The Many Myths of Atlantis
We often hear mention of Atlantis in a variety of contexts from TV programs and the subject of novels to being an explanation for a host of different things (‘it happened on Atlantis’). While no one knows for sure whether there ever was really an Atlantis, or at least a civilisation that resembled the idea of Atlantis, there are certainly plenty of different ideas about the story.
The original tale
The first mention of Atlantis that we now know of was in the writing of the famous Greek philosopher Plato. In his unfinished dialogues Timaeus and Critias, written in 360BC, he made reference to the island of Atlantis where ‘existed a confederation of kings, of great and marvellous power, which held sway over all the islands and many other islands also and parts of the continent’. In this, Atlantis was presented as the opposite of the perfect society of Athens.
He went on to tell that when the Hellenic gods of old divided the land, the god Poseidon received the island of Atlantis. It was larger than the combination of Ancient Libya and Asia Minor but was sunken beneath the waters by an earthquake, becoming a muddy shoal that stopped travel by sea in the area. Plato also said that the Egyptians described the island as mostly mountains, oblong in shape and said it was 345 miles long by 230 miles wide (in ancient measurements of course).
Poseidon, meanwhile, had fallen in love with a woman named Cleito who gave birth to five pairs of male twins by him. The oldest, Atlas, was made king of the island as well as the ocean that now carries his name and was given the mountain where he was born as his fiefdom. His twin, Gadeirus, was given the extreme end of the island, towards the Pillars of Hercules. Poseidon then carved the mountain where Cleito lived and enclosed it in three circular moats, which the Atlanteans built bridges across. They also made a canal that ran to the sea and carved tunnels to connect the bridges so that ships could pass around the city. There was even docks in the walls of the moats and towers guarding each ring. These walls were made from rock of red, white and black and were decorated with brass, tin and the metal orichalcum.
Unfortunately, things didn’t remain happy forever and there was a war between those who lived outside the Pillars of Hercules, found at the Straits of Gibraltar, and those who lived within. The Atlanteans took over parts of Libya and nearly as far as Egypt as well as across Europe to Tyrrhenia, subjecting those it conquered to slavery. The Athenians led the revolt against them but before they could finish the job, the earthquakes and floods swallowed up the entire continent and wiped out the Atlantis civilisation.
Real or not real?
From an early time, it was much debated whether the Atlantis story is fiction or based on real events that took place. Cantor, a student of Plato’s student Xenocrates, was one famous example of someone who believed the events in the story were a historical fact. He even travelled to Egypt and saw hieroglyphs confirming the story as well as talking the Egyptian priests who verified its reality. Other famous Greeks that believed in the truth of the story included Posidonus and Strabo.
The whole debate about the story fell away for many centuries and wasn’t resurrected until the 16th century. At the beginning of the Modern Age, Europeans began to have their imaginations fuelled by encounters with the indigenous peoples of the new World and a number of utopian visions began to be discussed.
This coincided with the first beliefs that once the continents were joined together. One early cartographer, Abraham Ortelius, first thought that the continents had once been one and theorised that Atlantic could have been part of that, meaning it was destroyed when it was torn away from what later became Africa and Europe.
The idea of an ideal society somehow came to be embodied in the idea of Atlantis and many began to write about it, including Sir Thomas More (Utopia) and Sir Francis Bacon (The New Atlantis).Â These were works of fiction but carried the thread of Plato’s Atlantic story in them.
It wasn’t until a writer called Ignatius Donnelly first wrote about Atlantis as a real place in 1881 that the world once more considered the real or not real debate. Donnelly was of the impressions that many of the ancient world’s accomplishments including language, religion, agriculture and metallurgy, had come from the sunken continent because the cultures at the time weren’t sophisticated enough to have mastered them without outside help.
Many others took the idea and gave it their own interpretation. Psychic Edgar Cayce said that thousands of people had lived past lives on the continent and predicted it would be discovered in 1969, which we are pretty sure didn’t happen. Madame Blavatsky, the renowned mystic, also wrote about the lost continent in her book The Secret Doctrine in 1888.
Charles Berlitz was the author who tied together Atlantis with the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle in his book the The Bermuda Triangle (1974) and while his ideas were debunked, the fire had been lit and thousands of books, magazines and websites remain devoted to the subject.
There is a basic problem with the whole idea of Atlantis as being in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, as described by Plato in his work – the plate tectonics of the area simply wouldn’t create the movement needed to sink a large island without a trace. So the question then becomes – did Plato place Atlantis somewhere familiar to his readers to appeal to them without that location having any relevance to where it actually was?
There are thousands of possible locations for Atlantis if you dismiss the directions given by Plato as fiction. Here are a few of the most popular:
Bimini, Caribbean – this location is a favourite due to the huge polygonal stones discovered off the coast of the island. They seem to show a lost pyramid with staircases, fallen pillars and a huge sunken ruin that would have stretched into the Atlantic. This location would, in a way, also fit in with Plato’s directions, though further away than he seemed to indicate.
The Sahara Desert, southern Algeria or Tunisia – when the French arrived in North Africa they found a lost world existing there in the form of harbour of Carthage, an exact miniature of the capital of Atlantis described in Plato’s writings. This would make the ocean around the continent what is now the Sahara so did the continent die because its water evaporated and were replaced by desert?
Malta – Malta is an island, though not on the scale mentioned in the stories. However there are structures there that are over 9,000 years old, possible the oldest stone ruins in the world. Evidence also shows that at one time the island was hit by a massive tidal wave. While strictly speaking too small for Atlantis, could Plato have overstated its size to save his beloved Athenians from seeming like bullies, conquering a smaller foe?
Antarctica – of all the possible locations for Atlantis, Antarctica offers the most interesting. When a man named Charles Hapgood found a map made by an ottoman admiral called Piri Reis, he was shocked to see Antarctica as an ice free continent. This sparked the idea that at one time, the continent was free of ice and could have supported a civilisation. While the accumulation of ice would have taken time, unlike the sudden catastrophe described by Plato, the icy land certainly has the size and is, technically, beyond the Pillars of Hercules.
North Sea – the North Sea off the coat of Holland, England, Germany and Scandinavia may not seem to be the most likely location for Atlantis but the discover of underwater ruins in the 1950s do rise the prospect. Added to that is the fact that much of Holland and adjoining areas are at sea level meaning they could be the Plain of Atlantis Plato also refers to.
Middle East – the Middle East is probably the least considered spot for Atlantis yet is commonly seen in connection with the Biblical Flood of Noah. There are also a number of stone blocks scattered around the region, some of which are the largest in the world such as those found in Baalbek, Lebanon. The Temple Wall in Jerusalem also has a foundation of these gigantic stones while in the deserts of Saudi Arabia there are ruins that appear to be that of a port.
Conclusive evidence as to where, if anywhere, Atlantis is located may never surface due to the extreme amount of time that has passed. But perhaps at some stage, we may find something that will finally end the debate and settle for once and all if there really was an Atlantis or was Plato just a great storyteller.