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Then an earthquake/flood, apparently, sunk it all into the sea. Was Plato talking about a real place or was he spinning a "noble lie" parable? Ellis himself believes Plato made the whole thing up, using Atlantis (whose aggression would bring a comeuppance) as an example of what could happen to his own hubristic Athens. The bulk of Imagining Atlantis, however, chronicles the theories of literalists. Most take the "Pillars of Hercules" to mean Gibraltar. Some believe Atlantis was the Garden of Eden and that the few who escaped its ruination lived to create the Deluge and Flood legends; the most famous proponent of this hypothesis was Ignatius Donnelly, an eccentric Minnesota congressman whose 1882 tome, Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, is still in print.
After Donnelly, Ellis tosses in everyone from Madame Blavatsky, the famous psychic -- she thought Atlantis was populated by a hermaphroditic race whose downfall came from the discovery of sex -- to archeologist Angelos Galanopolous, whose 1969 book posits, among other things, that eels offer a clue to Atlantis. Eels? The Sargasso Sea, where they are genetically programmed to breed, merely covers the freshwater rivers of Atlantis, where they originally spawned.
It gets weirder than eels, believe me. There's a hypothesis that pivots on bananas, another on Mayan deities, another on Antarctica. Einstein gets in on the act, plus Rachel Carson, Jacques Cousteau, Arthur C. Clarke, even Cokie Roberts (she and husband Steven V. Roberts wrote a 1976 New York Times piece about Atlantean research on the island of Thera, near Crete). Many Atlanticists now believe Plato meant the Aegean, not the Atlantic, and that the fabled lost civilization is on or near Crete; it was destroyed by a volcanic eruption on Santorini.
"Does it matter?" our dog-tired writer asks at the end. God knows, Atlantis is a hoary topic, yet as Ellis says, "It means so much to so many." Whence this noble effort. -- Salon
Ellis' plausible interpretation of Atlantis as a myth of greed and retribution, a utopian fable adapted by successive cultures to suit their needs, makes his odyssey through the muddy shoals of Atlantean scholarship worthwhile.
Of course, Atlantis is still lost, Ellis wags his head, perhaps a tad smugly. And it always will be. So stop looking, except in your imagination.
"Entertaining, thorough account"
of the lost island of Atlantis, the legend of whose downfall was created by Plato and has for two and a half millennia fascinated everyone from Francis Bacon to Jules Verne to Jacques Cousteau and the mythmakers of many cultures.
Quite simply the best book on Atlantis ever written...Anyone interested in lost civilizations should look no further.—Brian Fagan, Los Angeles Times
Ellis takes us on a magnificent journey that leads us to a better understanding of earthquakes, tsunamis, flood myths, volcanology, architecture, archaelogy, the works of Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle...A real treat—Daniel McMahon, Washington Post
Engaging, lucid, and full of lore—The New Yorker
|What Plato Said||7|
|Who Writes of Atlantis?||28|
|Atlantis of the Mystics||64|
|Atlantis of the Scientists||77|
|Was Minoan Crete Atlantis?||102|
|The Volcano Erupts||143|
|The Settlements on Santorini||170|
|Walls of Water||188|
|Atlantis in Fiction and Film||205|
Our records tell how your city checked a great power which arrogantly advanced from its base in the Atlantic Ocean to attack the cities of Europe and Asia. For in those days the Atlantic was navigable. There was an island opposite the strait which you call ... the Pillars of Heracles, an island larger than Libya and Asia combined; from it travelers could in those days reach the other islands, and from them the whole opposite continent which surrounds what can truly be called the ocean. For the sea within the strait we are talking about is like a lake with a narrow entrance; the outer ocean is the real ocean and the land which entirely surrounds it is properly termed continent. On this island of Atlantis had arisen a powerful and remarkable dynasty of kings....-- Plato
It is of course impossible to know, or even guess, when men first looked out over the gray Atlantic and thought about crossing it. For eons, men had no idea what lay on the other side, or if indeed there was another side. In The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought, James Romm wrote that "early writers seemed to have assumed, for lack of evidence to the contrary, that Ocean's waters stretched unbounded toward a distant horizon." The prospect of sailing out of sight of the comforting and familiar terra firma must have terrified the earliest sailors, and great credit must be assigned to the first of those brave navigators who ventured toward what must have seemed literally the end of the world. (While the story of Christopher Columbus's men fearing that they were going to sail off the end of the world if they kept going is certainly apocryphal -- men have known the earth was round since Ptolemy's second-century calculations --they were unquestionably apprehensive as they sailed steadily toward the setting sun and the unknown.)
To the Greeks, the Pillars of Hercules -- the name given to the twin rocks that define the passage we know as the Straits of Gibraltar -- represented the gateway from the known Mediterranean to the unknown mysteries beyond. The poet Pindar wrote that the Pillars of Hercules were, almost literally, the end of the world: "Now Theron, approaching the outer limit of his feats of strength, touches the Pillars of Hercules. What lies beyond cannot be approached by wise men or unwise. I shall not try, or I would be a fool."
Before the year 1100 B.C., the Phoenicians, from their outpost at Carthage on the North African coast, had in all probability explored the shores of the Atlantic outside the protection of the Pillars of Hercules, that is, the Straits of Gibraltar. From archaeological evidence, it has been ascertained that the Carthaginians had established a trading post at Essaouira (modern Mogador), about six hundred miles south of Gibraltar on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, some twenty-five hundred years ago.
The first chronicler of an Atlantic voyage was Herodotus, the fifth-century b.c. Greek historian, who also mentions the first known map of the world, a bronze tablet "showing all the seas and rivers" compiled by his predecessor the historian Hecataeus. Also according to Herodotus, Pharaoh Necho II sent a Phoenician expedition to find a route around Africa. It will probably never be known if they completed the circumnavigation, but Herodotus's account (written some one hundred fifty years after the event) suggests that they may have done so:
Accordingly these Phoenicians set out and from the Red Sea sailed into the southern ocean. Whenever autumn came, they went ashore wherever in Africa they chanced to be on their voyage to sow grain in the earth and await the harvest. On reaping the new grain they put again to sea. In this wise, after two years had elapsed, they rounded the Pillars of Heracles and in the third year reached Egypt. Now they told a tale that I personally do not believe (though others may, if they choose), how they had the sun on their right hand as they sailed along the African coast.Although some analysts of Herodotus have been inclined to question this account, the statement "they had the sun on their right hand," which would refer to the sun's midday position only if the Phoenicians were sailing west while south of the equator, actually supports the claim for authenticity. Naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison believes they succeeded, and called their circumnavigation of Africa from east to west "one of the most remarkable voyages of history."In Beyond the Pillars of Heracles, which contains a meticulous analysis of Herodotus's account, the historian Rhys Carpenter wrote, "The curious detail that Herodotus refused to believe this becomes our surest warrant for believing the Phoenician claim that they circumnavigated Africa."
A century or so later, Hanno, the magistrate of Carthage, set out from the Mediterranean and sailed south with "sixty ships of fifty oars each and a body of men and women to the number of thirty thousand," which works out to approximately five hundred persons per ship, an obvious exaggeration. This story can be found in the Periplous of Hanno, a Greek translation of an inscribed tablet that has never been found. The narrative tells of the establishment of several colonies along the Atlantic coast of Africa, to safeguard the Carthaginian access to the Canaries and Madeira, the sources of the Murex snails that provided the royal purple dye. Hanno passed the Saharan coast, and easily made Cape Bojador, which was to prove such a formidable psychological and physical obstacle to the first Portuguese explorers. The success of this pioneer voyage can be found in Hanno's own narrative, where he describes a tribe that he calls "Ethiopians," various active volcanoes, and also such exotic animals as elephants, hippopotamuses, and "gorillas" (probably chimpanzees -- the expedition killed three females and brought the hairy pelts back to Carthage). This coast of Africa would not be seen again by European eyes for another thousand years, when sailors from Portugal would cautiously navigate south around the bulge of Africa, culminating in Bartholomeu Dias's doubling of the Cape of Good Hope in 1488.
In the "Timaeus," Plato tells us that Solon (630-560 B.C.) reported that the Egyptian priests of Saiumls told him the story of a great island that lay in the Atlantic Ocean, just off the Pillars of Hercules. Its generals mounted an invasion of Greece: "Our records tell [Plato wrote] how your city checked a great power which arrogantly advanced from its base in the Atlantic ocean to attack the cities of Europe and Asia."
The invasion ended not in a military victory for either side but in a double defeat, where the only winner was the force of nature: "But afterward 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" (my emphasis). This is the full extent of the original story of the destruction of Atlantis.
With Socrates and Aristotle, Plato is considered one of the authors of the philosophical foundations of Western culture. He was born in 428 B.C., either in Athens or in Aegina, to Ariston and Perictione. We know few details of his life, but after the suicide of his mentor Socrates in 399 B.C., he became disillusioned with Athens and traveled in Greece, Italy, Egypt, and Sicily, and when he returned to Athens, he founded an academy dedicated to the systematic pursuit of philosophical and scientific research. Around 368, when he was forty, Plato was invited to Sicily to educate Dionysius II, but the experiment was a failure and Plato returned to Athens. Rather than adopting the role of "philosopher-king" that Plato had recommended in "The Republic," Dionysius II became a reckless tyrant. In addition to "The Republic," the best-known and most influential of the dialogues, Plato wrote the "Timaeus" and the "Critias," in which the story of Atlantis is first told. Although not dated, the "Timaeus" has long been regarded as one of his last works. In "The Laws," left unfinished at his death in 347 B.C., he apparently had not completely abandoned the idea of an ideal government, for he recommended the association of a young and high-spirited prince with a wise lawgiver.
"The works of Plato," wrote A. E. Taylor in his seminal study of the philosopher's life and thought, "have come down to us absolutely entire and complete." The manuscripts were preserved at the Platonic Academy, and thence in the great library at Alexandria. Copies of the manuscripts were carefully made from the Middle Ages to the present day, so there is no reason to doubt Plato's authorship.
Plato's dialogues contain the only reference in the whole of ancient literature to the disappearing island of Atlantis, and no further mention is made of this story until other people begin quoting Plato. (Not even Herodotus mentions the story, and he is said to have spoken directly with the priests at Sans, the very priests who passed the story to Solon.) There are people who take everything he said literally (even though they are unable to locate the missing island), and others who dismiss the whole story as "science fiction." Others categorize it as a fictional account that Plato introduced to demonstrate what an ideal society might be like.
But did Plato make up everything about Atlantis? Perhaps not. As with all writers of fiction, he was probably influenced by people and events that he knew, even though he may have modified them beyond recognition. Romm suggests that there was a text circulating in Plato's time that was called "On Marvelous Things Heard," which contained elements that Plato might have incorporated:
They say in the sea outside the Pillars of Hercules an unidentified island was discovered by the Carthaginians, many days' sail from shore, which has all kinds of trees, and navigable rivers, and a marvelous variety of other resources. When the Carthaginians began going there often on account of its fruitfulness, and some even emigrated there, the Carthaginian leaders decreed that they would put to death anyone who planned to sail there, and got rid of all those who were living there, lest they spread the word and a crowd gather around them on the island which might gain power and take away the prosperity of the Carthaginians.Did the Carthaginians actually know of such an island? Probably not, any more than Plato did. Romm quotes Diodorus as suggesting that the Carthaginians wanted to keep the island a secret so they could escape to it if necessary. Furthermore, Diodorus believed that the Pillars of Hercules had been closed in ancient times to prevent "sea monsters" from entering the Mediterranean, and that therefore nobody could get out, Atlantis or not.
Another aspect of Plato's discussion of Atlantis is found in the Critias, where he describes the nature of the island's civilization before its destruction. Here we might find some indication of what Plato actually had in mind, for he describes a fanciful civilization, replete with boundless natural riches, "which then lay open to the sun, in marvelous beauty and inexhaustible profusion." The royalty of Atlantis were enormously wealthy ("they possessed wealth such as had never been amassed by any royal line before them"), perhaps because they were able to mine the mineral orichalch, which had a higher value than any other substance except gold. The forests and pastures were exceptionally bountiful, and "the earth bore freely all the aromatic substances it bears today, roots, herbs, bushes and gums exuded by flowers or fruit," and there were two springs, a cold and a warm, and "the supply from both was copious and the natural flavor of their waters remarkable." Man-made structures included temples, gymnasiums, and dockyards, all in excellent order. Since this description fits no known land, and since the plains, the forests, the waters, and the city are so sumptuous, it seems not unreasonable to conclude that Plato was describing a mythical utopia, and that to explain its disappearance, he invented a great natural catastrophe. The area of the Mediterranean in which Plato lived is occasionally subjected to geological misadventures -- sometimes on a colossal scale -- so it is not surprising that he would have employed such a device. Future Atlantologists would attempt to fit Plato's description into almost every political and geological system known, with varying degrees of success.
Later students of the Atlantis story have pointed out that it is curious that no other ancient historians made reference to Atlantis, except, of course, to quote Plato. In his 1978 essay on the historical perspective regarding Atlantis, J. Rufus Fears wrote, "In the absence of any evidence from the Egyptian sources, the silence of Thucydides, Herodotus, Socrates, and Aelius Aristedes seems conclusive. Plato's story does not reflect a historical tradition derived from Egypt or Solon or from anywhere or anyone else. It is a poetic invention of Plato." Moreover, its hypothetical location has not always remained just outside the Straits of Gibraltar, but has wandered from the Canary Islands to the Sahara Desert, Scandinavia, and Palestine, most recently coming to rest on various Aegean islands, especially Santorini and Crete.
Excerpt reprinted from IMAGINING ATLANTIS by Richard Ellis. Copyright © 1998 by Richard Ellis. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., a division of Random House, Inc.
Richard Ellis: Hi, I'm fine, and I'm excited about doing this. I've talked to other individuals online, but never such a large group. Here we go.
Richard Ellis: I have always been interested in the sea's mysteries -- I wrote a book a couple of years ago called MONSTERS OF THE SEA -- and the story of Atlantis seemed to be the quintessential marine mystery. When I started, I wasn't sure I could add anything to the debate, but the more I read about Atlantis, the more intriguing the mystery became. If I've added anything, I hope it has been a little healthy skepticism, and a renewed interest in what Plato actually wrote.
Richard Ellis: It always depends on what I'm doing at the moment. I was trained as a historian, and I've always drawn and painted. So if I'm drawing -- I'm now doing the illustrations for an encyclopedia of the sea -- I think of myself as an artist or illustrator, but while I'm writing, I think I'm a writer. I have painted a couple of very large murals one is 100 feet long in the New Bedford Whaling Museum, and if someone asked me then what I did, I said I was a muralist. Thanks for the compliment on the book!
Richard Ellis: I read just about everything I could find, without worrying if it was fact, fiction, or hokum. Then I tried to sort things out, putting certain writings into specific categories, e.g., mystics, archaeologists, oceanographers, storytellers, etc. I hope I've made some sense out of the disparate opinions.
Richard Ellis: I think people are fascinated with mysteries -- I certainly am -- and this is one of the all-time champions. It's been around for thousands of years, and it has never been satisfactorily resolved. I'm not claiming to have solved the mystery, by the way. I've just synthesized and collected a lot of the evidence.
Richard Ellis: I didn't realize how controversial my "conclusions" would be. I don't think I "concluded" anything, but lots of reviewers and commentators have decided to take issue with what I said. I think Plato made up the story, but I certainly can't PROVE that he wasn't told it by somebody else. It happened around 2,500 years ago. Some scholars -- like Brian Fagan, a historical anthropologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a prolific author on archaeology, reviewing the book for the Los Angeles Times, called it "the best book on Atlantis ever written."
Richard Ellis: Even though Atlantis has been located in such diverse locations as Germany, the Caribbean, the Sahara, the Antarctic, the Aegean, the Azores, etc., the only places I went to do serious research were the Aegean islands of Crete and Santorin. John Leonard, writing of IMAGINING ATLANTIS in The Nation, accused me of being fascinated with the Minoan civilization. I plead guilty to the charge, but the only reason I devoted so much time to these islands is because several recent authors have written entire books trying to show that Atlantis really was Knossos on Crete or Akrotiri on Santorin. I don't think it was either, but I had to discuss these Minoan settlements in order to show why I thought they were not Atlantis.
Richard Ellis: Except for a couple of ill-founded expeditions to Bimini where the mystic Edgar Cayce said Atlantis would rise in 1968, few serious oceanographers have studied the ocean floor expressly trying to find Atlantis.
Richard Ellis: With the exception of IMAGINING ATLANTIS, the jackets of my books were taken from illustrations that appeared inside. My earlier books -- sharks, whales, dolphins -- all have full-page reproductions of my paintings. My largest painting is not very far from Boston: It is the 100-foot-long "Moby Dick" mural in the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
Richard Ellis: There are those who are able to accept things on faith, and those who are not. I don't think it's only Americans who need to see proof; in the area of cryptozoology the study of hidden animals, only a few diehards still believe in the Loch Ness Monster or the Abominable Snowman in the absence of any proof.
Richard Ellis: The Atlantis story is not so far from the story of the flood in the Bible: A great civilization is destroyed because God or the Gods are angry or disappointed in the direction mankind is headed. I guess this tells us not to become too arrogant. I realize this is overly simplistic, but I only have a limited amount of space and time to answer what is really a very complex question.
Richard Ellis: In IMAGINING ATLANTIS, I actually discussed Wunderlich's theory. I still think it goes against all academic theory, and doesn't even make much sense. It seems obvious to me that Knossos, Phaistos, Zakros, and even Akrotiri on Santorin were occupied by living beings. I think the Minoan civilization was destroyed by a combination of factors: earthquakes, floods, fires, and the invading Mycenaeans, not necessarily in that order.
Richard Ellis: In the chapter called "Atlantis in Fiction and Film," I discussed many of the films that were made using the story of Atlantis. I still think there's a major movie to be made, however.
Richard Ellis: Hi, Hank, thanks for the compliment. I listed every reference I used in the bibliography in the back of the book, which is 27 pages long. The most useful texts were Plato's dialogues "Timaeus" and "Critias," in which the story was first told. Everything that followed was based on Plato's writings.
Richard Ellis: I actually did graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania, but I didn't finish. I went on to work at the Philadelphia Zoo, and then at the American Museum of Natural History. I designed the big blue whale. I think I have been very fortunate in finding subjects that interested me, and in locating people who wanted to buy the paintings or publish the books.
Richard Ellis: I was amazed at how many people tried to solve the mystery with crazy explanations, like messieurs Grumley and Ferro, who believed that Edgar Cayce was correct when he said that Atlantis was 50,000 years old and would rise in the Caribbean in 1968.
Richard Ellis: Helice disappeared during Plato's lifetime, and I think it was one of the actual events that influenced his story of Atlantis. People went to look for it, but it was buried under 2,500 years of accumulated silt. I think they've given up.
Richard Ellis: My editors accused me of being a "fact junkie," so I proposed the ultimate fact book: an encyclopedia. I've written about 1,800 entries so far, covering islands, oil spills, geological formations, explorers, shipwrecks, bodies of water, sea battles, pirates, sharks, whales, dolphins, seabirds, sponges, squids, octopuses, sea cucumbers, jellyfishes, crabs, clams, seals, sea lions, and about 11 million fishes. I'm illustrating only the sea life. Not much to draw about Jamaica or Vasco da Gama. It will be published -- if my computer doesn't crash -- in the year 2000.
Richard Ellis: I think Plato made up the story of Atlantis, but I can only guess as to why he did it. Most of the book is devoted to a discussion of what might have influenced him.
Richard Ellis: My paintings appear all over the place. Yes, I still paint, but not as much as I used to. I'm doing about 500 line drawings for my encyclopedia. My "true passion" is learning.
Richard Ellis: The people on Santorin now make lots of money selling Atlantis souvenirs and T-shirts. In 1967-68, the archaeological expeditions were just beginning, so the furor had not fully developed. I think most Greeks think it doesn't have anything to do with modern Greece.
Richard Ellis: I seem to be writing books about subjects that nobody's ever seen. My next one -- to be published in October 1998 -- is called THE SEARCH FOR THE GIANT SQUID. I hope to be invited back to talk about that one.
Richard Ellis: Is it really over? I was just getting started. I love this format. It makes me realize that people are actually reading the book. When you write something as obscure as IMAGINING ATLANTIS, you're never really sure that anyone will be interested. This forum has been most rewarding. Thanks, everybody.
Posted June 25, 2001
Posted February 29, 2000