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Atlantis: The Many Faces and Enduring Myths of “Lost Continents”

“Now first of all we must recall the fact that 9000 is the sum of years since the war occurred, as is recorded, between the dwellers beyond the pillars of Heracles and all that dwelt within them; which war we have now to relate in detail. It was stated that this city of ours was in command of the one side and fought through the whole of the war, and in command of the other side were the kings of the island of Atlantis, which we said was an island larger than Libya and Asia once upon a time, but now lies sunk by earthquakes and has created a barrier of impassable mud which prevents those who are sailing out from here to the ocean beyond from proceeding further.” 

One must wonder whether Plato could have ever known the controversy he would evoke–having lasted close to 2400 years by now–when he penned these words in Critias, one of his most curious philosophical treatises.

Taken by most scholars to have merely been a dialogue (as were his other writings, aimed at producing deeper truths with the aid of allegory), there have nonetheless been countless thinkers who have questioned whether the Atlantis Plato mentioned in the aforementioned text, along with the similarly-themed Timaeus, had not been a literal retelling of events from long ago, dating to a time far earlier than written history has survived to tell of.

Due to its lasting intrigue, every few years or so (and at times, every few months, it seems), someone else manages to “discover” what they believe to be the “real” Atlantis. The latest of the bunch, as reported recently, was a group of UK-based researchers (around whom a new documentary has been made, and is thus being promoted) who have claimed that Atlantis actually existed off the coast of Spain.

There have been countless similar theories that have arisen over the years, placing Atlantis in a variety of hypothetical locations: since Ignatius Donnelly wrote his landmark Atlantis: The Antediluvian World in 1882, popular theories have included the Azores, a series of mid-Atlantic islands occupied by the Portugese since their “discovery” in the early 14o0s (these islands were apparently known even prior to the 15th century, and in recent years have come to the attention of archaeologists for interesting features which could lend credence to the idea of settlement dating back as much as 2000 years, although this remains unproven).

São Jorge, part of the Azores as they appear today.

Other theories involve Santorini (known as Thera in ancient times), which was partially destroyed by a massive volcanic eruption between 1642–1540 BCE. Recent proponents of this theory include Gavin Menzies, whose fanciful theories of early circumnavigations by various cultures have received a fair amount of criticism, despite the popularity of his writings.

Other writers, rather than attempting to hypothesize it’s literal existence and location, have merely borrowed the Atlantis motif and worked it into their own fictional mythologies; J.R.R. Tolkien once told the Daily Telegraph that his Middle Earth creations recounted in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were, in addition to being a mythology crafted especially for England, had also been intended as a sort of English spin on the earlier Atlantis mythos.

It is not entirely illogical to consider the historicity of the Atlantis theme in Plato’s writing. Not only does the story of Atlantis bear similarity to historical events like that of the eruption of Thera, but Plato also mentions numerous historical characters in his telling of the legend; namely Solon, the Athenian statesman who Critias cites as having been the first to share the story with his grandfather (who was also named Critias, a minor point that has led to some confusion over the centuries). However, other individuals Plato speaks of are less easily proven to have been real, historical figures. Sonchis, the elderly Egyptian priest to whom Solon attributed the Atlantis story, has never been confirmed to have existed through separate mention in other known historical texts (as was the case with Solon, for instance).

Much like enigmatic Egyptian elder Sonchis of Sais, separate mention of Atlantis in other ancient texts has remained curiously absent from the historical record. It remains possible that Solon’s exposure to Egyptian mythology could very well have been the real inspiration for something Plato later chose to expand upon in one of his dialogues; however, the fact that an element to history so seemingly important as the existence of an entire inhabited continent–let alone one renowned for a level of advancement that was mythic in proportion–makes its absence in other ancient writing particularly suspect. (A brief note on this: some writers, including Lewis Spence, have asserted that separate, and even earlier mention of Atlantis did exist; specifically, Spence had argued that the story of Atlantis appeared “painted upon the peplum of Pallas at the Athenian festival,” although as with similar assertions, direct primary evidence for this is scant; Plato’s writings remain the earliest, unambiguous “hard copies” of Atlantian folklore in writing.)

Perhaps what is more fascinating about the Atlantis myth than the theories that have sought to explain or incorporate it into literal history are the similar notions of “lost” continents or ancient homelands that emerge in various world mythologies. Some appear in legends, like those of the Aztecs and their Aztlán, an ancient mythical home from which their culture derived (although it was not always depicted in their mythology as an island, per se). Others do appear in historical writings, like the fabled Hyperborea, land “beyond the north wind,” as mentioned by Herodotus and others in ancient times. Other examples include Mu, a hypothetical lost land similar to the Atlantis idea, which was “discovered” by French scholar Abbé Charles-Éttienne Brassuer from his misreading of Mayan symbols written of by Diego de Landa in his 1566 Relación de las cosas de Yucatán.

An early artistic depiction of Aztland featured in the 16th century Codex Boturini.

Countless other versions of the “lost continent” motif have come and gone over time, procured for reasons ranging from the spiritual, to the pseudo-historical, and stemming from an array of ideologies both well-intended and ill-conceived. “Thus,” noted L. Sprague de Camp in his highly entertaining Lost Continents: The Atlantis Theme, “the Atlantis theme has been tied to communism, socialism, anti-socialism, Spiritualism, Theosophy, racialism, pacificism, romanticism, diffusionism, Roussellian primitivism, and Hörbigerism. When these tales are taken as a whole, I think the best entertainment is still provided by those which, like (Charles John Cutcliffe Wright) Hyne’s Lost Continent, have no ideological axes to grind but simply tell a lively story in competent, professional style.”

In truth, Plato’s own telling of the story had probably been something akin to this: while allegorical, it hadn’t been concocted for use as a pseudo-historic “origin story” for whatever occult doctrine was popular at the time. Equally true is that whether or not it had truly been borrowed from whispers of earlier Egyptian mythology, passed down to the likes of Solon and other “tourists” to the region, who may have been shown such things on the columns and temple walls by elders the likes of Sonchis and other Saisians, is beside the point. Allegorical though Plato may have intended it to be, the Atlantis theme has lasted for this long because it makes for damned good storytelling, and humankind is always in search of things that push our calendars back, bespeaking earlier origins for our myths and histories.

The Atlantis story in its various forms still fascinates us for all these reasons. With little doubt (and whether or not anything akin to Atlantis truly existed), others will continue to search for this long-lost, fabled continent of human myth, history, and the imagination.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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