The Atlantis Myth |
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Ancient Greece

The Atlantis Myth

In last year’s magazine I wrote a light hearted article suggesting an argument, from which one might adduce Britain to have contributed to the legend of Atlantis. In doing this I had no intention of committing myself to any belief in the historical existence of Atlantis, but, perhaps because I did not express myself clearly enough, I have been misinterpreted. In writing this article I wish to clear myself from the charge of being an Atlantologist, and then to outline, as I see it, the way in which the legend fits into the thought of its author, Plato. For the whole Atlantean phantasmagoria has stemmed from an improper appreciation of a Platonic myth, and is a classic example of the danger involved in interpreting something out of its context.

Atlantis is only a legend; it began with Plato and might have ended with him. But for various reasons, some of them innocuous and others more sinister, men have sought ever since to carry the legend further and to prove its historical existence. The legend, however, has no discoverable foundation at all. If there exist in the copious mythologies of the world, legends that appear to be complementary, this is purely coincidental and the reasons for this can probably be assigned to the psychological basis of mythology.

Plato’s Atlantis myth is a fanciful tale, a ‘noble lie’ with a didactic purpose behind it. Such myths are common to Plato’s work and are essentially literary devices. The myth of Atlantis is intended to complete the account of the Ideal State, given by Plato in the “Republic”, and it presents the pattern which a nation should seek to emulate in this world. Atlantis is mentioned in the “Timaeus”, but Plato must have intended to deal more thoroughly with it in the “Critias”, an unfinished work. In this fragment Plato represents the Ideal State engaged in a patriotic conflict, and it is almost certainly symbolical, or retrospectively prophetical, of the struggle of Athens with the Persians, rather as the first part of the “Aeneid” foreshadows the wars between Rome and Carthage. Thus, the whole tale is a product of Plato’s fertile imagination and he knew how to give verisimilitude to it by a wealth of detail and observed fact.

The story of the struggle between Athens and Atlantis symbolises the struggle between form and matter. In Plato’s theory of Forms we find the key to his conception of historical change. He seems to have believed that all things in this mutable world of ours are destined to decay. Thus, history for Plato is the history of social decay, the history of a disease. He saw himself as a doctor of human society, and his remedy was the total arrest of social change. The Atlantis myth is a ‘noble lie’, concocted to inspire people to look to the past for the solution to their problems. It is deliberately deceitful, like the myth of the Earthborn in the “Republic”, which sought to uphold the barriers of social distinction. The old Athens is intended as the model which the new Athens must copy if it is to return to the halcyon days of the past.

These myths enshrined what were for Plato essential truths. The Platonic Fall of Man, which we see in his principle of historical decay, had the same force of truth for him as the story of Adam and Eve has for the Christian. But Plato believed social decay to be the result of racial decay, and he gives this cause explicitly in the “Critias” for the degeneration of the Atlanteans. We can never know exactly how much truth Plato intended us to find in his myths, but, if we see them all as elaborate deceits, we shall not arrive at a flattering opinion of his integrity. We can, however, show the absurdity of claiming him as a source for the existence of a historical Atlantis. My stated intention has been not to do this, but to show where the true significance of the myth lies.

Where resemblances to the details of this myth do occur – for instance, the almost universal flood myths and the Celtic legends of the ‘lands of the west’ – I would suggest that these are merely psychic phenomena, and in no way historical. But if Atlantis is indeed a psychological creation, it affords a fine example of how a myth, through its suggestive power, can come to be seen as reality.

Hilary Term 1967.


In re-reading this article and its 1966 predecessor, which I re-published yesterday, I have become uneasily aware that my emphatic disassociation, in the above article, of ever being an Atlantologist, is not consistent with the text of the original article, and thus what I am saying here that “the legend… has no discoverable foundation at all” is either inaccurate or disingenuous. In the 1966 article I maintained – correctly I now think – that, while the the very specific details of the Atlantis myth, as portrayed by Plato, were indeed a product of fiction, the Atlantis myth was based upon legends that relate to some degree of historical reality, albeit derived very probably from a number of sources. Hence, the concept of a composite myth.

In this context, it is very interesting to note that in 1967, the very year in which the above article was first published, there was an exciting discovery of a subterranean city at Akrotiri on the Eastern Mediterrean island of Santorini (known to the ancient Greeks as Thera). Since then, it has become clear that in 1,620 B.C. this island, and the vibrant civilisation which it contained, were totally destroyed by an earthquake greater than any other experienced in the ancient world. Some idea of the force of this earthquake and the tsunamis that followed, can be gained from the fact that it was at least ten times stronger than the earthquake which destroyed the Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 A.D. In the longer term, this earthquake may well have contributed to the beginning of the decline of the great Minoan civilisation of ancient Crete, from which Thera was only seventy miles distant across the sea, and to which it was very closely associated, if not exactly a dependency of it. It appears that at around this date all the palaces of Minoan Crete were destroyed, except that of Knossos, which was, mercifully, further inland than the five mile reach of the tsunamis. The consequences of this terrible earthquake would also have been drastic for much of Europe, the Near and Middle East and Africa, to all of which Thera was close. Apart from the devastating damage caused by the explosion on Thera which was buried some sixty feet below the ash, molten mud and pumice-stone belched forth by the explosion, and the tsunamis which would have destroyed anything within five miles from the Eastern Mediterranean coast-lines, the ash clouds which obscured the sun would have adversely affected crop-yields for a number of years throughout a very wide area and the massive blocks of pumice, floating throughout the Mediteranean, would have made sailing even more hazardous than usual. I am emphasing the unparallelled extent of this disaster because I want to make the point that, although Plato was writing over eight centuries after the Theran earthquake, it is quite possible to suppose that some memory of it lingered in the collective consciousness of the Greeks of his time. The exciting results of the excavations that have taken place, and are continuing, at Akrotiri on the island of Santorini since 1967, have inevitably led to many now seeing Thera as the principal source for the Atlantis myth, and I cannot quarrel with this view. At the same time, I believe it no longer possible to assert quite as forcefully as I did in 1967 that there is no historical basis for this myth. Furthermore, the detailed physical description of Atlantis in Plato’s “Critias” resembles uncannily what will have been the lay-out at Thera prior to the earthquake. So, while there is as yet no proof that Thera was Atlantis, and there almost certainly never can be, the likelihood that the Atlantis myth is based on some historical source has surely been raised from a possibility to a probability in the context of the discoveries on Santorini.

However, Thera was in the Eastern Mediterranean and the relatively recent discoveries on Santorini, do not account for the geography of Plato’s myth, and, in particular, Plato’s attribution of Atlantis to an island west of the Pillars of Hercules, and indeed the very name ‘Atlantis’, itself. To account for this, it is possible that Plato was drawing on others myths of which he was aware, e.g. memories of bronze -age Britain and Tartessus, as I did in fact suggest in my 1966 article. If Plato’s myth is a composite one, this is surely quite conceivable. What would have been his motive? – perhaps a desire to ensure that his ‘noble lie’ could not be associated with anything too specific.

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