With more ques­tions than answers, the fas­ci­na­tion over At­lantis may never sub­side.

Seabourn Club Herald - - IN THIS ISSUE - By Garry Messick

With more ques­tions than answers, the fas­ci­na­tion over At­lantis may never sub­side.

FEW TALES HAVE CAP­TURED MANKIND’S IMAG­I­NA­TION LIKE THE STORY OF AT­LANTIS. The lost is­land ex­ists some­where on a spec­trum that runs from lit­eral truth at one ex­treme to the realm of un­founded myth at the other — a spec­trum with many shades in be­tween. The de­bate has raged for cen­turies, but mod­ern re­search has sin­gled out the Greek is­land group of Santorini as the an­cient in­spi­ra­tion for the stir­ring story of a civ­i­liza­tion that flour­ished one day and was wiped out the next. It might just be the real At­lantis.


The idea of a par­adise that’s lost for­ever in a calamity brought about by its own ar­ro­gance is an ar­che­typal myth. But the spe­cific story of At­lantis comes from two works by the an­cient Greek philoso­pher Plato, Ti­maeus and Cri­tias

(the lat­ter mys­te­ri­ously left un­fin­ished), writ­ten around 360 B.C. In these di­a­logues, Plato asks four peo­ple to pro­vide him with ac­counts of “an­cient Athens,” ba­si­cally his semi-myth­i­cal ex­am­ple of an ideal state, and its re­la­tion­ships with var­i­ous neigh­bor­ing states.

One of the four, Cri­tias, tells Plato a story about a coun­try named At­lantis that was once the home of a naval force that at­tacked an­cient Athens. Cri­tias says he learned the story from his grand­fa­ther, who learned it from none other than Solon, a fa­mous Athe­nian law­giver and poet re­garded by an­cient Greeks as one of the Seven Sages, a group of 6th-cen­tury B.C. states­men renowned for their wis­dom.

Solon had vis­ited Egypt, speak­ing with Egyp­tian priests and learn­ing about their le­gends and gods. These priests told Solon that while his state of Athens and its great deeds fea­tured strongly in many Egyp­tian his­tor­i­cal ac­counts, one story — in which a mighty power waged an un­pro­voked at­tack against all of Europe and Asia but was beaten back by Athens — was par­tic­u­larly il­lus­tra­tive of the state’s valor and glory. This “mighty power” came from an is­land “larger than Libya

and Asia put to­gether” in the At­lantic Ocean lo­cated be­yond “The Pil­lars of Her­a­cles” — of­ten in­ter­preted to­day as the strait of Gibraltar, which con­nects the Mediter­ranean Sea to the At­lantic Ocean. This is­land con­ti­nent was called At­lantis and was ruled by a great em­pire that had al­ready con­quered parts of Libya and “Tyrrhe­nia” (present-day west-cen­tral Italy). At­lantis gath­ered its vast naval forces and at­tempted to sub­ju­gate both Egypt and Athens and “the whole of the re­gion within the straits.” But then, the priests told Solon, as writ­ten by Plato in Ben­jamin Jowett’s translation:

…your coun­try shone forth, in the ex­cel­lence of her virtue and strength, among all mankind. She was pre-em­i­nent in courage and mil­i­tary skill, and was leader of the Hel­lenes. …She de­feated and tri­umphed over the in­vaders, and pre­served from slav­ery those who were not yet sub­ju­gated, and gen­er­ously lib­er­ated all the rest of us who dwell within the pil­lars. But after­wards there oc­curred vi­o­lent earth­quakes and floods; and in a sin­gle day and night of mis­for­tune all your war­like men in a body sank into the earth, and the is­land of At­lantis in like man­ner dis­ap­peared in the depths of the sea. For which rea­son the sea in those parts is im­pass­able and im­pen­e­tra­ble, be­cause there is a shoal of mud in the way; and this was caused by the sub­si­dence of the is­land.


As all the su­perla­tives make clear, the main pur­pose of Plato’s story was to il­lus­trate the ar­ro­gance of fool­hardy na­tions and to hold up an­cient Athens as the epit­ome of an ideal state.

The philoso­pher might have been quite cha­grined to learn the ex­tent to which his tale’s pur­pose as parable would be eclipsed by a fo­cus on a lit­eral and highly ro­man­ti­cized At­lantis.


Whether Plato made up At­lantis out of whole cloth or based it to some de­gree on an ac­tual place that once ex­isted (or still ex­ists in some form) is a tan­ta­liz­ing ques­tion. At­lantis par­ti­sans like to point out that Plato is known to have based some of his al­le­gories on ex­ist­ing sto­ries and myths. Over the cen­turies, claims have been made for ev­ery­where from Antarc­tica to the Ba­hamas as be­ing ei­ther rem­nants of At­lantis or es­sen­tially the lost con­ti­nent it­self, usu­ally with next to no ev­i­dence to back them up. It’s a slightly dif­fer­ent story for the Santorini is­land group, how­ever.

Sit­u­ated at the south­ern­most point of the Cy­clades in the Aegean Sea, south of main­land Greece, the group is dom­i­nated by the is­land of Santorini, from which the whole ar­chi­pel­ago takes its name. To­gether they form a bro­ken, un­evenly cir­cu­lar shape, like the ring left by a cof­fee mug. Now a pop­u­lar, beau­ti­ful tourist des­ti­na­tion, the group was once a sin­gle, large is­land. But it was sub­ject to mil­lions of years of vol­canic erup­tions, in­clud­ing a par­tic­u­larly huge one around 1613 B.C., which cre­ated the caldera, the sunken area in the cen­ter of the is­land ring. Called the Mi­noan erup­tion, the event may have caused the col­lapse of the Mi­noan civ­i­liza­tion on the nearby is­land of Crete.

Be­liev­ers in Santorini as At­lantis point to a num­ber of ap­par­ent clues in Plato’s Ti­maeus and Cri­tias. One ex­am­ple is the philoso­pher’s de­scrip­tion of At­lantis as a cir­cu­lar is­land with “al­ter­nate zones of sea and land larger and smaller, cir­cling each other … two of land and three of wa­ter.” Santorini has a some­what con­cen­tric struc­ture to­day, as it did in Plato’s time. What’s more, an ex­ca­va­tion of a Mi­noan set­tle­ment on Santorini that was buried in ash dur­ing the Mi­noan erup­tion turned up a fresco that de­picts an idyl­lic landscape … and what ap­pear to be con­cen­tric rings of wa­ter and land.


Plato wrote that the de­struc­tion of At­lantis took place 9,000 years pre­vi­ous. But con­sider the pos­si­bil­ity that ei­ther Plato or his sup­posed source, Solon, mis­tak­enly added a zero to the num­ber 900. Plato lived around 300 B.C. and Solon would have vis­ited Egypt around 600 B.C. If in­deed the catas­tro­phe oc­curred 900 years prior to the time Solon learned of it, it places the sink­ing of At­lantis at about 1500 B.C., close to the time of the Mi­noan erup­tion.

An­other point: Plato’s phys­i­cal de­scrip­tion of At­lantis in­cludes black, white and red rocks. These col­ors are as­so­ci­ated with vol­canic ac­tiv­ity — black and red are typ­i­cal of lava in solid or molten form, re­spec­tively, and ash and pumice would be white. These col­ors are, in fact, dom­i­nant in the present-day landscape of Santorini. Plato also said that the sea in the vicin­ity of At­lantis af­ter it sank was full of “mud” and un­nav­i­ga­ble. Cer­tainly, a large con­cen­tra­tion of ash sub­sumed into the ocean could eas­ily be de­scribed as muddy.

This in­ter­pre­ta­tion runs into a prob­lem, how­ever, if Plato’s “Pil­lars of Her­a­cles” re­ferred to what we call the strait of Gibraltar. If that’s the case, it sit­u­ates At­lantis out­side the Mediter­ranean, well away from Santorini. But keep in mind that Plato’s pur­pose in his story was to hold up an­cient Athens as a paragon of the per­fect na­tion; he wasn’t writ­ing as a his­to­rian. It’s easy to imag­ine him, for the pur­poses of his parable, re­lo­cat­ing At­lantis to an area out­side the sphere of in­flu­ence of the Greek world. How bet­ter to es­tab­lish the con­trast be­tween the fallen peo­ple of that land with the per­fect so­ci­ety of the other? It’s also worth con­sid­er­ing that no one knows for sure that the Pil­lars of Her­a­cles re­ally is the strait of Gibraltar. It’s lit­tle more than an ed­u­cated guess.

The name could re­fer to an­other for­ma­tion within the Mediter­ranean. It could even be taken to sug­gest the huge col­umns of smoke that would have risen high into the sky dur­ing the Mi­noan erup­tion.

But no mat­ter how “real” At­lantis was in ob­jec­tive re­al­ity, its ex­is­tence as a sort of par­adise lost in the hu­man imag­i­na­tion is un­de­ni­able. It has a re­mark­ably tena­cious hold on our cul­ture through books, films, comic books and oc­cult so­ci­eties. For a place that may never have been, it’s amaz­ing how fa­mous it re­mains the world over, af­ter more than 2,000 years. As Dono­van sang in his 1968 hit: “Hail At­lantis!”

The Sym­po­sium of Plato

Gibraltar: a pos­si­ble Pil­lar of Her­a­cles

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