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Sunday 25 January 2015

The History of Atlantis

I wrote another short article for eHow last week: What Did Atlantis Look Like?. The editorial instructions said the piece should draw on multiple “credible expert sources”, but when it comes down to it there is only one really credible source on the subject :  the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, who described the sinking of Atlantis in his dialogues Timaeus and Critias in the 4th century BC. Everything that has ever been written about Atlantis draws in one way or another on Plato’s account.

Modern proponents of Atlantis seem to fall into three broad camps:
  • Academics (and pseudo-academics) who scour the world looking for archaeological and historical evidence of a lost Atlantean civilization. This approach really took off with the publication of Ignatius Donnelly’s Atlantis: The Antediluvian World in 1882.
  • New Agers and other mystics who emphasize the spiritual and high-tech aspects of Atlantean culture, often receiving their information through telepathic “channelling” as opposed to more materialistic methods. This idea seems to have originated with the Theosophical movement in the late 19th century, continuing into the 20th century with the writings of Edgar Cayce and others.
  • Fictional treatments of Atlantis often portray it as still existing, thousands of years after it sank beneath the waves, in the form of a highly advanced underwater civilization. The best-known representative of this version of Atlantis is probably Namor the Sub-Mariner from Marvel Comics, although the earliest occurrence of the idea that I’m aware of is Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Maracot Deep from 1929.
The thing about Plato’s account that makes all this variety possible is that virtually no-one imagines he was telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. That leaves people free to pick and choose the bits they like, and add whatever further details they feel necessary.

Plato was a philosopher, not a historian, so he wasn’t in the business of recording purely factual accounts of historical events. He used the story of Atlantis as a vehicle to make specific points about moral and political philosophy. At the same time, however, Plato wasn’t in the business of writing imaginative fiction either. It’s hard to see why he would have gone to the trouble of fabricating such a convoluted story when he could have conveyed the same message in a more straightforward way. So it’s reasonable enough to conclude that some of what Plato said about Atlantis was based in fact, and some of it was made up.

But which is which? Translated into modern-day terms, the essential elements of Plato’s account are as follows:
  1. Atlantis was an island which sank beneath the sea as the result of a catastrophic earthquake.
  2. The island was large, perhaps 2000 or more miles in extent, and located in the Atlantic Ocean beyond the Straits of Gibraltar. After it sank, Plato says it “became an impassable barrier of mud to voyagers sailing from hence to any part of the ocean”.
  3. According to Plato, the sinking of Atlantis occurred around 9600 BC, when Atlantean civilization was at its height. Although Europe, North Africa and the Middle East were still in the early Neolithic period (New Stone Age) at that time, Plato’s Atlantis boasted a rich and thriving Bronze Age culture of a kind not seen elsewhere until 6000 years later.
As a general rule, the closer an Atlantis-hunter is to the academic mainstream, the fewer details of Plato’s account they seem prepared to accept. At the most hardnosed extreme, they just accept point (1) and ignore the rest. The second point – an island of that size located where Plato said it was – really isn’t credible in light of what is now known about the north Atlantic seabed. Similarly, the idea that such an advanced Bronze Age culture could have existed 12 millennia ago, without leaving the slightest trace in the neighbouring parts of Africa and Europe, just doesn’t fit with academically accepted chronology.

The figure of 9600 BC comes from Plato’s dating of the sinking of Atlantis to 9000 years before the time of Solon — a Greek statesman who lived around 600 BC. But one of the references cited in my eHow article claims that “Studies have shown there would appear to be a ten-fold error in all figures over a hundred in Plato’s work, due probably to an early translation error.” This would give a date of 600 + 900 (not 9000) = 1500 BC, which neatly coincides with the Bronze Age eruption of the small Greek island of Santorini – often cited as the most rationalistic explanation for the origin of Plato’s story.

But rationality is for the academics. At the other extreme, the mystics and New Agers are perfectly happy to accept Plato’s date of approximately 10,000 BC. They’re generally less interested in the location of Atlantis than in its level of technical and spiritual advancement – so they tend to focus on point (3) above rather than the first two. From their point of view, the idea of Bronze Age technology presents no problem at all, even when the rest of the world was back in the Stone Age. In fact they’re likely to advocate an even higher level of ancient Atlantean culture, complete with such things as flying vehicles, ESP, teleportation and maybe even space travel!


Kid said...

Atlantis? Kala, Queen of the Netherworld, and her people, were descendants of Atlantis. (See Tales of Suspense #43.) Perhaps Tony Stark could put you in touch with her? I'm sure she could tell you an interesting tale or two.

(What can I say? I just didn't want to drop in and not leave a comment.)

Anonymous said...

I've read that legends like Atlantis and Gilgamesh/Noah's Ark are ingrained in human culture due to the massive floods that took place when the glaciers melted at the end of the last ice age. I remember reading an explanation for the Bermuda Triangle that claimed it was due to a huge machine in Atlantis that was still working and somehow dragging down ships and planes to the sea floor (!!) And apparently when Europeans first saw the magnificent bronze sculptures made by people in Nigeria they refused to believe that such things could have been made by Africans and thought they had actually been made by refugees from Atlantis who came ashore in Nigeria !

Andrew May said...

Gosh, thanks Colin - three really interesting facts I'd never come across before! The first one actually sounds borderline credible (for Flood legends if not Atlantis) - you can imagine that in the days before written records, "important" history would have been passed down by word of mouth over dozens or even hundreds of generations.

Thanks for reminding me of the Kala-Atlantis connection, Kid. I always liked the cover of Suspense #43 - aka the cover of Fantastic #7, which was one of the first comics I acquired as a back issue (by sending off a postal order)!

Kid said...

Fantastic #7 was the very first issue of the comic I ever bought, Andrew, back in 1967. How's that for a coincidence.