The myth of the lost civilization of Atlantis has attracted the attention and speculation of several eminent personalities over the centuries, including the brilliant English philosopher Sir Francis Bacon, Minnesota congressman Ignatius Donnelly, and, of course, the father of the myth, Plato-one of the most influential minds in Western thought.
The myth is first told in two of Plato’s dialogues: the Timaeus and the Critias. The Timaeus, mostly a supernatural account of Creation, is often included in the canon of sacred works by Hermetists, neo-Gnostics and other occultists, who identify strongly with the speculative philosophies of Plato and later Platonists like the Egyptian Plotinus. Famous psychics and occultists have fastened onto the Atlantis legend itself as a subject of prophecy. Edgar Cayce, the “Sleeping Prophet,” predicted that Atlantis would be uncovered in 1968 or 1969; nineteenth century mystic Madame Blavatsky claimed that she had spent seven years in Tibet studying with Hindu mahatmas who taught her about the lost civilizations of Atlantis and Lemuria.
The legend of Atlantis, after several years’ dormancy in imagination of the broader public, has begun to make something of a comeback in recent years.
Disney Studios has recently released a new animation feature, Atlantis.
Several new books on the legendary submerged civilization-ranging from crackpot to critical-can be found on bookstore shelves. From the fringe-science wing, readers may choose from Gateway to Atlantis by Andrew Collins, The Atlantis Blueprint by Colin Wilson and Rand Flem-Ath, and The Atlantis Enigma by Herbie Brennan.
To readers looking for a more grounded, skeptical discussion, I strongly recommend Imagining Atlantis by Richard Ellis (Vintage, 1999) and Frauds, Myths and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archeology by CSICOP Fellow Kenneth Feder (third edition, Mayfield Publishing Co., 1998). Ellis’s book is a nearly encyclopedic account of speculation on Atlantis. Notable for its critical and thoroughly researched approach, it covers all of the influential personalities and hypotheses-even discussing modern sci-fi and pop culture visions of the lost world. Feder has an excellent chapter on Atlantis that concisely communicates all of the essential (lack of) evidence.
Atlantis: Fact and Fiction
The enduring question, now two millennia old, is whether Plato’s account of Atlantis is a description of an actual civilization that sunk beneath the waves, or a tantalizing tale that rose up wholly from the depths of the Athenian philosopher’s imagination. In general terms there are three possible conclusions to be made for the Atlantis legend:
- the account is entirely factual and inerrant;
- it is a blend of fact, fiction, and error; or
- it is entirely fictional.
Most cranks and all legitimate scholars alike have jettisoned the first conclusion. Unfortunately these cranks and several scholars agree on the second possibility, but the great pitfall is that each detail of Plato’s Atlantis that is cast aside so that it will fit a theory weakens the very premise of having solved the question of whether Atlantis existed. Librarian Rand Flem-Ath thinks Atlantis is really Antarctica; Swiss geoarcheologist Eberhard Zangger thinks Atlantis is Troy. But the more that Plato’s dates, location, and other details are changed, the less stands to be proven about the truth of Atlantis. It becomes as ridiculous as arguing that a missing Victorian house in Hackensack, New Jersey was really a Spanish Villa in Mexico City all along, QED.
Scholars who would concede that there is any fact at all behind the Atlantis legend usually argue that Plato has only dimly recalled a Bronze cataclysm in the Aegean Sea, either on Crete or Santorini, but that his account is largely fictional. Yet all the evidence shows, I will argue, that Plato’s Atlantis account is beyond a reasonable doubt entirely fictional-a utopian myth concocted to vividly illustrate Plato’s political philosophy. Invoking Ray Hyman’s categorical imperative of first making sure an explanation is needed before trying to explain a mystery, we can then dispense with any discussion of “explanations” or “sources” for the Atlantis legend.
Most people are superficially aware that “Atlantis” refers to an ancient civilization submerged in a cataclysm. Hardly anyone, however, is aware of the origins, details, or context of the Atlantis myth itself. We first need to closely examine all of these and pin down exactly what Plato claims as fact, whether or not he intended us to suspend our disbelief. Then we need to examine the legend in the context of its literary source: as the sequel dialogue to the Republic of Plato. Finally, I believe, we can make a judgment on the credence that the Atlantis legend deserves.
As mentioned above, Atlantis is first mentioned in two dialogues written by Plato: the Timaeus and the Critias. Before Plato, there are absolutely no references in any literature anywhere to the alleged civilization-an absence from the literary and mythological traditions of ancient Greece that speaks volumes.
Cranks who argue that the Atlantis tale is a sort of treasure map to some undiscovered country beneath the waves often identify with the nineteenth century German businessman-turned-archeologist Heinrich Schliemann. Schliemann discovered the ruins of the lost city of Troy-scene of Homer’s epic poem, the Iliad, in Turkey in 1872.
Before Schliemann the majority of classical scholars held the opinion that the Iliad was a poetic masterpiece woven entirely out of myths and imagination; Troy simply never existed. Schliemann, however, took Homer’s poems as seriously as a fundamentalist Christian takes the Bible, and was convinced that Troy was indeed somewhere in the Troad, the district in the northwest corner of Turkey along the Bosporus straits leading from the Aegean Sea to the Black Sea. After consulting the geological descriptions in the Iliad and observing the Turkish landscape, he was convinced that Troy lay beneath a hill called Hissarlik (a location first suggested by Charles MacLaren in 1822). Schliemann excavated the hill by digging a deep trench-a destructive hack job that was common even to professionals during the nineteenth century infancy of archaeology. He found not just one Troy, but several. There are remains of seven distinct settlements on Hissarlik, with a record of human occupation beginning in the third millennium b.c.
Schliemann’s archeological verification of Homer’s Trojan War is an inspiring example of how an intelligent layperson can make a significant contribution to professional scholarship. Unfortunately Schliemann often serves as the poster child for isolated cranks who draw hope from his success.
There are important distinctions between Homer’s Troy and Plato’s Atlantis: the obvious one is that the ruins of Troy have been found where Homer said they were: the proof is in the pudding. Also, the Iliad and its heroes are part of a mythic tradition that suffused Greek art and culture. Pottery shows scenes from the Trojan War and depicts heroes like Achilles, Ajax, and Odysseus. Long-standing local legends and religious myths also allude to many of the characters. Many of the places mentioned in the Iliad were recognized by Greeks of Plato’s time. There is even solid evidence that Iliad (and its companion work, the Odyssey) themselves have deep roots into the past. Milman Parry’s landmark work in the 1930s analyzing the structure of Homeric poetry and comparing it with oral poetry among the Serbs, demonstrates that the Iliad is essentially an oral poem woven from conventional phrases and lays handed down through generations of Greek bards. Though committed to writing, the poetry itself is a product of oral mnemonic and metric composition.
Plato’s Timaeus and Critias, by contrast, are non-traditional: his dialogues are original prose compositions. Atlantis is mentioned by no one before Plato, and was never part of the broader interconnected traditions of ceramic art, poetry, literary allusions, local legends, or monumental architecture. There is no evidence to show that tales of Atlantis were handed down through generations from an age long before Plato.
The Atlantis Legend in Detail and Context
There is an established chronology to Plato’s dialogues, based on stylistic and other evidence. The philosopher’s last dialogues were the Republic, the Timaeus, and the Critias, the latter two named for the characters who contribute the most significant part of the dialogue. It is worth noting here that while I call the participants in these dialogues characters, they in fact portray real contemporaries of Plato and Socrates. In the Timaeus, Plato records a dialogue between Socrates, Critias, Hermocrates and Timaeus. The latter three are obligated to repay Socrates for his masterly discussion of the ideal society in the Republic by giving accounts of their own. The character Timaeus describes the creation of the world, but only after Critias retells a story of Atlantis he claims to have heard when he was ten years old. His grandfather-the elder Critias-relates this story to the younger Critias and others at a poetry recital competition on Koreotis-“Children’s Day”-during the Athenian festival of Apatouria. On the last day of Apatouria, babies, young men, and newly married wives were enrolled into their phratriai-“brotherhoods” of related families. I will come back to the significance of this festive occasion for the Atlantis legend later. In the dialogue Critias, Critias continues his account of Atlantis, giving details about the origins of the society, the geography and the culture. The dialogue then cuts off abruptly. This break is taken to coincide with Plato’s death. The philosopher, of course, never got around to writing a Hermocrates dialogue.
In the Timaeus, Critias claims that his grandfather, the elder Critias-by then ninety years old-heard the story from his own father, Dropides. Dropides in turn heard the story from the revered Athenian poet and statesman Solon, which places the provenance back to the sixth century b.c. Ultimately, the character Critias attributes the story of Atlantis back to priests of the Egyptian city of Saïs. He alleges that Solon, during his travels in Egypt, met with these clerics. They ridiculed Solon and his Greek compatriots for their lack of historical knowledge. The sages then astounded him with an account from hoary antiquity about the lost Atlantean civilization. They told Solon that Athens’s history reached back further than any Athenian remembered, and that the city waged war with Atlantis thousands of years ago. Even during Solon’s lifetime, Egyptian civilization was ancient, already holding claim to more than two thousand years of history, so this part of the story would be entirely plausible. However, the priests of Saïs-as Plato’s character Critias tells-insisted that the Atlantean-Athenian war was waged some 8,000 years before Solon’s lifetime-circa 9,000 b.c.: far older than any evidence modern archeologists have thus far found for civilization in the Mediterranean Basin, or anywhere in the world for that matter.
Plato’s account is unambiguous: it clearly places the existence of Atlantis at circa 10,000 b.c. It also clearly accounts for the alleged provenance of the Atlantis story up to Plato: priests at the Egyptian city of Saïs keep the historical written records (gegrammena) of Atlantis lore for 8,000 years before Solon hears the tale. Beyond any doubt, there simply were no Egyptian writing, no Egyptian priests, nor any Egyptian civilization 11,000 years ago. However, assuming for the sake of argument that this claim is possible, it is then a matter of a tenuous thread of hearsay: 1) the priests tell Solon about the legend; 2) Solon tells Dropides; 3) Dropides tells his son, the elder Critias, who 4) tells his ten-year-old grandson, the younger Critias; 5) and finally this Critias, now a grown man, recounts the tale for Socrates and his guests in a semi-fictional dialogue recorded by Plato. The Atlantis legend-if you believe Plato’s provenance-seems quite a stretch to lend credibility to a story about the distant past.
In 1969, Greek seismologist Angelos Galanopoulos first proposed that the catastrophic eruption of the volcanic island of Santorini (Thera) in 1500 b.c. was the source of Plato’s Atlantis. After all, Santorini is a half-sunken caldera, and a buried city that perished in the catastrophe-Akrotiri-was uncovered on the island by Greek archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos in 1967. Unfortunately, Galanopoulos forced the date of the ancient Santorini eruption to jibe with the story of Atlantis by arguing that Plato had his dates wrong by a factor of ten: the lost civilization was submerged 900 years, not 9000 years, before Solon. The confusion of hundreds and thousands was, he argued, a mistake of translation between Egyptian and Greek. Yet the fact remains that Egyptologists have never found any Egyptian texts that record the Atlantis legend, regardless of its alleged age, in Saïs or anywhere else. Furthermore, Galanopoulos has placed his first foot in the pitfall I mentioned earlier. He is changing part of the definition of Atlantis in order to prove its existence. By equating Atlantis with Santorini, Galanopoulos fiddles with the location and the date, begging the very question of whether Plato’s, rather than Galanopoulos’s, Atlantis really existed. In his book, Richard Ellis aptly quotes late CSICOP Fellow L. Sprague de Camp: “You cannot change all the details of Plato’s story and still claim to have Plato’s story. That is like saying the legendary King Arthur is ‘really’ Cleopatra; all you have to do is to change Cleopatra’s sex, nationality, period, temperament, moral character, and other details, and the resemblance becomes obvious.”
Critias was quite clear about date of Atlantis; he was also clear about the location: it lay in the ocean outside of the Pillars of Hercules (Benjamin Jowett translation):
[24e] . . . For it is related in our records how once upon a time your State stayed the course of a mighty host, which, starting from a distant point in the Atlantic ocean, was insolently advancing to attack the whole of Europe, and Asia to boot. For the ocean there was at that time navigable; for in front of the mouth which you Greeks call, as you say, ‘the pillars of Heracles,’ (i.e., Hercules) there lay an island which was larger than Libya and Asia together; and it was possible for the travellers of that time to cross from it to the other islands, and from the islands to the whole of the continent
[25a] over against them which encompasses that veritable ocean. For all that we have here, lying within the mouth of which we speak, is evidently a haven having a narrow entrance; but that yonder is a real ocean, and the land surrounding it may most rightly be called, in the fullest and truest sense, a continent.
“[25b] of the lands here within the Straits they ruled over Libya as far as Egypt, and over Europe as far as Tuscany. So this host, being all gathered together, made an attempt one time to enslave by one single onslaught both your country and ours and the whole of the territory within the Straits. . . .
The claim of Atlantis’s location is fairly precise: The Mediterranean is the “haven” with a “narrow entrance,” i.e., the pillars of Hercules. Atlantis lies outside of the Mediterranean “at a distant point” in the Atlantic ocean. Legitimate scholars like J.V. Luce follow Galanopoulos in claiming that the Atlantis legend really refers to Akrotiri on Santorini. In 1992, Eberhard Zangger, of the German Archaeological Institute in Athens, Greece, announced his theory that Atlantis was really Troy, which, as already noted, lies in northwestern Turkey. It is quite a stretch to say that a story about a large island in the Atlantic Ocean is really about a small island in the Aegean Sea or a citadel in ancient Turkey, yet serious scholarship is funded arguing this very point. According to Richard Ellis, Stanford University and the German Archaeological Institute supported Zangger’s efforts from 1984 to 1988.
Cranks, however, are guilty of far greater crimes: they take the description of an island outside of the pillar of Hercules even more loosely. For them, it is carte blanche to place Atlantis nearly anywhere on the surface of the planet. Rand Flem-Ath correlates Atlantis with Antarctica. John M. Allen, in his book Atlantis: The Andes Solution, places Atlantis in modern-day Bolivia, or, more specifically, a submerged volcanic island in Lake Poopo on the Bolivian altiplano. For more information on this theory, see www.geocities.com/webatlantis/.
To correlate Atlantis with a lost civilization-real or imagined-anywhere other than the Atlantic Ocean requires ignoring a key part of Plato’s description:
[25d] and one grievous day and night befell them, when the whole body of your warriors was swallowed up by the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner was swallowed up by the sea and vanished; wherefore also the ocean at that spot has now become impassable and unsearchable, being blocked up by the shoal mud which the island created as it settled down (Benjamin Jowett translation).
Neither Antarctica nor Lake Poopo are impassable muddy shoals in the Atlantic Ocean.
The power of any possible proof that Atlantis existed depends on sticking to definitions, especially Plato’s. He is clear about the Atlantis he is talking about, and until a large submerged island is found in the Atlantic with ruins of an ancient seafaring civilization that existed 11,000 years ago, the skeptic can comfortably assume that Atlantis never existed.
Plato’s Purpose in Writing the Atlantis Myth
Plato’s dialogues expound his philosophy and have some peculiar features. One of these features is the use of extraordinary tales asserted as truth in order to vividly express his ideas. Towards the end of the Gorgias, for example, Socrates retells a story of the Isles of the Blessed and Tartarus (Greek versions of Heaven and Hell), and prefaces it thus: “Listen, then, as story-tellers say, to a very pretty tale, which I dare say that you may be disposed to regard as a fable only, but which, as I believe, is a true tale, for I mean to speak the truth” (Benjamin Jowett translation).
At the end of the Republic, Socrates tells the story of Er, who, severely wounded in battle, has a near-death experience. He comes to, finding himself on a funeral pyre (fortunately unlit). “And thus, Glaucon, the tale has been saved and has not perished, and will save us if we are obedient to the word spoken; and we shall pass safely over the river of Forgetfulness and our soul will not be defiled” (Jowett). Plato uses the device of the “true” amazing tale in other dialogues, including the Meno and Laws. The Timaeus, as mentioned above, is the sequel to the Republic-Plato’s major dialogue on the nature of the ideal society and its governance. In laying out the practices of forming the ideal state and citizenry, Plato discusses the tools to be employed in education of the youth. One tool is the use of totally fabricated stories, presented to the youth as true history.
[Republic 376] In this education, you would include stories, would you not? These are of two kinds, true stories and fiction. Our education must use both and start with fiction. . . . And the first step, as you know, is always what matters most, particularly when we are dealing with those who are young and tender. That is the time when they are easily moulded and when any impression we choose to make leaves a permanent mark (Desmond Lee translation).
Later, Plato writes, prefacing the “Myth of Blood and Soil,”
[Republic: 414 b-c] “Now I wonder if we could contrive one of those convenient stories we were talking about a few minutes ago,” I asked. “Some magnificent myth that would in itself carry conviction to our whole community, including, if possible the Guardians themselves. . . . Nothing new-a fairy story like those the poets tell and have persuaded people to believe about the sort of thing that often happened ‘once upon a time,’ but never does now and is not likely to: indeed it would need a lot of persuasion to get people to believe it” (Desmond Lee translation).
As the modern philosopher Karl Popper notes in the first volume of his two-part series The Open Society and Its Enemies (Princeton, 1962), Plato sees legends about the origins of a people, moral fortitude, and great achievements as socially useful indoctrination tools-noble lies.
Critias, the character in the Timaeus who tells the story of Atlantis to Socrates and his guests, is special for many reasons. First, he is the great uncle of Plato. He was also one of the Thirty Tyrants-the authoritarian regime that took over Athens after the Peloponnesian War. He was anti-democratic and pro-Spartan. The ideal society outlined in Plato’s Republic is by no coincidence both anti-democratic and remarkably like the society of Sparta. Critias was also a poet of some note and professed the doctrine of the “noble lie” shared by Plato in the Republic.
According to Popper, he “was the first to glorify propaganda lies, whose invention he described in forceful verses eulogizing the wise and cunning man who fabricated religion . . .” (1962, p. 142).
As propaganda, the Atlantis myth is more about Athens than a sunken civilization. The tale places Athens’s history deep into the past, making the Athenians a people sprung from the soil, and portrays its citizens in a heroic battle against the menacing power of Atlantean foes. In the Timaeus, Critias answers Socrates request to “accurately describe my city [Athens] fighting a war worthy of her”:
[25c] [Athens] in gallantry and all warlike arts, and acting partly as leader of the Greeks, and partly standing alone by itself when deserted by all others, after encountering the deadliest perils, it defeated the invaders and reared a trophy; whereby it saved from slavery such as were not as yet enslaved, and all the rest of us who dwell within the bounds of Heracles it ungrudgingly set free (Benjamin Jowett translation).
The context of the festival during which Critias hears the story from his grandfather is telling, as I mentioned above. The feast of Apatouria involves the induction of infants, youth and wives into the phratry, or clan of families. This is where the society inducts its next generation into the fold-exactly the context where the purpose for education through fictions presented as fact is laid out in the Republic. Also notable is the fact that this is a contest in epic poetry recital. Epic poetry was the classic medium in Greek society for tales of heroic men of yore.
There is no evidence whatsoever to indicate that Atlantis represented any real place at any time. Where the story contains descriptions or events that resemble historic happenings, it only does so to the degree that any piece of fiction relies on experiences of reality. All of the evidence points to the story being one of Plato’s noble lies: useful fictions used to make a point, not to refer to the past.
Atlantis continues to captivate people’s imaginations because it offers the hope that lost ideals or some untapped human potential will someday be uncovered, not the masonry blocks of a dead civilization. Scrying for crumbled roads in Bimini or poring over the outline of some terra incognita on a forged map ignore the real Atlantis, the undiscovered country of human ideals.