Was Atlantis based on a real place?

Map of Atlantis

The story of Atlantis has enthralled people for over two millennia. This myth is one that has been the subject of countless books, poems, and even movies. Nearly everyone is familiar with the story of the fabled civilization that sank beneath the waves and it that has entered the popular imagination. Indeed, many do not believe that Atlantis is a myth but was a real historical place and that its remains may still be found to this day.

The origin of the myth is in the Classical World, it was first told by the great Greek philosopher Plato. Most authorities accept that Atlantis is only a tale. However, there may have been a real ‘Atlantis’ and there are several ancient societies that possibly inspired the tale. This article will examine the ancient civilizations that could have inspired the myth of Atlantis. It will not examine the more far-fetched theories on the lost island, such as it was the Antarctic or Ireland.

The myth of Atlantis

A bust of Plato

The only sources for the story of the fabled island are the philosophical dialogues of Plato, that date from about 360 BC. The Athenian Philosopher mentions Atlantis in two of his dialogues Timaeus and Critias.

In the Timaeus, Plato only briefly discussed the story of the island. In the Critias, Plato claimed that the great Athenian law-giver Solon is the source of the story.[1] This story had been handed down by wise men and priests for thousands of years, and it was transmitted to Solon. The great Athenian was known to have traveled widely and is regarded as one of the ‘Seven Sages of Greece.’ Plato claims that Solon translated some records from Egyptian into Greek, and it was from these that he learned the story of Atlantis.[2]

Some believe that Plato may have been influenced in his conception of Atlantis by the works of the mythographer Hellanicus of Lesbos. In particular, Hellanicus may have written a work called Atlantis, who was the daughter of the God of the Sea Poseidon. The story of Atlantis in the Platonic dialogues is widely regarded as a form of philosophical allegory.

Plato taught many of is doctrines in the form of allegorical tales, one of the best known is the story of the ‘Prisoners in the Cave’ found in the Republic.[3] Plato’s discussion of the story of Atlantis is regarded as an allegory on the ideal society and what happens to states, when their citizenry lost, their virtues.[4]

What was Plato's story of Atlantis?

A Minoan Palace at Knossos

In the dialogue Critias, a well-known Athenian politician relates that the Olympian Gods divided the earth between them. The gods gave the sea-god Poseidon the great island of Atlantis. This civilization was located beyond the Straits of Gibraltar and in the Atlantic Ocean. It was believed to be very large and was approximately 500 miles long.[5] It was very fertile and rich, but it was very prone to earthquakes.

According to Egyptian sources, the island was hilly, and in the center was a vast plain. Critias in the Platonic dialogue states that Poseidon had five pairs of twins with a nymph. The firstborn son was named Atlas, and he later became monarch of the island. The Atlantic Ocean was named after King Atlas. The other sons of Poseidon were also given extensive territories to rule in and around Atlantis.

According to the Platonic dialogue, Poseidon created a palace for the mother of Atlas. Near here, the Atlanteans build a canal and tunnels that linked this palace to the rest of the island.[6] They also built a great city that was surrounded by mighty walls, that were multi-colored and covered with precious metals.

Plato has Critias state that Atlantis was a veritable paradise on earth for many centuries. It was a well-ordered land, that was justly ruled, and its kings were wise. In the Platonic dialogue, the island is portrayed as the perfect society and a Utopia. However, over time, the Atlanteans became decadent and lost their old virtue and become increasingly rapacious and war-like.[7]

Some 9000 years ago, there was a great war between the Atlanteans and the rest of the inhabited world. The Atlanteans had subjugated most of Europe, as far as Italy. Athens led a coalition against the new Atlantean Empire. Even though their allies betrayed the Athenians, they still managed to defeat the Atlanteans.[8]

Soon after the defeat of Atlantis, a series of floods and earthquakes shook the island. These disasters eventually sank Atlantis into the sea.[9] All traces of it apart from some records have vanished according to the dialogue. We do not know if Plato invented the fable or if there was an actual myth about the grand island, in the Classical era. In Ancient times, opinion was divided on the historicity of the island; some such as Strabo believed it to be accurate, while others saw it as a fiction.

The tale of Atlantis inspired Francis Bacon in his great work the New Atlantis and St Thomas More in his work Utopia. In 1882, the Minnesotan politician Ignatius L. Donnelly wrote the pseudo-historical work Atlantis: The Antediluvian World. Donnelly took Plato literally, and he contended that there had once been an enormous island in the mid-Atlantic and that the Atlanteans once had a superior civilization. This work revived interest in Plato’s philosophical narrative, and from then on, some have been committed to finding the lost island or continent.

The Minoans

Many believe that the origin of the Atlantis myth was the civilization of the Minoans, which was centered on the island of Crete. The Minoan civilization flourished between 2700 and 1500 BC. It is particularly famous for its great palaces and artworks. The most famous site in the Minoan culture is that of Knossos. This society dominated the eastern Mediterranean for many centuries and they traded with many other cultures including the Egyptians.[10] They also established many colonies throughout the Aegean such as that on the modern island of Santorini, which was known as the island of Thera in the Classical World.

We do not know what the Minoans called themselves. The archaeologist who rediscovered the civilization called it after the legendary King Minos. There is a great deal of evidence that the Minoans were literate, but experts are still not able to decipher their writings. This civilization began a slow period of decline around 1700 BC. This was greatly exacerbated by the so-called Minoan Eruption. In the mid-1500 BC, there was a massive volcanic eruption on the Aegean island of Santorini (Thera). This is one of the largest known volcanic eruptions in all of human history. It was so large that it caused havoc as far away as China. Based on the amount of material that is released into the atmosphere it was the fifth-largest ever recorded.

The volcano’s eruption caused much of the island of Thera to collapse into the sea. At the time of the eruption, there was a large Minoan town on the island and that is known today Akrotiri. At one point in time, Akrotiri was a major center in the copper trade but the population probably fled before the disaster. However, Akrotiri was completely buried, just like Pompeii. The eruption at Thera devasted the entire region. It appears that the volcano caused a tsunami that caused devastation on Crete.[11] The ash from the eruption also caused temporary climate change and led to crop-failures and ultimately famine.

Many believed that the eruption on the island led to the demise of the Minoans. However, the great palaces were rebuilt and the Minoan civilizations recoveredat some point after volcanic eruption. Many believe that the story of Atlantis was inspired by the disaster that overtook the Minoan World in the mid-2nd century BC.[12] There are certainly some similarities, the Minoans and the Atlanteans were undoubtedly remarkable cultures that were both island-based societies. Then they both suffered from flooding and a cataclysm. In particular, the destruction of the rich and cultured city of Akhritori was the historical model for Atlantis. However, it should be noted that the idea that the Minoans could be equated with the Atlanteans is modern.

Was Atlantis in Spain?

A map of the Tartessos cultural area

Tartessos was a semi-mythical city or a kingdom in what is now south-west Spain. It became very wealthy because of its many mines. This kingdom or city was so famous that it is even mentioned in the Old Testament. Archaeologists have not been able to find the city of Tartessos but they have found many remains from a sophisticated culture that flourished in south-west Spain. Based on the remains it appears to have been very rich. It appears that Tartessos according to Greek sources such as Herodotus was a rich city with a great harbor and it was very powerful.

However, it appears that the city or kingdom disappears from history sometime around 600 BC.[13] Many believe that the city was inundated by a floor and now lays submerged in marshland. Tartessos has some similarities with the story of Atlantis. It was fabulously rich, sophisticated and possibly was destroyed by a natural cataclysm. Moreover, the location of the Tartessos culture was located beyond the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar), which was believed to be also the site of Atlantis. It seems highly likely that the Greeks were familiar with the prehistoric Spanish civilization because of its important role in the trade-in metals. It is plausible to suggest that Tartessos, was one of the sources for the Myth of Atlantis.

A Malta connection

In the 4th millennium BC, a sophisticated Stone Age civilization emerged in Malta, an archipelago of islands in the center of the Mediterranean. This civilization is often known as the Temple culture. Beginning in around 3500 BC, the people of the island began to erect massive temples and other monuments. The Maltese built some of the earliest free-standing buildings in the world. The majority of the temples consist of five semi-circular rooms that surrounded a central space, which was probably a sacred space.

There have been many important archaeological finds in these temples, especially of figures of obese women. These are believed to represent some fertility goddess or a mother goddess. Some believe that Malta and its temples were the centers of a significant pan-Mediterranean cult. The Maltese temple culture was one that lasted until 2200 BC. No one knows for sure why the civilization collapsed, but it may have been a result of over-farming and climate change. The Temple culture may have been handed down in the oral tradition, and it possibly contributed to the myth of a great civilization that was lost after a cataclysmic flood.

Conclusion

Atlantis has captured the imagination of many generations. However, it has been greatly misunderstood. Plato used the story of the doomed civilization to illustrate his philosophical views and arguments. He may or may not have used an existing myth or simply created it, something he did repeatedly in his works. Plato probably based his philosophical tale on a real-life model. An analysis of the Atlantean narrative would indicate that the Athenian philosopher based on his tale on a number of historical societies that collapsed. In all likelihood, Plato probably based his tale on the collapse of the Minoan Civilization and in particular the destruction of Akrotiri.

Further Reading

Donnelly, Ignatius. Atlantis: the antediluvian world. Book Tree, 2006.

Gill, Christopher. "The genre of the Atlantis Story." Classical Philology 72, no. 4 (1977): 287-304.

Zink, David. The Stones of Atlantis. Prentice-Hall, 1978.

References

  1. Forsyth, P. Y. Atlantis: The Making of Myth. (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1980), p. 12
  2. Plato. Timaeus, 3b
  3. Plato, The Republic, v, 515b2
  4. Forsyth, p. 18
  5. Plato. Critias. 32 b
  6. Plato. Critias. 32 b
  7. Plato. Critias. 32 b
  8. Plato. Critias. 32 b
  9. Forsyth, p. 18
  10. Castleden, Rodney. Minoans: Life in Bronze Age Crete (New York, Routledge, 1993), p 13-30
  11. Castleden, p. 113
  12. Castleden, p. 117
  13. Chamorro, Javier G. "Survey of Archaeological Research on Tartessos". American Journal of Archaeology. 91 (2): (1987) 197–232
Bitnami