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Atlantis – The story behind the legend

Atlantis has become a taboo subject in many scholarly circles, often branded in pseudo-science and invented interpretations from Plato’s dialogues.

Plato was a Greek philosopher from Athens in Ancient Greece during the Classical period in the 5th to 4th century BC. He was the student of Socrates and taught Aristotle, credited with founding the Platonist school of thought and the Academy, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world.

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Plato first introduced Atlantis in the Timaeus, a monologue of Timaeus of Locri, a character who appears as a philosopher and a wealthy aristocrat from the Greek colony of Lokroi Epizephyrio. Modern scholarship tends to dismiss Timaeus’s historicity, considering him a literary construct by Plato from features of the Pythagoreans.

Protagonists in the dialogue includes Socrates (a Greek philosopher from Athens), Hermocrates (an ancient Syracusan general), Critias (a student of Socrates and an author from Athens) and Timaeus.

The dialogue begins with an account of the creation of the universe and ancient civilisations, where Socrates muses about his ideal state described in Plato’s Republic, a Socratic dialogue authored by Plato around 375 BC.

To make the perfect example, Critias proceeds to tell the story of Solon’s journey to Egypt sometime during the 7th century BC (300 years prior to the setting of the dialogue).

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Solon was an Athenian statesman who tried to legislate against political, economic and moral decline in Archaic Athens. After he completed his reforms, according to Herodotus, he visited Pharaoh Amasis II in Egypt and discussed philosophy with Psenophis of Heliopolis and Sonchis of Sais.

His journey also took him to the ancient city of Sais in the Western Nile Delta on the Canopic branch of the Nile. Herodotus claims that the grave of Osiris was located in Sais, whilst the Ancient Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus (most known for writing the monumental universal history Bibliotheca historica), attributes the construction of Sais to the ancient Athenians before the great deluge.

At the time of Solon’s visit, Sais was the capital of Ancient Egypt during the 26th Dynasty and had a large cult following at the temple of Neith, a goddess associated with creation, wisdom, weaving and war. According to Critias, it was here that the legend of Atlantis was first described, with priests from the temple recounting Solon with tales of the fallen civilisation 9,000 years prior.

Based on the priest’s timeline, Atlantis is placed in the 10th millennium BC at the beginning of the transition from the Palaeolithic to the Neolithic via the interim Mesolithic. Prehistoric people started to develop agriculture and complex communities that constructed monuments such as Göbekli Tepe and Hallan Çemi Tepesi, both in south-eastern Anatolia, and the Star Carr site in North Yorkshire, England.

Plato then expands on the story: “For it is related in our records how once upon a time your State stayed the course of a mighty host, which, starting from a distant point in the Atlantic Ocean, was insolently advancing to attack the whole of Europe, and Asia to boot.

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,’ (a phrase that was applied in Antiquity to the promontories that flank the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar) there lay an island which was larger than Libya and Asia together; and it was possible for the travellers of that time to cross from it to the other islands, and from the islands to the whole of the continent over against them which encompasses that veritable ocean.

For all that we have here, lying within the mouth of which we speak, is evidently a haven having a narrow entrance; but that yonder is a real ocean, and the land surrounding it may most rightly be called, in the fullest and truest sense, a continent.

Now in this island of Atlantis there existed a confederation of kings, of great and marvellous power, which held sway over all the island, and over many other islands also and parts of the continent; and, moreover, of the lands here within the Straits they ruled over Libya as far as Egypt.”

The Critias, another of Plato’s dialogues (often combined with the Timaeus) once again features Timaeus, Critias, Socrates and Hermocrates, and describes in detail the ancient city, the landscape, fauna and flora, and the structure of society and means of governance.

Critias talks about an ancient time when the regions of the world were divided between the gods. Atlantis was positioned within Poseidon’s domain, where Poseidon fell in love with a mortal girl named Cleito and bore him many children, the first of which was named Atlas, king of the entire island kingdom and the ocean.

The Atlanteans constructed a great metropolis, surrounded by concentric bridged bodies of water connected to the sea by a large canal. At the centre was a palace on a small mountain that contained a holy temple dedicated to Cleito and Poseidon, and statues of gold of all the descendants of the ten kings and of their wives.

In the dialogue, Critias points out the virtue of Atlantis: “For many generations, as long as the divine nature lasted in them, they were obedient to the laws, and well-affectioned towards the god, whose seed they were; for they possessed true and in every way great spirits, uniting gentleness with wisdom in the various chances of life, and in their intercourse with one another.

They despised everything but virtue, caring little for their present state of life, and thinking lightly of the possession of gold and other property, which seemed only a burden to them; neither were they intoxicated by luxury; nor did wealth deprive them of their self-control.”

Over time, the divinity of the Atlanteans gave way to the corruption of the human nature for which Zeus sought to chastise: “Zeus, the god of gods, who rules according to law, and is able to see into such things, perceiving that an honourable race was in a woeful plight, and wanting to inflict punishment on them, that they might be chastened and improve, collected all the gods into their most holy habitation, which, being placed in the centre of the world, beholds all created things.”

From here the rest of the dialogue is incomplete, but events previously described by Critias claims that the continent suffered a series of major earthquakes and sunk beneath the sea.

In the years that followed the dialogue, many ancient writers such as Xenocrates viewed the story of Atlantis to be historical fact, but some saw Plato’s work as fictional or metaphorical myth.

Despite its minor importance in Plato’s wider works, the Atlantis story has had a considerable impact on literature. The allegorical aspect of Atlantis was taken up in utopian works of several Renaissance writers, such as Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis in 1626 and Thomas More’s Utopia in 1516.

Modern day attempts to associate Atlantis with archaeology sites, mainly places the civilisation in or near the Mediterranean Sea, with proposed locations including Sardinia, Crete, Sicily, Cyprus, Spain, Malta, Turkey, Israel, north-western Africa, Crete and Santorini.

Santorini is the most interesting parallel, where a Cycladic Bronze Age town called Akrotiri emerged as a trading hub during the 3rd millennium BC. The town had richly decorated multi-storey buildings that used an advanced sewerage system, predating many contemporary civilisations until the Romans.

Akrotiri was destroyed in the Theran eruption sometime in the 17th or 16th century BC, devastating the town and communities on nearby islands with earthquakes and tsunamis. The eruption deposited layers of pumice and ash, burying Akrotiri up to 7 metres in material which was followed by pyroclastic surges, lava flows, lahar floods, and co-ignimbrite ash-fall deposits.

It is speculated by some historians that the destruction of Akrotiri was the inspiration behind Plato’s story of Atlantis, borrowed from oral stories and legends passed down over the centuries.

In more recent years, Atlantis has given rise to pseudoscientific speculation, often a byword for any and all, supposed advanced prehistoric civilisations lost in the annals of time.

 

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 8,000 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.
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