1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Atlas
ATLAS, in Greek mythology, the “endurer,” a son of the Titan Iapetus and Clymene (or Asia), brother of Prometheus. Homer, in the Odyssey (i. 52) speaks of him as “one who knows the depths of the whole sea, and keeps the tall pillars which hold heaven and earth asunder.” In the first instance he seems to have been a marine creation. The pillars which he supported were thought to rest in the sea, immediately beyond the most western horizon. But as the Greeks’ knowledge of the west increased, the name of Atlas was transferred to a hill in the north-west of Africa. Later, he was represented as a king of that district, rich in flocks and herds, and owner of the garden of the Hesperides, who was turned into a rocky mountain when Perseus, to punish him for his inhospitality, showed him the Gorgon’s head (Ovid, Metam. iv. 627). Finally, Atlas was explained as the name of a primitive astronomer, who was said to have made the first celestial globe (Diodorus iii. 60). He was the father of the Pleiades and Hyades; according to Homer, of Calypso. In works of art he is represented as carrying the heavens or the terrestrial globe. The Farnese statue of Atlas in the Naples museum is well known.
The plural form Atlantes is the classical term in architecture for the male sculptured figures supporting a superstructure as in the baths at Pompeii, and in the temple at Agrigentum in Sicily. In 18th-century architecture half-figures of men with strong muscular development were used to support balconies (see Caryatides and Telamones).
A figure of Atlas supporting the heavens is often found as a frontispiece in early collections of maps, and is said to have been first thus used by Mercator. The name is hence applied to a volume of maps (see Map), and similarly to a volume which contains a tabular conspectus of a subject, such as an atlas of ethnographical, subjects or anatomical plates. It is also used of a large size of drawing paper.
The name “atlas,” an Arabic word meaning “smooth,” applied to a smooth cloth, is sometimes found in English, and is the usual German word, for “satin.”