by Eleanor Van Zandt and
circa - 1976
The riddle of
Atlantis is among the greatest of the world's unsolved
mysteries. Where, for a start, was the exact site of this huge island
civilization? did it really, as early historians reported, vanish from the
earth in a day and a night? Small wonder that since the earliest times
scholars, archaeologists, historians, and occultists have kept up an almost
ceaseless search for its precise whereabouts. Beginning with the Greek
philosopher Plato's first description of the lost land that was apparently
"the nearest thing to paradise on Earth," this chapter examines in detail
the basic evidence for the existence and cataclysmic destruction of
(Note: Plato was not the first one to know about
Atlantis. He was the first
to describe it in detail. Pythagoras taught Plato what he knew)
Of all the world's unsolved mysteries, Atlantis is probably the biggest.
Said to have been a huge island continent with an extraordinary
civilization, situated in the Atlantic Ocean, it is reported to have
vanished from the face of the earth in a day and a night. So complete was
this devastation that Atlantis sank beneath the sea, taking with it every
trace of its existence. Despite this colossal vanishing trick, the lost
continent of Atlantis has exerted a mysterious influence over the human race
for thousands of years. It is almost as though a primitive memory of the
glorious days of Atlantis lingers on in the deepest recesses of the human
mind. The passage of time has not diminished interest in the fabled
continent, nor have centuries of skepticism by scientists succeeded in
banishing Atlantis to obscurity in its watery grave. Thousands of books and
articles have been written about the lost continent. It has inspired the
authors of novels, short stories, poems, and movies. Its name has been used
for ships, restaurants, magazines, and even a region of the planet Mars. Atlantean societies have been formed to theorize and speculate about a great
lost land. Atlantis has come to symbolize our dream of a once golden past.
It appeals to our nostalgic longing for a better, happier world; it feeds
out hunger for knowledge of mankind's true origins; and above all it offers
the challenge of a genuinely sensational detective story.
Today the search for evidence of the existence of Atlantis continues with
renewed vigor, using 20th century man's most sophisticated tools in the hope
of discovering the continent that is said to have disappeared around 11,600
years ago. did Atlantis exist, or is it just a myth? Ours may be the
generation that finally solves this tantalizing and ancient enigma.
Atlantis is said to have been the nearest thing to paradise that the earth
has seen. Fruits and vegetables grew in abundance in its rich soil. Fragrant
flowers and herbs bloomed n the wooded slopes of its many beautiful
mountains. All kinds of tame and wild animals roamed its meadows and
magnificent forests, and drank from its rivers and lakes. Underground
streams of wonderfully sweet water were used to irrigate the soil, to
provide hot and cold fountains and baths for all the inhabitants. - There
were even baths for the horses. The earth was rich in precious metals, and
the Atlanteans were wealthier than any people before or after with gold,
silver, brass, tin, and ivory, and their principal royal palace was a marvel
of size and beauty. Besides being skilled metallurgists, the Atlanteans were
accomplished engineers. A huge and complex system of canals and bridges
linked their capital city with the sea and the surrounding countryside, and
there were magnificent docks and harbors for the fleets of vessels that
carried on a flourishing trade with overseas countries.
Whether they lived in the city or the country, the people of Atlantis had
everything they could possibly want for their comfort and happiness. They
were a gentle, wise, and loving people, unaffected by their great wealth and
prizing virtue above all things. In time, however, their noble nature became
debased. No longer satisfied with ruling their own great land of plenty,
they set about waging war on others. Their vast armies swept through the
Strait of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean region, conquering large areas of
North Africa and Europe. The Atlanteans were poised to strike against
and Egypt when the Athenian army rose up, drove them back to Gibraltar, and
defeated them. Hardly had the Athenians tasted victory when a terrible
cataclysm wiped out their entire army in a single day and night, and caused
Atlantis to sink forever beneath the waves. Perhaps a few survivors were
left to tell what happened. At all events, the story is said to have been
passed down through many generations until, more than 9200 years later, it
was made known to the world for the first time.
The man who first committed the legend to paper was the Greek philosopher
Plato, who in about 355 B.C. wrote about Atlantis in two of his famous
dialogues, the Timaeus and the Critias. Although
Plato claimed that the
story of the lost continent was derived from ancient Egyptian records, no
such records have ever come to light, nor has any direct mention of Atlantis
been found in any surviving records made before Plato's time. Every book and
article on Atlantis that has ever been published has been based on Plato's
account; subsequent authors have merely interpreted or added to it.
Plato was a master storyteller who put his philosophical ideas across in the
form of apparently real-life events with well-known characters, and his
Atlantis story might well have been firmly relegated to the realms of
fiction. The very fact that it is still widely relegated as a factual
account 2300 years after he wrote it shows the extraordinary power of
Plato's story. It has inspired scholars to stake their reputation on the
former existence of the lost continent, and explorers to go in search of its
remains. Their actions were prompted not by the Greek story alone, bit also
by their own discoveries, which seemed to indicate that there must once have
been a great landmass that acted as a bridge between our existing
Why, ask the scholars, are there so many remarkable similarities between the
ancient cultures of the Old and New Worlds? Why do we find the same plants
and animals on continents thousands of miles apart when there is no known
way for them to have been transported there?
How did the primitive peoples
of many lands construct technological marvels, such as Stonehenge in
Britain, the huge statues of
Easter Island in the Pacific and the strange
sacred cities of the Andes? Were they helped by a technically sophisticated
race that has since disappeared?
Above all, why do the legends of people the
world over tell the same story of an overwhelming natural disaster and the
arrival or godlike beings who brought with them a new culture from a far?
could the catastrophe that sank Atlantis have sent tidal waves throughout
the glove, causing terrible havoc and destruction?
And were the 'gods' the
remnants of the Atlantean race - the few survivors who were not on or near
the island continent when it was engulfed?
Map of Atlantis by the 17th-century German scholar Athanasius Kircher.
Kircher based his
map on Plato's description of Atlantis as an island west of the Pillars of
Hercules - the
Strait of Gibraltar - and situated Atlantis in the ocean that has since been
named after the
legendary land. Unlike modern cartographers, he placed south at the top of
the map, which
puts America at the right.
Even without Plato's account, the quest for answers to these mysteries might
have led to the belief by some in a 'missing link' between the continents -
a land-bridge populated by a highly evolved people in the distant past.
Nevertheless, it is the Greek philosopher's story that lies at the heart of
all arguments for or against the existence of such a lost continent.
Plato intended writing a trilogy in which the Atlantis story plays an
important part, but he completed only one of the works, Timaeus, and part of
the second, Critias. Like Plato's other writings, they take the form of
dialogues or playlets in which a group of individuals discuss various
political and moral issues. Leading the discussion is Plato's old teacher,
the Greek philosopher Socrates. His debating companions are Timaeus, an
astronomer from Italy, Critias, a poet and historian who was a distant
relative of Plato, and Hermocrates, a general from Syracuse.
already used the same cat of real-life characters in his most famous
dialogue, The Republic, written some years previously, and he planned his
trilogy as a sequel to that debate, in which the four men had talked at some
length about ideal government.
Plato set the meeting of the four men in Critia's house in June 421 B.C.
Timaeus begins on the day following the debate recorded in The Republic, and
the men start by recalling their previous conversation. Then Hermocrates
mentions "a story derived from ancient tradition" that Critias knows.
Pressed for details, Critias recalls how, a century and a half earlier, the
great Athenian statesman Solon had visited Egypt (Solon was a real person
and he did visit Egypt, although his trip took place around 590 B.C., so 20
years earlier than the date given by Plato.) Critias says that while
was in Sais, an Egyptian city having close ties with Athens, a group of
priests told him the story of Atlantis - "a tale that, though strange, is
certainly true." Solon made notes of the conversation, and intended
recording the story for posterity, but he did not do so. Instead he told it
to a relative, Dropides, who passed it on to his son, Critias
the elder, who
eventually told his grandson, another Critias - the man who features in
In Timaeus Critias gives a brief account of what the priests had told
According to ancient Egyptian records there had been a great Athenian empire
9000 years earlier (that is, in about 9600 B.C.) At the same time there had
been a mighty empire of Atlantis based on an island or continent west of the
Pillars of Hercules (the Strait of Gibraltar) that was larger than North
Africa and Asia Minor combined. Beyond it lay a chain of islands that
stretched across the ocean to another huge continent.
The Atlanteans ruled over their central island and several others, and over
parts of the great continent on the other side of the ocean. Then their
armies struck eastward into the Mediterranean region, conquering North
Africa as far as Egypt and southern Europe up to the Greek borders. "This
vast power, gathered into one, endeavored to subdue at one blow our country
and yours," said the Egyptian priests, "and the whole of the region within
the strait. . ."Athens, standing alone, defeated the
afterward there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day
and night of destruction all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth,
and the island of Atlantis in a like manner disappeared in the depths of the
sea. For which reason the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable,
because there is so much shallow mud in the way, caused by the subsidence of
Socrates is delighted with Critias' story, which as "the very great
advantage of being a fact and not a fiction." However, the rest of
is taken up with a discourse on science, and the the story of Atlantis is
continued in Plato's next dialogue, the Critias, where
Critias gives a much
fuller description of the island continent. He goes back to the island's
very beginning when the gods were apportioned parts of the earth, as is
usual in ancient histories. Poseidon, Greek god of the sea and also of
earthquakes, was given Atlantis, and there he fell in love with a mortal
maiden called Cleito. Cleito dwelled on a hill in
Atlantis, and to prevent
anyone reaching her home, Poseidon encircled the hill with alternate rings
of land and water, "two of land and three of water, which he turned as with
a lathe." He also laid on abundant supplies of food and water to the hill,
"bringing up two springs of water from beneath the earth, one of warm water
and the other of cold, and making every variety of food to spring up
abundantly from the soil."
Poseidon and Cleito produced 10 children - five pairs of male twins - and
Poseidon divided Atlantis and its adjacent islands among these 10 sons to
rule as a confederacy of kings. the first born of the eldest twins, Atlas
(after whom atlantis was named), was made chief king. The kinds in turn had
numerous children, and their descendants ruled for many generations.
Ass the population of Atlantis grew and developed, the people accomplished
great feats of engineering and architecture. They accomplished great feats
of engineering and architecture. The built palaces and temples, harbors and
docks, and reaped the rich harvest of their agricultural and mineral
resources. The kings and their descendants built the city of Atlantis around
Cleito's hill on the southern coast of the island continent. It was a
circular city, about 11 miles in diameter, and Cleito's hill, surrounded by
its concentric rings of land and water, formed a citadel about three miles
in diameter, situated at the very center of the impressive city.
The kings built bridges to connect the land rings, and tunnels through which
ships could pass from one ring of water to the next. The rings of land were
surrounded by stone walls plated with precious metals, and another wall ran
around the entire city. The outermost ring of water became a great harbor,
crowded with shipping.
A huge canal, 300 feet wide and 100 feet deep, linked the great harbor with
the sea at the southern end, and joined the city to a vast irrigated plain,
sheltered by lofty mountains, which lay beyond the city walls in the north.
This rectangular plain, measuring 230 by 340 miles, was divided into 60,000
square lots, assigned to farmers. The mountains beyond housed "many wealthy
villages of country folk, and rivers, and lakes, and meadows, supplying food
for every animal, wild or tame, and much wood of various sorts, abundant for
each and every kind of work." the inhabitants of the mountains and of the
rest of the country were "a vast multitude having leaders to whom they were
assigned according to their dwellings and villages." These leaders and the
farmers on the plane were each required to supply men for the Atlantean
army, which included light and heavy infantry, cavalry, and chariots.
Plato and Critias paint a vivid picture of Atlantean engineering and
architecture with an attention to detail that bears the hallmark of a very
factual account. Critias tells how the stone used for the city's buildings
was quarried from beneath the island (Cleito's hill) and from beneath the
outer and inner circles of land.
"One kind of stone was white, another
black, and third red, and as they quarried they at the same time hollowed
out docks within, having roofs formed of the native rock. Some of their
buildings were simple, but in others they put together different stones,
which they intermingled for the sake of ornament, to be a natural source of
But it was into their magnificent temples that the Atlanteans
poured their greatest artistic and technical skills. In the center of the
citadel was a holy artistic and technical skills. In the center of the
citadel was a holy temple dedicated to Cleito and Poseidon and this was
surrounded by an enclosure of gold. Nearby stood Poseidon's own temple, a
superb structure covered in silver, with pinnacles of gold. The roof's
interior was covered with ivory, and lavishly decorated with gold, silver,
and orichate - probably a fine grade of brass or bronze - which "glowed like
fire." Inside the temple was a massive gold statue of Poseidon driving a
chariot drawn by six winged horses and surrounded by 100 sea nymphs on
dolphins. This was so high that its head touched the temple roof. Gold
statues of Atlantis' original 10 kings and their wives stood outside the
Critias tells of the beautiful buildings that were constructed around the
warm and cold fountains in the center of the city. Trees were planted
between the buildings, and cisterns were designed - some open to the
heavens, others roofed over - to be used as baths.
"There were the kinds'
baths, and the baths of private persons, which were kept apart; and there
were separate baths for women, and for horses and cattle , and to each of
them they gave as much adornment as was suitable. Of the water that ran off
they carried some to the grove of Poseidon, where were growing all manner of
trees of wonderful height and beauty, owing to the excellence of the soil,
while the remainder was conveyed by aqueducts along the bridges to the the
outer circles; and there were many temples built and dedicated to many gods;
also gardens and places of exercise, some for men, and others for horses in
both of the two islands formed by the zones (rings of water) ; and in the center of the larger of the two there was set apart a racecourse of a stadium
(about 607 feet) in width, and in length allowed to extend all around the
island, for horses to race in."
At alternate intervals of five and six years the 10 kings of
Atlantis met in
the temple of Poseidon to consult on matters of government and to administer
justice. During this meeting a strange ritual was enacted. After offering up
prayers to the gods, the kings were required to hunt bulls, which roamed
freely within the temple, and to capture one of them for sacrifice, using
only staves and nooses. The captured animal was led to a bronze column in
the temple, on which the laws of Atlantis were inscribed, and was slain so
that its blood ran over the sacred inscription. After further ceremony, the
kings partook of a banquet and when darkness fell they wrapped themselves in
beautiful dark-blue robes, sitting in a circle they gave their judgments,
which were recorded at daybreak on tablets of gold.
In the course of time, the people of
Atlantis began to lose the love of
wisdom and virtue that they had inherited from Poseidon. As their divine
nature was diluted and human nature got the upper hand, they became greedy,
corrupt, and domineering. Whereupon, says Plato,
"Zeus, the god of gods, who
rules by law, and is able to see into such things, perceiving that an
honorable race was in a most wretched state, and wanting to punish them that
they might be chastened and improve, collected all the gods into his most
holy abode, which, being placed into his most holy abode, which, being
placed in the center of the universe, sees all things that partake of
generation. And when he had called them together he spoke as follows..."
And there, enigmatically, and frustratingly, Plato's story of Atlantis
breaks off, never to be completed. Some regard the Critias dialogue as a
rough draft that Plato abandoned. Others assume he intended to continue the
story in the third part of his trilogy, but he never even started that work.
He went on, instead, to write his last dialogue, The Laws.
Controversy has raged over Plato's story ever since he wrote it 2300 years
ago. Was his account fact, part-fact, or total fiction? Each explanation has
its inherents, and each has been hotly defended over the centuries. Plato's
story certainly presents a number of problems. Critics of the Atlantis
theory claim that these invalidate the story as a factual account.
Supporters maintain that they can be accepted as poetic license,
exaggeration, or understandable mistakes that have crept in during the
telling and retelling of the story over many centuries before Plato reported
The greatest stumbling block is the date that the Greek philosopher gives
for the destruction of Atlantis. The Egyptian priests are said to have told
Solon that Atlantis was destroyed 9000 years before his visit, in about 9600
B.C., which is far earlier than any known evidence of civilization.
Supporters of Atlantis point out that modern discoveries are constantly
pushing back the boundaries of human prehistory and we may yet discover that
civilization is far older than we think. However, Plato makes it clear that
in 9600 B.C., Athens was also the home of a mighty civilization that
defeated the Atlanteans. Archaeologists claim that their knowledge of Greece
in the early days of its development is sufficiently complete to rule out
the possibility of highly developed people in that country as early as 9600
B.C. Their evidence suggests that either Plato's story is an invention or he
has the date wrong.
Assuming that Plato's facts are right but his date wrong, what evidence do
we have to support his account of the origin of the Atlantis story? Bearing
in mind that the war was principally between Atlantis and
Athens, it seems
odd that there were no Greek records of the battle, and that the account
would have originated in Egypt. However Plato has an explanation for this.
The Egyptian priests are said to have told Solon that a series of
catastrophes had destroyed the Greek records, whereas their own had been
preserved. The problem here is that if the Egyptian disappeared as
completely as Atlantis itself.
Supposing that Solon did hear about Atlantis during his Egyptian trip, is it
credible that such a detailed story could have been passed down through the
generations as Plato asks us to believe? This is not impossible, because the
art of accurate oral transmission was highly developed in the ancient world.
Moreover, Solon is said to have taken notes of his conversation with the
priests, and Critias claims that these were handed down to his relatives.
However, here again we encounter a difficulty. For whereas in one place
Critias states that he is still in possession of Solon's notes, in another
he declares that he lay awake all night ransacking his memory for details of
the Atlantis story that his grandfather had told him. Why didn't he simply
refresh his memory from Solon's notes? And why didn't he show the notes to
his three companions as incontrovertible proof of the truth of his rather
Yet another problem is that Plato dates the meeting of Socrates,
Critias, and Hermocrates, during which Atlantis is discussed, as 421 B.C.
Plato may have been present during their conversation, but as he was only
six years old at the time, he could hardly have taken in much of their
discussion, let alone made detailed notes of it. Either his account is based
on records made my someone else, or the date is wrong, or this part of his
story at least is an invention.
Critics of the Atlantis story believe that it is simply a myth invented to
put across the great philosopher's views on war and corruption. Plato used
real people in his other dialogues, and put his words into their mouths,
too, as a dramatic device to present his ideas. There is no reason say the
detractors, to assume that Timaeus and Critias are different in this
respect, but Plato seems to expect his readers to draw different
conclusions. He is at great pains to stress the truth of his account,
tracing it back to Solon, a highly respected statesman with a reputation for
being 'straight-tongues,' and having Critias declare that the Atlantis
story, "though strange, is certainly true." And why, if his sole intention
was to deliver a philosophical treatise, did Plato fill his account with
remarkable detail and then stop abruptly at the very point where we would
expect the "message" to be delivered? In spite of the errors and
contradictions that have found their way into Plato's account, his story of
Atlantis can still be viewed as an exciting recollection of previously
History provides us with many examples of supposedly mythical places and
subsequently being discovered. For example, Homer wrote about the Trojan War
and subsequent research has shown that it was based on real historical
events. Troy has since been found and dug up. In 1871, the German
archaeologist Heinrich Schlieman excavated in Hissarlik and uncovered
just where Homer had placed it over 1000 years previously in his epic poems
the Iliad and the Odyssey. As the Irish scholar
J.V. Luce observes in his
book The End of Atlantis: "classical scholars laughed at Schlieman when he
set out with Homer in one hand and a spade in the other, but he dug up
and thereby demonstrated the inestimable value of folk memory Sir Arthur
Evans did much the same thing when he found the labyrinthine home of the
Minotaur at Knossos." Indeed, Sir Arthur Evans revealed that a highly
advanced European civilization had flourished on the island of Crete long
before the time of Homer, some 4500 years ago.
This should be justification enough to keep an open mind on Plato's account.
The problem is that whereas Troy and Knossos were simply buried.
could be submerged hundred or even thousands of feet beneath the waves. And
the force of the destruction may have destroyed the remains beyond
recognition. However, if Plato's account is based on fact, then we know that
the Atlanteans traded with their neighbors.. In this case there would be
some evidence of their influence and culture in lands that survived the
catastrophe. Believers in Atlantis have furnished us with a formidable array
of such "proofs". Certainly there are scattered around the glove to lend
support to the idea of a highly advanced, Atlantean-type civilization that
Although Plato appears to place Atlantis in the Atlantic Ocean and early
cartographers did likewise, numerous scholars and other Atlantis enthusiasts
have since scoured the globe for more likely sites. Surprisingly, these have
not always been in the ocean. The lost kingdom of Atlantis has been "found"
at various times in the Pacific Ocean, the North Sea, the Sahara desert,
Sweden, southern Spain, Palestine, Cyprus, Crete, the West Indies, and Peru,
but to name a few.