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Historical Atlantis

By Frank Joseph on March 24, 2015 in History, News 10 Comments

Plato by Raphael.

While neither the first nor the only one of its kind, Plato’s account is the best-preserved description of Atlantis to have survived antiquity. It is, therefore, the most important document available to students of this sunken realm, made all the more valuable by the Greek philosopher’s prestige among Western civilization’s most influential thinkers.

He cites Atlantis in two dialogues—the Timaeus and Kritias—as an example illustrating the point he was attempting to make, that human societies begin to self-destruct when their citizens no longer honor organic relationships between the spiritual and the material spheres of existence. Imbalance in one, he states, sets up a deteriorating resonance in the other. Such a bond is unseen until the consequences of cosmic disharmony reveal themselves in physical destruction. This fact alone—that Plato used Atlantis to exemplify his argument—is ­sufficient ­evidence to verify the drowned kingdom’s historical authenticity.

The account did not originate with him; he inherited it from Solon, the famous lawgiver who learned of the sunken civilization while visiting Egypt around 565 BCE. During his tour of a temple of the goddess Neith along the Nile Delta, a high priest translated the story of Atlantis, which had been recorded in hieroglyphic text on a monumental pillar.

The word Atlantis is a Greek alteration of the Egyptian word Etelenty. The name Etelenty appears in the Book of Coming Forth by Day (better known as the Book of the Dead), a compilation of Egyptian liturgical texts buried with the deceased to help the soul along its underworld journey through death to new life. Etelenty, according to Dr. Ramses Seleem’s 2001 translation, means “the land that has been divided and submerged by water.”

Athanasius Kircher’s Atlantis

 

Variations of Atlantis as a flooded landscape occur often in ancient Egyptian literature. Thaut, the god of wisdom, also known as Thoth, was enraged by the decadence of an antediluvian humanity. “I am going to blot out everything which I have made,” he declares in the Theban Recension of the Book of the Dead. “The Earth shall enter into the waters of the abyss of Nun [the sea god] by means of a raging flood, and will become even as it was in the primeval time!”1 Thaut appears again in the Edfu texts, which locate the “Homeland of the Primeval Ones” on a great island overwhelmed by the sea with most of its inhabitants during Zep Tepi, or the First Time. Thaut escaped the deluge in the company of seven sages who brought their preflood technology to the Nile Delta, thereby sparking pharaonic civilization.2

After returning from Egypt with the story of Etelenty, Solon was preparing a Greek rendition when he passed away in 559 BCE. Plato’s version presents most of the facts, but in a more straightforward form than the unfinished epic. Ignoring this documented pedigree, skeptics claim that Atlantis was unknown before Plato supposedly invented it. They fail to recognize, however, that Atlantis had already been memorialized in a public event conducted throughout ancient Greece.

During the Lesser Panathenaea female participants in the all-Athenian festival wore a garment caught at the shoulders and draped in folds to the waist. Known as a peplum, this garment was adorned with images “which showed how the Athenians, supported by Minerva [the Latin version of the Greek goddess Athena], had the advantage in the war with the Atlantes,” according to the renowned nineteenth-century classical scholar Philipp August Böckh.3 Because the Panathenaea was celebrated annually for centuries before Plato’s birth, he could not have fabricated Atlantis, which was already well known to generations of Greeks. Furthermore, their long familiarity with the story underscores his purpose in using it as a veritable historical example for the philosophic argument he made in the Timaeus and Kritias.

Some skeptics claim he merely conflated a similar natural disaster that occurred during his own lifetime with a fictional Atlantis. They refer to Helike, located little more than a mile from the Gulf of Corinth. During major seismic activity, the large, important city and its immediate vicinity, with all its inhabitants, suddenly collapsed 1.25 miles beneath the surface of the earth. The sea rushed in, dragging down ten Spartan ships riding at anchor. There were no survivors. Over time, the sunken ruins of Helike were gradually silted over and lost until excavations brought them to light near the village of Rizomylos in the summer of 2001. Their archaeological discovery has since been added to the World Monument Fund’s list of One Hundred Most Endangered Sites.

Yet Plato’s account could not have been based on Helike’s fate, because the Greek city was destroyed during the winter of 373 BCE, some twenty-five years after he wrote the Atlantis narrative, immediately following Socrates’ suicide in 399 BCE. Moreover, Plato would have never succeeded at trying to pass off Helike as Atlantis, because the Achaean city’s demise was an infamous affair that occurred during the lifetime of his contemporaries.

Other skeptics insist that the Aegean island of Thera was really Atlantis, but their arguments are no less flawed, and they unravel under scrutiny.* Suffice it to say here that Thera lies in the Mediterranean Sea, not the Atlantic Ocean, and additionally bears little in common with Plato’s description of Atlantis. None of the names cited in his account is found on Thera, which was too tiny for wars with Egypt, Italy, and Greece, as specified in the Kritias. Nor was Thera surrounded by a ring of mountains, populated by elephants, home to a mining or mineralogical center, in possession of three harbors, the site of an imperial city, or the capital of religious worship for the sea god Poseidon.

Attempts by conventional scholars to minimize or debunk Plato’s account invariably fall on the facts he presents so clearly. He begins by telling us that Atlantis was a large island “greater than Libya and Asia combined.”4 His characterization has led some investigators to conclude that he was describing a massive continent. Yet the Libya and Asia of his time—2,400 years ago—made up only a fraction of the territories encompassed by those names as they are understood today. During the fourth century BCE, Libya was no more than a thin strip of North African coastline running from the western border of Egypt to perhaps Morocco, at most, while Asia meant Asia Minor, roughly the western third of what is now Turkey. Combined, these areas might result in an island as large as Portugal, but not anything approaching a true continent.

Atlantis lay in the Atlantic Ocean outside the Strait of Gibraltar, where it was almost entirely surrounded by a ring of high mountains, which opened on the south. A temperate climate allowed for two growing seasons, typical of other Atlantic islands, such as Madeira or the Canaries. The island was thickly forested, facilitating the construction of a large navy, which the Atlanteans used to pursue their imperialist agendas, and it was inhabited by scores of wild animals—most ­remarkably, the elephant. The appearance of this creature on an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean was a point used by skeptics to discredit Plato’s account. In 1967, however, Science magazine reported the discovery of thousands of elephant teeth from forty different underwater locations along the Azores-Gibraltar Ridge. The recovery of these elephant remains validated Plato’s account as few other finds have done in recent times.

The pachyderms evidently crossed from the shores of northwest Africa over a former land bridge that extended into the eastern Atlantic. When the land bridge collapsed sometime within the past twenty-five thousand years, the elephants were stranded on the island of Atlantis. Standard translations of Plato’s account perpetuate an error that, once corrected, suggests this former land bridge was used by the migrating elephants: “For in those days, the Atlantic was navigable.”5 Florida Atlantologist Kenneth Caroli states that “the original Greek word does not mean navigable. It means passable ‘on foot.’ It is their assumption of a maritime context that convinced scholars to twist the translation.”6

From an aerial perspective, the city on the island resembled a target, laid out as it was in concentric circles of alternating moats and land rings. At the hub of the central artificial islet stood the holy of holies, a small golden shrine dedicated to the sacred marriage between a native woman, Kleito, and the sea god Poseidon. From their union sprang five sets of male children, the progenitors of a dynasty that ruled the Atlantean Empire. The island derived its name from the firstborn, Atlas; Atlantis means “daughter of Atlas.”

The city was surrounded by an extensive cultivated plain irrigated by an immense canal system fed by numerous rivers and freshwater springs of both cold and hot water, thermal sources typical of volcanically active islands. Approaching from the south, visitors would have seen three harbors, testimony to Atlantean sea power. Just beyond the broad marketplace, busy day and night with international commerce, reared a colossal wall of red tufa, white pumice, and black lava rock arranged in tricolor bands and sheeted with broad panels of polished bronze. Abutted by watchtowers, the great rampart entirely surrounded the city.

A single canal three hundred feet wide and one hundred feet deep ran from the outer wall to the coast, 5.5 miles away. A fully armed battleship was thus able to sail directly from the sea to the outer wall and through it to the first and largest moat on the other side. The other two moats were connected by four bridged canals five hundred feet across, guarded by towers and gates wherever the bulwarks touched solid ground. Vessels were able to pass under the bridges via these canals, which were cut straight through each land-ring, allowing the vessels to access the various moats.

At the perimeter of the outermost land-ring stood another wall of red, white, and black volcanic rock, plated with gleaming tin. Behind it was a racetrack that ran around the entire 1,800-foot-wide islet, which was otherwise given over to temples; priestly residences; gymnasia; separate public baths for men, women, and horses; stadiums; and public gardens.

The second, smaller land-ring, at 1,200 feet wide, was the seat of naval headquarters, with training facilities and marine barracks. The innermost and smallest islet was surrounded by a red, white, and black wall adorned with orichalcum, a high-grade copper. It enclosed the imperial palace, which was set in a large garden with an adjoining winery. Nearby was the monumental Temple of Poseidon, 600 feet long, half as wide, and 150 feet high.

The exterior of the structure, which resembled archaic Greek or early Etruscan sacred architecture, was covered in silver, save for, in the pediment over the entrance, golden figures signifying various ­deities. Inside, a colossus of the sea god held his emblematic trident in his right hand while seizing with his left the reins to six winged horses that pulled the chariot in which he stood. The statue was so huge that its head almost brushed the ivory ceiling flecked with gold. Around the base of Poseidon were one hundred Nereids, nymphs riding dolphins, symbolizing initiates into the sea god’s mystery cult.

The temple was a veritable hall for statuary, with figures of the original ten kings and their queens, “and many others dedicated by monarchs and private persons belonging to the city and its dominions,” according to Plato.7 They were grouped around a magnificent altar and holy pillar inscribed with the laws of the empire.

Adjacent to the temple was a bullpen from which a sacrifice was selected by the ten regents when they convened in the temple alternately every fifth or sixth year. They subdued the animal with nooses and clubs, then slit its throat with stone daggers to spill its blood over the sacred column. Thereafter, attendees pledged to uphold the laws and made toasts of wine mixed with bull’s blood.

Not far from the Temple of Poseidon, at the midpoint of Atlantis itself, stood the small shrine dedicated to his primeval union with Kleito. This innermost islet was just three thousand feet across, although large enough to accommodate the imperial palace, great temple, and golden-walled holy of holies. Atlantis was a citadel and ceremonial center, not an urban setting. Its only permanent residents were imperial family members, their bodyguards, naval and army personnel, priests, and attendants. Rather than being a city where people lived, Atlantis was a public gathering place visited for entertainment and religious activities. The population resided in cities, in towns, or on farmsteads throughout the island. Its volcanic soil was highly fertile, allowing agriculture to flourish.

Atlantis was surrounded by a rectangular, uniformly flat plain nearly 350 miles long and 228 miles wide. This vast cultivated space was serviced by streams and rivers from adjacent mountains. The descending waters were conveyed into a gigantic irrigation canal 100 feet deep, 600 feet wide, and 1,118 miles long, circling the entire plain.

While this public works project may seem to some skeptics beyond the capabilities of any premodern civilization, archaeologists know that the Hohokam culture of the American Southwest, as long ago as the eleventh century, built a canal system that, if placed end to end, would have stretched more than one thousand miles, from Phoenix, Arizona, to well beyond the U.S. border with Canada. Plato describes the Atlanteans as extraordinary irrigationists. They created a network of river ways to float timber and produce to various parts of the island by boat—again reminiscent of the Hohokam, who identically employed their canal system. Such prodigious feats of agriculture were necessary to feed the 6,720,000 inhabitants of the island.

At the zenith of its power, Atlantis was the capital of an imperial enterprise that extended from “the opposite continent,” as Plato referred to America, to Western Europe as far as Italy and across North Africa to the border of Egypt.8 Names of the original ten kings listed by Plato suggest something of the empire’s extent in that they correspond with certain geographical realms, mythical figures, or foreign peoples far removed from Plato’s Greece. For example, Elasippos, Euaemon, Autochthon, and Azaes are the names of Atlantean kings cited by Plato. Lisbon was originally known as Elasippos, as the Portuguese capital was called even in late Roman times, while Cádiz, in southwestern Spain, was referred to as Gades, from the Atlantean king Gadeiros. Euaemon echoes Eremon, a royal flood hero who led other deluge survivors to the shores of pre-Keltic Ireland after the catastrophic inundation of his island kingdom. The Autochthones were described by Herodotus, Plato’s fifth-century BCE predecessor, as Atlanteans dwelling along the western shores of Morocco, just as King Autochthon is cited in the Kritias. King Azaes appears to reference Plato’s “opposite continent,” where the Itzas were a Mayan people occupying coastal Yucatán.

While Ampheres (Joined or Fitted Together on Both Sides), Diaprepres (Bright Shining One), Mestor (Counselor), and Musaeus (Of the Muses) are less certainly associated with any particular people or place, flood stories featuring identifiable Atlantean themes were prevalent in Portugal, Spain, Ireland, North Africa, and Mexico, where most of Plato’s Atlantean monarchs seem philologically connected. These holdings granted the Atlanteans fabulous wealth, particularly in the form of copper mines.

The emperor of Atlantis commanded the ancient world’s most powerful armed forces, comprising 76,600 warriors. These included 14,400 archers, slingers, and heavily armed infantry, together with 10,000 chariots carrying 20,000 drivers and soldiers. There were also elite units, troops of royal bodyguards, officers, and an army of supply personnel.

Yet Atlantis was primarily a thalassocracy—a naval power—and its 1,200 warships were crewed by 14,400 sailors, marines, shipwrights, and dockhands. These impressive forces were augmented by the nine affiliated kingdoms that made up the Atlantean Empire. Although Plato does not provide their disposition of arms, together they formed a potent military phenomenon unequaled until the advent of Imperial Rome. Nor does he explain why Atlantis gathered its military might to launch an attempted conquest of the Mediterranean world. In any case, the Atlantean juggernaut seemed irrepressible, subjugating Western Europe as far as Italy and steamrolling across North Africa to penetrate the Egyptian frontier. The armies of pharaonic Egypt were crushed, and the entire kingdom tottered on the verge of surrender, when their Athenian allies scored a stunning victory against the invaders. Henceforward, the bloodied Atlanteans were progressively forced to relinquish their conquests in a series of defeats that eventually expelled them from the Mediterranean.

Sometime thereafter, widespread seismic upheavals swallowed up the Greek armies, and the island of Atlantis disappeared “during a single day and night” of catastrophic flooding.9 The Kritias inexplicably breaks off just when Zeus, the supreme Olympian god, is about to condemn the Atlanteans for their degeneracy. The same kind of detailed description that brought their civilization to life would have doubtless painted the picture of its destruction. While some scholars speculate the dialogue was left incomplete for various unknown causes, the missing section was more likely finished but lost, like most classical literature.

A 15th-century Latin translation of Plato’s Timaeus

More troubling is the only incredible anomaly in the entire account: Plato’s repeated insistence that the Atlanto-Athenian War took place 11,400 years ago. The discrepancy between this remote period, when human society was only just emerging from the last ice age, and details of a typically thirteenth century BCE civilization portrayed by both the Timaeus and Kritias have compelled many investigators to dismiss the whole narrative as a work of fiction.

Plato’s elaborate description of Atlantis unequivocally identifies it as a Late Bronze Age kingdom dating roughly from the sixteenth to thirteenth centuries BCE. Yet some seven thousand years earlier—when Plato says its forces invaded the Mediterranean Sea—neither Greek nor Egyptian civilization existed. Far from engineering any temple containing detailed records of Atlantis, Egyptians had invented nothing more technologically sophisticated than grindstones for making flour from wild grass seeds. The Athens portrayed by Plato as a victorious military power did not exist 114 centuries ago. In fact, the Greek peninsula was not even inhabited at the time.

Literalists who insist that Plato’s ice age time frame must be upheld despite everything science understands about the period are obliged to explain how Atlantis could have flourished when the wheel had not yet been invented. There were no metal tools or weapons in 9400 BCE, no chariots, no irrigation projects, no urban centers, no large-scale agriculture, no monumental art, no ships, no written language, no armies—in short, nothing described by the dialogues. The temperate mid-ocean climate Atlantis is said to have enjoyed did not exist during the Late Pleistocene Epoch, as that postglacial period is known. It is an entirely impossible setting for Bronze Age Atlantis, no less outrageously erroneous than assigning U.S. history to the Middle Ages.

Literalists assume that their concept of time is identical to Plato’s. As Caroli rightly observes, “the Greek system of numbers used throughout Roman times and after did not exist in Plato’s day, let alone Solon’s. The potential to confuse the earlier and later Greek systems is rarely considered. The older system was more decimal.”10 Moreover, the Nile Delta priests who supplied the original account were known to use a lunar calendar. Transposing Plato’s 9400 BCE date from solar to lunar years brings Atlantis squarely into its proper temporal surroundings during the Late Bronze Age, circa 1200 BCE. It seems likely, then, that the ancient translator of the Egyptian text did not trouble himself with recalculating its lunar years into solar time but transcribed them, as he did all other information, verbatim from the inscription.

While his fidelity is an assumption, Plato’s troublesome chronology might be more simply explained by what the British scholar Desmond Lee describes as the Greeks’ “bad sense of time. . . . And though the Greeks, both philosophers and others, were interested in origins, they seem to have been curiously lacking in their sense of the time-dimension.”11 Perhaps nothing more than notorious Greek sloppiness concerning proper dating may be responsible for Bronze Age Atlantis’s incongruous placement at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch. It is nonetheless curious that this period defined a major cultural surge known as the Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age, when northwestern Europe was resettled after the Last Glacial Maximum by extraordinarily creative invaders. These Upper Paleolithic people, known as the Magdalenians, were named after La Madeleine, a Vézère Valley rock shelter in the French Dordogne.

The Magdalenians first appeared on the shores of Normandy, as though arriving from the sea, then spread in all directions, from Portugal to Poland. Unlike their far less sophisticated predecessors, they dwelled in tents; manufactured superior flint tools; worked both utilitarian and aesthetic forms in bone, antler, and ivory; and sculpted stone figurines of passing skill. Their greatest surviving achievement is stupendous cave art, as preserved at such subterranean galleries as Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain.

If the Magdalenians were not exactly Plato’s Atlanteans, they may have been their Upper Paleolithic ancestors. Their appearance on the shores of Western Europe—when major coastal flooding occurred as a result of glaciers melting into rising sea levels—coincides with his Pleistocene time frame. Although less probable than the direct transcription of a lunar date, it is nonetheless conceivable that the 11,400 BP date Plato cites for Atlantis might refer after all to its Mesolithic roots. Atlantean beginnings around 9400 BCE may have been enough to satisfy him for the whole narration, given Greek indifference toward accurate chronologies of any kind.

Caroli brings out a more troubling possibility; namely, that the original Greek account was deliberately tampered with for religious reasons. He points out that not one of the earliest known versions predates the ninth century, and most are no earlier than the twelfth or thirteenth. To equate the destruction of Atlantis with Noah’s flood required reducing Plato’s dates. But the oldest manuscripts assigned the Atlantean catastrophe to one thousand years before Solon’s time. Later translators “corrected” it to match the then accepted figures from Plato. In many of the early texts of the Timaeus, it read 1,009, not 9,000 years. It was mainly monkish scribes doing the many copies of copies. But they expanded Plato’s original chronology from 1,009 years in the Timaeus to 9,000 years, though the former is suspiciously precise, and so the more likely.12

While we may never satisfactorily reconcile a tenth-millennium BCE time frame for the events surrounding Atlantis, that curious period seems nevertheless to reflect on the sunken capital from the radically different perspectives of Magdalenian Europe or the Bronze Age. Perhaps both—separately or simultaneously—were meant, for whatever causes, to illuminate various aspects of the multifarious lost wellspring of civilization. If, as seems possible, Stone Age Magdalenians arrived on the Atlantic island during Late Paleolithic times, the impact of this artistically gifted people helped found and determine the early developmental course of civilization there. As such, their Bronze Age descendants, great artists in their own right, were the logical inheritors of a cultural richness going back to the very time specified by a literal reading of Plato’s account.

Notes:

1.Ramses Seleem, The Illustrated Egyptian Book of the Dead: A New Translation with Commentary (New York: Sterling, 2001), 424.

2.Robert Kohlmann, trans., The Edfu Texts (Dallas: University of Texas Press, 1968).

3.Philipp August Böckh, Commentary on Plato, trans. Robert Pearson (London: London University Press, 1928), 45.

4.Plato, The Timaeus and the Kritias, trans. Desmond Lee (London: Penguin Books, 1977), 121.

5.Ibid., 24.

6.Kenneth Caroli, private e-mail correspondence with the author, February 20, 2009.

7.Plato, The Timaeus and the Kritias, 132.

8.Ibid., 130.

9.Ibid., 128.

10.Caroli, private e-mail correspondence with the author, February 20, 2009.

11.Desmond Lee in Plato, The Timaeus and the Kritias, 129.

12.Caroli, private e-mail correspondence with the author, February 20, 2009.

Excerpted from Atlantis and the Coming Ice Age: The Lost Civilization–A Mirror of Our World with permission from the publisher, Bear & Co. On sale now at Amazon and other good bookstores.

About the Author: Frank Joseph was the editor in chief of Ancient American magazine from 1993 until 2007. He is the author of several books, including Advanced Civilizations of Prehistoric America and Before Atlantis. He lives in the Upper Mississippi Valley.