The most popular – and best known – of the lost continents is Atlantis, a land supposed to have lain in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It even has its own FaceBook fan page! First mentioned by Plato (428×7-347 BCE) in his dialogues Τιμαῖος (Timaeus) and Κριτίας (Critias), written towards the end of the philosopher’s life in c 348 BCE.
What was Atlantis?
Plato introduced the idea of a lost land to the west of Greece as part of a political fable. In the first book, Plato’s relative Critias is made to explain how he learned the story of Atlantis: he had heard it from his grandfather, who had learned it from his father, who had been told it by the politician Solon (c 638-559 BCE). According to Plato, Solon had been told about Atlantis by a priest in a temple at Saïs when he visited Egypt c 590 BCE. The priest explained that nine thousand years earlier (i.e. c 9590 BCE), the ancient Athenians went to war with the ancient Atlanteans, whom they defeated. The Atlanteans lived in a city on an island to the west of the Pillars of Hercules (the ancient name for the Strait of Gibraltar) and were descended from the god Poseidon, but had degenerated from an earlier state of perfection. Both Athens and Atlantis were destroyed in “earthquakes and floods of extraordinary violence… in a single dreadful day and night” nine thousand years ago.
The Critias repeats the same story, but in greater detail, explaining how the goddess Athena had established the city of Athens shortly after the creation of the world. The prehistoric Athenian state was ruled by a military oligarchy, which by a remarkable coincidence was just like the ideal state hypothesised by Plato in an earlier book, The Republic. Remarkable, that is, if you read this political fable as history. While Athena was allotted Greece, Poseidon got Atlantis and his descendants (via the mortal woman Kleito) established ten kingdoms with an over-king. Plato describes the city of Atlantis in some detail: it lay between the coast and a large fertile irrigated plain, was perfectly circular and contained at its centre a series of ring-shaped islands set between canals, in the middle of which lay the citadel. They were connected to the sea and to the plain by a further canal. The buildings of the city were magnificently ornamented with precious metals – including the otherwise unknown ὀρειχαλκον (orichalcum – ‘mountain copper’) – and ivory from indigenous elephants. The kings ruled well for many years, but when their descendants became corrupt, Zeus decided to punish them. At the point where he is about to launch into a speech to the other gods, the text breaks off, unfinished. The third book of what was intended to be a trilogy, to which Plato may have intended to give the name Ἑρμοκράτης (Hermocrates) (after another of the participants in the fictional discussion) was never written.
In the ancient world, Plato’s Atlantis was treated as a literary device, not as an historical city of the remote past. For instance, the Christian writer Tertullian (c 160-after 213) used it as an example of the world-wide flood of Noah and observed that it had been sought in vain (de Pallio II.3); a few paragraphs earlier in the work, he had mentioned Plato and it is likely that the two were connected in his thoughts. Ammianus Marcellinus (c 330-after 392) has been used to justify statements that the Gauls believed that they had come originally from Atlantis. In fact, Ammianus says no such thing. In Res Gestae XV.9, quoting the authority of an Augustan historian, Timagenes (c 55 BCE-?), whose work is lost, he says that “the Drasidae [Druids] recall that a part of the population is indigenous but others also migrated in from islands and lands beyond the Rhine”; this would mean that they believed they had come from the north (Britain, the Netherlands and Germany), not from a lost land in the Atlantic Ocean, to the south-west.
Atlantis occasionally found its way onto maps, particularly after the discovery of the New World at the end of the fifteenth century. This led some writers to speculate that these strange new uncharted lands were the remnants of the island. However, it did not enter the popular imagination until the 1880s, when a lawyer from Philadelphia and congressman for Minnesota, Ignatius Donnelly (1831-1901), wrote Atlantis: the Antediluvian World. The book was so popular that it is still in print (in a paperback edition published by Dover Books in 1985). It is a remarkable book, showing a huge breadth of knowledge acquired through years of reading and research in the Library of Congress. It is no exaggeration to say that this book (on its own) was responsible for the late nineteenth-century growth of interest in the lost continent and its subsequent popularity. Donnelly picked up on the work of the Abbé Charles-Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg (1814-1874), who had worked out a translation of the Troano Codex, half of one of only three Maya manuscripts to survive. His attempt at translation was completely misguided (he believed that Maya hieroglyphs were an alphabetic script), but he read the Codex as describing a volcanic catastrophe in which a land called Mu was destroyed. Donnelly took this translation seriously, identified the supposed Mayan Mu with the Greek Atlantis and began researching possible links between the Maya and the rest of the world.
Using the diffusionist logic of late nineteenth-century archaeology, he reasoned that if institutions such as marriage and divorce, technology such as spears and sails, or beliefs such as ghosts and flood legends existed on both sides of the Atlantic, it followed that there must be a common origin for them. He found similarities between the Maya hieroglyphs published by Brasseur de Bourbourg and those of Egypt and between the languages of the Chinese, Old Japanese and the Otomi of Mexico. Needless to say, most of the supposed similarities are fanciful and are based on superficial characteristics. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that similar institutions, technologies and beliefs must be invented only once, in one place. The evidence amassed by Donnelly for an historical Atlantis is ultimately weak and has never commanded any serious academic support. Donnelly’s breadth of knowledge may have been huge, but he lacked the depth of knowledge that would have allowed him to exercise his lawyer’s critical faculties more effectively.
Most damaging for the hypothesis of a large mid-Atlantic island, there is no room for a landmass in what we know of the geological history of the Atlantic Ocean. The mid-Atlantic Ridge that Donnelly thought might contain the remnants of an Atlantean mountain range in the vicinity of the present-day Azores is not the remains of a sunken continent. Rather, it is new material forming as the North American, European, South American and African tectonic plates move apart, something that was not understood in the nineteenth century.
An obvious but still believed fraud
One of the most unusual treatments of the Atlantis story that some writers continue to quote as a serious source comes from what ought to have been long since discarded as a hoax. This was a front page story of The New York American (a morning newspaper published by William Randolph Hearst from 1895 to 1937) in October 1912 quoting a Dr Paul Schliemann (allegedly c 1884-1914×18), who claimed to be (and almost certainly was not) a grandson of the discoverer of Troy, Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890), although whether he really gained a PhD, as he claimed, does not seem to have been established. The story was called ‘How I Discovered Atlantis, the Source of All Civilization’. He announced that he had been left certain secret documents by his grandfather, including one that described the discovery at Troy of a bronze vase inscribed ‘From the King Cronos of Atlantis’ and an owl-headed vase that he was to break open. Among the documents was an envelope only to be opened by someone prepared to dedicate his life to what was contained within: the family’s secret, which was the true location of Atlantis. On breaking open the vase, Schliemann was astounded to discover a hoard of square Atlantean coins of a platinum-aluminium-silver alloy (presumably meant to be the orichalcum of Plato) and a metal plaque bearing a Phoenician inscription that read ‘Issued in the Temple of Transparent Walls’.
Paul Schliemann was the first to claim that Atlantis was an advanced civilisation with technological achievements matching those of the twentieth century (aircraft, power-driven boats and so on), although the Theosophists had also made extravagant claims about Atlantean accomplishments. Schliemann’s newspaper story is the sole authority for the ‘evidence’ sometimes used to support ideas of the superior technology of the Lost Continent. He quoted the usual sources, but made serious blunders that made the hoax all too evident from the outset. Claiming to have discovered the secret of the lost continent of Atlantis in an ancient Mayan text, the Troano Codex, which he said that he had read in the British Museum, this was too obvious an error to overlook: the Troano Codex was (and still is) in the National Museum in Madrid. His story was merely a rehash of Brasseur de Bourbourg’s ‘translation’, anyway. Coins had not yet been invented at the supposed time of the Atlantean kingdom, either: they were first used c 600 BCE in the kingdom of Lydia (now part of modern Turkey). When asked for the further evidence he had promised in the original newspaper story and to produce objects such as the owl-headed vase, Schliemann did not respond and disappeared from history. Nothing further appears to be known about him, although it is rumoured that he died in action during the First World War; what is certain, though, is that his fabrication has – undeservedly – long outlived him. Indeed, it is more than possible that he was the invention of a newspaper copywriter, as The New York American was known for its lurid and sensationalist stories, as well as pseudoscience, a style known pejoratively as yellow journalism.
Renaissance scholars who rediscovered Plato’s account of Atlantis were in no doubt where it has been located: beyond the Pillars of Hercules at the Strait of Gibraltar. How far out into the Atlantic Ocean it might have lain was a matter of speculation, some writers placing it close to Africa, others identifying it with the Americas.