain the golden apples of the Hesperides.

Unlike Ovid’s account (where the apples are said to belong to Atlas), the apples in this story are said to have been a wedding gift by Hera to Zeus. The apples were to be found in the Garden of the Hesperides, Hera’s orchard, and guarded by a hundred-headed dragon called Ladon, as well as the Hesperides, the nymphs of the evening. According to some sources, the Hesperides were the children of Atlas.

Hercules stealing the golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides. (Zaqarbal / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The first task Heracles had to accomplish was to locate the Garden of the Hesperides, as he had no idea where it was situated. As a consequence, he traveled widely, across Libya, Egypt, Arabia, and Asia, having many adventures along the way. For example, at one point, Heracles was stopped by Kyknos, a son of Ares, who demanded a fight with the hero.

Although Heracles complied, the fight was broken up by a thunderbolt. After this encounter, Heracles continued his journey to Illyria, where he seized Nereus, a sea god, since he knew the location of the garden. Although Nereus transformed himself into all kinds of creatures in an attempt to escape, Heracles did not loosen his grip.

Eventually, Nereus gave up and revealed the location of the garden. According to some versions of the myth, the garden is located at the western edge of the earth, while others place it beyond the earth’s northern end.

As Heracles continued his journey to the Garden of the Hesperides, he came to the rock on Mount Caucasus, where Prometheus was chained by Zeus. Heracles killed the eagle that tormented the Titan and set him free. In gratitude, Prometheus told him the secret to getting the apples.

Therefore, when Heracles arrived at his destination he did as Prometheus told. Instead of getting the apples himself, Heracles asked Atlas to get them for him. In return, Heracles held the sky up for Atlas while he was away. This benefitted both parties, as Heracles did not need to face the apples’ guardians and the task temporarily relieved Atlas of his burden.

Heracles holding the world for Atlas. (FA2010 / )

When the Titan returned, he told Heracles that he would take the apples himself to Eurystheus, thereby completing the labor for the hero. He also had the cheek to tell Heracles to continue holding up the sky for the rest of eternity. Heracles cunningly played along, agreeing to go on bearing the sky on his shoulders forever.

Heracles, however, made a small request, asking the Titan if he could hold the sky for one moment, so that he may turn his cloak into a sort of padding for his shoulders, thereby making the task less uncomfortable. Atlas agreed to do so but once the sky was back on Atlas’ shoulders, Heracles picked up the apples and returned home.

In some versions of the tale, Heracles did not request Atlas’ aid but went and pluck the apples himself. In yet another variation of the myth Heracles builds two pillars to hold up the sky thereby freeing Atlas from his punishment.

Atlas in Art

Atlas is frequently presented in art especially in sculpture. The Titan can be easily recognized due to the fact that he is almost always depicted carrying a globe on his shoulders.

This globe may be either a terrestrial or celestial one. As Atlas was punished to support the sky on his back, a celestial globe would be appropriate.

It is a common misconception, however, that Atlas was punished to carry the earth on his back. This is evident in the fact that he is sometimes depicted carrying a terrestrial globe.

One of the most famous sculptures of Atlas is the Farnese Atlas, which is housed today in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy. The sculpture is believed to be a 2nd century AD Roman copy of a Greek original and is named after the wealthy Italian Farnese family. The celestial globe on the back of this sculpture is considered to be one of the oldest depictions of the sky as the ancients saw it.

Farnese Atlas. (Re probst / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The depiction of Atlas is not limited to Classical art, as he is found in modern art as well. An example of the latter is Lee Lawrie’s Atlas, a bronze sculpture in Rockefeller Centre, New York. The sculpture was installed in 1937.

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Lee Lawrie’s Atlas statue. (Another Believer / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

It may be mentioned that in addition to the Titan, there is a lesser-known Atlas in Greek mythology. According to Plato, there was an ancient king by the name of Atlas. This king was a son of Poseidon and was the first king of the legendary Atlantis. The name of the island city, and the ocean it was situated in, i.e. the Atlantic Ocean, are said to be derived from the name of this king.

Atlas was an important figure in Greek mythology. He was a well-known figure, especially in comparison to his fellow Titans.

This is reflected in the myths that he is featured in, as well as his depiction in art. In the latter, he is still relevant even till this day, as evident in the modern sculptures of this Titan.

Furthermore, due to Atlas’ globe (both terrestrial and celestial), the Titan has been associated with both cartography and astronomy. An ‘atlas’, for instance, is a book of maps or charts. Atlas is also sometimes thought to be the inventor of astronomy.

Lastly, it is from Atlas that both the sunken city of Atlantis and the Atlantic Ocean derive their names. It should be remembered, however, that this Atlas was a son of Poseidon rather than the Titan.


In Greek Mythology, Atlas was a Titan who was responsible for bearing the weight of the heavens on his shoulders, a punishment bestowed on him by Zeus. Atlas was given this task in retribution for him leading the Titans into battle, or Titanomachy, against the Olympian Gods for control of the heavens.

Atlas was the son of the Titans Iapetus and Clymene, and his siblings were Epimetheus, Menoetius and Prometheus. Atlas also fathered the nymph Calypso and Maia who was one of the Pleiades and mother of the messenger God Hermes.

Atlas and his brother Menoetius sided with the Titans against the Olympians and when the Titans were eventually defeated many of them were confined to Tartarus ( a deep abyss used as a dungeon) including Atlas’ brother. However, Atlas had a different fate, and Zeus condemned Atlas to stand at the Western edge of Gaia (the Earth) and hold the heavens on his shoulders to prevent the two from resuming their primordial embrace. He was Atlas Telamon, or ‘enduring Atlas,’ a name embodying his daily struggle and punishment.

In Homer’s Odyssey Atlas is described as ‘deadly-minded’ and is responsible for holding the pillars which hold the heavens and earth apart. In Hesiod’s Theogony Atlas holds the heavens in the far west, edge of the world land of the Hesperides, female deities known for the beautiful singing. In later years, Atlas is associated with the Atlas Mountains in, Northwest Africa or modern day Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, where legends say the Titan was transformed from a shepherd into a huge rock mountain by Perseus, using the head of Medusa and her deadly stare.

In this story, Atlas was the father of the Hesperides, nymphs and guardians of the tree of golden apples. The earth goddess Gaea gave the tree of golden apples to Hera as a wedding present and placed it in a secret location nevertheless, an oracle told Atlas that a son of Zeus would one day steal the golden apples guarded by his daughters. To prevent this Atlas refused to let anyone visit his home and when Perseus asked for hospitality in his land, Atlas denied him. Perseus used the head of the Gorgon Medusa and immediately transformed Atlas into the mountain range in North West Africa, the Atlas Mountains.

The most famous myth involving Atlas is his role in the Twelve Labours of Hercules. Hercules was commanded by King Eurystheus to steal the golden apples from the fabled gardens of the Hesperides. These gardens were sacred to Hera and guarded by the deadly hundred-headed dragon Ladon. On the advice of Prometheus Hercules asked Atlas to retrieve the apples for him, while Hercules, aided by Athena would take the burden of the heavens on his shoulders giving Atlas a respite from his duty and also the freedom to steal the apples. Upon returning with the apples, Atlas was reluctant to resume his responsibility and attempted to leave Hercules with the weight of the heavens on his shoulders. Hercules managed to trick the Titan into swapping places temporarily under the guise of acquiring cushions to put on his shoulders to aid in the weight bearing. As soon as the switch was made, with Atlas once again carrying the heavens Hercules took the golden apples and ran back to Mycenae. In some versions of the story, Hercules instead built the Pillars of Hercules to hold the sky away from the earth, liberating Atlas from his burden.

Other Interesting Facts:

  • A common misconception today is that Atlas was forced to hold the Earth on his shoulders, not the heavens
  • Atlas was associated with Atlantis by Pluto, and the first king of Atlantis was said to be named Atlas
  • Atlas was known as being ‘stout-hearted,’ strong, resilient and only a little gullible

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Atlas: The God with the World on His Shoulders - History

There were two famous brothers in Greek mythology – Prometheus and Atlas and both were punished - first Atlas and later Prometheus. There are two sculptures of the two brothers near Rockefeller Center in New York. You can find more details in my old post about Prometheus .

Ayn was so impressed with the skyline of Manhattan upon her arrival in New York Harbor that she cried what she later called "tears of splendor”. Later she wrote about New York: "I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York's skyline”. Rand wrote much of the book in New York and based many of the novel's fictional sites on real places in the city.

The story of Atlas Shrugged expresses Rand's philosophy rational self-interest. She wrote :

The Wall Street Journal published statistics about "Atlas Shrugged" sales:
1980s -- 74,300 copies per year
1990s -- 95,300 copies per year
2000s -- 167,028 copies per year
2010s -- 303,523 copies per year

2012- -- 359,105 copies per year

Part I of the American film adaptation of the novel Atlas Shrugged was released in 2011, part 2- in 2012, and Part will hit theaters on Summer 2014.

For aeons, Atlas stood in the garden of the Hesperides, at the far edge of the world, holding up the sky. He wasn’t entirely alone: there were the nymphs of the garden (the Hesperides), who tended to a golden apple tree, which was also guarded by a fearsome dragon.

The name Atlas comes from ancient Greek mythology. The Titan was forced to bear the weight of the heavens on his soldiers as a punishment from Zeus. Noa, Atlas’ middle name, is similarly meaningful. It’s a biblical name that has been popular for girls in Israel over the last 10 years.


The Greek mythology consists out of many stories and myths that can teach us a lot about life and us. Even though Atlas wasn’t the Greek deity, he still made quite an impact on the Greek mythology and remained popular even today.

Greek mythology is highly influenced by the Etruscan mythology. The Greek gods and goddesses very much resemble Greek deities and some of their similarities are hard to ignore. There are many references to Atlas and his punishment, which can be found in modern psychology and literature.

Many artists used the Atlas metaphor I their works of art to send a strong message out to the viewers or readers. Atlas’s punishment represented the weight of the world that lies on humans and our inability to withstand this difficult punishment.

Greek mythology definitely kept a much stronger significance in the world, but the Greek mythology is not far off. In today’s text we will learn more about the Greek god Atlas and his significance to the ancient Greeks and today’s popular culture.

The story about Atlas is completely taken over from the Greek mythology. In the Greek version we have the same story about the leader of the Titans who fought against the Gods and lost. In this story there is a strong message of betrayal and a message that there is something bigger and more important than humans, and that is religion itself. Those who oppose it are going to be condemned to live their eternity in suffering and pain, and the salvation will never come to them.

The story about Atlas might not be as detailed and deep as the story about other Greek mythological figures, but it surely teaches us about life and people. If we look deeper into the symbolic meaning of this story, we will notice many different layers and symbolic meanings that can be taken from it. If nothing, references to this ancient titan are still relevant today, which is only one proof more about its importance.

What Is an Atlas Used For?

An atlas is a book that contains illustrations of maps, charts, plates and tables on any subject, such as geography, history, astronomy and anatomy. The term "atlas" comes from the Greek god Atlas, a Titan said to support the entire Earth on his shoulders. The modern term "atlas" was introduced between 1580 and 1590.

Hardbound atlases serve as large reference books with color illustrations. Softcover atlases are often guides taken on trips so maps can be utilized during travel. Online atlases offer interactive elements that allow users to zoom in, zoom out and plot routes from various points.

The earliest book of maps, "Geographia," was published by Greco-Roman geographer Claudius Ptolemy in the second century. Bound atlases date back to 1475 at the Library of Congress, and as of 2014, the research institution holds 47 of the 56 known copies of Ptolemy's masterpiece. Another rare volume at the Library of Congress is Johann Ruysch's atlas of 1507, which incorporates explorations of the New World.

Atlases that focus on human anatomy are often textbooks for medical students because of detailed illustrations. Some anatomical atlases feature cross sections of tissue and organs, whereas others focus on microscopic views of the human body. One example is "Atlas of Human Anatomy," which shows anatomical structures by functional systems, such as skeletal, circulatory, muscular and nervous.

Swords into Plowshares

This relief refers to Isaiah 2:4 and depicts swords turning into plowshares. Here is the biblical verse:

He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.

-Isaiah 2:4

Again, this is a subtle yet very direct allusion to a New World order. The verse describes a whole with one court for all nations, one government for all nations and the coming of an era of world peace. The image of swords being beaten into plowshares is also prominently shown on one of the New World Order murals of the Denver International Aiport . Members of the Rockefeller family have always been actors working towards a one-world government and it is not surprising to find references to this plan etched on their buildings. David Rockefeller stated in his memoirs

“For more than century, ideological extremists at either end of the political spectrum have seized upon well-publicized incidents to attack the Rockefeller family from the inordinate influence they claim we wield over American political and economic institutions. Some even believe we are part of a secret cabal working against the best interests of the United States, characterizing my family and me as “internationalists” and of conspiring with others around the world to build a more integrated global political and economic structure – one world if you will. It that’s the charge, I stand guilty, and I am proud of it”.
-Memoirs, David Rockefeller p.405

Question is: Were they already aware of a plan for a New World Order in the 1930’s when the Plaza was built? Answer: Yes, yes they were. The idea isn’t new at all.


In Greek mythology, the Titan Atlas was responsible for bearing the weight of the heavens on his shoulders, a burden given to him as punishment by Zeus. Father of many stars and a protagonist in one of Hercules' famous labours, Atlas was also known as a wise man and the founder of astronomy. For Plato, he was the eponymous first king of Atlantis, and this giant of a god also gave his name to a huge mountain range in northern Africa, the great Atlantic Ocean and any large collection of maps.

With a name perhaps conveying the meaning 'suffering' or 'very enduring,' Atlas was the son of the Titans Iapetus and Clymene (or Themis) and the elder brother of Epimetheus, Menoetius, and Prometheus. Atlas was the father of the nymph Calypso and the seven Pleiades. In a Theban version of events, Atlas is also the grandfather of Niobe.


Atlas' Punishment from Zeus

Atlas was given the task of holding up the heavens as punishment from Zeus for leading the Titans in their battle with the Olympian Gods for control of the heavens. In a similar vein, Homer describes Atlas in his Odyssey as 'deadly-minded,' as knowing the depths of all the seas, and as holding the pillars far out in the Atlantic Ocean which hold the heavens and earth apart. Hesiod in his Theogony also describes Atlas as holding up the heavens and locates him in the land of the Hesperides (female deities famed for their singing), which was far to the west, at the edge of the world. Later tradition, including Herodotus, associates the god with the Atlas Mountains in North Africa. It was here that, in punishment for his gross lack of hospitality, the Titan was transformed from a shepherd into a huge rock mountain by Perseus using the head of the Gorgon Medusa with her deadly stare. This story may go back to the 5th century BCE.

Atlas & Hercules

Other associations with Atlas are as the father of many constellations, as a source of great wisdom and founder of astronomy, and, by Plato in his Critias, as the original king of Atlantis. Perhaps the most famous myth involving Atlas, though, is his role in one of the celebrated twelve labours of Hercules. The hero was required by Eurystheus to fetch the golden apples from the fabled gardens of the Hesperides, which were sacred to Hera and guarded by the fearsome hundred-headed dragon Ladon. Following the advice of Prometheus, Hercules asked Atlas (in some versions the father of the Hesperides) to get him the apples while he, with the help of Athena, took the world onto his shoulders for a while, giving the Titan a welcome respite. Perhaps understandably, when returning with the golden apples, Atlas was reluctant to reassume the burden of carrying the world. However, the wily Hercules tricked the god into swapping places temporarily while the hero got himself some cushions to more easily bear the tremendous weight. Of course, as soon as Atlas was back holding the heavens, Hercules with his golden booty, hot-footed back to Mycenae.


Representations in Art

In Greek art, Atlas is, from the 6th century BCE, often featured in depictions of the labours of Hercules, most notably in a metope from the temple of Zeus at Olympia (c. 460 BCE) where he stands in the gardens of the Hesperides. Similar scenes were also popular on Greek pottery decoration, particularly with his brother Prometheus. In Hellenistic and Roman times, Atlas is frequently represented in his now familiar position with bent knees and back, straining to hold the globe on his shoulders. Perhaps the most outstanding example of this pose is the 2nd-century CE sculpture now in the Archaeological Museum of Naples.

Atlas Facts and Figures

Name: Atlas
Pronunciation: Coming soon
Alternative names:

Gender: Male
Type: God
Celebration or Feast Day: Unknown at present

In charge of: Strength
Area of expertise: Strength

Good/Evil Rating: NEUTRAL, may not care
Popularity index: 8654

Atlas Relationships

The Debunker: Did Atlas Hold Up the Earth?

Ken Jennings, of Jeopardy! fame, was a trivia-obsessed ten-year-old, and now he’s raising a few quiz kids of his own. This month he launches a new series of amazing-facts books for kids, The Junior Genius Guides. Since the first two books in the series introduce young readers to Maps and Geography and Greek Mythology, respectively, we’ve asked him to set us straight this month and debunk some popular misconceptions about classical mythology, which has always been all Greek to us. Myths about myths?! May Zeus have mercy on our souls.

The Debunker: Did Atlas Hold Up the Earth?

The Titan Atlas probably has the worst job in Greek mythology. You’ve seen him in statues and on the cover of unreadable Ayn Rand books, hoisting that giant ball on his shoulders night and day. But you might be surprised to find that, in ancient myths, Atlas does not hold up the Earth. Consider: if he did, what would he stand on?

Atlas, in fact, stands at the western edge of the world holding up the heavens, not the Earth. This is his punishment for trying to overthrow the gods in an uprising called the Titanomachy. In subsequent myths, the poor guy just keeps getting crapped on. Heracles gives him a short break, but then tricks him back onto the job with the lamest of pretexts. (“Sure, I’ll hold up the sky for you, but can you fill in for me for just a second while I adjust my cloak? Thanks bro. See ya.”) Perseus later uses the head of Medusa to turn Atlas to stone, a story the Greeks used to explain the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.

In classical sculptures of Atlas, yes, he is holding up a globe. But a closer look will reveal that it’s always the celestial globe, the star-studded dome that the Greeks imagined covering the world. The association of Atlas with the earth later became stronger thanks to the books of maps called atlases—but that’s yet another misconception at work! The Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator, who first coined the word “atlas” for a collection of maps, actually had in mind a different guy altogether. He was thinking of the mythical African king named Atlas, who was said to have invented the globe. He may be a Titan, but poor Atlas doesn’t get no respect, no respect, I tell you.

Quick Quiz: What British rock band received 2013 Grammy and Golden Globe nominations for its hit single “Atlas,” from the Catching Fire soundtrack?

Watch the video: Βλιαγκόφτης- Τσιμπημένοι ή ελεύθεροι; (June 2022).


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