Why A Bound Collection Of Maps Is Called An ‘Atlas’?

We all know that a book of maps is called ‘Atlas’ but have you ever wondered why? A simple Google search will tell you that it’s called that way because the first books that contained a set of maps had a picture of Atlas holding the globe. But is this the case though?

Well, yes, but that’s just half the story. And that’s because the more you dig into it, the more interesting the origin of the term gets. Luckily for you, we did the hard work of searching and we have the answer.

Here’s the story. (the article continues after the ad)

On May 20, 1570, Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius published his map book ‘Theatrum Orbis Terrarum’. This groundbreaking book containing 53 map-sheets that covered the entire world and it’s considered the “world’s first book of maps” as it was the first that reduced the best available maps of the era to a uniform format. For that, it was an immediate commercial success.

However, the term Atlas was nowhere to be found on Ortelius’ masterpiece. As it turns out, the term would not have come into play for 25 years, when Gerard Mercator’s ‘Atlas sive Cosmographicae meditationes de fabrica mvndi et fabricati figvra’ was published in 1595. On the title page, Mercator included the figure of a man with one globe between his hands and one laying on the ground:

Photo: Wikimedia

The strange thing about this picture is that Atlas looks notthing like the mythological Atlas that holds the globe on its shoulders, right? I mean, here’s a famous example of Atlas from the Naples Museum:

Photo: Wikimedia

Despite being quite different though, publishers associated books of maps with the mythological Atlas (the one holding the globe) and that’s why for the second half of the 17th century, most map books featured an Atlas on their cover or index pages. Here’s an example from Lafreri’s ‘Tavole Moderne Di Geografia De La Maggior Parte Del Mondo Di Diversi Autori …’:

Photo: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France

So, who was the man on the first Atlas if it wasn’t the Titan Atlas? Well, the Atlas that Mercator had in mind was Atlas, the legendary King of Mauretania. Atlas was a mathematician, a wise philosopher and an astronomer who allegedly invented the first globe. And that is the reason why the Atlas on Mercator’s page doesn’t appear to hold the globe on his shoulders, but he’s rather designing the globe:

Photo: Wikimedia

So, now you know – you useless info junkie! Even though a book of maps is called Atlas because most early books had a picture of Titan Atlas holding the world, the first to associate Atlas with a bound collection of maps wasn’t thinking about Titan Atlas, but the mythical King of Mauretania!

If you like what you read, then you will definitely love this one: This Is How A Mapmaker Messed Up Puerto Rico For Ever 

Photo: Jennifer Morrow / Flickr
Photoshop: I’m A Useless Info Junkie

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