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Anatomical Terminology –Origin of body part names: ATLAS

The human body has fascinated and educated humanity over centuries. From the earliest morbid fascination leading to the secret study of cadavers and sacrificial victims to the sophisticated modern dissections performed by anatomists, the study of anatomy has continued to evolve and educate the medical profession and the public.

As early as 1600 BC the Egyptian were masters of mummification and have left behind papyrus evidence of an understanding and identification of major organs. Over the centuries, the Greek, the Roman, Indian, Arabic and subsequently Medieval Europeans contributed to the study of anatomy. 

Artists and Sculptors such as Da Vinci and Michelangelo were also fascinated by the human body in order to help them make lifelike representations in painting and sculpture.

Anatomical Terminology 

The naming of body parts and internal structures reveals the Anatomist’s penchant for naming. It may be because the body part resembles something they know of. It may be because it reminds them of a classical myth. Or it may be simple vanity and name it after themselves. and why not, if you have spent numerous hours among the smelly confines of an anatomy dissection to stumble upon a new discovery, you deserve to credit to call it after your name. 

While we may all be familiar and use the names of the organs freely we don’t often wonder where the name comes from.

This particular train of thought reveals some fantastic stories and the rich history of human culture. This is perhaps a lost art, as many Doctors themselves don’t wonder why a certain organ or a body part is named a certain way. Maybe we need to rediscover this and go on a treasure hunt to look for names that have stories attached to them. 

Stories that reveal the rich tapestry of mythology and mystery of how these names came to be…

Why not start at the top?

The top most bone of the spinal column in the neck spine (cervical spine) is called the Atlas bone. This is the bone is in contact with the skull and it also has two indentations where the head rests. The first anatomists to identify this bone must have been fond of the Greek mythology ( as are most of these classically educated scholars.). They named this bone that stands on the very top of our spine and holds up the skull, after the Titan Atlas.




According to Greek Mythology Atlas ganged up on the Olympians (Zeus et al) with fellow Titans in a primordial war. Needless to say the Olympians led by Zeus had far cooler weaponry ( thunderbolt & lightning, winged-sandals, Trident and many more) than the Titans. Despite their sheer size, the Titans were defeated in the battle. Zeus condemned Atlas to forever stand on the edge of Gaia ( earth) and hold the celestial spheres of Uranus ( the sky) on his shoulders.

So in classical representation Atlas doesn’t actually hold the globe as you tend to see in modern paintings and figures but actually holds the celestial spheres of the sky on his shoulders. 

The Atlas bone sits on the Axis bone and this helps to rotate the head. These form the top two vertebral bones of the spinal column.

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