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Sorry, There Is No Atlantis

Slate has an article that says something I’ve been saying for years, that all those people out there searching for the lost city of Atlantis are wasting their time because there is no such place and there never was. It was written as a myth and stayed a myth for nearly 2000 years before people suddenly started believing it was a real place and started to look for it.

Before it was a pop culture phenomenon, Atlantis was a legend. It first appeared in writing as a literary device in the Plato dialogues Critias and Timaeus, both of which are among his later writings. In the text, Critias, who, depending on the classics scholar to whom you’re speaking, may or may not be a representation of the historical figure Critias the tyrant, tells of a war that took place 9,000 years before Plato’s writing, between an ancient, land-power version of Athens and Atlantis, the sea power. In Plato’s telling, Atlantis, a city dripping in riches and marked by avarice, loses to virtuous Athens. Atlantis was subsequently destroyed by a nasty combination of an earthquake and a flood. At the time of writing, Athens was transforming from the birthplace of democracy into the invader of Sicily and the wager of war. Clearly, there was some sort of message to Athens in all of this, but classics scholars dispute what that message was: To some, it was a warning to democracies not to become overly concerned with military expansion; to others, a lament of the democratization that accompanies building a navy; and to still others, an Athenian origin story.

But the Plato story is only the beginning of the Atlantis we now know. Professor emeritus Alan Cameron of Columbia University says that the belief that Atlantis was a place that ever actually existed, as opposed to a literary device, came about around 1492. Whatever was in the air during the age of exploration—the idea that the world was filled with limitless and rich possibilities, there to be discovered by those who dared to look—transformed Atlantis from a Plato myth into a destination for discoverers.

There doesn’t seem to have been any one prominent explorer, writer, or scientist championing Atlantis in the 15th century, but, according to writings and recorded conversations from that period, this was the time in which it was reborn in popular consciousness. This was the age, Cameron says, when people really became aware that the world was “enormously larger than they’d ever imagined” and when some began to suppose that Atlantis could be a real place, after all.

My favorite is the guy who declared that Atlantis was in Bolivia in the Andes mountains, a place that Plato could not possibly have known about. The Discovery Channel turned that into a show because, well, that’s what they do on that crap channel. It ranks up there with all that Chariots of the Gods nonsense.

Comments

  1. dingojack says

    What not even Santorinr? With it’s fine Minoan housing and extensive pottery etc.? That was probably destroyed by a Plinian explosion (devastating earthquakes, pyroclast flows, heavy ash falls and finally a volcanic tsunami) during the 12th century bce.
    Bummer.
    Dingo
    ——–
    PS: not a single person, before the 19th century, championed cell theory, atomic theory, germ theory, evolution and plenty more. Clearly these then must be all totally untrue too, right?
    Weak argument.

  2. cswella says

    I think what he’s trying to say, dingojack, is that the age of exploration is when Atlantis went from a mythical place to a possible real place in the public consciousness. Not really an argument against the existence of Atlantis, more of an observation of when the Atlantis craze began.

  3. kraut says

    “PS: not a single person, before the 19th century, championed cell theory, atomic theory, germ theory, evolution and plenty more. Clearly these then must be all totally untrue too, right?
    Weak argument”

    Your logic is impeccable and irrefutable. There were stories told by the ancients of how cells divided, that there were bacteria invading the body, that something like an atomic bomb could wipe out vast populations but of course, nobody took that seriously until the 19th century. Stupid people. So the story of Atlantis has to be true in light of those facts.

  4. dingojack says

    And when Democritus theorised that the world was made of tiny indivisible particles, no one else championed the idea until Dalton et al. starting in the Enlightenment. What does that have to do with whether atoms really exist or not?
    If it’s not a weak argument, then it’s a complete red herring.
    Dingo

  5. dingojack says

    Kraut – I would tell you to take a long walk on short pier, but it might be made of that totally fallacious hydroscopic cement.
    Yep, it’s totally impossible that we might forgat something over time. Totally inconceivable.
    I’m betting that everyone in the early Iron Age would have just looked it up on the Internet, right?
    @@
    Dingo

  6. cswella says

    I think you’re just expecting too much out of a speculative article. In the end of the article, the author says promoting the myth as real is a good thing, which it could be for those reasons specifically. But it’s not meant to be an article arguing against Atlantis, it’s more of a Wikipedia article styled format.

  7. dogmeat says

    Actually a better example would be Troy. For decades it was declared a myth, a literary device, etc., but then Schliemann had to go and find the damned thing. Whether an historical Atlantis would resemble the story is a different question.

    I ascribe to the Santorini/Thera theory, IE that “Atlantis” did exist as a society, it was destroyed by the volcanic eruption that destroyed Thera (and Crete for that matter) about 900 years before Plato. No special magical or super-science abilities, just a wealthy, rather advanced culture that dominated the eastern Mediterranean prior to the natural disaster that ripped through the region. In that same vein, both Thera and Crete fulfill the role as “Atlantis.” The destruction still can be fitted into an “origin” story and used as a literary device much like “sodom and Gomorrah” do in the old testament.

  8. dingojack says

    dogmeat – exactly. Is Santorini Atlantis? Who knows? Let’s find out, instead of saying “oh that’s something we don’t know therefore let’s dismiss it’s existence by saying it’s a mere rhetorical device”.
    Dingo
    ——–
    Let’s be perfectly clear here. Is Atlantis some futuristic city constructed by aliens on a (now-flooded) micro-continent between Europe and the Americas? No. Is it high up in the Bolivian Andes. No. Is it tucked away in wilds of Lake Eyre. NO!
    Could it be a real place, populated by real Bronze-aged traders in the Eastern Mediterranean that was destroyed by naturalistic forces? I don’t know, but it sure sounds plausible. Let’s find out.

  9. says

    There’s also a place on the coast of Spain that some people claim might be Atlantis, having apparently been hit by a tsunami some thousands of years ago. One is inclined to suspect, though, that Plato was aware of what happened to Santorini, and used that as the basis for what happened to his fictitious society that he made up to make a point. It’s my understanding that most of the Mediterranean cultures of that time didn’t really have a generalized concept of ‘volcano,’ due to there being only one mountain that regularly showed visible (to them) signs, so the made specific legends about that one having a monster under it, but didn’t broaden the concept. So when Santorini went, “a day and a night of fire and earthquakes sent by the gods” is a pretty obvious interpretation of what happened there.

  10. pacal says

    Dingojack, Plato was fond of in his dialogues of making up stories and claiming that they were true. His dialogues abound with myths like the story of metals in The Republic and the origin of the sexes in Symposium. Further the Atlantis tale was according to Plato’s dialogues as given on an Athenian festival which had as a theme honoring tricks and deceptions. Also just as important in Plato’s story of Atlantis was the mythical Athens he described in the tale with a society similar to that described in his book The Republic. That Athens never existed. The whole Thera / Santorini / Atlantis link has been investigated, studied and speculated on since the mid 1960’s and a lot has been found out. What has been found out is that the Thera eruption apparently did NOT destroy or seriously undermine Minoan civilization. It appears that at best the eruption of Thera has only a tenuous link to the to the Atlantis tale if any. Also abundant archaeological evidence from Santorini / Thera indicates that it was NOT the center of a great maritime empire but instead a Minoan colony. And of course Santorini is at least one order of magnitude smaller that the Atlantis described by Plato and not as large as Libya and Asia together or out in the Atlantic again as described by Plato. And of course Plat making his Atlantis and Athens exist 9,000 years before his time is a fiction.

    Plato’s Atlantis is no more a “real” place than the myriad of fantasy worlds described in fantasy fiction are real despite the fact that they copy Medieval Europe frequently. Westeros is not Medieval England or a real; place but a fiction despite the obvious copying.

    Plato may or may not have used various stories and folk memories of the Thera eruption, earthquakes etc to construct his fable with which to teach the moral lesson he was trying to teach. In his tale we see elements of the Persian Wars, the city of Syracuse, even Carthage. All of which were meat for Plato’s purpose to teach a lesson. But his Atlantis was no more real than his similarily old Athens.

  11. dingojack says

    pacal
    “The whole Thera / Santorini / Atlantis link has been investigated, studied and speculated on since the mid 1960′s and a lot has been found out. What has been found out is that the Thera eruption apparently did NOT destroy or seriously undermine Minoan civilization. It appears that at best the eruption of Thera has only a tenuous link to the to the Atlantis tale if any. Also abundant archaeological evidence from Santorini / Thera indicates that it was NOT the center of a great maritime empire but instead a Minoan colony. ”
    Really? I’m really interested. Any links?
    Dingo

  12. pacal says

    Dogmeat No. 9

    Actually a better example would be Troy. For decades it was declared a myth, a literary device, etc., but then Schliemann had to go and find the damned thing. Whether an historical Atlantis would resemble the story is a different question.

    Sigh! This academic urban legend has been around for well over a century it is largely bunk. The fact is the Trojan war was accepted has a real event and Troy has a real place for thousands of years. Homer’s Iliad was even accepted has being a “reliable” account of a actual war. The great majority of the western Academic establishment accepted both Troy and the Trojan war as real right up until the early 19th century. Hell even the site that Schlieman excavated was known to be the site of a Greek city called Ilium / Troy and it was well known that the Greeks and Romans considered it to be the site of Try of the Epics and legends. Only in the early 19th century did it begin to occur to some people that the Trojan war narrative was not a war report but a legend and that the Iliad was not history. After thousands of years of credulity critical thinking about the legends and etc., was finally taking root.

    Even so only a minority of Academics and virtually no Classicalists thought Troy a complete legend before or during Schliemann’s lifetime. The idea that he proved against a hidebound establishment that Troy was real was and remains a myth. The fact is most Classicalists at least accepted that Troy was a real place and probably located where Schliemann excavated, the site of the Greek / Roman city of Ilium.

    Ironically Schliemann excavated at the right site and proceeded to identify the wrong remains as Homer’s Troy.

  13. busterggi says

    Proving Plato’s Atlantis was real should be simple – no one even has to search for it.

    Remember, Athens was supposededly Atlantis’ greatest rival and we know where Athens is – if the myth were true there should be plenty of evidence of the extra-ancient Athens including references to their rivals.

    But I guess no one wants to do this the easy way.

  14. Konradius says

    Gosh…
    Next thing you’re saying is that people should stop looking for Waterdeep, the Icewind Dale, Menzoberranzan, Hogwarts, Rohan, Gondor, Moria and Mordor…

  15. laurentweppe says

    Next thing you’re saying is that people should stop looking for […] Rohan, Gondor, Moria and Mordor…

    It’s in New Zeland

  16. Francisco Bacopa says

    Plato was fond of “eumythos” the “likely story”, speculative illustrations when reason and evidence are absent. The earliest examples are the “Plain of Ur” story from The Republic and the Diotima story from Symposium. Plato thought this was fine as long as you labeled it as such, and he usually did. I think the usual interpretation that Atlantis is a metaphor about what can happen when a democracy builds an empire is quite correct. Plato saw what happened to a powerful democratic empire with his own eyes. It wasn’t pretty.

    Not really sure the Santorini explosions played a role here. Others have pointed out why. I might add that even when the History Channel was much better 15 years ago they still had things saying that the Egyptian army in Exodus might have been led to drowning in Gaza by a crafty Moses who knew somehow Santorini would blow up and make a tsunami. That must have been thought up by a Spinoza fan, because he believed that all the miracles of the Bible were actually accounts of arcane science that was lost to his age. I don’t think Spinoza mentioned the parting of the Red Sea, but he would have loved the idea that Moses was a geologist with the ability to predict eruptions.

  17. says

    Proving Plato’s Atlantis was real should be simple – no one even has to search for it.

    Remember, Athens was supposededly Atlantis’ greatest rival and we know where Athens is – if the myth were true there should be plenty of evidence of the extra-ancient Athens including references to their rivals.

    But I guess no one wants to do this the easy way.

    That’s kind of what I am thinking: if Atlantis were real, wouldn’t it be around Athens or something? Trade routes and such.

    I tend to subscribe to the idea that Atlantis was a metaphor for a bunch of places that got buried by volcanos, earthquakes, etc; like Plato’s version of Soddom and Gomorroh where the Righteous Athenians conquered the Wicked and Corrpupt Atlantians, or something anyway.

    Atlantis seems to be little more than a rhetorical device, frankly.

  18. dingojack says

    pacal -“Trojan war was accepted has a real event and Troy has a real place for thousands of years….”
    By whom, specifically?

    Francisco Bacopa – “Not really sure the Santorini explosions played a role here. Others have pointed out why…”
    Um, no they haven’t.

    Dingo

  19. says

    “not a single person, before the 19th century, championed cell theory, atomic theory, germ theory, evolution and plenty more. Clearly these then must be all totally untrue too, right?”

    You really think this is a good argument, dingojack?

    You really don’t know the difference between scientific discoveries and historical discoveries?

    It’s a basic truism that a historical claim that was not witnessed by any contemporaries at all, and whose alleged witnesses all only lived thousands of years later, is not, in fact, a historical truth, but rather a fabrication.

    And why you would think that had any relationship to the advances of science is beyond me.

    “Yep, it’s totally impossible that we might forgat [sic] something over time. Totally inconceivable.”

    No, it’s not totally impossible that something was forgotten. More things are forgotten than remembered. What’s implausible is that a story lacking any historical foundation would coincidentally also be true.

  20. dingojack says

    rickdesper – “You really think this is a good argument,…?”
    Here’s a protip for you – before reading the comments, read the leader.

    OBTW – ‘Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’. Another ‘truism’ of science, even history.

    Dingo

  21. says

    “Re dogmeat @ #9

    Except that Atlantis supposedly lay somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, not in the Mediterranean sea.”

    Teutonic plates! Duh!!

    Well, give it a thousand or so years and a MegaKatrina or two hitting the Gulf Coast and our descendants will be reading stories about the Lost City of Nawlins, a place of arts, grace AND depravity that sank ‘neath the waves.

  22. says

    ‘Sides, everybody with a functionin’-at-the-junction brain KNOWS that the whole “Atlantis controversy” is nothing but a device to distract a gullible public and get gummint scientists to waste their time, energy and treasures looking for it–while IGNORING the search for Lumeria/Mu–the REAL lost continent. I know it’s true I have some original manuscripts about it and it’s former CEO, Submariner!!

  23. anandine says

    I figure Plato’s mention of it comes from a combination of three things: Santorini, as championed above; a place in Spain, beyond the gates of hercules, where silver was mined and exported and which became a metaphorical place of riches; and Egyptian mythology. The political system Plato ascribed to Atlantis is pretty close to that of the Egyptian gods. Then, in the last century, the fabulation machinery latched onto it.

  24. katybe says

    The most plausible explanation for Atlantis I’ve ever heard came from the chemistry teacher covering History of Science for our general studies course. I don’t know where he got this particular theory from, but he explained that the cuneiform for an island “as large as” Europe and Africa” is only fractionally different from “in between” – 1 wedge in a 3 wedge symbol points in a different direction. Effectively, the whole story is the result of a typo!

  25. says

    The most plausible explanation for Atlantis I’ve ever heard came from the chemistry teacher covering History of Science for our general studies course. I don’t know where he got this particular theory from, but he explained that the cuneiform for an island “as large as” Europe and Africa” is only fractionally different from “in between” – 1 wedge in a 3 wedge symbol points in a different direction. Effectively, the whole story is the result of a typo!

    That really wouldn’t surprise me actually. +1

  26. freehand says

    dingojack: OBTW – ‘Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’. Another ‘truism’ of science, even history.>/i>

    It is if we would expect evidence from whatever is being considered. For example, mammals need a breeding pool of several hundred individuals to maintain the sufficient genetic diversity to last for long periods of time. This is one argument against the existence of Sasquatch – there should have been fossils and skeletons found. There could conceivably be a single family living here in the American northwest now, but there would have to have been many thousands over the centuries to leave a lingering remnant.

    I’m not sure however that a single town, destroyed by a disaster, would necessarily leave tons of evidence. But arguing for a possibility is not an argument for its actual existence.

  27. pacal says

    Dingojack if your interested in Atlantis and Thera you might want to start with Atlantis: The Making of a Myth by Phyllis Young Forsyth. The book is from 1980 but is still valid in the sections about Thera.. There is also Imagining Atlantis, by Richard Ellis from 1999 which contains material on Thera. There is also a collection of Essays called The Cambridge Companion to the Aegean Bronze Age, edited by Cynthis W. Shelmerdine published in 2008. The fact is that the heyday of the equation between Atlantis and Thera / Crete was the 1970’s and early 80’s since then the tide as moved against the idea. The most important reason being that it appears that the Thera eruption occurred c. 1650-1620 B.C.E., which is well before the apparent collapse of Palace culture everywhere on Crete except Knossos c. 1450 B.C.E. So the fit with Plato’s tale is simply not that good anymore. In The Cambridge Companion book listed above there is an article by Jack L. Davis, Minoan Crete and the Aegean Islands, which says on p. 205.

    Not so long ago, it was widely believed that the New Palace period in Crete was brought to an end by the eruption that swallowed Akrotiri and the other settlements in the island in a rain of volcanic debris. It is now clear that this was not the case. The volcano did not erupt as late as LM IB, but in the later LM IA phase…

    As for the Trojan war being accepted as fact for thousands of years. Well the Greeks and the Romans most definitely, with very few exceptions, thought the war was real. Certainly both Herodotus, Thucydides and so did Virgil, thought the war actually happened. During the Middle Ages stories of the Trojan war were regarded as fact. Certainly writers like Geoffrey of Monmouth thought the war was a real event. Classicalists generally thought the war actually had happened. There was for example in the late 18th century a man named Lechevalier who accepted the whole Trojan was thing as real but identified another site other than classical Ilium as Troy. Further the great classicalist Edward Gibbon accepted the Trojan war has a real event.

    The great 20th century Classicalist M. I. Finley recounted in his book Ancient History, that Classicalists have in the past and in the present given far more credence to Greek and Roman myths and legends has historical then they would for any other legendary tradition and has Finley out lines in his The World of Odysseus this tradition is long standing and applies to Troy and the Trojan war.

  28. pacal says

    RE: No. 31 Katybe:

    The most plausible explanation for Atlantis I’ve ever heard came from the chemistry teacher covering History of Science for our general studies course. I don’t know where he got this particular theory from, but he explained that the cuneiform for an island “as large as” Europe and Africa” is only fractionally different from “in between” – 1 wedge in a 3 wedge symbol points in a different direction. Effectively, the whole story is the result of a typo!

    This theory has been around since the 1960’s. It was in Luce’s The End of Atlantis, published in 1970. Aside from the fact that in Plato’s telling the story seems to have been handed down orally not written. Certainly no document is referred to in the two dialogues mentioning Atlantis, instead a tale is told and told during a celebration of tricks and deceptions.

    Frankly the whole theory is dubious. It is rather obvious that Plato moved, if he actually did move, Atlantis to the Atlantic for dramatic effect and so also made it huge. Basically to provide a contrast between his tiny heroic Athens and his huge, corrupt Atlantic based empire.. Copy error not needed.

  29. dingojack says

    Freehan – “For example, mammals need a breeding pool of several hundred individuals to maintain the sufficient genetic diversity to last for long periods of time. ”
    Who knew the Māori people weren’t mammals?
    I’m not sure however that a single town, destroyed by a disaster, would necessarily leave tons of evidence. But arguing for a possibility is not an argument for its actual existence.”
    Not far from the modern city of Naples are the remains of a Roman town called Pompeii, you may have heard of it. It lay hidden under a thick layer of ash, pumice and tufa until a farmer digging a well poofed it into existence in a massive quantum fluctuation in the universe’s fabric (to hear the author quoted by Ed tell it).
    That there are countless examples of cities, settlements, camps and cave-dwellings preserved archaeologically sort of places it above ‘a possibility’. That we have found surprising things unexpectedly precludes the conclusion that we have learned all that can be learned.

    pascal – Thanks for that. I think I’ve tried to source the first book you mentioned before, but search engines (and more slightly, my ‘google-fu’) have improved since then.
    I think you’re confusing ‘the Bronze Age Collapse’ with the collapse of the Minoan Culture. The Mycenaeans were bronze-aged too. They sprung into prominence during the 16th century bce, even taking over sites on Crete (AIUI). The survival of Knossos could be similar to Athens still existing even after Achaea became a Roman Senatorial province.

    Dingo

  30. pacal says

    Dingojack. I am not referring to the collapse of Minoan culture. I referred to expressly to the end of Palatial also called Palace culture at virtually all sites of Minoan palaces in Crete and that did in fact occur c. 1450 B.;C.E. The Palace of Knossos unlike the other Cretan palaces was not destroyed and abandoned at this time but continued to be occupied. Although there is still a debate about whether or not it was occupied until c. 1400 B.C.E. or c. 1200 B.C.E.

    The end of the Bronze age and the end of Mycenaean culture, with the mass abandonment and devastation of most Mycenaean sites occurred c. 1200 B.C.E. Minoan culture survived the end of Palace culture c. 1450 B.C.E. What did not survive was the Palaces, with the exception of the palace at Knossos.

    We have from Knossos Linear B. tablets, which unlike Linear A tablets we can read. This as often been read has indicating that Mycenaeans took over Knossos. That has been disputed. However from the Linear B. tablets it appears that Knossos dominated Crete during this time.

    Exactly why most of the Cretan palaces were abandoned c. 1450 B.C.E., is not clear. There is virtually no indication of foreign invasion. It used to be thought that the effects of the Thera eruption destroyed the palaces and completely disrupted Cretan society causing the end of Palace culture and the abandonment of all the palaces except Knossos. Since it appears that Thera in fact erupted c. 1650-1620 B.C.E., and that Palace culture continued to exist for another c. 170 years in the various palaces in Crete, other explanations have to be sought.. None were abandoned in the period after the eruption it seems. In fact it appears that that Crete and its Palaces were at their height during this time period. There is some evidence of a severe earthquake(s) at about the time c. 1450 B.C.E., that all the Cretan palaces except Knossos were abandoned. However this doesn’t exp0lain why they were not rebuilt or repaired. It is suspected that Knossos was able in at about this time to impose its authority on Crete and simply ended the palaces as potential rivals to its authority. A severe Earthquake and its aftermath may have given Knossos the opportunity to do so.

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