Atlantis - Was it Britain? |
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Ancient Greece

Atlantis – Was it Britain?

Of all the sunken civilisations of man, that of Atlantis is perhaps the most exciting. The question of whether Atlantis is only legendary or whether it is based on a certain amount of discoverable fact, was a bone of contention even in antiquity. Thus, the immediate question that presents itself is to decide whether the Atlantis so meticulously described by Plato was no more than a poetic fiction. Was his utopian island that ruled the world only a sympathetic refurbishing of myths handed down from the dawn of pre-history? Or did Plato have actual evidence of a submerged city, of a vanished Atlantic civilisation?

In considering the topic of Plato’s lost continent, it is as well to begin by getting rid of any notion that it might have existed as described by him. In 1882 Ignatius Donnelly proclaimed the literal reality of Atlantis, that it was the site of all earthly paradises, the mother of the Egyptian, Mexican and Peruvian civilisations, and was destroyed by flood and earthquake in 9,564 B.C. This theory, however, is entirely refuted by history; no sizeable section of the mid-Atlantic sea-bed has been above water for at least sixty million years, and certainly no inundation of the necessary proportions can be attributed to the right period. Even if we move Atlantis to a more tractable site, the date still presents an overwhelming obstacle. Atlantis, as portrayed by Plato, is the centre of a sophisticated bronze-age society, and just could not have existed around 10,000 B.C.

There is in fact no pat solution to the Atlantis problem. The tale is a composite collection of themes, some mythical and some based on historical tradition, and welded into a unity by Plato’s love of myth-making. Nevertheless, while we should accept the essential fictional substance of Plato’s story, we should also ask what are the raw materials which provide its basis. But, if we are to seek tentatively for a possible location of Atlantis, we must effect an explanation in time before one in space. The bronze-working civilisation, described by Plato is akin to those of the Minoan-Mycenean era, about the sixteenth or fifteenth century B.C. This epoch, which has supplied material for so many legends, may also have engendered that of Atlantis. Thus, the problem confines itself to finding a country within the orbit of Knossos and Mycenae which fulfils the minimal conditions.

At this point, we would be well advised to consult the text of Plato’s “Timaeus”, and then stick closely to it in continuing our research:

‘Our records tell us 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 Hercules (Gibraltar), an island larger than Libya and Asia combined; from it travellers could in those days reach the other islands, and from them the opposite continent, which surrounds what can truly be called the ocean.’ [ Plato: Timaeus, 24-25]

It now becomes apparent that we have a country which fulfils the above the above requirements in time, and also, if one is prepared, in taking the limitations of Greek geography into account, to be flexible, the requirements in space also. That country is Britain. In order to reach the actual Atlantis, it must have been necessary to get into the Ocean outside the straits of Gibraltar. The islands of the Mediterranean were too familiar for any of them to qualify, and they all were palpably above water in Solon’s time, when the dialogue took place. The direction of Britain may be in error, but Britain, like Atlantis, could only have been approached by the outer sea.

It does indeed seem plausible that somewhere at the back of the Platonic myth is the distant Mycenaean image of Britain. Bronze-age Wessex was undoubtedly in touch with the Mycenaean world in the sixteenth century B.C. It is probable that a Mycenaean trading post was established near Amesbury on the Wiltshire Avon. This area was the heart of a Wessex which had grown rich by exploiting its position on the roads by which the valuable metals of the British Isles – gold from Ireland and tin from Cornwall – were brought to the continent. The magnificence of Stonehenge is a just tribute to the wealth of the Wessex aristocracy. The great sarsens of the main circle could only have been brought and erected by an authority capable of organising hundreds of slaves. And Stonehenge IIIa shows abundant signs of Mediterranean influence. Though not exactly a Mycenaean structure, it seems to have been inspired by men from the Aegean. Britain was at this time temporarily important and Greek travellers must have known of its great concentric temple on Salisbury Plain. Inundations, too, occurred at this time, Mount’s Bay becoming submerged a little after 1,500 B.C. having previously been populated.

Eventually, however, British trade with the Mediterranean declined, and the Wessex aristocracy fell into decay. Later, the Aegean civilisation, itself, declined, and the western seas became the preserve of Phoenicians, who closed the entrance of the Mediterranean to other ships. An interruption almost blotted out the original Atlantic tradition and covered it with a cloud of ignorance. What remained of it among the renascent Greeks of the eighth century was unenlightening. It would have been strange if no Greek had ever wondered in the subsequent centuries what had become of that immense island, of which nobody heard any more. If no stories explaining its disappearance had been devised, it is not surprising that Britain became glorified in the process in the process, as medieval legend was later to expand an insignificant and ephemeral state into the mighty kingdom of Prester John. Indeed, there is evidence of the way in which the Greeks wove fantasies around Britain in the writings of Hecateus of Abdera. His Britain, which looms so queerly through the fog, with its round temple, its double harvest, its ancient Hellenic contacts, and its heaven-descended rules has obvious Atlantean connections.

To assert that Britain is Plato’s Atlantis would be an oversimplification. All one can say with safety is that dim hearsay of bronze-age Britain may have been worked up by Plato into a haunting myth. Given the British orientation, the text of Plato gives an unmistakeable hint at the northern route. A voyager can go from Britain by way of islands – the Orkneys, Shetlands, Faeroes, Iceland, Greenland – to America. Such is the case for Britain being the actual origin of the Atlantis of legend, and in isolation it appears most convincing. However, there are many theories as to the location of Atlantis, many of them very convincing also. Twenty-five years ago, Adolf Schulten at last threw some real light on the question, by hitting upon the brilliant notion that the lost city of Tartessus, near present day Cadiz, and Atlantis were identical. This view has now become generally acceptable to archaeologists.

The Atlantis story, as told by Plato, is, as I have previously said, a composite legend. Plato appears to have incorporated many Greek traditions as to what existed beyond Gibraltar, and, while perhaps the main force of the myth is based on Tartessian legends, it is also likely that legends about Britain and other countries of Western Europe gave further colour to it. The attack on Athens, which is the cause of Plato’s allusion to Atlantis, probably came from Crete. This is not directly relevant here, but further illustrates the composite nature of the Platonic myth. It is, in fact, quite impossible to say that any particular place is synonymous with Plato’s Atlantis, though the historical Atlantis is almost certainly identifiable with Tartessus. Britain, if it is a major contributor to the Platonic myth, cannot seriously be identified with the real Atlantis of legend.

Hilary Term 1966.

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