Throughout countless generations cultures have romanticized the lost civilization of Atlantis – the lost world of leaders and great minds that was brought to its knees from its own greed. It has served as both a cautionary tale and a source of awe and wonder for the intellectually curious. How did the land that was Atlantis come to be? And what can be taken from the tale of a race that was once proud and mighty before being brought to humility by the gods of Ancient Greece.
What was Atlantis?
According to legend, the ancient gods and goddesses divided all the land in the world among each other. Poseidon was given the island of Atlantis – which was actually the size of a continent. Atlantis was said to be larger than Libya and Asia Minor combined, making it a respectable piece of land to inherit. Poseidon was pleased with his allotted land. He fell in love with a woman who lived on the island named Cleito. They were married and had five sets of twins together, all sons.
The oldest son, Atlas, was given rule over all the island – which was also named for him. In addition to being king of the island, he was also named king of the sea. This is how the Atlantic Ocean received its name. Though he technically had control over the entire island, he chose to make the mountain where he was born and the surrounding land his home.
Atlas’ twin, Gaderius, was also given considerable inheritance. It is said that he was given control over the area of Atlantis that was closest to ‘the Pillars of Hercules.’ The four other pairs of twins were also known to be very prosperous. They were all known to have impressive land and many subjects. Their names were Ampheres, Evaemon, Mneseus, Autochthon, Elasippus, Mestor, Azaes, and Diaprepes.
In addition to ensuring his sons great wealth, Poseidon also built a great city for his love, Cleito. He carved the mountain where she lived into a great palace and placed three moats around it – each moat larger than the last. The moats were approximately one to three stadia wide and were separated by rings of land that were just as expansive. Bridges were constructed leading into the island and tunnels were carved into the moats to allow the passage of boats in and out of the main city. Each moat was heavily guarded to ensure the protection of Cleito and her sons.
The island itself was also rich with resources. No one had to toil in order to survive – all work was relatively easy and made for high quality of life. Every food grew in their soil and the animals were plentiful enough for all who lived there. The land was also rich in precious metals like gold and silver. Additionally, Poseidon himself had made a stream of hot water and a stream of cold water that ran through the island to ensure that all the needs of the people were taken care of.
What Happened to the Paradise Land?
It seemed as though the future of Atlantis was incredibly bright and prosperous. However, as the years went on problems began to arise. Atlantis was still the culturally rich and immensely wealthy island country that it started as, but greed began to arise in the hearts of the people.
This greed is often said to have come when the gods began to intermarry with the humans living on the island. It is possible that the sudden exposure of increased wealth and power bestowed on these humans made them hunger for more than what they needed. This greed caused them to look past their own country and seek to conquer other lands. They started with the area inside ‘the Pillars of Hercules’ and sought to control all the land in the Mediterranean. Country after country began to fall to the power of the Atlanteans until only one power stood against them – Ancient Athens. By some miracle, Athens was able to defeat the superior Atlanteans and the conquerors from Atlantis were forced to return home in defeat. This is not the end of the story, however.
Zeus had become angered by the actions of the Atlanteans and their attempts to conquer lands far beyond their own. Because of this, he sent a series of earthquakes so great that Atlantis was sunk into the sea over the course of one day and one night.
Was Atlantis An Allegory or Actuality?
The legend of Atlantis has been one of the most intriguing and inspirational tales that continues to captivate modern society. This is actually quite interesting considering that ‘Atlantis’ itself was not of any significance to Plato’s body of works. There are many questions that continue to cause great interest in the case of Atlantis. The most intriguing, perhaps, is whether the story has any historical accuracy whatsoever.
There are many different perspectives when it comes to arguing the case for Atlantis. While most (but not all) people believe that Atlantis is a tale that has been wildly embellished, it remains unclear as to what percentage of the story is fiction. Was Atlantis really inspired by a world that was stolen away by the ocean? Is it conceivable to think that such an advanced civilization could disappear so suddenly without leaving any trace of their culture behind? And if Atlantis was simply an allegory used to convey a message, what information can be taken from the story?
To fully understand the confusion that comes with the tale of Atlantis, it is necessary to examine the texts and the author.
Plato and Atlantis
Plato is well known for his many philosophical works such as ‘The Republic’, but curiously enough the story of Atlantis was not meant to be one of his more prominent works. The tale is embedded in ‘Critias’ and ‘Timaeus.’ Other than these two pieces, no reference of Atlantis can be found in his writing. Interestingly enough, however, there is at least one work that is known to have referenced Atlantis before Plato recorded the story in ‘Critias.’
Plato supposedly quotes Solon, who is said to have traveled to Egypt between 590 BC and 580 BC. While there, he supposedly came across the Egyptian records of Atlantis and translated them. It was through these records that he discovered the story of Atlantis. This story was supposedly passed on from Solon and eventually Critias became aware of the legend. It is Critias’ character who narrates the story of Atlantis in Plato’s dialogues.
Critias explains that 9,000 years before the story he recites was told, Atlantis went to war with the surrounding countries in order to expand their territory and show their might and superiority. Alliances were made, but one by one every power fell until there was only one left – Ancient Athens. Coincidently, the Ancient Athens that is described in this story has a suspicious amount of similarities to the ideal society that was described by Plato in ‘The Republic.’ Because of this, many people wonder if Plato may have fabricated the tale of Atlantis in order to use the story to demonstrate how his idea of a perfect society was correct.
In Plato’s time, it was widely accepted that Atlantis was an allegorical work that was used to express Plato’s vision for an ideal society. There were many works that were thought to be inspired by Plato’s use of allegories – especially by the Renaissance writers. Some works thought to be inspired by his methods are ‘New Atlantis’ by Francis Bacon and ‘Utopia’ by Thomas More. These works stayed within a similar allegorical model and used this structure to prove their point.
However, in the nineteenth century, more and more people began to associate Atlantis with a real place that had been lost or destroyed. While they didn’t believe the entirety of Plato’s tale, they were of the opinion that there was some truth to the story of Atlantis – the only question was what had been exaggerated or fabricated, and what could be used as a clue to discover the identity of Atlantis.
Many different ideas were proposed to solve this mystery. Some people suggested that the story could have arisen from the lost island of Thera. Others believed that the submersing of the world may indicate that Atlantis was lost to the ‘Great Flood’ that was thought to cover the Earth for 40 days and 40 nights according to Christian texts. The latter theory had a lot of popularity due to the fact that the tale of Atlantis, as told by Plato, makes it very clear that the island was lost over the course of one day and one night.
Atlantis and Hellanicus of Lesbos
Many who believe that Plato was describing a real place often point to the writings of Hellanicus of Lesbos. Hellanicus also wrote a work that was entitled ‘Atlantis.’ It is thought that Hellanicus’ work was one of Plato’s main inspirations when he was putting together his own tale of Atlantis. Unfortunately, only fragments of Hellanicus’ ‘Atlantis’ survive. The pieces that are left seem to indicate that Hellanicus’ work was describing the genealogy of the family of Atlas – specifically his daughters.
Despite the fact that the only surviving work of Hellanicus’ ‘Atlantis’ seems to be tied to genealogy, there are many who still believe that Plato adopted Hellanicus’ ideas to suit his work because of the way he writes about the genealogy of Atlantis. The writing style of Plato is almost identical to that of Hellanicus in this respect, making it very plausible that he was inspired by reading his work.
Atlantis as Perceived by Religion
Interestingly enough, religion also takes a position on the myth of Atlantis. In fact, it seems that some religions believe that Atlantis may have been real and often alluded to it inside their religious texts.
An example of this can be found with Clement of Rome who, it seems, tried to reference Atlantis in his Epistle of Clemet, 20:8 :
“…The ocean which is impassable for men, and the worlds beyond it, are directed by the same ordinances of the Master.”
Many people think that Clement was referring to the lost land of Atlantis because of the way that he describes this far off place. This hypothesis bears credibility, especially when considering that the myths that surround Atlantis describe it as creating an impassible area of sea when it sunk to the bottom of the ocean.
Additionally, a text on astronomy that was written in the Hebrew language and thought to be written around the time AD 1378 or AD 1379. The text focuses on zero points and the calculation of longitude, but makes reference to scholars who lived on an island in the middle of the ocean. These scholars were known to isolate themselves from the rest of the world so that they could pursue their quest for knowledge and were thought to be the first peoples to attempt measure the world in terms of longitude and latitude. Unfortunately, however, the island once inhabited by the scholars had since been lost to the ocean – and their knowledge along with it.
Possible Sites of Atlantis
As more and more potential references continue to come to light regarding Atlantis, there continue to be different proposed sites of Atlantis that come to light. While nothing has been concrete enough to e proven, there have been many theorists who have attempted to show that their country, race, island, etc., are descendants of the Atlanteans. These claims are made for a number of reasons – some make their theories due to geographical context that is given in the texts of Plato and other ancient recorders. Others believe that the advanced nature of their race is evidenced by the connection to the ancient Atlanteans.
The Thera Eruption
The eruption of Thera (a massive volcano) had more than its fair share of impact on the ancient world. Thera erupted with the kind of force that has never been witnessed by man before or since. It is said to have had the power of several hundred atomic bombs exploding at the same time! There were massive effects felt across the world – possibly as far as China and North America, and it is estimated that the explosion itself could be heard for 3,000 miles in any direction.
Thera took out a large portion of the island of Santorini and had a dramatic affect on the climate and history as it was known at that time. A peaceful civilization known as the Minoans had lived on the island. They were known for their efficient bureaucracy and advanced civilization. The explosion of Thera, however, made way for the warring city-state of ancient Greece to take over in terms of power.
The lack of possessions and bones on the island suggest that most of the Minoans were able to evacuate the island before the explosion occurred. Despite this, their foothold in ancient society was destroyed, likely because of the events that followed the explosion. It is thought that upwards of 40,000 people died in only a few hours and it is thought that tsunami waves at least 40 feet in height were generated. The volcanic ash was spread as far as Asia, and it is known that the temperature was greatly reduced. There were also strange sunsets for at least three years after the event. These events would have destroyed the Minoans coastal cities and prevented them from having good harvests in the following year, effectively ruining them.
The large scale impact of this event often leads others to conclude that Atlantis must have been the partially sunken island of Santorini. In fact, the Thera eruption was so influential that it is also thought to have been the cause for many of the Bible references of the Great Plagues that struck Egypt.
The Sea Peoples
Because of the warring nature of the Atlanteans that is described before the fall of their civilization, there are many hypotheses that connect them to ‘The Sea Peoples.’
While the official identity of the Sea Peoples remains a mystery, it seems clear that they were known to have posed a great threat to the Mediterranean civilizations – similar to how the Atlanteans were thought to have caused problems. Ancient records seem to indicate that the Sea Peoples attempted to invade Anatolia, Syria, Phoenicia, Canaan, Cyprus, and Egypt at the end of the Bronze Age.
Though the Sea Peoples have been a recorded threat in many different civilizations, they have not officially been connected to any culture or race, making it difficult to make a claim that they were, indeed, originated from Atlantis.
The Gulf of Laconia
The Gulf of Laconia is often pointed to as a likely location for the settlement of Atlantis because of its close relation to an ancient geographical location – the Pillars of Heracles. The two southward pointing lands on either side of the Gulf of Laconia were considered to be the Pillars, making this general region popular for speculation of Atlantis’ location.
People who investigate this theory typically claim that Atlantis could have been situated near Capes Matapan or Maleas. However, these opinions are somewhat controversial considering that the Atlanteans would have had to attacked from the south if they came from these islands – not from the west like the stories clearly state.
The Mayan Connection
When the Europeans first encountered the Americas, they were instantly fascinated with the indigenous tribes – especially the Mayans and their ruins. There are, however, some theories of Atlantis that have arisen from the observations of the Mayan ruins and the geography of South America.
One of the first theories that the land inhabited by the Mayans could be linked to the lost civilization of Atlantis likely came from Abraham Ortelius – a cartographer and geographer. Ortelius is the first person to have conceived the idea that the continents were once joined together before they were broken apart, leading them to drift to their current positions. This theory led him to create another theory concerning the land of Atlantis. He wrote of it in the 1596 edition of ‘Thesaurus Geographicus’, stating:
“Unless it be a fable, the island of Gadir or Gades will be the remaining part of the island of Atlantis or America, which was not sunk so much as torn away from Europe and Africa by earthquakes and flood…”
This is likely one of the biggest influences in the Mayanism that lead people to connect the Mayans to the ancient civilization of Atlantis. However, there were many issues with this train of thought – most of them resulting in the racism that the idea was explored with. The Europeans did not believe the natives of the Americas were intelligent enough to have building the ruins that they held as a possible candidate for the civilization of Atlantis. They saw the natives as inferior races and would have considered it an insult to entertain the idea that they had anything to do with the magnificent ruins that were before them.
Instead, they believed that the Mayans were a separate race entirely that had somehow disappeared and was lost to history. There were also those who speculated that Aztec culture could have connections to Atlantis as well. Eventually, the theory that the Mayan and Aztec cultures were connected to the ancient Atlanteans was formerly proposed by Mesoamerican scholars.
One of the most well informed scholars of his era – Brasseur de Bourbourg – was known to have traveled South America extensively in order to pursue the Mayan-Atlantean connection. He was renowned for his many translations of ancient texts like the Popol Vuh (an ancient Mayan sacred book) and was known to have gathered a great amount of information on the history of the region. Unfortunately, however, his credibility in the academic community when he claimed that the Maya had descended from the Toltecs – a surviving race who he theorized had descended from the ‘racially superior’ civilization of Atlantis. This was likely due to the great racism that surrounded the investigation into the Mayan culture.
Despite being discredited, there were those who were inspired to excavate Mayan ruins as a result of Brasseur de Bourbourg’s work. Though there was no concrete evidence, some who investigated thought they had found connections between Greek and the Mayan language, leading to even more speculation of connections to the lost continent.