The Myth of Atlantis

1 Extraterrestres

Recently I watched an episode in National Geographic’s Is It Real? series, about Atlantis. Two pseudoscientists were interviewed, one who believed that the people of Atlantis were extra terrestrials who travelled through star gates to earth millennia ago and set up an advanced civilisation which was the origin of all human ones. The other believed that Atlantis was once located in the Caribbean Sea, and was the originator of ancient Central and South American civilisations. Many others have theories of where and when Atlantis was, including classical scholars who refer to ancient catastrophes which destroyed Minoan civilisation on Crete, or Phoenician Gades or Tartessos.

Some believers interviewed in the film referenced Egyptian hieroglyphics which seemed to depict spacecraft. That reminded me of Erich Von Däniken’s Chariot of the Gods?, first published in 1968. This was an attempt to explain religious miracles, and ancient civilisations, as having originated through the visits of technologically advanced extra terrestrials. The ‘evidence’, such as it was, seemed to have been reproductions of ancient sculptures and carvings which looked like modern inventions. Von Däniken has apparently been criticised as ripping off the ideas in HP Lovecraft stories like The Call of Cthulhu.

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This all seems like a religion for technologically obsessed, overly rational yet superstitious people of the 20th century. It also shows that the creation of myths is still an important function of the human mind. There have been many books on Atlantis, and it seems interest in it is still strong, taking on aspects of a faith for some modern believers. Despite all this, the story of Atlantis is really just an illustration of a point in a philosophical work by Plato. All we really know about Atlantis comes from Plato. Yet those who attempt to prove the existence of Atlantis rarely speak about  Plato or Greek philosophy at all.

Plato’s myth
Plato moved in his published works from an attempt at philosophic definition of concepts through the tools of logic, put in the mouth of Sokrates, to a definition and a blueprint for an ideal, and stable, polis. He had lived through the horrors of the reign of the 400, then the worse rule of the thirty, at the end of the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC, and an ordered and stable government which would lead to enlightened citizens living a full and virtuous life seemed good to him. Such a polis had been outlined in his dialogue the Republic, written about 380 BC.  Towards the end of his life Plato again returned to a consideration of this ideal state in the Timaeus, named after the principal speaker in the dialogue. Timaeus speaks about the creation and nature of the universe and the origin of civilisations. Before he continues, one of his companions, Critias, makes a brief mention of the polis of Atlantis. This was a tyrannical state which unjustly attacked Athens, we are told, which in those days was a utopia, as well run as Plato’s Republic. The story of Atlantis is taken up again in a second dialogue called the Critias, which is unfinished. Plato had in mind a group of four dialogues it seems whose subject was just government, but apparently only lived to complete the first.

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In the Critias two confederacies are described, divided by “the Pillars of Herakles”. Both are just and well governed at first, but the group outside the Pillars becomes corrupt, and attempts to invade those inside the Pillars. This second group is led by Athens, the invaders by Atlantis. But there is a disaster, and the Pillars were closed: “when afterwards sunk by an earthquake, [the land of Atlantis] became an impassable barrier of mud to voyagers sailing from hence to any part of the ocean”. Athens in those days, nine thousand years before the time of Critias’ story (read “once upon a time”), was organised very much as the city Plato described in the Republic. Of course there was no Athens, and no Greeks, and no people of Atlantis at that remote period. On the other side of the Pillars, in the confederacy led by Atlantis, the lands were ruled by Poseidon the god of the sea and his children, five sets of twins. Atlantis itself was impregnable, and was built as a series of concentric circles, each surrounded by water, like moats for a medieval castle. Its ruler was called Atlas, and after him the place was known as the island of Atlas, or Atlantis. Other twins had rule over most of north Africa, and of islands further in the ocean beyond the Pillars.

After a description of the ideal community of Atlantis, distinguished by good government, and by engineering marvels such as huge canals which enable its citizens to sail ships through their cities from ocean to ocean, Plato says the people degenerated. Then the account breaks off. But it is clear he intended, from the mention in the Timaeus, to compare the unjust state that Atlantis had become with the just state that Athens remained, and show that Atlantis had finally been punished by the gods. His account was to have been of how the just state, Athens, triumphed over the unjust one of Atlantis, and of how the gods destroyed it. A rather pathetic story when you think about the unjust Athens of actuality that ruled so cruelly 40 years before the Critias was written. Here’s a translation of the Critias:

The story is a fable, or parable, to show the dangers of unjust rule, and the benefits of just rule. The story has been taken up by people who want to ignore Plato’s point about government, and think he was describing a real place and time. People who wouldn’t dream about looking for an enormous bean stalk up which Jack the Giant-killer climbed, or searching forests in Germany for a gingerbread house. But perhaps would be interested in finding the Ark of the Covenant on a mountain top in Sinai, even though Josephus describes it as destroyed during the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The ancient world seems a place where wonders once were, and you have to sympathise with peoples’ appetite for wonders. This approach is made easier by reading the Critias as though it was a complete treatise rather than the first chapter of a longer work it actually was. The fragment then seems a description of an actual polis which was eventually destroyed, and not a comparison between just and unjust government as Plato intended.

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The following events may have influenced Plato’s account in the two dialogues I’ve mentioned.
1. In 500-450 BC the ‘tyrannical’ empire of Persia entered the Mediterranrean Sea and attacked the polis of Athens, which valiantly fought back and under the strong democracy led by Themistokles utterly defeated the invaders. A moment no Athenian ever forgot.
2. In 800 BC a city called Gades (mentioned in Plato’s account) was a Phoenician trading city in the land of a people known from their city of Tartessos. This was Cadiz in Spain, on the Atlantic coast, which traded with Britain for tin. The Phoenicians dominated trade over all of North Africa, and had a major centre at Carthage. Tartessos vanished soon afterwards through extensive flooding.
3. In about 1300 BC a Mycenean kingdom had been set up on Crete and it exercised suzerainty over Athens: Crete was said to have demanded a tribute of Athenians to fight the Minotaur, until the hero Theseus set Athens free.
4. In 1500 BC in ancient Crete an island kingdom with advanced technology and widespread trading contacts was destroyed by a severe volcanic eruption on the island of Thera; stories of this might have reached Plato.
5. From 3000 BC Egypt had been a mighty kingdom which ruled throughout the eastern Mediterranean. It was famous for its architectural works of gigantic size, and the engineering achievements that harvested the annual flooding of the Nile and gave access to the Red Sea.
6. From 5000-4000 BC, the cities of Mesopotamia created civilisations from the desert sands of Iraq by building a series of canals which were the engineering marvel of their day, but which were subject to destruction during the many conflicts between cities in the region.

Any of this information may have been available to Plato, and he may have used elements of any or all these items to create his story. That it is ‘just’ a story is indicated by the fact that the Pillars of Herakles, identified as the Straights of Gibralter, have never been blocked, at least in times when men inhabited the region, by a land mass which prevented ships entering or leaving the Atlantic Ocean.

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Plato’s tale references myth about Atlas the son of Poseidon, who was king of Atlantis, but alludes to the Titan Atlas as well, “one who knows the depths of the whole sea, and keeps the tall pillars who hold heaven and earth asunder” as Homer put it. Poseidon’s son Atlas causes the pillars, that are held apart to form Europe and Africa, to close as Atlantis sinks and blocks the passage. Though totally unconnected, the huntress Atalanta, whose name means balanced, equal in weight, is mentioned in the tale of the Argonauts, who passed through the Clashing Rocks, supposed to be at the entrance to the Black Sea, another Straights that caused destruction. And a city named after her is referred to by Thucydides: “An inundation occurred at Atalanta, the island off the Opountian-Lokrian coast, carrying away part of the Athenian fort.”

Plato’s story of Atlantis is a morality tale of the dangers of unjust government and how it leads to unjust actions, which in turn are punished by the gods.

Modern myths: Star gates and ETs
Could the gods be extra terrestrials? The theories about Atlantis involving men from outer space all belong to the type of theory called, I believe, diffusionist. This is found in anthropology, and claims that major discoveries tend to occur rarely, but spread outward to neighbouring areas, rather than being made independently in many centres. It is a non issue, really, as human history has plentiful examples of both diffusion and independent creation of new ideas. It’s a bit like the so called conflict between nature and nurture e.g. is femininity a product of genetic or social conditioning? As all women experience both, the question cannot be answered.

But for Atlantis theorists it all comes from one place: outer space. ‘It’ seems to be always technological devices or engineering feats, not cultural creations, language, social organisation nor artistic works. Underlying assumptions are that advanced civilisations are technologically sophisticated, earlier human ones were not, our own industrial civilisation is faulty, yet somewhere a race on another planet must have got it right, and invented the Garden of Eden, with air conditioning. This was the dream of the Industrial Revolution when it reached the dawn of the twentieth century: that men would now live as gods. How wrong could you be? But, maybe out there?

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Surely there’s a germ of truth in these ideas? In astrology it’s that we are affected by all our environment, including our astronomical one. In the gods are spacemen idea it’s surely that there is more in the universe than we have any concept off, and other intelligent species with other awareness may be out there and getting closer.

But the idea of diffusion of culture from one centre (whether an extra terrestrial one or not) once popular among anthropologists, has been superseded by many, many discoveries. It probably originates in the 18th and early 19th century belief in Europe that mankind was invented one day in 4004 BC by god, and spread outward to many countries from the Garden of Eden. That human civilisation is a gift of extra terrestrials is ultimately a version of biblical fundamentalism. God of course is by definition an extra terrestrial. Discoveries in genetics, microbiology, in DNA analysis, in plate tectonics, of traces of the slow transformation from hunter gatherer to village and town dweller seen through an analysis of food use and study of seed evolution, has enabled us to see human history as the complex and confused evolution it really was.

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When Maxime du Camp photographed the ruined statue of Ramses II buried in the sands of Luxor in 1850 his contemporaries were willing to believe it was magical, and must have come from mysterious sources. How could such engineering and artistic marvels, such a mighty civilisation, have come from the backwards and primitive area that Cairo then was? In the racist thinking of those times, it made ancient Egyptian culture look as advanced (almost) as the white civilisation – then busy looting the countries of Asia and Africa.

Unfortunately the one source idea, whether extra terrestrial or not, has some difficulties to overcome.

1. If Egypt was founded by gods from outer space, how about the stop and start achievement in Iraq from even earlier times?
2. What about the Shang dynasty in China or the civilisation at Mohenjo-Daro, or in Cambodia? More gods?
3. If the pyramids need explaining in South and Central America and Egypt (no power tools), what about Chartres Cathedral, made by anonymous craftsmen with hand tools for the glory of god?

Pretty soon you are going to have to posit many, many visits from extra terrestrials all over the globe, and all through history, not just in Egypt or South America in ancient times. Maybe the gargoyles on the top story at Chartres are self portraits of these? Maybe all progress in civilisation has been engineered by the devil in his horrific plan to destroy mankind? In any case, many starts, from many centres, and if the gods are involved, or extra terrestrials, then earth must have been thronged with them over the centuries.

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The problem with the believers in the documentary I saw who thought that civilisation in Egypt or Central and South America could be explained by Atlantis, or those who believed Atlantis could be explained by extra terrestrials, is that they were looking for proof. And the evidence they had was hopelessly subjective. Hieroglyphics for example that looked like spacecraft, and were unexplainable on inscriptions, were shown by Egyptologists to have been formed by the addition of another pharaoh’s name to an existing one, the two cartouche coalescing with weathering of the stone to form what superficially looks like a spacecraft, yet can be read as the signatures of two historical pharaohs of the time the inscriptions were made. Saying that “well, it looks like a spacecraft to me” can be countered by, “well, it doesn’t look like one to me”. And nothing is proved at all.

There are a lot of stars in the universe, and the further we look, the more we find. There must be many planets, many inhabitable by some form of life, no matter how unimaginable it may be. Some life forms could have evolved into an advanced civilisation, though whether we’d recognise it if we saw it is debatable. I have no problem with that concept. But there’s another problem. Us. We have a three thousand year record of reacting to different life forms. We shoot it. We burn it at the stake, infect it, exploit it, torture it. The crime? It’s different to us. So if extra terrestrials ever did come to earth with an advanced civilisation, we wouldn’t have learned how to build pyramids from them. We would have hacked and burnt them till there was no more. We’re still at that stage of development. Let’s hope we get over it before the aliens actually get here. The belief in aliens must be a strong one. Steven Spielberg made a fortune from it in 1982.

Sooner or later you have to stop and admit it. You’re not explaining human civilisation, you’re exemplifying the human propensity to create myths. Vivid, poetical ideas that attempt to deal with the limits of our understanding of ourselves and our world.

The myth of the fall
The people of Atlantis are not only said to be extra terrestrials though. They are said to be a great civilisation which was destroyed. This goes back to Plato’s story. It was about a great civilisation which became corrupted and was destroyed by Zeus. Prehistorians have discovered many civilisations which have been destroyed. We know about Minoan Crete, perhaps about Tartessos in Spain. We can see the ruins of Egypt, the ruins of temples called megaliths in England and Malta, the burrows or burial mounds of the Celts. Older civilisations have passed. In cities like Rome or Athens people pass mysterious ruins of once powerful civilisations every day.

Why have earlier civilisations died out? Where did we go wrong? Eating the fruit in the Garden of Eden, or perhaps, settling in cities in the first place? Why did we go wrong? The devil, or perhaps, the desire to outsmart one another?

The link with wrong doing and punishment is in our own culture, and is derived from a Middle Eastern source. The story of the Garden of Eden. In fact the bible has several what could be called prototypes of the story of Atlantis, of a great civilisation which did wrong and was destroyed. Adam and Eve were given paradise, and would have been given immortality, and freedom from death and disease, but they rebelled against god. Do you notice the really small role of the serpent in the story? Identified with the devil, he is said to have tempted Eve. But previously, god himself tempted both Adam and Eve by forbidding they eat the fruit. The serpent only tells Eve what god had previously told her. Human nature does the rest, and paradise is lost. But we remember it. Another story in the bible is about how civilisation was destroyed by a flood, sent by god because mankind had sinned. Then there was Sodom and Gomorrah. God was forever stamping out humanity because of their sins. It doesn’t seem to have stopped us sinning though. Here we can note that in the Sumerian original of the flood story, told two thousand years earlier before the Jews existed as a people, there is just a flood. The Jews added the sins and the punishment when they made a version of the story.

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Everybody has personally experienced the fall, the loss of innocence, the punishment earned from our sins. It’s called growing up, puberty, part of the price we pay for maturity. So may people out there who don’t want to pay that price, who want to stay in childhood, where they can indulge themselves without heed of consequence. It’s pretty understandable.

That sense of paradise lost is with us as we grow up. And the idea it may be our fault is part of our culture. Even if we don’t belong to a religion that emphasises our guilt, we have TV. TV tells us about how we are spoiling the planet by pollution, by creating a greenhouse effect. How we are exhausting the natural resources of the world. How we exploit the poor and underprivileged so the wealthy among us can buy expensive things in bad taste they don’t really want. How we steal from, rob and murder one another on city streets, how we clash in armed groups all over the planet while munitions dealers laugh all the way to the bank. How wealthy slum children sell drugs that eventually kill consumers. We learn about the economy only to also learn it’s self destructing. Repent! The end is near! Well, the TV equivalent at any rate. Go out and buy our sponsor’s product!

So we’ve inherited a guilt culture. But the trouble is, guilt is addictive. Feeling guilty makes you go out and do wrong, in order to wipe out the guilt. And then you feel guilty again. Much as an alcoholic feels depressed by their dependence on alcohol, and has a drink to cheer themselves up.

The idea of the fall reverberates through our culture. Christians are obliged to believe that mankind is inherently evil, because that’s what makes necessary the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. True, you can be saved just by being a Christian, but the rest of humanity will burn in hideous torment for eternity. The idea of a god who picks and chooses, and deep fries the rejects, doesn’t seem very advanced to me.

In Lord of the Flies William Golding has a group of boys marooned on an island revert to savagery and sees exploitation as basic to human nature. In Robinson Crusoe Daniel Defoe sees the marooned Crusoe’s Christian submission to the will of god as leading to survival and suggests a count your blessings approach to existence. In The Fall Albert Camus says that self obsession leads to lack of charity towards others and that, to their destruction. This is clearly a matter still being explored.

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But why fall at all? Plato didn’t live to tell the story of what went wrong with Atlantis. Modern seekers after Atlantis don’t emphasise why that civilisation declined or was destroyed. Some do believe the people of Atlantis left a warning, buried deep under the Sphinx where it’s very hard to get to. But mainly in the myths Atlantis is the source, the place where advanced civilisation (interpreted as advanced technology) came from. Forget about all those scientists in laboratories all over the world conducting endless experiments, forget about the savvy thinkers who instantly see how an idea can be applied to a labour saving gadget, forget the intuitive geniuses able to think creatively in abstractions.

But where did the Atlantians get their ideas? If civilisations don’t evolve, then they must have come from someone else.  I wonder who those people could be, who gave the people of Atlantis their civilisation?

On the other hand, perhaps we are looking in the wrong direction. Perhaps Atlantis is not a history, but a prophecy. A great, technologically advanced civilisation which has abused its power and is fated to succumb to a natural disaster it itself has contributed to. In creating this myth of a lost continent we may be giving a warning to ourselves.

If you have read all the way down here you may want to read further. A book which surveys the whole field is Lost Continents by L Sprague de Camp (Dover 1970, still in print today).

©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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