Statue of Atlas Will Stand Again Before Greek Temple in Sicily

Atlas, the pre-Olympian Greek god, is famous for carrying the world on his shoulders. At a famous temple site in southern Italy, an ancient statue of Atlas will be restored to its original position. The statue of Atlas was discovered lying on the ground, as pictured above. The statue was found at one of the Greek temples of Agrigento, one of the most important archaeological sites in Sicily. The massive, “rebuilt” statue of Atlas will soon be standing again, for the first time in centuries, in front of a famous Doric temple dedicated to Zeus.

Sicily’s well-known Valley of the Temples is located just beyond the city limits of modern Agrigento. This UNESCO World Heritage site contains numerous remains of Greek places of worship that date to the 6 th century BC. The reconstructed statue of Atlas is some 24 feet high (8 meters high) and dates to the 5 th century BC. It was one of a number of other statues of Atlas that once supported the structure of a temple dedicated to Zeus. This temple is believed to have been the largest ever built in the Doric style. It was never completed because of war and stands in ruins today.

The statue of Atlas lying down with the modern Italian city of Agrigento in the background. (javarman / Adobe Stock)

The statue of Atlas lying down with the modern Italian city of Agrigento in the background. (javarman / Adobe Stock )

How Atlas And The Titans Lost Power To The New Greek Gods

According to Greek mythology, Atlas was a Titan, one of the pre-Olympian gods of ancient Greece. The Titans, according to Greek mythology , were overthrown by the Olympian gods led by Zeus, in a war known as the Titanomachy.  After the defeat of the Titans, Atlas was forced to carry the world on his shoulders for all time.

A bronze Greek statue in front of the Concordia Temple in Agrigento's Valley of the Temples, not far from where the statue of Atlas was found lying on the ground. (majonit / Adobe Stock)

A bronze Greek statue in front of the Concordia Temple in Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples, not far from where the statue of Atlas was found lying on the ground. (majonit / Adobe Stock )

This statue of Atlas is one of the most famous at the Agrigento archaeological park, where it had lain buried for centuries. The restoration work of the statue of Atlas is part of a larger reconstruction project for the area’s famous Doric temple dedicated to Zeus. “The reinstalment of the statue of Atlas is the culmination of a more comprehensive restoration [of the temple],” the director of the archaeological park Roberto Sciarratta, told Greece High Definition . It is going to be set upright, before the Temple of Zeus. Sciarratta is quoted by Greece High Definition as saying that it is going to be positioned in this way “so that it may serve as a guardian of the structure dedicated to the father of the gods.”

The Agrigent Telamon on display a Sicily museum. It is quite similar to the soon to be “rebuilt” statue of Atlas found in the same area of the Valley of the Temples. (Clemensfranz / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Agrigent Telamon on display a Sicily museum. It is quite similar to the soon to be “rebuilt” statue of Atlas found in the same area of the Valley of the Temples. (Clemensfranz / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Telamon: The Famous Greek Hero

The reconstructed statue of Atlas is made from a number of different telamons that once supported the temple. A telamon is “the architectural term for a sculpted figure with arms aloft holding a cornice or a lintel,” reports ICAA.  Telamon figures (or male caryatids) are named after the mythical Greek hero Telamon, who was the son of King Aeacus. 

Telamon was forced to flee his home after killing his half-brother and embarked on a journey filled with various adventures. He was said to have sailed with Jason and the Argonauts. Telamon was best known for his role in Heracles’ attack on Troy. In one version, he helped Heracles to kill a sea monster sent by Poseidon during this siege. He was also the first to break through the Trojan’s defenses. For his heroic deeds, Telamon was rewarded by Heracles, with the daughter of the king of Troy.

Telamon was renowned for his strength. According to ICAA “the name Telamon derives from a Greek word meaning support or bearer.” In some myths, Telamon is the father of the great hero Ajax, and Teucer, who both fought in the Trojan War.  When Ajax committed suicide, Telamon banished Teucer.

The Huge and Ambitious Temple of Zeus Restoration Project

In the last ten years, numerous artifacts that once decorated and supported the temple of Zeus in Sicily have been recovered. Sciaratta told Greece High Definition that “The goal is to recompose piece-by-piece the trabeation [beams] of the Temple of Zeus to restore a portion of its original splendor.” The placing of the statue will coincide with the foundation of Akragas some 2,600 years ago.

Akragas was established by Greeks from Gela and it is now known as Agrigento. The Encyclopedia Britannica reports that Akragas “was ruled 570–554 BC by the notorious tyrant Phalaris, who was reputed to have had men roasted alive in a brazen bull.’ Akragas was a very wealthy city and its inhabitants lived lavish lifestyles and were noted builders. Greece High Definition quotes Empedocles the philosopher as saying that the citizens of the city “would party as if they’ll die tomorrow and build as if they will live forever.”

After a siege in 406 BC, the Greek city of Akragas was destroyed by the Carthaginians. The city then went into a period of decline. However, it enjoyed a measure of prosperity under the able rule of Timoleon in the 3 rd century BC. The Romans conquered the city during the Second Punic War. In modern times, the Valley of the Temples has become a very popular tourist destination. And soon the statue of Atlas will stand again before the temple he protected in ancient times!

Top image: Titan Atlas statue found amongst the Greek temples of Agrigento .     Source: Wead / Adobe Stock

By Ed Whelan

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