More than 2,500 years ago, a legend first began to spread about a society of the past that enjoyed an abundance of natural resources, great military power, splendid building and engineering feats, and intellectual achievements far advanced over those of other lands. Called Atlantis, it was described as a continent-sized area with rich soil, plentiful pure water, abundant vegetation and animals, natural hot springs for health and vigor, and such mineral wealth that gold was inlaid in buildings and was among the precious metals and stones worn as jewelry. Slaves performed manual labor, allowing a large elite to pursue knowledge, enjoy sporting events, and continually improve upon an already thriving society.
In the ensuing centuries, no conclusive evidence of Atlantis has been found, but its attributes have expanded to include additional engineering and technological feats that enhance its legendary status in the popular imagination. In 1882, Ignatius Donnelly (1832–1901) published Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, arguing that all civilization is an inheritance from Atlantis. Listing numerous parallels between ancient cultures spaced far away from each other, Donnelly argued that their commonness resulted from contact with Atlanteans.
Similarities do indeed exist among various ancient cultures, as do significant differences. Flood myths and sun worship, for example, might be based on a shared teaching, or they might be separate reactions to beneficient and destructive elements of nature. Pyramids were built in Egypt and the Americas, but they are also significantly different in their structures. The walls of pyramids in the Americas did not converge to form a true point, as they did in Egypt; rather, the walls reached a certain level upon which a platform was built and often a temple erected. If Atlantis did indeed fall somewhere between 8500 and 9500 b.c.e., what accounts for the long time lag until the pyramids were erected in Egypt (generally dated around 2500 b.c.e.) and North America (generally dated after 200 c.e.)?
Since the 1800s, Atlanteans have been credited for having had the technology to generate electricity, build flying machines, and harness nuclear power for energy and war-fare—all developed more than 9,000 years before such things came into being in modern society. Other claims have Atlanteans knowledgeable about a formidable death ray, secrets for levitation, and pure forms of energy through crystals. Many Atlantis enthusiasts firmly believe that the inhabitants of the lost continent had cosmic connections with extraterrestrials and may actually have been a colony established on Earth by alien explorers.
Since Atlantis was first described, claims have been made that certain members of the civilization escaped destruction during its catastrophic final days and managed to impart their knowledge to other peoples of the world, helping civilize primitive societies, passing on the secret of written language, and supervising construction of some of the world's most mysterious structures of the ancient world. The pyramids of Egypt and the Americas, the Sphinx in Egypt, and the megaliths of western Europe are among the structures attributed to the genius of Atlanteans.
According to most accounts, Atlantis was suddenly destroyed by a cataclysm of earthquakes and floods and swallowed up by the sea. No definitive remnants have ever been found, and the exact location of the "lost continent" remains debatable. The idea of Atlantis was first expressed in the works of Plato (c. 428–348 or 347 b.c.e.), the Greek philosopher, who stressed that a perfect world exists in Ideas. For example, a shoe, according to Plato, exists as an idea before a craftsperson makes the material object identified as a shoe. The material world, then, is a reflection of ideas, never quite reaching the perfection of ideas, but which serve as models for which the adepts might strive.
While Plato used the model of Atlantis to represent a world of perfect order in contrast to all that was imperfect in the world around him, he labeled the story of Atlantis "literally true"—a significant declaration. For Plato was suspicious of fiction and art. If ideas are the primary reality, and the material world is a reflection of ideas, then art, as a reflection of the material world, is twice removed from reality, according to Plato. His claim that the Atlantis story is literally true helps sustain the continuing legend of Atlantis. It remains a legend, or an Idea, however, until some material proof shows that Atlantis existed in the material world. Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.), another of the great Greek philosophers, viewed the Atlantis legend as fiction.
Plato's writings comprise several letters and 25 dialogues. His views and those of his mentor, Socrates (c. 470–399 b.c.e.), were presented as dramatic conversations exploring such topics as truth, the origin of the world and its composition, the purpose of humankind, and what an individual should choose as an aim of life. Atlantis is discussed in two of Plato's dialogues, Timaeus and Critias. Timaeus provides a description of the island continent and how Atlanteans conquered all the known world except for the Athenians (Plato was an Athenian). Critias, named after the primary speaker in the dialogue, Plato's great-grandfather, presents a history of Atlantean civilization and describes the ideal society that flourished there. Critias notes that the stories were originally passed on by an ancestor, Solon (638–558 b.c.e.), a politician and poet who traveled widely. Critias and Solon were both ancestors of Plato.
Solon, as the story goes, was informed by Egyptian priests in the city of Sais, located in the Nile delta, that there was once a land even older in history than Egypt, which the Greeks acknowledged as being centuries older than their own society. The priests described a large island continent called Atlantis that prospered some 8,000 years earlier, which dates Atlantis before 8500 b.c.e. The continent was located beyond "the Pillars of Hercules," the Greek term for the rocks that form the Straits of Gibraltar, the westernmost point of the Mediterranean Ocean. Beyond the straits is the Atlantic Ocean.
There were several cities on the continent. The primary city, also called Atlantis, was located in the center of a series of concentric rings that alternated between rings of water and land. The water rings served as canals for trade and helped form a series of natural defenses that made an invasion of Atlantis extremely difficult.
The city of Atlantis, in the innermost circle, had palaces and temples where wise and powerful rulers lived. The ruling coalition descended from Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea. Poseidon and Clieto had five sets of twin sons, according to Greek mythology, each of which was given a region of Atlantis. Atlas, the firstborn son, was given the largest province, which became the city of Atlantis, a name that derives from Atlas. The finest structure on the island, the Temple of Poseidon, honored the god and served as the home of the primary ruler.
Atlantis had a powerful army of professional soldiers, as did each of the other nine regions of the continent. The culture of Atlantis promoted learning, through which advances in engineering and science made the land bountiful, beautiful, and powerful. In addition to magnificent architectural structures, a network of bridges and tunnels linked the rings of land, and clever uses of natural resources provided security and abundance. Many groves provided solitude and beauty, racetracks were used for athletic competitions, and irrigation systems ensured great harvests.
In Plato's account, the people of Atlantis eventually became corrupt and greedy, putting selfish pursuits above the greater good. They began invading other lands with the idea of world domination. Angered by these developments, Poseidon set about destroying the civilization, battering the continent with earthquakes and floods until Atlantis was swallowed up by the ocean.
That description of the destruction of Atlantis has been linked by some to other cataclysmic events—stories of a great deluge in the Bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and flood myths in other societies. Some contend that the end of the Ice Age between 12,000 and 10,000 b.c.e. likely resulted in rises of water levels in various parts of the world and that earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and climate changes, either incidental or associated with the Ice Age, occurred during the time identified with the destruction of Atlantis.
The location of Atlantis has been claimed on each of the seven continents, and in several spots in the world's oceans and seas. Additionally, many of the ancient world's wonders have been attributed to Atlanteans who, presumably, escaped the destruction of their homeland and spread their advanced engineering skills elsewhere.
The text of Plato's dialogue suggests the Atlantic Ocean "beyond the pillars of Hercules" as the location of Atlantis. As late as the twentieth century, a belief persisted that a landbridge once existed in the ocean and ran between Europe and Africa and North and South America. Such a land-link concept helps explain similarities in flora and fauna existing on continents spread thousands of miles apart. The mid-Atlantic ridge, a series of undersea mountains, has been presented as a remnant of the land bridge, or as the remains of Atlantis.
Jacques Collina-Girard of the University of the Mediterranean in Aix-en-Provence had been studying patterns of human migration from Europe into North Africa at the height of the last Ice Age, 19,000 years ago, when his reconstruction of the area revealed an ancient archipelago with an island at the spot where Plato wrote Atlantis existed. The island was named Spartel, and it lay in front of the Pillars of Hercules to the west of the Strait of Gibraltar at a time when the sea level was 130 meters lower than it is today. According to Collina-Girard (New Scientist, September 2001), the slow rise of post-glacial sea levels would gradually have engulfed the island and the archipelago 9,000 years before Plato.
While the concept of an island being swallowed by the sea in the area before the Pillars of Hercules seems a viable theory, there is as yet no evidence discovered to prove that a continent existed in the mid-Atlantic Ocean. The shallow waters around the northwest coast of Africa and extending to the Canary Islands is an area that may have been above the ocean at one time and has been suggested as a location for Atlantis, but no physical remains of human habitation have been located there.
Alan F. Alford, a leading authority on ancient mythology, spent five years investigating Plato's account of Atlantis, and, in December 2001, announced his conclusion that the myth of the lost continent took place only in Plato's mind. In Alford's theory, the Greek philosopher invented Atlantis as a metaphor for the ancient version of the contemporary "Big Bang Theory." Atlantis, as a symbol for a lost paradise, represented a kind of cataclysm of all cataclysms that brought about the beginning of all time.
The discouraging theories of the skeptical do little to diminish the enthusiasm of those who earnestly believe in the physical reality of Atlantis. The Atlantic Ocean location for the lost continent received renewed attention in the late 1960s, specifically the region near Bimini Island in the Bahamas, an island chain off the coast of the United States. Fueling the excitement over what appeared to be discoveries of actual roadways, walls, and buildings under the water was the fact that they were found in the exact location and at the same point in time as prophesied by Edgar Cayce (1877–1945), a psychic, whose "life readings" for clients revealed that many of their present-life psychological traumas were being caused by a terrible incident that the sufferer had experienced in a past life. Many of the presentlife traumas of his clients, according to Cayce, were due to the sufferings they had experienced as people who lived in Atlantis in a previous life.
Cayce helped popularize a modernized view of Atlantis as a superior civilization that had developed planes, submarines, x-ray, anti-gravity devices, crystals that harness energy from the sun, and powerful explosives. He theorized that an explosion in 50,000 b.c.e. blew Atlantis up into five islands; another occurred in 28,000 b.c.e.; and the third, the one described by Plato, occurred around 10,000 b.c.e. Cayce claimed that he had been an Atlantean priest from around 10,500 b.c.e. who had foreseen the coming destruction and sent some of his followers to Egypt. Those followers directed the building of the Sphinx and the pyramids.
In 1940 Cayce predicted that remnants of Atlantis would rise again near the Bahamas in the late 1960s. In 1967, two pilots photographed a rectangular structure in the ocean off the coast of Andros, the largest island of the Bahamas. Another configuration of stone, in the shape of a "J," was found by divers off the island of Bimini. The J-shaped formation was believed to be a road of stone. Extensive diving expeditions became common in the area, and some divers claimed to have seen remnants of temples, pillars, and pyramids. However, none were documented by extensive excavations.
The J-shaped structure became popularly known as the Bimini Road and was a cause of celebration among enthusiasts of Atlantis and Cayce. Geological tests, however, show that the J shape is actually a limestone beachrock. Fractures in the formation give it the appearance of a construction of blocks, but the entire formation shows the same grains and microstructure—a quality difficult to replicate in a series of blocks. Radiocarbon testing of shells in the stone show that the formation is relatively young—about two or three thousand years old, some 9,000 years younger than the alleged final destruction of Atlantis. Finally, the curve of the J parallels the beachline of the nearby island, showing it has been shaped by the same currents affecting the island.
The rectangular structure off the coast of Andros, on the other hand, was indeed manmade—it was a storage facility built in the 1930s where sponges could be deposited after they were collected in the surrounding ocean. Despite these explanations, enthusiasm over the Bahama site continues among believers.
Another theory suggests that Antarctica was once located in the mid-Atlantic and had a more temperate climate where a civilization once thrived. Antarctica, thus, has been claimed as the site of Atlantis and of a similar type of advanced civilization.
The question of where Atlantis was located still persists. Among the many possible sites for Atlantis on the seven continents or under the seas, two popular locations are based on areas that, like Atlantic Ocean regions "beyond the pillars of Hercules," can be related to Plato's time. One site is the island of Crete, where the thriving Minoan civilization fell into disarray around 1400 b.c.e. The other site is in present-day Turkey, known in ancient times as Anatolia, where associations with Atlas and his descendants were strong.
Little was known about Minoan culture before the discovery in 1900 of a great palace at Knossos on the island of Crete by the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans (1851–1941). He named the culture that created Knossos and thrived on Crete "Minoan civilization" after Minos, the legendary king of Crete. The palace at Knossos was probably damaged by an earthquake about 1700 b.c.e., a date that marked the end of one phase of the early history of Crete. Minoan civilization had regular contact and trade with ancient Egypt, which lies southeast, across the Mediterranean, from Crete. Crete, then, qualifies as a land far to the west (in those days) of Egypt where Atlantis was said to be by the Egyptian priests who spoke of the continent to Solon.
Archaeological excavations early in the twentieth century unearthed remarkable artifacts of Minoan civilization. Then, in 1939, Greek archaeologist Sypridon Marinatos (1901–1974) discovered pumice, volcanic ash, on Crete. Marinatos connected the ash to the tremendous eruption of a volcano on Thera, a nearby island. The eruption was reported in ancient histories. The explosion would have created havoc on Crete and perhaps a tidal wave that swept over the island. To illustrate that possibility, Marinatos likened the Thera explosion to the 1886 eruption of Mt. Krakatoa that could be heard a thousand miles away and created tidal waves that killed 36,000 people. The volcanic ash on Crete helped preserve excellent artifacts of Minoan civilization, including whole streets and houses as well as frescoes and pottery.
However, while Plato's text cites earth-quakes and floods as having destroyed Atlantis, there is no mention of a volcano. The date of the Thera volcano, around 1500 b.c.e., does not match the period of the downfall of Atlantis, which Egyptian priests told Solon had occurred 8,000 to 9,000 years earlier. The 1500 b.c.e. date does coincide if the claim of 8,000 years is reduced to 800 years. That tactic was suggested by Greek geologist Angelo Gelanpoulous in 1969: he theorized that all dates and measurements related by Solon were exaggerated and were actually one-tenth as large as claimed. Gelanpoulous' theory provided some neat correlations, but they work only in a few circumstances.
Another problem with identifying the fall of Atlantis with the destruction of Minoan civilization is an inexact correlation between the eruption of Thera and the demise of ancient Crete, where Minoan civilization continued on for another century after the volcanic eruption. In fact, during twentieth-century excavations, some volcanic ash was found beneath an elaborate palace, showing that construction soon continued after the eruption. Furthermore, there was no apparent disruption in trade between the Minoans and Egyptians. The volcanic eruption caused havoc on Crete, but it did not destroy Minoan civilization.
The kings of Knossos attained their greatest power about 1600 b.c.e., when they controlled the entire Agean area and traded extensively with Egypt. The subsequent destruction of Knossos and the collapse of Minoan culture coincided with the beginning of the most flourishing period of Mycenae civilization in Greece; this coincidence suggests that it may have been the warlike Mycenae who attacked and destroyed Minoan civilization.
Lydia, an ancient country of Asia Minor (now Turkey), was located in the valleys of the Hermus and Cayster rivers (now the Gediz and Büyükmenderes rivers). Known earlier by the name Maeonia, it had fertile soil, rich deposits of gold and silver, and a magnificent capital, Sardis. Lydia prospered as a powerful dynasty beginning about 685 b.c.e. During the sixth century b.c.e., Lydia attained its greatest splendor under the rule of King Croessus. The empire ended when the Persian ruler Cyrus the Great (c. 585–c. 529 b.c.e.) captured Sardis about 546 b.c.e. After the defeat of Persia by Alexander III (c. 356–323 b.c.e.), king of Macedonia, Lydia was brought under Greco-Macedonian control, and then in 133 b.c.e. it became part of the Roman province of Asia.
Lydia was across the Agean Sea from Greece. A legendary king of Lydia was named Tantalis: his name sounds similar to Atlantis, and he shared many mythic attributes among Lydians that the god Atlas had among Greeks. Like Atlas, Tantalis was a leader of the Titans, the group of gods who were overthrown by Zeus. In Greek mythology, Zeus punished Atlas by banishing him to the west and made to hold up the sky. A similar fate was shared by Tantalis in myths of Anatolia (an old name for the region in Asia Minor that includes Turkey).
According to that myth, Tantalis ruled over a fabulously wealthy city he founded on Mt. Sipylus in Lydia. His city was shattered by earthquake and flood and was reputed to have sunk when he lost the favor of the Olympian gods.
During the 1990s ruins were found on the northern slope of Mt. Sipylus. The area had undergone several phases of change through the centuries. Among the ruins was a statue of the goddess Cybele that was dated around 1400 b.c.e., a time when the Hittite rule over the area was overthrown by locals affiliated with the Mycenae civilization of Greece. The area of Tantalis had been conquered, and perhaps razed. Or, it subsequently was buried during an earthquake, and eventually submerged by a lake. The area is in a major fault zone, and heavy earthquake damage to the cities of Lydia was documented in 17 c.e. Among the hardest hit of twelve ancient Lydian cities was Magnesia at Sipylus, in the region where Tantalis was located.
Lake Saloe in Turkey has long been identified with the lost city of Tantalis. The lake was pumped out in modern times to provide more land for farming. It is now a fertile plain with nearby rivers. An old caravan route was found, certainly not a remnant of a mighty empire, but the tantalizing prospect that Tantalis was Atlantis remains.
Enthusiasts of the lost continent were tantalized once again in December 2001 when explorers using a miniature submarine to probe the sea floor off the coast of Cuba announced their discovery of stone structures deep beneath the ocean surface that were suggestive of ruins left by an unknown human civilization thousands of years ago. Representatives of the Canadian-based Advanced Digital Communications, together with experts from the Cuban Academy of Sciences, said that the structures were discovered at a depth of around 2,100 feet and were distributed as if remnants of an urban area. Estimates of the ancient city under the sea were somewhere in the vicinity of 6,000 years, thereby making them about 1,500 years earlier than the great Giza pyramids of Egypt. Whether this new intriguing site proves to be Atlantis or evidence of a land bridge that once linked Cuba to mainland Latin America, it is certain to be controversial.
Cawthorne, Andrew. "Explorers View 'Lost City' Ruins under Caribbean." abcNews.com, December 6, 2001. [Online] http://abcnews.go.com/wire/SciTech/reuters20011206_346.html.
Copley, Jan. "Sea Level Study Reveals Atlantis Candidate." New Scientist, September 19, 2001. [Online] http://www.newscientist.com/news/news.jsp? id'ns99991320.
Donnelly, Ignatius. Atlantis: The Antediluvian World. 1882. evised Edition. Ed. by Egerton Sykes. New York: Harper & Row, 1949.
Harpur, James, and Jennifer Westwood. The Atlas of Legendary Places. New York: Konecky & Konecky, 1997.
Hill, Amelia. "Myth of Atlantis All Took Place in Plato's Mind." The Observer, December 16, 2001. [Online] http://www.observer.co.uk/international/story /0,6903,619567,00.html.
Muck, Otto. The Secrets of Atlantis. New York: Times Books, 1978.
Plato. The Timaeus and Kritias. Trans. by Desmond Lee. London: Penguin Books, 1977.
Spence, Lewis. The History of Atlantis. New York: University Books, 1968.
A mythical island continent said to have existed in the Atlantic Ocean in ancient times. The earliest mention of Atlantis is found in Plato's two dialogues Timaeus and Critias, from which it emerged as a topic of fascination and speculation over the centuries. It entered occult perspectives through the writings of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, cofounder of the Theosophical Society, in the nineteenth century and has been a topic of popular speculation in the twentieth century. For many, Atlantis has replaced the biblical Garden of Eden as a mythical original home for the human race.
For Plato, Atlantis was a useful myth for conveying several lessons he wanted to make about government and the nature of city-states. In the twentieth century it has been integrated into a myth about overreliance on technology as opposed to personal spiritual and psychic awareness. Plato described Atlantis as a large land located beyond the Straits of Gibraltar. It was a powerful land able to conquer much of the Mediterranean basin, but at the height of its power it was destroyed by geologic forces. Plato supposedly learned of Atlantis as a result of the Athenian lawgiver Solon, who had brought the story to Greece from Egypt several centuries earlier.
Over time the Atlantis myth grew in proporition, so that by the Middle Ages, Atlantis had been transformed into a massive mid-Atlantic continent. Eventually it became one of the destinations visited by explorers in the European fantastic voyage literature, the most prominent being Captain Nemo in Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870).
Interest in Atlantis was revived in 1882 with the publication of Ignatius Donnelly's Atlantis, the Antediluvian World. He argued that Atlantis was the lost origin point of humanity, the place where the race moved out of barbarism to a civilized state. For Donnelly, Atlantis explained many of the prominent similarities between the culture of Egypt and that of Latin America. He believed that the worldwide myth of the flood was really the account of Atlantis's demise.
Blavatsky adopted Donnelly's ideas and integrated Atlantis into the theosophical story of the evolution of the human race. She hypothesized the evolution of humanity through a series of "root races." Lemuria, the Pacific equivalent of Atlantis, was the home of the third root race; Atlantis, of the fourth root race. Earth is currently populated by the fifth root race. Blavatsky's ideas were expanded by such Theosophists as Charles W. Leadbeater, W. Scott Elliott, and Rudolf Steiner.
In the 1920s the subject of Atlantis was taken up by Scottish journalist and anthropologist Lewis Spence, who eventually wrote four books on the subject, beginning with The Problem of Atlantis (1924). He passed along speculations to psychic Edgar Cayce (1877-1945), who frequently spoke of Atlantis, primarily as he described the past lives of his clients. Many were seen as people who had escaped to such places as Egypt or Peru following the destruction of the continent.
Cayce pictured Atlantis as a land of high technological achievement, even by twentieth-century standards. Atlanteans understood universal forces and had learned to fly, had central heating, sonar, and television. Central to Atlantean technologies was a firestone, a large crystal that collected energy from the stars and then gave off energy to power the technology of the land. The misuse of the crystal's power led to the destruction of Atlantis.
The Association for Research and Enlightenment, an organization formed to promote and perpetuate Cayce's work, gathered his comments about Atlantis and published them in two books, Atlantis: Fact or Fiction (1962) and Edgar Cayce on Atlantis (1968), which called attention to a Cayce prediction that a remnant of Atlantis would emerge at the end of the 1960s near the island of Bimini. No such emergence occurred, but a number of Cayce's believers travel to the area in search of underground remnants of the continent.
Amid the numerous speculations about the location of the lost continent, one seems to have emerged as the most likely. In 1969 Greek archaeologist Angelo Galanopoulos released data he had collected on the island of Thera. Galanopoulos had discovered an ancient Minoan city, buried in layers of volcanic ash. It was the center of a once-powerful city-state that was wiped out suddenly by the volcano. With the exception of its location in the Mediterranean rather than outside the Straits of Gibraltar, it fits most precisely the several descriptions of Atlantis reported by Plato.
From Cayce the idea of Atlantis was picked up in the New Age movement. In 1982, Frank Alper, a channel from Arizona, issued an important channeled work, Exploring Atlantis, in which he picked up the account in Cayce's writings about the crystal on Atlantis. The three-volume work, which purports a crystal-based culture on the lost continent, became the basis of the faddish use of crystals by New Agers in the 1980s. In particular, Alper describes in some detail the techniques of crystal healing.
Alper, Frank. Exploring Atlantis. 3 vols. Farmingdale, N.Y.: Coleman Publishing, 1982.
Cayce, Edgar. Atlantis: Fact or Fiction. Virginia Beach, Va.: ARE Press, 1962.
——. Edgar Cayce on Atlantis. New York: Paperback Library, 1968.
Donnelly, Ignatius. Atlantis: The Antediluvian World. New York: Harper's, 1882.
Ferro, Robert, and Michael Gromley. Atlantis: The Autobiography of a Search. New York: Bell Publishing, 1970.
Galanopoulos, A. G., and E. Bacon. Atlantis. London: Nelson, 1969.
Scott-Elliott, W. The Story of Atlantis. London: Theosophical Publishing House, 1896.
Spence, Lewis. Atlantis in America. London: E. Benn, 1925.
——. The Problem of Atlantis. London: Rider, 1924.
Steiner, Rudolf. Cosmic Memory: Prehistory of Earth and Man. West Nyack, N.Y.: Paperback Library, 1968.
Plato's Timaeus and Critias
According to the ancient Greeks, Adantis was an island located in the Atlantic Ocean beyond the Straits of Gibraltar (pronounced jih-BRAWL-ter). It was an island paradise that sank into the sea one day. Since ancient times, many people have tried to explain the legend of Atlantis or to discover what remains of the island.
The tale of Atlantis comes from the Greek philosopher Plato (pronounced PLAY-toh), who lived from 427 to 347 bce. In two of his written works, Timaeus (pronounced tih-MEE-us) and Critias (pronounced CRY-tee-us), Plato relates that the famous Athenian lawgiver Solon had heard the story of Atlantis when he visited Egypt. In the very distant past, according to the story, a great island as large as North Africa and the Near East put together existed in the Atlantic Ocean. The island belonged to the god Poseidon (pronounced poh-SYE-dun), who fell in love with and married a young woman of the island named Cleito (pronounced KLAY-toh). Poseidon built a city on the island, and on a mountain in the center of the city, he built a palace for Cleito. The couple had ten children and, in time, Poseidon divided the island among them, giving each a section to rule.
Many cultures have stories that tell of a “golden age” in the distant past when people were happy and lived without strife. Usually the earthly paradise was lost as a result of greed. The golden age of the ancient Greeks was ruled by Cronus (pronounced KROH-nuhs, called Saturn by the Romans). When Zeus took over, the Silver, Bronze, and Iron Ages followed, each less happy and less prosperous than the one before it. Persian mythology tells how Masha and Mashyoi lost their paradise after being fooled by an evil spirit. A Mayan myth tells of perfect people, made out of cornmeal, who became too proud. Their downfall came when the gods put a mist before their eyes to weaken their understanding.
Atlantis was a paradise. No one had to work hard, every type of wonderful food grew there, and animals were plentiful. Poseidon had created a stream of hot water and a stream of cold water for the island. It had a glorious culture with wonderful palaces and temples. The kings were rich in gold, silver, and other precious metals. The people of Atlantis lived in a golden age of harmony and abundance.
Then things began to change. The gods started to intermarry with humans. The Atlanteans became greedy for more than they had. They decided to conquer the lands around the Mediterranean. Angered by the Atlanteans' behavior, Zeus (pronounced ZOOS) sent an earthquake, or perhaps a series of earthquakes, that caused Adantis to sink into the sea over the course of one day and one night.
Atlantis in Context
Scholars of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance believed that Plato was recounting a real event. They were curious about the location of Atlantis. After the discovery of the Americas, some Europeans made a connection between the newly found lands and Atlantis. Some thought that the Native Americans might be descendants of the people of Atlantis who fled their destroyed island. The legend of Atlantis also inspired writers and thinkers. Sir Francis Bacon, an English philosopher of the early seventeenth century, wrote a political fable called The New Atlantis (1626) that described an ideal world.
In the 1800s, the myth regained popularity. Scholars and popular writers both tried to use scientific evidence to support the existence of Atlantis; however, many used only the evidence that supported their ideas and conveniently ignored the rest. Although geological studies of the ocean floor revealed no sunken islands or continents at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, the legend persisted. In fact, people from lands as diverse as Scotland, the Basque region of Spain, and Scandinavia have claimed Atlanteans as their ancestors.
Since I960, geological, meteorological, and archeological studies have supported the legend, though not in its original form. Many scientists now think that Atlantis was actually the island of Thera, located in the Mediterranean Sea near the island of Crete. Thera (part of the Santorini archipelago) was one of the colonies of the rich Minoan civilization of Crete. The Minoans built luxurious palaces and temples and traded all over the Mediterranean. Geologists and meteorologists have established that around 1600 bce, Thera's volcano erupted and part of the island sank into the sea. Subsequent earthquakes and tsunamis destroyed life on Crete, 70 miles to the south. Archaeologists have studied Thera and have found the remains of a large Minoan town built around the volcano. The town has a palace and waterways that seem to match the general plan described by Plato.
Regardless of which culture is fascinated by it, the myth of Atlantis provides comfort in the idea that a perfect human society is possible. This offers hope that achieving such a perfect society is possible again in the future.
Key Themes and Symbols
Atlantis represents a perfect world that is eventually destroyed by human failings. In this way, it resembles the Garden of Eden from biblical legend as well as King Arthur's Camelot. Atlantis is often used as an example of a Utopia, or a place of social, economic, and political perfection. The divisions of the island may have been meant to represent the Greek city-states that shared the rule of Greece in ancient times.
Atlantis in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Atlantis is one of the most well-known mythological places. Although many writings about Atlantis were unknown or lost during the Middle Ages, the legend resurfaced during the Renaissance. Much later, Atlantis: the Antediluvian World (1882), a nonfiction book written by Ignatius L. Donnelly, an author and congressman from Minnesota, helped to bring Atlantis into the imagination of Americans. Many modern fantasy writers have included Atlantis as a setting for their books, or have offered their own versions of the legend. These authors include Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, J. R. R Tolkein, H. P. Lovecraft, and Jules Verne.
Several films and television shows have focused on the Atlantis myth. Recent examples include the 2001 Disney animated film Atlantis: The Lost Empire, as well as the 2004 science fiction series Stargate Atlantis, in which the real Atlantis is located on a planet in the Pegasus Galaxy.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Atlantis is often regarded as a Utopia, or a perfect society. What elements do you think would be most important in a perfect society? Do you think creating such a society is possible? Why or why not?