Encyclopedic Entry

Map of the northern sky.

Map by National Geographic Society

Carrying the World
on his Shoulders

The mythological creature Atlas is often associated, and pictured, on atlases. Atlas was a giant (called a Titan) who was forced to carry the Earth and the heavens (usually pictured as a sphere) on his back.

An atlas is a book or collection of maps. Many atlases also contain facts and history about certain places. There are many kinds of specialized atlases, such as road atlases and historical atlases. There are also star atlases, which give the location and placement of stars, planets and other celestial objects.

Besides showing maps of all the countries and continents, a world atlas may also provide facts about the countries. Individual maps of major cities or other points of interest may also be included in a world atlas. Population statistics, the location of natural resources, cultural and religious information and political data are frequently found in an atlas.

Although people have been using maps for thousands of years, civilizations really didnt begin producing large atlases until the 1500s. During this time, European and Asian countries were exploring the world through trade and colonization. They depended on atlases to guide them through unfamiliar territory. As European explorers mapped the "New World" (the Americas), they also updated atlases with their discoveries.

In 1595, a collection of maps prepared by the Flemish mapmaker Gerardus Mercator was published with the word "atlas" in the title. Atlas referred to a portrait of King Atlas, a mythical African monarch. King Atlas invented the first celestial globe. A celestial globe is a ball-shaped map of the stars and constellations. Celestial globes were very important in navigation, when sailors used stars to determine their position at sea. Mercator showed King Atlas to demonstrate his importance to navigation. This was the first time the term was applied to a collection of maps. Eventually, "atlas" came to be used for any book of maps.

Vocabulary

Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

atlas

Noun

a collection of maps.

Encyclopedic Entry: atlas

celestial

Adjective

having to do with the sky or heavens.

celestial globe

Noun

spherical model of the stars and planets visible in the night sky around the Earth.

civilization

Noun

complex way of life that developed as humans began to develop urban settlements.

Encyclopedic Entry: civilization

colonization

Noun

spreading of a species into a new habitat or ecosystem, and establishing a healthy population there.

constellation

Noun

group of stars that form a recognizable shape.

continent

Noun

one of the seven main land masses on Earth.

Encyclopedic Entry: continent

data

Plural Noun

(singular: datum) information collected during a scientific study.

Flemish

Noun

people and culture native to the area surrounding region of Flanders, in Belgium, France, and the Netherlands.

monarch

Noun

king or queen.

natural resource

Noun

a material that humans take from the natural environment to survive, to satisfy their needs, or to trade with others.

navigation

Noun

art and science of determining an object's position, course, and distance traveled.

Encyclopedic Entry: navigation

New World

Noun

the Western Hemisphere, made up of the Americas and their islands.

population

Noun

total number of people or organisms in a particular area.

statistics

Noun

the collection and analysis of sets of numbers.


For Further Exploration

Articles & Profiles

Credits

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Writers

Kim Rutledge
Melissa McDaniel
Diane Boudreau
Tara Ramroop
Santani Teng
Erin Sprout
Hilary Costa
Hilary Hall
Jeff Hunt

Illustrators

Tim Gunther
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society

Editors

Kara West
Jeannie Evers

Educator Reviewer

Nancy Wynne

Producer

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

Sources

Dunn, Margery G. (Editor). (1989, 1993). "Exploring Your World: The Adventure of Geography." Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.

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