The Greeks and their story telling has contributed a great deal to the development of mythology and has given a lot to the English language. What is not generally known is that the “classics” as we now know them were virtually unknown in England until the time of Shakespeare. With the desire for new knowledge, there was interest in other cultures which led to the quick development of the English language.
The development of the word atlas is an example of this. In Greek mythology Atlas was a Titan who annoyed the gods. As an extraordinarily strong person, his punishment was to support the whole world. In English, it was first used to praise for example by describing someone as the “Atlas of poetry”.
However, from 1636 this meaning disappeared into the background where it stayed. This is because in the same year the Atlas; or a geographic description of the world, by Gerard Mercator and John Hondt was published, which was a collection of maps. The spread of the word was propelled by the fact that the cover page had a huge drawing of Atlas supporting the heavens, and so the word immediately took up its new meaning. In his famous diaries John Evelyn recalls only five years later that he went shopping for maps and atlases.
Now just as postcards, guidebooks or stamps, the atlas in its book form is being squeezed by the internet.