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Canongate U.S.
Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles

Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles

by Jeanette Winterson
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With wit and verve, the prize-winning author of Sexing the Cherry and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit brings the mythical figure of Atlas into the space age and sets him free at last. In her retelling of the story of a god tricked into holding the world on his shoulders and his brief reprieve, she sets difficult questions about the nature of choice and coercion, how we choose our own destiny and at the same time can liberate ourselves from our seeming fate. Finally in paperback, Weight is a daring, seductive addition to Canongate’s ambitious series of myths by the world’s most acclaimed authors.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781841957999
Publisher: Canongate U.S.
Publication date: 09/28/2006
Series: Myths Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 616,738
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Jeanette Winterson’s first novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, won the Whitbread Prize for Best Novel. Since then, she has published seven other novels, including Lighthousekeeping, The Passion, Written on the Body, and The Powerbook, a collection of short stories, The World and Other Places, a books of essays, Art Objects, and most recently a children’s picture book, The King of Capri. She has adapted her work for TV, film, and stage. Her books are published in thirty-two countries. She lives in Oxfordshire and London.

Read an Excerpt


By Jeanette Winterson

Random House

Jeanette Winterson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0676974171

Chapter One

I want to tell the story again
The free man never thinks of escape.
In the beginning there was nothing. Not even space and time. You could have thrown the universe at me and I would have caught it in one hand. There was no universe. It was easy to bear.

This happy nothing ended fifteen aeons ago. It was a strange time, and what I know is told to me in radioactive whispers; that's all there is left of one great shout into the silence.

What is it that you contain? The dead. Time. Light patterns of millennia opening in your gut. Every minute, in each of you, a few million potassium atoms succumb to radioactive decay. The energy that powers these tiny atomic events has been locked inside potassium atoms ever since a star-sized bomb exploded nothing into being. Potassium, like uranium and radium, is a long-lived radioactive nuclear waste of the supernova bang that accounts for you.

Your first parent was a star.

It was hot as hell in those days. It was Hell, if hell is where the life we love cannot exist. Those ceaseless burning fires and volcanic torments are lodged in us as ultimate fear. The hells we invent are the hells we have known. Hell is; was not, is not, cannot. Science calls it the world before life began -- the Hadean period. But life had begun, because life is more than the ability to reproduce. In the molten lava spills and cratered rocks, life longed for life. The proto, the almost, the maybe. Not Venus. Not Mars. Earth.

Planet Earth, that wanted life so badly, she got it.

Moving forward a few billion years, there was a miracle. At least that's what I call the unexpected fact that changes the story. Earth had bacterial life, but no oxygen, and oxygen was a deadly poison. Then, in a quiet revolution as explosive in its own way as a star, a new kind of bacteria, cyanobacteria started to photosynthesise -- and a bi-product of photosynthesis is oxygen. Planet earth had a new atmosphere. The rest is history.

Well not quite. I could list for you the wild optimism of the Cambrian era, pushing up mountains like grass grows daisies, or the Silurian dream-days of starfish and gastropods. About 400 million years ago, shaking salt water from their fins and scales, the first land animals climbed out of the warm lagoons of the vast coral reefs. The Triassic and Jurassic periods belong to the dinosaurs, efficient murder weapons, common as nightmares. Then three or four million years ago -- chancy and brand new -- what's this come here -- a mammoth and something like a man?
* * *
The earth was amazed. Earth was always strange and new to herself. She never anticipated what she would do next. She never guessed the coming wonder. She loved the risk, the randomness, the lottery probability of a winner. We forget, but she never did, that what we take for granted is the success story. The failures have disappeared. This planet that seems so obvious and inevitable is the jackpot. Earth is the blue ball with the winning number on it.

Make a list. Look around you. Rock, sand, soil, fruit trees, roses, spiders, snails, frogs, fish, cattle, horses, rainfall, sunshine, you and me. This is the grand experiment called life. What could be more unexpected?

All the stories are here, silt-packed and fossil-stored. The book of the world opens anywhere, chronology is one method only and not the best. Clocks are not time. Even radioactive rock-clocks, even gut-spun DNA, can only tell time like a story.

When the universe exploded like a bomb, it started ticking like a bomb too. We know our sun will die, in another hundred million years or so, then the lights will go out and there will be no light to read by any more.

'Tell me the time' you say. And what you really say is 'Tell me a story.'

Here's one I haven't been able to put down.

Weight of the World
My father was Poseidon. My mother was the Earth.
My father loved the strong outlines of my mother's body. He loved her demarcations and her boundaries. He knew where he stood with her. She was solid, certain, shaped and material.

My mother loved my father because he recognised no boundaries. His ambitions were tidal. He swept, he sank, he flooded, he re-formed. Poseidon was a deluge of a man. Power flowed off him. He was deep, sometimes calm, but never still.

My mother and father teemed with life. They were life. Creation depended on them and had done so before there was air or fire. They sustained so much. They were so much. To each other they were irresistible.

Both were volatile. My father obviously so, my mother more alarmingly. She was serene as a rock but volcano'd with anger. She was quiet as a desert but tectonically challenged. When my mother threw a plate across the room, the whole world felt the crash. My father could be whipped into a storm in moments. My mother grumbled and growled and shook for days or weeks or months until her rage fissured and crumpled entire cities or forced human kind into lava-like submission.

Humankind . . . They never could see it coming. Look at Pompeii. There they are in the bathouses, sitting in their chairs, wearing skeletal looks of charred surprise.

When my father wooed my mother she lapped it up. He was playful, he was warm, he waited for her in the bright blue shallows and came a little closer, then drew back, and his pull was to leave a little gift on her shore; a piece of coral, mother of pearl, a shell as spiralled as a dream.

Sometimes he was a long way out and she missed him and the beached fishes gasped for breath. Then he was all over her again, and they were mermaids together, because there was always something feminine about my father, for all his power. Earth and water are the same kind, just as fire and air are their opposites.

She loved him because he showed her to herself. He was her moving mirror. He took her round the world, the world that she was, and held it up for her to see, her beauty of forests and cliffs and coastlines and wild places. To him she was both paradise and fear and he loved both. Together they went where no human had ever been. Places only they could go, places only they could be. Wherever he went, she was there; a gentle restraint, a serious reminder; the earth and the waters that covered the earth. He knew though, that while he could not cover the whole of her, she underpinned the whole of him. For all his strength, she was strong.

Excerpted from Weight by Jeanette Winterson Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

I want to tell the story again,
Weight of the World,
Three Golden Apples,
No Way Out ...,
But Through,
Leaning on the Limits of Myself,
Private Mars,
Hero of the World,
I want to tell the story again,

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Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
the_awesome_opossum on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Weight casts Heracles and Atlas as foils to one another, complete opposites in how they approach problems. Heracles is a libertine, who literally pounds thoughts out of his head as infrequently as he has any, and whose main goal in life is to have sex with many women and kill many creatures (including said women). He goes about his legendary twelve tasks mechanically, with some cunning but not much thought. On the other hand, Atlas has nothing to do *but* think as he holds the weight of the world on his shoulders. He is stoic and, at times, melancholy.So how are we called to live? Being burdened by the weight of all the problems of the world is a daunting existence, but so is seeking out mindless carnal pleasures with no meaning behind them. Ultimately salvation comes not from the big conquering forces, but from the small and meek ones; it's the only way humanity can cope with the overwhelming weight of goodness and obligation and desire all tugging life in different directions.
hayleyscomet on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I didn't really expect to be terribly impressed by a short little novel that retold the myth of Atlas and Heracles.But I've read enough Jeanette Winterson by now that I really should have known better. She blew me away, as always. In her rambling, poetic style, she used the story of Atlas and Heracles to explore desire and boundaries and what weighs us down and how we can let go and escape. It was engrossing, and poignant, and beautiful.As always, Winterson injects a deeply personal element into the novel, while at the same time exploring the form of story: I want to tell the story again, she repeats. It is not just the story of two Grecian gods, but it is somehow her story, our story, the story of Earth from the Precambrian to the Space Age. And somehow, in this short little book, it's not overambitious at all--because Winterson is that good of a storyteller.And the ending of the book? Simply brilliant.
corinneblackmer on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A spare, hard, amusing, serious parable about the Atlas myth that turns out to be about shouldering responsibilities and accepting fate. A wonderful book to read to children,
ocgreg34 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As an avid reader, one thing I seem to gravitate to are re-tellings of well-known stories by authors. Something about a different take on the story, possibly challenging my own likes or dislikes about the original tale, has always appealed to me, and is probably why I'm such a fan of the "Wicked" series from Gregory Maguire. So a few weeks ago while I browsed the shelves at the local branch of the library, I stumbled across one of The Myths series written by author Jeanette Winterson that piqued my interest."Weight" presents her take on the classic Atlas and Heracles myth.Atlas did the unthinkable -- siding with the Titans in their war against the Olympian Gods. As punishment, Zeus ordered him to support the weight of the entire cosmos on his shoulders for all eternity. While he knelt, listening to the world and not realizing how much time was passing, who should happen to appear but Heracles, laboring through the twelve tasks set to him by King Eurystheus.One of Heracles' tasks is to secure three golden apples from a tree in the Garden of the Hesperides, but he himself is not allowed to pick them. So he devises the brilliant idea of having Atlas retrieve the apples for him. Atlas finds this brief respite from holding the world a chance to taste freedom, even if only for a little while, and agrees. The night before they are to temporarily trade places, they talked over a meal, Heracles ranting about having to obey Eurystheus, why did he need to do that? Atlas replied that there is no such thing as free will, only the will of the Gods.The next day, after switching places, a question starts buzzing about Heracles' brain: "What if Atlas doesn't return", leaving him to hold up the weight of the world?Winterson takes her re-telling one step farther by having Atlas, holding the world, the sky and space on his shoulders, ask the question: "What if he put it down?" It's an interesting take on the myth, focusing more on the nature of boundaries, who sets them, and why we follow them. For Heracles, it challenges his concept of destiny, forced to endure inhuman tasks with the hope of pleasing the Gods; for Atlas, it forces him to re-examine the way he blindly believes everything. "What if": two little words with so much power behind them.As she re-writes the myth, Winterson also interjects her own journey as a writer and why she decided to use the myth of Atlas and Heracles to work through her own inner struggles. After all, much of writing is fantasizing on the 'what ifs' and seeing how they play out.
spacecommuter on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Every word is the best one, every page is my favorite, every idea is the best I've ever heard. This is my favorite novel of all time - and she only wrote it last year. "I want to tell the story again." That's how Winterson opens her astonishing interpretation of the myth of Atlas and Hercules. Altas and Hercules, the two strongest men in the universe, both prisoners to Fate. Hercules is Id, gratifying every urge, exercising every rage, indulging every vanity, smashes his way through life. Atlas is Superego, carrying his outrageous burden because he feels he must, enduring humiliation and isolation because he believes he brought it on himself. Ego floats someone in between them, in the story itself. Ego is Will, ego is Choice...something that Atlas and Hercules both attempt after a lot of soul-searching.Around her central story, she contemplates all the scientific breakthroughs and advances in knowledge we've acquired since the first telling of this story thousands of years ago. And she demonstrates - especially at the end - that you can have modern science and these extraordinary myths at the same time. They coexist because they are both truth, both eternal. And the ending is so powerful I cry just remembering it.Every other week I find myself saying, "I want to read the story again."
rachaelster on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I'd follow Jeanette Winterson just about anywhere, and I'm very excited about this new series of books based on myths written by contemporary authors. This definitely doesn't disappoint.
eileansiar on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Jeanette Winterson is a genius in the world of novelists. She doesn't think quite like you or me. Good thing, too. Her take on two 'good ole boys' of the ancient world shows how well she understands men, deception, personal limits, the surreal, individual integrity in a world of corporate values.
NativeRoses on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Wonderful re-telling of the myth of Atlas who led the Titans in their war against the Olympians and whose punishment from Zeus was to hold up the world. The stories of Heracles, Hera, and Prometheus as well as science and humanity intertwine in this modern, lyrical re-telling of Atlas's life. Highly recommended.
the_hag on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I positively LOVED this book. It's the first I read in Canongate's Myth series, and I'm glad I started with this one! I read Weight in a couple of hours, but then it's not all that long (coming in at 151 pages), but in those pages it was fun, outrageous, sad, and well, different! I particularly loved her un-Sorbo like Heracles...he's coarse, vulgar, oversexed...and oh so unlike the Hercules played by Sorbo - and this is a good thing in my book! For Atlas' part, the long suffering god, made to bear the weight of the world upon his shoulders, is relieved of the burden for a short time, but even then he is tricked too early to returning to it...even in this we are given a twist, following Atlas from ancient Greece into the modern space race...I really enjoyed this twist. Weight is kind of a story inside of a story, with side stories even, and I like that about this book, it give one a lot to think about and a whole new twist on these mythic figures. I've not read any of Winterson's other work (which I may have to try out based on this reading), so I can't compare this to her other work, nor can I compare it to Atwood's Penelopaid (which I have in my library TBR pile...but this one is due in two days and cannot be renewed, so I had to read it NOW)...which is also in the Canongate's series of myths retold... even so, I give Weight a A, I really enjoyed it and would recommend it for a quick, fun retelling of the Atlas/Heracles myth.
Aeyan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Much has been said about the labors of Heracles, but not often is his mental state addressed in the tales. Winterson comically yet seriously addresses the buzzing 'thought-wasp' that Heracles very seldom engages, being more inclined to smack himself upside the head until the buzzing ceases, couching this tale within her larger exploration of the internal life of Atlas, he who bears the burden of the world's (and we discover, his own) weight. As part of Heracles' twelve labors, in exchange for his help, Heracles assumes the burden of the world while Atlas fetches three golden fruit from the garden of the Hesperides which, in Winterson's telling, was Atlas' own, tended by his daughters, but now gone to seed, save the tree he stewarded for Hera. After Atlas, being of the race of Titans who warred with and lost to the Olympians, was punished by yoking his strength to carry the Earth upon his back, his only other mention is of this encounter with Heracles, played out as if he refuses to resume his burden, but tricked by Heracles into doing so. Passing mention turns Atlas into a fixture, but not a character in the classic tales. Winterson takes this silent Titan and gives him a glorious internal imagining, exploring her stated themes of boundaries and isolation and freedom and responsibility within the character she develops of Atlas. His punishment becomes a space of rumination; he can hear what happens upon the world, he learns over the long years to differentiate the buzz of a bee from the low of cattle, the strains of song from the vilifying attack. He dwells in isolation, supporting life but never able to cross the boundary and interact. Enabled by Heracles to be free, Winterson complicates the scenario by engaging Atlas' deep sense of responsibility - he has carried the Earth for an unfathomable time and not merely let it drop, leading one to wonder why if not for this sense of duty, emphasized perhaps in his pre-punishment devotion to his garden - and while there is an element of trickery involved in Heracles getting Atlas to reshoulder the Earth's weight, it is left arguable that Atlas was complicit in this. Heracles may be portrayed as crafty, but Atlas has the wisdom of long meditation; he knew what he was about. A silent isolation for Atlas commences after this time, bounded by the disappearance of his familial gods, leaving him to ossify and calcify under the weight of the Earth, his mind kept contained within the duty his body performs. 'Then the dog came.' With this seemingly benign yet heraldic utterance Winterson brings us to 1957 and a little dog named Laika shot into space by Russia. Atlas frees Laika from her little pod, saving her from the needle that would end her life, and she in turn saves Atlas from hardening into nothingness - a state he has previously longed for, yet which can never be regained. And then he has the thought that took milennia to come to him: why not put the Earth down? Within this mythic retelling, this central question constantly buzzes in the background; why not just put it down? Why not release the boundaries? By what are we really bounded? Or whom? Winterson revitalizes this tale of Atlas and Heracles, contrasting the strengths and weaknesses of both, pulling from a little space-born pod a reason to dwell upon how we ourselves invoke our own limits.
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