Here is an old paper on Atlantis that I think about from time to time. I love Atlantis, even though it's a rumor of a rumor. Perhaps it was the Minoans, though today I'd venture to say it's closer to the Richat structure, located south of the Atlas mountains of North Africa, off the coast of the Atlantic, addressing concerns of overnight destruction, muddy oceans, elephants, and concentric rings with fresh mountain water.
Yet, as you will read below, it's only a rumor. One of the oldest rumors around, with seemingly all the right ingredients. Maybe that's why it has some staying power in our society. Read more to hear of Atlatis' origins:
San Jose State University
A consideration of origins and truths
ANTH 160 Section 2
Dr. Marco Meniketti
From the time I was a child I have been fascinated with Atlantis. And how could I not be? It is everywhere in the media. With each retelling the details of Atlantis get more wild, accumulating fantastic futuresque elements like flying cars and force fields *cough* Disney *cough* to bring us this space-age mental image that we have today. But was this always the view people had of Atlantis or did it begin much simpler? For that matter, how did the story of Atlantis originate, and can its origins be trusted? By combining an accurate scientific analysis with the original Atlantean details we have a chance of learning more about the city as it truly was and the relationship it’s inhabitants had with their neighbors and the surrounding environment. Once we remove the embellishments are determined and cleared away we will get a much better image of Atlantis, if such a place even existed.
Big Foot. Area 51. Stonehenge. The Loch Ness monster. Easter Island. The Bermuda Triangle. Missing socks from the dryer. King Solomons Mine. All these names invoke a sense of mystery with only the slightest of mentions, their unsettling reputations making them famous across the globe. At the heart of each of these titles is a long history of myths, theories and rumors, running the gamut from “aliens” to “government experiments gone wrong”. In this legendary hall of unexplainable phenomena is perhaps the most famous mystery of all, a city known as “Atlantis”. If you are reading this, chances are you have had some encounter with the name before in some form of media. There are thousands of books (de Camp 1970), movies, television shows, documentaries and even hotels, all in reference to the fabled lost city, all of which have in some way influenced our mental perception of it. With many, if not most of these works, creators have taken full advantage of their creative liberties.
Much like any of the legendary mysteries of the world, Atlantis has been subject to speculation. A lot of speculation. And while speculation is not bad on it’s own, it can certainly be misleading to our research. Say for example we watch a television show that talks about Stonehenge and somehow they tie it into the pyramids of Giza. That subtle association, even if stated as ‘sheer speculation’ will likely influence our mindset and eventually our research into Stonehenge. As these speculations of Atlantis arise, they tend to build off one another, snowballing into the gargantuan - albeit fascinating - “Lost City” we know and love today.
Before we consider the origins of Atlantis speculation, I believe it would be best to first consider the origins of Atlantis itself. This means casting out any preconceived notions that we might have about the city and solely looking at the details provided by its originator, Plato. Much like “Atlantis” the name “Plato” may be a familiar one, and for good reason. Born in 427/428 BCE and instructed under Socrates, Plato was a Greek mathematician and philosopher (Encyclopædia Britannica 2015). One of the methods Plato used to teach his students philosophies was through dialogues. It is important to mention that these dialogues, though often referencing real people, were largely “imaginative conversations”(Feder 2014), originating from the mind of Plato. It is in two such dialogues, “Timaeus” and “Critias“, that Atlantis is first mentioned.
While Timaeus and Critias were both real people, “Timaeus was an astronomer from Italy, and Critias was an Athenian poet and teacher” (Feder 2014) and their conversation, according to Plato, allegedly took place in 421 B.C., which would have been around the age Plato was eight. If this dialogue did actually happen, it is unlikely Plato would have been there to hear it, let alone write it down word for word. Assuming the dialogue did occur and he did write down the dialogue word for word, even the accuracy of that would be a stretch. In the “Timaeus” dialogue, Socrates (yes, Socrates was there too) asks his class the following:
“I should like to hear some one tell of our own city [his hypothetical perfect society] carrying on a struggle against her neighbors, and how she went out to war in a becoming manner, and when at war showed by the greatness of her actions and the magnanimity of her words, in dealing with other cities a result worthy of her training and education.” (Hutchins 1952)
A classmate responds to Socrates, letting him know that Critias knows the perfect story. Critias explains that he heard the story when his grandfather told it on the ancient equivalent of April Fool’s day “when prizes are awarded for the best narrative” (Friedlander 1969). At this holiday event Critias’ grandfather claimed to have heard it from his father, Dropides, “who heard it from the Greek sage Solon, who heard it from some unnamed priests in Egypt when he was there about 590 B.C.” (Feder 2014). This place which the Egyptians told Solon about was destroyed about 9,000 years before Solon’s time. This story had been around the block.
It seems like stories today can change overnight, and that’s coming from ‘reliable news’ sources. The account of Atlantis is essentially a game of telephone played over the course of 9240 years spanning six people, one story telling holiday, possibly two languages, and the memories of old men. Keep in mind that even if, after all that time and all those people, no details were lost and nothing was exaggerated, that the story being told by Critias was in response to a hypothetical question asked by Socrates in a teaching session listened to by an eight year Plato and written down by an eighty year old Plato… If indeed the teaching even happened to begin with.
Assuming it did, further description of Atlantis can be found in Plato’s “Critias” dialogue, where Critias expounds on his story told in the “Timaeus” dialogue. Atlantis’ description is summarized by Kenneth Feder as “a 15-mile wide city of concentric rings of alternating land and water, with palaces, huge canals and bridges. The Atlanteans produced artworks in silver and gold and traded far and wide. They possessed a great empire and their influence expanded exponentially.” Though it does not seem like much, Plato’s two dialogues are the sole origins of Atlantis. Even though Critias claimed Egyptians were the source of the story, there is no mention of Atlantis in and Egyptian history, and even more remarkably, no mention in Athenian history either (Remarkable because Athens defeated Atlanteans). Aside from Plato’s two accounts, all other accounts of Atlantis are, to quote Feder, “derivative, contrived, extrapolated, or invented” (2014). This begs the question, how did we end up with the Atlantis we know today, with flying crafts and time traveling portals? If Plato didn’t mention the aliens who did?
As fun as it is to speculate on ancient aliens and underwater utopias, it is important to understand the origins of pseudoscience surrounding Atlantis. Interest in lost city began began in the 1600’s after the “new world” was discovered and people began hearing accounts of the land. In this time Sir Thomas More wrote the book “Utopia”, which described a made up place that was half Plato’s description of Atlantis and half descriptions from travelers to the Americas (Callahan 2001). Sir Francis Bacon, the father of the scientific method carried Sir Thomas More’s work a bit further when he wrote the book “The New Atlantis”, again inventing an island and giving it utopian characteristics as well as placing Plato’s Atlantis in the Americas (Callahan 2001). These books, though fictional, planted the first pseudoscientific seeds of Atlantis, their roots subtly plating ideas into the heads of people around the world. Assisted by a discovery of a new world and the penned works of two knighted men, the once forgotten city began to gain interest.
As the Americas were explored people began to find traces of what appeared to be a once great civilization. This civilization, known as the Maya, were at the time unexplainable. Explorers saw the evidence of a great civilization but they did not view the “savages” they were familiar with as being capable of such greatness. Not only that but their primary source of historical reference, the Bible, made no reference of such a people existing. Turning to what seemed like a possible explanation, in 1864 a few archaeologists claimed that the Maya were not related to the inferior savages, but rather that they were descendents of Atlanteans. Interestingly a similar theory was proposed by Spanish explorer Lopez de Gomara some 300 years earlier, who “suggested that American Indians were a remnant population of emigres from the Lost Continent of Atlantis” (Feder 2014). This theory, though completely unproven, was also pursued by two men who used a poorly translated Mayan book to justify their theories. The first story, written by a French scholar named de Bourbourg was “complete fantasy and contained elements of the Atlantis story, particularly destruction by flood.” The other man’s story, though it used the same translation, was completely different, claiming the Maya were in some way connected to ancient Egyptians, their link being Atlantis (Feder 2014). These outlandish claims only served to spark more interest in the lost city.
Eventually, as the Americas were explored further and the scientific method applied more (Thank you Sir Francis Bacon) the notion that the Americas were Atlantis or had anything to do with Atlantis began to fade. That was at least until a congressman from Minnesota had his say. In 1882 Ignatius Donnelly published his first and most popular book, simply titled “Atlantis”. This book was a speculative work that “traced the origin of civilization to the legendary submerged continent of Atlantis” (Encyclopædia Britannica 2015). In his book Donnelly claims that Atlantis “was the region where man first rose from a state of barbarism to civilization” (Donnelly 1882). Donnelly postulated that Atlantis radiated it’s culture and civilization from the center of the Atlantic, influencing the “mound-building” cultures around the world. To back his claims Donnelly sought to compare similarities between the new world and old world, and was very loose in doing so, sacrificing archaeological accuracy for “superficial similarities” (Feder 2014).
Donnelly’s book was the last great spark needed to ignite the conflagration that is the world's fascination with Atlantis. Since his book’s release much has changed, and not for the better, unless of course you are a fiction writer or filmmaker. What might have once been considered outlandish claims by Donnelly, nowadays look quite tame by comparison. The pattern and method for approaching all things Atlantis related has been set, and the boundaries of what is acceptable keep expanding. As they expand it is important to remind ourselves what Plato said regarding Atlantis and what is speculation or pseudoscience. To quote Ronald H. Fritze “The proliferation of all of these competing and contradictory Atlantises is truly astounding considering that the myth of Atlantis can be traced back to a single point of origin: Plato and his writing the Timaeus and the Critias.” Finding out if something is speculation can be done with one simple question- does it agree with what Plato said? And how about an even more important question - what if Plato’s story was indeed a fabrication? I mean, if Donnelly could make something up to prove a point, surely Plato could too.
Let’s recap what we know. It’s mainly two things. We know that the majority of pop-culture Atlantis references all stem from fabricated or pseudoscience based stories, and we know that those stories are all based on Plato’s fabricated dialogues of Timaeus and Critias. Oddly enough it leaves us with nothing. A place made up solely to tell a story, that ended up having stories told about it. Yet there still remains one possibility. What if Atlantis was inspired by a real place or people and their destruction based on a real event? This would mean accepting “Atlantis” as we know it to be an invention of Plato, and our attention would now be focused on whomever he was basing his account on.
Though there are many possibilities behind the inspiration for Atlantis, there is one location in particular that shares many of the important features, though as expected, there are many differences too. I would like to first consider the differences first, that way it is fresh in our minds that there is no perfect match to Plato’s description of Atlantis. One of the biggest discrepancies between Plato’s description and this island is that it is not in the Atlantic, but rather in the heart of the Mediterranean. The island is also much smaller than the one described in the dialogues, and it is, as far as archaeologists currently know, void of elephants, which Atlanteans supposedly had lots of (Hutchins 1952).
Where the possible inspiration for Atlantis is lacking in elephants it makes up abundantly in other areas. This civilization of people, called Minoans, lived on the islands in the Mediterranean, primarily Crete. This central position in the Mediterranean would have been the ideal location for controlling the surrounding waters, especially with a strong navy, as Plato mentions Atlantis having in his account. Their tactical position would have also allowed them to trade all around and even collect tribute as needed from places like Greece or Egypt. Archeological digs around Crete have shown the incredible wealth of the Minoan people too. The palace of Knossos on Crete gives an especially good picture of it. The palace, which was built in 1,800 B.C., extends over five acres, and contained about one-thousand separate rooms, many of which were covered in fresco paintings (Feder 2014). Even without trade the Minoans would have likely flourished, considering their location along the equator is the ideal environment for growing food and the seas around their islands are teeming with life. The soil of one island in particular would have been especially fertile for farming, due to it being an active volcano. But more on that in a moment.
While these similarities between the Minoan civilization and Atlantis are uncanny, there is one in particular that takes the cake -and then it makes the cake disappear overnight. I am of course referring to the disaster that Plato talks about happening to Atlantis after their defeat by Athens. As Kenneth Feder summarizes the story: “Ancient Athens was able to subdue mighty Atlantis, which had held sway across northern Africa all the way to Egypt. After her defeat in battle all of Atlantis was destroyed in a tremendous cataclysm of earthquakes and floods.” Well it just so happens that around 1615 B.C. the Minoan island of Thera had a massive volcanic eruption. Ash covered the earth, filling the sky and blocking the sun to the point where trees in places as far away as Ireland and California got frost damage from the lack of sunlight (Friedrich 1999). This event is important for a few reasons. One, it is the ideal inspiration for a city “destroyed overnight”. The volcano tore Thera in half, spewing its molten guts into air, covering the island in magma and ash, and when it was finished it collapsed on it’s own emptied bowels, creating an underwater caldera in the middle of the island. The second reason is how unusual it is. While earthquakes and volcanoes happen somewhat frequently in the grand scheme of things, it is not too often that they do so on such a dramatic scale with such powerful people at the heart of it too.
Remarkably, the Minoan civilization was not completely wiped out by the eruption of Thera, even though earthquakes and tsunamis would have destroyed many of the settlements and ports of Crete. A true testament to their power in the mediterranean is that even after all the destruction they were faced with they were still able to thrive for about 100 years after Thera’s eruption. We’re talking about a society whose economy was based around trade, and even with ruined trading fleets and crops covered in a thick volcanic ash, they were able for a time to “rise to new heights” and they did not collapse as a civilization for another 300 years (Feder 2014).
Even though the Minoans were not completely wiped out overnight like Plato portrayed the Atlanteans, we can still see the inspiration behind his tale. I also think it is of the utmost importance to remember that Plato was a man, who was friends with men, who were raised by men, and if there is one thing men do when they tell each other stories, it’s exaggerate. If Plato was ever actually told about the Minoans I doubt it would have been truly factual after all those years of generations passing on the story. I believe that the story told would have been exaggerated from person to person, when something like “being destroyed overnight for their sins” fits a narrative much better than “having a volcano explode randomly and then three hundred years later they were not as powerful as they once were.”
At first glance Atlantis seemed like a daunting web of myths and mysteries. A convoluted mixture of tall tales and Disney animations. With something as familiar as Atlantis it can be difficult to seek out the origins and determine what is rubbish and what actually contains truth. In this case we discovered that almost nothing contained any truth, even that which was written by the originator of it all himself, Plato. We saw the dangers of the pseudo-scientific approach and how it might be interesting but ultimately be misleading and harmful to the actual story, and we saw how these things could snowball into explanations as ridiculous as ancient aliens. By focusing only on the Atlantean accounts of Plato, and comparing them with archaeological finds and data of today we were able to draw some comparisons between the ancient Minoan civilization and the fictional Atlantis. I look forward to future archaeological discoveries in the Mediterranean, especially around Thera, because maybe, just maybe, some lucky archaeologist will stumble upon the remains of thousands of elephants covered under layers of ash and lava.
Callahan, Tim, Friedhoffer, Bob, and Pat Linse
2001 The Search for Atlantis! Skeptic 8 (4): 96.
de Camp, L. Sprague
1970 Lost Continents; the Atlantis Theme in History, Science, and Literature.(Dover Publications, Dover)
1882 Atlantis: The Antediluvian World. (New York: Harper)
2015 "Plato". Encyclopædia Britannica.Web. 20 Apr. 2015
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2014 Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology (8th ed.)(McGraw-Hill, New York)
1969. Plato: The Dialogues, vol 3. (Princeton: Princeton University Press.)
Friedrich, Walter L.
1999 Fire in the Sea, the Santorini Volcano: Natural History and the Legend of Atlantis. (Cambridge University)
Fritze, Ronald H.
2009 Invented Knowledge: False History, Fake Science and Pseudo-religions. (London: Reaktion)
Hutchins, Robert M.
1952 Dialogues of Plato. Chicago: (Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. U.S.A)