Atlantis – a Warning for Our Time?
If there is one topic that seems to have captured the human imagination in modern times, it is the story of Atlantis; said to be an ancient civilization, enormous in size, that sank beneath the sea without a trace. The legend of Atlantis began with Plato, who wrote about it in two books: “Critias” and “Timaeus”. These books were written around 355BC. How true was Plato’s account of Atlantis? First of all, it has to be said that Plato used certain literary devices, known as “dialogues”, to put across his ideas. Plato wrote as though he was a pupil listening to and discussing with a teacher by the name of Socrates. The problem with Plato’s method, therefore, is in deciding which is fact and which is fiction. Aristotle, for example, took the view that Plato’s account of Atlantis was made up.
Over the centuries that kind of scepticism in regard to Atlantis has become the official view of scientists and archaeologists. On the other hand, over 2000 books, so it’s been said, have been written on the subject of Atlantis, many of them taking an opposite view to the sceptics. Many individuals have placed the location of Atlantis at a variety of sites. At the end of the day, belief or unbelief in Atlantis and where it might have existed remains a matter of personal opinion.
Where, then, did Plato get his idea of Atlantis? Apparently, around 600BC, a Greek statesman by the name of Solon heard about Atlantis from certain Egyptian priests. Solon told the tale to a respected Greek fellow called Critias, who then told the tale to his grandson, who in turn told it to Socrates, who passed it on to Plato. That’s the explanation. Nowadays, we would describe the story as an urban myth, often referred to as “Foaflore”. FOAF is an acronym for “friend of a friend”, which is a story that’s passed around like Chinese whispers, to become more exaggerated in the telling. Despite the scepticism surrounding Atlantis, Plato was adamant that his account of this sunken civilization was historically true. He said that Atlantis once existed beyond “The Pillars of Hercules”, which in ancient times were located in the Straits of Gibraltar. This would have placed the site of Atlantis somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean.
Moving on to more modern times, an American politician by the name of Ignatius Donnelly published a book in 1882 entitled “Atlantis the Antediluvian World”. A year later he published another book with the title “Ragnarok, the Age of Fire and Gravel”. Both books were best sellers and stimulated popular interest in prehistoric floods, in particular the legend of Atlantis. Ignatius Donnelly claimed that Atlantis lay at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Scientists, however, say that the floor of the Atlantic has remained unchanged for a million years and that no evidence of a lost civilization has been found there. On the other hand, on the western side of the Atlantic Ocean, close to the Azores, is a range of rocks known as the Bimini Road. The jury is still out as to whether the Bimini Road is a natural formation, or manmade.
This brief summary is not really about debating the pros and cons of the Atlantis legend, but more about why such a legend has had such an impact on the human imagination. Perhaps there is a deep-seated fear in humans that our place on the planet, our entire existence, is more fragile than we care to admit. We tend to repress or deny such a fear. The Ancient Greeks believed that the gods always punish those who become too big for their boots, so to speak. Nemesis always follows Hubris. The people of Atlantis, for example, were said to have become arrogant and warlike because of their highly advanced culture, and that’s why, in the space of a day and a night, their continent sank beneath the waves. Hmm… food for thought in modern times, wouldn’t you say?