The Whole Vault of Heaven

Very well!’ he taunted, `If you rate my thanks so low, accept a gift!’ and turned his face away and on his left held out the loathsome head, Medusa’s head. Atlas, so huge, became a mountain; beard and hair were changed to forests, shoulders were cliffs, hands ridges; where his head had lately been, the soaring summit rose; his bones were turned to stone. Then each part grew beyond all measure (so the gods ordained) and on his shoulders rested the whole vault of heaven with all the innumerable stars.

~ Metamorphoses, Ovid


It wasn’t the weight of the world or anything

like it. It was the weightless space between,

the nothing, the void, the days of waiting

and longing that bore down on him

like so many burning stars. The planets

wove their weary circles, the dust fell

together and fluttered apart.

He was a pillar without a monument,

the Aegean emptied and yearning.

He held his arms up in despair, his hands

barren, his feet numb and aching and always

the night fell between his outstretched

fingers, dark and beyond touch.

2 Comments on "The Whole Vault of Heaven"

  1. Hmmm…what happened to Atlas before he turned into a mountain? What was he expressing thanks for? For what was he expressing thanks? Did he morph into a mountain as an expression of thanks? We need some myth info here–just don’t have it.

    1. Good and helpful point, Ann. In this quote from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, it is Perseus who has thanked Atlas but his thanks are meaningless and spoken in anger. Perseus then uses Medusa’s power to turn Atlas (a Titan long ago condemned by Zeus to hold up the sky, all the heavens, the stars, the celestial sphere) into stone. Atlas is so big he becomes a mountain range. Often we see Atlas represented in images with the Earth on his shoulders but it was the sky he supported.

      My project in the collection of poems this comes from was to look at the events and crimes often attributed to Medusa. What you find is that Medusa rarely does anything of her own accord in ancient mythology. She is used by Perseus and Athena to commit atrocities. This is just one example.

      But as often happens when writing a poem or when painting, the project has a life of its own and here my mind has wandered to Atlas’ metaphysical struggle. What would it be like to spend your life, indeed even your death, holding up nothing? What does it mean when everything you are charged and compelled to do is as absurd as holding up air. This triggered for me some of the challenges I face as a wife and mother. I hope the poem triggers other emotional truths in individual readers but it’s not really about Medusa, or Perseus, or the artificial thanks offered to Atlas. It’s about the idea of holding up heaven, “the whole vault of heaven,” and what that might mean for the poor soul who thought he could.

      I hope that helps. And thanks for commenting!

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