SANTORINI AND THE LEGEND OF ATLANTIS
With more questions than answers, the fascination over Atlantis may never subside.
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.
A STORY FOR THE AGES
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.
IT WAS SUBJECT TO MILLIONS OF YEARS OF VOLCANIC ERUPTIONS, INCLUDING A PARTICULARLY HUGE ONE AROUND 1613 B.C.
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.
A REAL 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’S PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION OF ATLANTIS INCLUDES BLACK, WHITE AND RED ROCKS ... THESE COLORS ARE, IN FACT, DOMINANT IN THE PRESENT-DAY LANDSCAPE OF SANTORINI.
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