Pre-Platonic Writings Pertinent to Atlantis
by R. Cedric Leonard
Scholars the world over have repeatedly declared that ancient sources describing Atlantis are plentiful, “but before Plato—nothing”. They make such a declaration because of several reasons: (1) they disregard every record in which Atlantis is not mentioned by name; (2) they disregard any record utilizing a variant spelling of Atlantis; (3) they imply (whether consciously or unconsciously) that we possess all the ancient manuscripts ever written between the time of Solon and Plato; (4) they seem to be unfamiliar with the Sanskrit writings of India—apparently forgetting that those Sanskrit speakers originated in Central Europe. For a timeline of ancient writers before and after Plato, click Here. Let’s survey what we’ve found.
First of all we have Hellanicus of Lesbos (490-410 B.C.), an ancient Greek writer whom scholars consider “transitional” between the earlier mythographers and later historians. Some thirty works of chronology, geography, and history are attributed to him, but we possess only fragments. Hellanicus made a distinction between what he saw as Greek mythology from history, and is known among modern scholars as a “Greek historian whose work marks an advance in the development of historiography.” (Enc. Brit., 1961 edition.)
Among these efforts was a work entitled “Atlantis” (Bell, 1920; Jacoby, 1923, et al.), which could well be the oldest Greek writing mentioning Atlantis. Although not much is known about the content, we find the mention of Poseidon (founder of Atlantis), Poseidon’s firstborn son Atlas (first king of Atlantis), as well as his seven daughters. The very title itself demonstrates the use of the word “Atlantis” at such an early date.
Possibly more important is this example from the same era in which Herodotus, the “father of history,” mentions Atlantis by name in referring to the body of water into which it sank. Below is the Greek text of a portion of Clio (History, Bk I, 202) in which the waters beyond the Straits of Gibraltar is said to be known as the Atlantis Sea.
Greek text from Herodotus’ History mentioning the Atlantis Sea
“But one of the mouths of the Araxes flows with clarity into the Caspian Sea. Now the Caspian Sea is by itself, not connected to the other sea; but the sea navigated by all the Greeks and the one outside the Pillars called the Atlantis Sea and Erythaean are one and the same.” (Translated by R. Cedric Leonard)
From the above quote we can see that the body of water beyond the Pillars was known both as the Atlantis Sea and as the Erythaean Sea—the latter is NOT the Persian Gulf! A word of clarification: the well-known mythologist, Prof. H. J. Rose (1969; 111), reminds us that the Greeks knew of an island in the Far West named Erythaea, the name of this island deriving from the color of the setting sun. The erudite L. Sprague de Camp mentions “the Pillars of Herakles, Tartessos, Gades, and the island of Erytheia where Geryon kept his kine.” (1970; p. 222) The body of water surrounding the island of Erythaea would quite naturally be called the Erythaean Sea.
I know of at least three bodies of water all called Erythaean in ancient times (the Greek root ery simply means “red”), one of which, according to a number of authorities on Greek mythology (Bulfinch, 1885; Rose, 1969; Stapleton, 1978, et al.), was immediately west of Gibraltar. In the above quote Herodotus is noting that the Atlantis Sea and the Erythaean are two Greek names for the body of water located “outside the Pillars”. Like it or not, the context of the above quote includes waters to the west “outside the Pillars”—not bodies of water half way around the world!
But most importantly, Herodotus tells us that this body of water was also called the Atlantis Sea. Some translators are guilty of “fudging” their translations (cf. George Rawlinson’s translation), and translate the word in the text as “Atlantic”; but as is clearly demonstrated in the above text, the word actually used by Herodotus is “Atlantis”. The accuracy of the Greek text shown here—as well as my translation of it—can be verified at any university dealing with classical Greek texts.
Herodotus could have chosen the adjectival inflection, atlantikos (“Atlantic”), meaning “of Atlas,” in which case could be construed to refer to Mt. Atlas in Morocco; however he did not do so. Furthermore, I know of no major body of water named after a mountain. The “Atlantic Ocean” article (Enc. Brit., 1961 edition) states: “The term is supposedly derived from Atlantis, presumed to be a submerged continent below the present ocean.” Needless to say, The Britannica definition has become more “guarded” in later editions.
The point here is that Atlantis was known before Plato—well enough known that even in Herodotus’ time the sea outside Gibraltar was on occasion called the Atlantis Sea. It had acquired that name because some believed that Atlantis had once occupied that area. We carry the same tradition down when we refer to that body of water as the Atlantic Ocean. However, further research demonstrates that the Atlantic Ocean also had a geographically descriptive name in ancient times.
Ancient Egyptian, Sanskrit, Greek, and even Latin sources (e.g., Pliny the Elder), occasionally referred to the Atlantic Ocean as the “Western Ocean”—important if one is looking for ancient records of Atlantis. Hesiod, in his Works and Days, refers to the Isles of the Blessed (makarôn nêsoi) as lying in the “Western Ocean”—Pindar does likewise. Given this clue, even older records concerning Atlantis can be identified.
The eminent Greek historian, Prof. Walter Burkert of the University of Zurich, notes that Achilles is transported to the White Island which may refer to Tenerife Island in the Canaries. Burkert notes that the island of Tenerife was sometimes referred to as the “White Isle” by explorers. (Burkert, 1985) Was this White Island one of the Isles of the Blessed spoken of by the ancient Greek Hesiod, and could there somehow be an Atlantis connection? We will learn more about a White Island called “Atala” shortly.
As we encounter these writings, it should be noted that Atlantis itself is sometimes represented by various spellings (Philo Judaeus spelled it “Atalantes”); but it should also be noted that when the context is properly considered, there is no doubt about the identity of the island being referenced. And, as will be demonstrated, there is no doubt that the “Western Ocean” mentioned is indeed our present-day Atlantic Ocean.
According to Critias, Solon was given the story by the Egyptian priests at Saïs which they had obtained from engraved columns within the temple precincts. Manetho, whose writings form the basis of our knowledge of ancient Egyptian history, obtained his famous King-Lists from similar sources. So what about this source?
THE EGYPTIAN WRITINGS
Over a half-century ago Cambridge scholar and explorer, Harold T. Wilkins (1946), noted the depiction of a great festival on column 8 of the Great Hall of the temple of Rameses at Karnak, along with an accompanying text memorializing “the loss of a drowned continent in the Western Ocean”. The column mentioned cannot be easily dismissed, and is a relevant example of the type of source to which Solon (in Plato’s Timaeus) refers.
Plato described Atlantis as being ruled by ten kings before its demise. Egyptian king-lists going back thousands of years before Plato (we will look at one example here) establish four important facts which we should notice. They are:
1) Egyptian tradition begins with the “reign of the gods”
2) In all there were ten of these so-called “god-kings”
3) They were said to have reigned in a foreign country
4) From all appearances they were called “Atlanteans”
This last statement will be challanged by scholars, so let’s take a closer look at the Egyptian king-lists. One noticeable fact is that Manetho (250 B.C.) calls the first series of kings who ruled during the “reign of the gods” Auriteans. The latter may be nothing more than a corruption of the word “Atlantean”. Further, Manetho says these god-kings ruled not in Egypt itself, but in a “foreign land”.
The “Auritean” kings of Manetho should have been transcribed as “Auliteans”. (The r/l, l/r alternation is an old phonic phenomenon of world-wide distribution and is well known to linguists; Dinneen, 1967, Shipley, 1977, et al.) Thus the “Auriteans” of Manetho could equally well be “Auliteans”: phonetically almost identical to “Atlanteans”.
This idea obtains credible support from the fact that the ancient Phoenician historian Sanchuniathon (1193 B.C.) calls these very same kings Aleteans (Cory, 1826). Since “Auriteans” is obviously a borrowed word, it would be subject to the recognized rules of phonemic variation (Kurath, 1961; Ward, 1960), which could result in such a change.
Although there are numerous ancient Egyptian king-lists in existence, only a few include the famous “reign of the gods”. These include the Palermo Stone (2565-2420 B.C.), the Turin Papyrus (1300 B.C.), and Manetho’s Egyptian Chronicles (250 B.C.). Of these, the Turin Papyrus is by far the most complete source.
The Turin Papyrus (Gardiner, 1987; Smith, 1872) lists ten kings who ruled during the “reign of the gods,” complimenting the fragments of Manetho which have come down to us. Most importantly, it informs us as to the correct number of actual kings, thus helping us to equate Egyptian names with the corresponding Greek names. Below is a list of god-kings from the Turin Papyrus, with Manetho’s fragmented list alongside:
The Turin Papyrus Manetho’s King-list
Horus . . .
Thoth . . .
Ma . . .
So we have ten Aulitean (or, Aletean) kings reigning in a “foreign land” during the precise time Plato says ten Atlantean kings reigned in Atlantis. The Turin Papyrus also records the installation of the next series of kings in 9850 B.C.! This date is so close to the date given for the end of Atlantis that coincidence is virtually out of the question. In such a case, the equation “Aletean=Atlantean” doesn’t seem out of the question. (More Egyptian connections on the Writings from Egypt page.)
THE SANSKRIT WRITINGS
The Sanskrit writings of ancient India contain several descriptions of Atlantis, and even assert that Atlantis was destroyed as the result of a war between the gods and Asuras (recalling the war between the gods and the Titans). Present day scholars are so steeped in Greek and Roman (western) literature that Indian sources are too often ignored.
A passage in Sanskrit from the Mahabharata
The Vishnu Purana, one of the oldest of the Hindu Puranas, speaks of “Atala, the White Island,” one of the seven dwipas (islands) belonging to Patala (Book II, chaps. i, ii, and iii). This ancient text locates Atala geographically on the seventh (heat, or climate) zone, which according to Francis Wilford (the translator) is 24 to 28 degrees north latitude, putting it in the same latitude as the Canary Islands just off the North African coast. Col. Wilford rightly calls Atala, “Atlantis, the White Island”. (Wilford, 1808)
At least one “authority” has attempted to identify Atala with Italy, but Italy is not an island. Also, Italy is 38 to 45 degrees north latitude. Finally, I fail to see any possibility that the “Western Ocean,” mentioned in the texts as its location, could be the Mediterranean Sea when the Karna Parva of the Mahabharata clearly describes Africa as comprising that ocean’s eastern shoreline—placing that body of water clearly to the west of Africa!
Another non-Sanskrit scholar implies that Atala might be one of the well-known northern lands, such as Iceland or Greenland, and that the epithet “White Island” refers to its being covered with snow the majority of the time—even the mythological Hyperborea has been suggested. This does not appear to be the case.
Atala and Sveta Dwipa (“White Island”) are not the only names for Atlantis in Sankrit lore. Another name, Saka Dwipa, is used just as often in the Puranas; and according to the Sanskrit Dictionary (1974), Saka Dwipa means “island of fair skinned people.” It is therefore quite possible that “white” refers to the skin color of its inhabitants, rather than to the dominant color of the island—although it should not be assumed that all Atlanteans were white-skinned.
The terms “Atala” and “White Island” are used also by the Bhavishya Purana (4th cent. B.C.). Here it is stated that Samba, having built a temple dedicated to Surya (the Sun), made a journey to Saka Dwipa, located “beyond the salt water” looking for the Magas (magicians), worshippers of the Sun. He is directed in his journey by Surya himself (i.e., journeys west following the Sun), riding upon Garuda (the flying vehicle of Krishna and Vishnu) he lands at last among the Magas.
The Mahabharata (circa. 600 B.C.) also refers to “Atala, the White Island”, which is described as an “island of great splendour.” It continues: “The men that inhabit that island have complexions as white as the rays of the Moon and they are devoted to Narayana . . . Indeed, the denizens of White Island believe and worship only one God.” (Santi Parva, Section CCCXXXVII)
I do have my critics on this issue. Despite the minute and detailed descriptions of the location, culture and technology of Atala provided in the Sanskrit literature, there are those who disagree. For instance, it has been alledged that Plato called Atlantis “a continent,” whereas Atala was only an island; therefore, it is reasoned, they could not be one and the same.
In actual fact, Plato never calls Atlantis a continent: only a “large island”. That Atala is also a very large island can be deduced from the Mahabharata, which describes Atala as having a capital city (Tripura), other major cities with houses, palaces, and streets, and as being populated by numerous tribes, some of whom chose to wage war against other nations. This is not a description of a small island.
It has also been alleged that the Sanskrit word tala means “place”: its negative (a-tala) would then mean “no-place”. But, according to the Sanskrit Dictionary tala means a “surface,” “plane” or “land”. Atala is the “name of a hell,” “bottomless,” “at the bottom” (McDonnell, 1974).* It is not unusual for a destroyed or sunken land like Atala to re-emerge in later religion as a “land of the departed” (whether hell or paradise). Among the Egyptians, Amentet (“Land of the West”) eventually became the “realm of the dead”.
The ancient Sanskrit literature contains more than one account of a powerful islandic empire in the Atlantic which sank to the bottom of the “Western Ocean” ending a horrendous war. Although originally described in the Mahabharata as an island in the far West, in modern parlance Atala has become a “hell”, and its original inhabitants (Daityas, Danavas, Asuras) “demons”. These were once living tribes of people.
The Santi Parva also describes Atala as being inhabited by white men who never have to sleep or eat. (Ibid.) Interestingly enough, the Greek historian Herodotus (450 B.C.) describes a tribe of Atlanteans who “never dream and eat no living thing”. (History, Book IV) Can this be coincidence? And just as the god Poseidon is very much involved in the Atlantis story, likewise in the Sanskrit accounts we find Varuna (the Hindu Poseidon) very much involved in Atala.
In other words, Atala, the White Island is remarkably similar to Plato’s Atlantis, even down to its circular capital city, Tripura! Tripura is made in three concentric parts, just as Plato’s Metropolis is divided into three parts by concentric canals. During the war of the gods and Asuras, the wicked cities of the Asuras began to fall, one by one, amidst loud cries of woe: “Burning those Asuras, he [the hero] threw them down into the Western ocean” (Karna Parva, Section XXXIV).
Concerning the “concentric arrangment” of Tripura, a recent archeological discovery of a fortified palace in Bactria, India, known as Dashly-3, turned out to be a concentric 3-ringed structure of the “tripura type”. [Their words, not mine.] The archaeologists, excavating under the auspices of the Archaeological Departments of Pakistan and India (Mahadevan, 15), also state that the Dasyas, the builders of Dashly-3, were “Asura-worshippers”.
In the Surya Siddhanta, an ancient Sanskrit text on astronomy, the translator (W. D. Whitney, 1860) mentions an “island” (dwipa) called Jambu Dwipa, surrounded by rings of alternating land and water. I am tempted to equate Jambu Dwipa with the Atlantean capital, which Plato describes as surrounded by circular canals, “making alternate zones of sea and land” (Critias).
The geographical specifics given in the above writings render the location of the powerful island civilization known as Atala beyond question: Atala was a large island, containing numerous cities, located off the western shore of Africa in the Atlantic Ocean. Following a tremendous war, the island with all its cities and inhabitants, was sent burning to the bottom of that ocean, after which peace prevailed. To attempt to separate these accounts from Plato’s Atlantis is an exercise in triviality.
I believe the above accounts constitute ample evidence that my years of research have not been wasted. Perhaps literary scholars’ assertion that no pre-Platonic accounts of Atlantis exist should be seriously reconsidered.
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*These extremely old traditions were formed more than 10,000 years ago when the Aryans of India were living in Central Europe—before they became literate. The initial a of Atala may not represent the negative. It is possible that the name Atala came about by adding the prepositional prefix ati, meaning “over,” “beyond,” to the word tala (land). The result would initially be Ati-tala which could later be contracted to At’tala, a “land beyond” [the horizon]. Such a derivation corresponds to the Sunset Land of several nations who had traditions of a sunken homeland. The double t (resulting from contraction, and not pronounced) would easily have been dropped by the time writing was adopted, although the Berbers of North Africa retain the double t as “Attala”. [Back]
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