Atlantis not in the Atlantic that we know
Although I accept that a prima facie case to be made for an Atlantic location, it is dependent on a combination of defective translations along with outdated interpretations of three elements in Plato’s Atlantis narrative. However, closer scrutiny of the text tells a different story and reveals that the reasoning behind the Atlantic Hypothesis is flawed. The elements referred to are;
- Plato’s references to the Atlantic
- The location of the Pillars of Heracles
- The apparent size of Atlantis
- [Timaeus 24e] The Atlantic Ocean
The most frequently encountered English translation of Plato’s text is the 1871 version from Benjamin Jowett, in which he rendered the above passage as follows:
For these histories tell of a mighty power which, unprovoked, made an expedition against the whole of Europe and Asia, and to which your city put an end. This power came forth out of the Atlantic Ocean, for in those days the Atlantic was navigable;
Similar 20th century translations are offered by others, such as Bury (1929) and Lee (1965), all of which refer to the Atlantic ‘Ocean‘.
George Sarantitis has pointed out that the ancient Greeks, a seafaring people, ascribed terms to seas according to their different characteristics including Thalassa, Okeanos, Pelagos and Pontos. These terms are still used, although the newer generations of Greeks no longer remember their earlier connotations. Even today, Greek maps and charts refer to the Mesogaeos Thalassa, Aegean Pelagos and Euxinos Pontos which in English are known respectively as the Mediterranean, Aegean and Black Seas(13).
Georgeos Diaz-Montexano makes a similar point when he comments that the classical writers had three words for bodies of salt water; pontos (small), pelagos (medium) and okeanos (large) and that Plato always referred to Atlantis being in a pelagos.
Okeanos was used exclusively to describe a circular body of water, which surrounded Africa, Asia and Europe, the only landmasses known to the Greeks(2). However, Plato never used ‘okeanos’ in relation to the home of Atlantis, instead he referred to it as a ‘pelagos’. This is where doubts should begin to arise that all is not well with some of our translations. Then our suspicions should deepen further when we find that Thomas Taylor who gave us the first English translation of the entire works of Plato and Aristotle, in Timaeus 24e used the term ‘Atlantic Sea‘ (1793). More recently a modern Greek, George Sarantitis has drawn attention to the English mistranslation of pelagos and his view has been confirmed by the American scholar Joseph Warren Wells.
The word ‘ocean’ in particular, is a serious mistranslation given that Plato does not use the word ‘ocean’ (gr: okeanos) in either Timaeus or Critias! He was very well acquainted with what an ocean was. He had defined it in his earlier work of Phaedo and makes references to it in Cratylus and in Theaetetus. Therefore, there is no room for misinterpretation; when Plato wrote ‘pelagos’ and ‘pontos’, he meant precisely those types of sea. He did not write ‘okeanos’ because he did not mean the ocean. The Atlantic ocean is an ocean and the Atlantic pelagos, is a pelagos!”
We can conclude therefore that since Plato never used the term ‘ocean’ in connection with Atlantis, the claim that he was referring to our present-day Atlantic is highly questionable.
This is confirmed by Plato’s comment that his Atlantic had been navigable ”in those days”, clearly implying that at the time of Solon this was no longer the case. Obviously, such a statement could not be applied to the Atlantic Ocean that we know. So it begs the question as to what body of water Solon/Plato were referring to.
Additionally, It is worth mentioning that Aristotle referrred(3) to a shallow sea just outside the Pillars of Heracles, of which he notes that “the shallows are the result of mud, is calm and lies in a hollow“, a description that could not be attributed to the Atlantic Ocean that we know today, if he was alluding to Pillars at Gibraltar.
I feel confident that this brief look at Plato’s ‘Atlantic’ reference should stand alone as sufficient evidence to convince you that he was not referring to our Atlantic Ocean.
However, it is not unreasonable that researchers have opted for an Atlantic location for Atlantis as the traditional understanding of two other elements in Plato’s Atlantis narrative have forced this conclusion on them. One is the location of the Pillars of Heracles and the other is the generally accepted size of Atlantis. I hope to demonstrate that the conventional interpretation regarding both are probably wrong.
- [Timaeus 24e] The Pillars of Heracles
Plato refers to the ‘Pillars’ on five occasions (Tim. 24e & 25c, Crit. 108e, 114b &114c).
The location of the ‘Pillars’ has been one of the most debated details in Plato’s Atlantis story. There is little doubt that since the 3rd century BC the term has been applied almost exclusively to the Strait of Gibraltar. The online encyclopaedia Wikipedia notes that Pillars were, in earlier times, identified with the Strait of Sicily, but from the time of Eratosthenes (c. 250 BC) the term was used to refer to the Strait of Gibraltar. The view that it always referred to Gibraltar is hotly disputed. However, Pindar (522-443), who was possibly the earliest to mention the Pillars of Heracles(7) and would appear to have considered that the Pillars were a metaphor for the limit of established Greek geographical knowledge, a boundary that was never static. I am not aware of any classical writer specifying Gibraltar as the location of the ‘Pillars’ prior to Eratosthenes.
Many other locations have been identified as being referred to in ancient times as the Pillars of Heracles. Robert Schoch(6) writes “This distinctive name, taken from the most powerful hero of Greek mythology, was given to a number of ancient sites known in modern times by quite different appellations”. The Greeks, however, used the name Pillars of Heracles to mark other sites besides Gibraltar, some outside the Mediterranean – namely, the Canary Islands in the Atlantic and the Strait of Kerch dividing the Black Sea from the Sea of Azov – and even more inside the Mediterranean – among which were, the Strait of Bonafaccio between Corsica and Sardinia, the Strait of Messina between mainland Italy and Sicily, the Greek Peleponnese, the mountainous coast of Tunisia, and the Nile Delta. Tacitus, in his Germania (chap.34), clearly states that it was believed that the Pillars of Hercules were located near the Rhine in the territory of the Frisians.
Tacitus, the renowned Latin historian, located the Pillars of Hercules in the Baltic. Pliny the Elder noted that in Sogdiana in modern Uzbekistan there was reputed to be an altar and ‘Pillars of Heracles’. Aristotle in de Mundo describes the north coast of Europe on the edge of a vast sea, beyond the Celts and the Scythians up to Sinus Gallicus and the Pillars of Heracles!
In his Periplus (a guide to the Mediterranean) Scylax of Caryanda describes, the Maltese Islands as lying to the east of the Pillars of Heracles, implying some degree of proximity. Ulrich Hofmann combines the Periplus of Scylax with the writings of Herodotus to build a credible argument for placing Atlantis in North Africa in Lake Tritonis, now occupied by the chotts of modern Algeria and Tunisia. He places the Pillars at the Gulf of Gabés, which would put Malta to the east of them. Ulrich Hofmann also argues that the Pillars were part of Atlantis rather than separate from it(12).
Perhaps the first ‘modern’ writer to propose the Eastern Mediterranean as the location for the ‘Pillars’ was the Russian, Avraam Norov. Drawing on both Greek and Arabic sources for his ideas he considered them to have been shrines.
- Galanopoulos and E. Bacon suggest(8) that the Pillars of Heracles were possibly associated with Melos, one of the Cyclades or Cape Maleas, the eastern promontory of the Gulf of Laconia. Both James Mavor and Rodney Castleden supported this view.
Anton Mifsud, Malta’s leading atlantologist, points out that the 1st century BC writer, Apollonius Rhodius and Lucanus both located the Strait of Heracles in ancient Syrtis Minor(4), now the Tunisian Gulf of Gabés. George Sarantitis, the Greek researcher, subscribes to the same idea(5). For my part, I favour the secondary meaning of ‘boundary marker’ as it would seem to better suit the context.
Eberhard Zangger quotes(9) the 4th century AD. Roman writer Servius, “Columnas Herculis legimus et in Ponto et in Hispania. (through the Columns of Herakles we go within the Black Sea as well as in Spain)”. This is clear evidence that more than one location had been considered concurrently as the ‘Pillars’.
Sergio Frau in his recent book, Le Collone de Ercole: Un’inchiesta(10), insists that the Pillars were in fact located in the Strait of Sicily. He sees this location agreeing with the writings of Homer and Hesiod. He discusses in detail the reference by Herodotus to an island to the west of the Pillars, suggesting that the word ‘ocean’ had a different meaning than to-day and pointing out that elsewhere Herodotus refers to Sardinia as the largest island in the world. Following this lead Frau concluded that Atlantis was in fact located in Sardinia. Frau comments that Eratosthenes, circa 200 BC, was the first geographer to place the Pillars of Heracles at Gibraltar. He also quotes the earlier geographer Dicaearchus whose comments appear to also support a location near Malta. Antonio Usai has also opted for the Strait of Sicily in his critique of Frau’s book.
In the Late Bronze Age the Bosphorus in the east and probably the Strait of Sicily in the west confined the Greeks. Their boundaries were extended further and further as their maritime capabilities improved, meeting the needs of trade and colonisation. It was only shortly before Solon’s trip to Egypt that the Greek colony of Massilia (modern Marseilles) was founded and so, at last, the western limit of the Mediterranean was brought within the reach of Greek ships. Obviously as their range extended so too did the location of new Pillars and possibly led to the decline in the usage of the title at former boundaries, leaving us today with only the Strait of Gibraltar to carry the name.
In 1913, Nicolae Densusianu proposed a location for the Pillars, on the Danube in ancient Dacia, modern Romania. Even more exotic locations such as Chott-el-Djerid in Tunisia, Bab-el-Mandeb at the mouth of the Red Sea, the Strait of Hormuz as well as the Palk Strait between Sri Lanka and India have all been suggested at some stage as the ‘Pillars’.
Sometimes, in ancient Greek literature, the Pillars are a reference to the Strait of Messina between Sicily and the southern tip of Italy (a place which the Greeks did know well, having established colonies in Sicily and Southern Italy).
Finally, my own conclusion regarding the location of the ‘Pillars’ is that a careful reading of Plato’s text shows clearly that they were located in the Central Mediterranean region. I base this view on (i) Critias 108 which states that the Atlantean war was between those that lived outside the Pillars of Heracles and those that lived within them and (ii) Critias 114 which declares that Atlantis held sway over the Western Mediterranean as far as Tyrrhenia in the north and the borders of Egypt in the south. Consequently, we can assume that west of Tyrrhenia and of Egypt were beyond the Pillars of Heracles. This opens up the possibility of Malta, Sicily or Sardinia as prime candidates for the location of Atlantis. My personal preference is to locate the Pillars at the Strait of Messina!
Plato’s comments make little sense, if he was describing an attack by people outside the Pillars on those inside the Pillars and referring to Gibraltar as the location of those Pillars, since half of the coastal territory east of Gibraltar was already conquered. However, if the Pillars were located somewhere much further east, such as the Central Mediterranean, his comments make perfect sense.
The Strait of Gibraltar as the location of the Pillars at the time of the Atlantean invasion is clearly untenable. Further confirmation could be produced if time and space permitted a discussion of the ‘shoals’ (Timaeus 25d) which resulted from the submergence of Atlantis and appeared to have continued as a navigational hazard until at least Plato’s time, as such a feature would have been incompatible with the Atlantic beyond Gibraltar.
3 The Size of Atlantis
Timaeus 24e has been translated by some to imply that Atlantis was greater in size than Libya and Asia combined! This translation, taken at face value, has provided the principal foundation for the claim that Atlantis was a huge island in the Atlantic, as it would have been too extensive to fit anywhere in the Mediterranean. Some have used this to refer to Atlantis as a continent, although Plato never used that term in relation to Atlantis.
The debate here centres on the meaning on the Greek word meizon, translated as ‘greater’.
in the respected Greek Lexicon of Liddell & Scott Meizon (??????) is given the sole meaning of ‘greater’. Furthermore, in Bury’s translation of sections Timaeus 20e -26a there are eleven instances of Plato using megas (great) meizon (greater) or megistos (greatest). In all cases great or greatest is employed except just one, 24e, which uses the comparative meizon, which Bury translated as ‘larger’! J.Warren * concluded that Bury’s translation in this single instance is inconsistent with his other treatments of the word and it does not fit comfortably with the context(11).
This inconsistency is difficult to accept, because, although meizon can have a secondary meaning of ‘larger’, it is quite reasonable to assume that the primary meaning of ‘greater’ was intended. I note that the 1856 German translation of Hieronymus Müller also clearly accepted ‘meizon’ to refer to power rather than size.
Thorwald C. Franke offered the 2008 Atlantis Conference the most persuasive explanation for the use of this phrase, which was that “for Egyptians the world of their ‘traditional’ enemies was divided in two: To the west there were the Libyans, to the east there were the Asians. If an Egyptian scribe wanted to say, that an enemy was more dangerous than the ‘usual’ enemies, which was the case with the Sea Peoples’ invasion, then he would have most probably said, that this enemy was “more powerful than Libya and Asia put together”.
I consider this suggestion to be the most natural and elegant offered to date. This idea is also supported by Stavros Papamarinopoulos
The Plain of Atlantis is one of the principal features reported by Solon in great detail. He describes it being “3,000 stades in length and at its midpoint 2,000 stades in breath from the coast” (Crit.118a, trans. Lee). Those dimensions would translate into 370 x 555km (230 x 345 Miles). Even Plato found the figures ‘incredible’ (Critias 118c), but in deference to Solon accepted them. When added to the mountains that surrounded the plain it would have constituted such a large landmass that it could not have been destroyed by an earthquake, which any seismologist will confirm,
I have already submitted another chapter to ROIPA for inclusion in their Cronos magazine. In it, I was forced to conclude that all of Plato’s numbers in the Atlantis narrative were exaggerated by a factor of ten and if applied to the size of the Plain of Atlantis reported by Plato it would translate into a piece of land 37 x 55km, somewhat bigger than the Greek island of Rhodes.
From all this we can conclude that:
- When Plato was referring to the Atlantic he was not speaking of the ocean that we know today by that name.
- The Pillars of Heracles were situated east of Gibraltar in the Central Mediterranean.
- The claim that Atlantis was greater in size than Libya and Asia combined does not stand up to scrutiny. The dimensions of the Plain of Atlantis provided by Solon are exaggerations, confirmed by Plato’s own increduility.
My contention is that the evidence presented above demonstrates that “the balance of probabilities” favours a Central Mediterranean rather than an Atlantic location for Atlantis.
While most of this paper has been rather negative in so far as it was concerned with endeavoring to demonstrate where Atlantis did not exist, I feel obliged to offer at least a short defence of my preferred location for Atlantis by simply quoting Plato;
“Now in this island of Atlantis there existed a confederation of kings, of great and marvellous power, which held sway over all the island, and over many other islands also and parts of the continent; and, moreover, of the lands here within the Straits they ruled over Libya as far as Egypt, and over Europe as far as Tuscany.” Bury
For me, this could not be clearer: there is absolutely no reference to the Atlantic, but instead he describes an alliance that stretched from North Africa across the Mediterranean to Italy, including most of the larger islands, such as Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica and many others such as Malta.
(2) Herodotus, The Histories (4.42)
(4) Anton Mifsud, Malta: Echoes of Plato’s Island (The Prehistoric Society of Malta, 2001) p.48
(6) Robert Schoch, Voices of the Rocks (Harmony, New York, 2000) p.87
(7) http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/metis_1105-2201_1993_num_8_1_992 p.86
(8) Galanopoulos & Bacon, Atlantis: The Truth behind the Legend (Bobbs-Merrill, New Orleans, 1969) p.97
(9) Eberhard Zangger, The Flood From Heaven (Sidgwick & Jackson, London, 1992) p.109
(10) Sergio Frau, ] Le Collone de Ercole: Un’inchiesta (The Pillars of Hercules) (Nur Neon, 2002)
(11) J. Warren Wells, Atlantis in Context (CreateSpace, 2011)