The Lost City of Atlantis – Myth or Memory

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The idea of a lost, but highly advanced civilization has captured the interest of people for centuries. Perhaps the most compelling of these tales is the story of Atlantis. The story appears again and again in books, television shows and movies. Where did the story originate and is any of it true?

Around 350 BC, Plato wrote about a beautiful island in the Atlantic Ocean that went under the ocean waves in one day and one night. It took two books to describe the history and details of this almost magical island. For years people have been looking for this mysterious lost city, Atlantis.

Atlantis is a legendary “lost” island subcontinent often idealized as an advanced, utopian society holding wisdom that could bring world peace. The idea of Atlantis has captivated dreamers, occultists and New Agers for generations.

Unlike many legends whose origins have been lost in the mists of time, we know exactly when and where the story of Atlantis first appeared. The story was first told in two of Plato’s dialogues, the “Timaeus” and the “Critias,” written about 330 B.C.

Though today Atlantis is often thought of as a peaceful utopia, the Atlantis that Plato described in his fable was very different. In his book “Frauds, Myths and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology” (McGraw-Hill, 2013) professor of archaeology Ken Feder summarizes the story: “A technologically sophisticated but morally bankrupt evil empire — Atlantis — attempts world domination by force. The only thing standing in its way is a relatively small group of spiritually pure, morally principled and incorruptible people — the ancient Athenians. Overcoming overwhelming odds … the Athenians are able to defeat their far more powerful adversary simply through the force of their spirit. Sound familiar? Plato’s Atlantean dialogues are essentially an ancient Greek version of ‘Star Wars.'”

As propaganda, the Atlantis legend is more about the heroic Athens than a sunken civilization; if Atlantis really existed today and was found, its residents would probably try to kill and enslave us all. It’s clear that Plato made up Atlantis as a plot device for his stories because there are no other records of it anywhere else in the world. There are many extant Greek texts; surely someone else would have also mentioned, at least in passing, such a remarkable place. There is simply no evidence from any source that the legends about Atlantis existed before Plato wrote about it.

For over two thousand years the story of Atlantis was just a story. Then, in the late 1800s, an American named Ignatius Donnelly became fascinated with the story and wrote a book called Atlantis, the Antediluvian World, which became a bestseller. Ignatius studied flood history from Egypt to Mexico and believed that Plato was recording an actual natural disaster. Since then, several books have been written about the lost city.

The only way to make a mystery out of Atlantis (and to assume that it was once a real place) is to ignore its obvious origins as a moral fable and to change the details of Plato’s story, claiming that he took license with the truth, either out of error or intent to deceive. With the addition, omission or misinterpretation of various details in Plato’s work, nearly any proposed location can be made to “fit” his description.

Science and science-fiction writer L. Sprague de Camp thoroughly discredited the Atlantis story in his 1970 book, “Lost Continents: The Atlantis Theme in History, Science, and Literature,” noting that “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.”

The Atlantis legend has been kept alive, fueled by the public’s imagination and fascination with the idea of a hidden, long-lost utopia. Yet the “lost city of Atlantis” was never lost; it is where it always was: in Plato’s books.

Despite Atlantis’ clear origin in fiction, many people over the centuries have claimed that there must be some truth behind the myths, and have speculated about where Atlantis would be found. Countless Atlantis “experts” have located the lost continent all around the world, based on the same set of facts. Candidate locations — each accompanied by their own peculiar sets of evidence and arguments — include the Atlantic Ocean, Antarctica, Bolivia, Turkey, Germany, Malta and the Caribbean.

Plato, however, is crystal clear about where his Atlantis is: “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.” In other words, it lies in the Atlantic Ocean beyond “the pillars of Hercules” (i.e., the Strait of Gibraltar, at the mouth of the Mediterranean). Yet it has never been found in the Atlantic, or anywhere else.

No trace of Atlantis has ever been found, despite advances in oceanography and ocean floor mapping in past decades. For nearly two millennia, readers could be forgiven for suspecting that the vast depths might somehow hide a sunken city or continent. Though there remains much mystery at the bottom of the world’s oceans, it is inconceivable that the world’s oceanographers, submariners and deep-sea probes have somehow missed a landmass “larger than Libya and Asia together.”

Furthermore, plate tectonics demonstrate that it’s impossible for Atlantis to exist, as the continents have drifted and the seafloor has spread, not contracted, over time. There would simply be no place for Atlantis to sink into. As Ken Feder noted, “The geology is clear; there could have been no large land surface that then sank in the area where Plato places Atlantis. Together, modern archaeology and geology provide an unambiguous verdict: There was no Atlantic continent; there was no great civilization called Atlantis.”

From time to time, archaeologists and historians locate evidence—a swampy, prehistoric city in coastal Spain; a suspicious undersea rock formation in the Bahamas—that might be a source of the Atlantis story. Of these, the site with the widest acceptance is the Greek island of Santorini (ancient Thera), a half-submerged caldera created by the massive second-millennium-B.C. volcanic eruption whose tsunami may have hastened the collapse of the Minoan civilization on Crete.

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