An A-Z Guide To The Search For Plato's Atlantis

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Atlantis as Sesklo Part 1: Euhemerism

In May 2013, I submitted Atlantis as Sesklo as my dissertation for a B.A. (Hons) in Classics at the University of Roehampton. Arguing Atlantis is history and not fiction is a fringe view held by a very small number of classicists and archaeologists [1] therefore my grade (2: 2) did not surprise me since my research was unorthodox. In the introduction of my dissertation I outlined four interpretations of Atlantis (1a, 1b, 2a, 1b) under two labels, ‘fiction’ and ‘history’, and argued for 2b (‘euhemerism’):

1. Fiction

1a. Imaginary: Plato invented Atlantis from scratch.

1b. Pastiche of history: Plato invented Atlantis using diverse historical sources.

2.  History

2a. Donnellianism: Atlantis is straightforward history.

2b. Euhemerism: Atlantis is exaggerated and distorted history.

The most popular interpretation among classicists is 1b given the improbability of Plato inventing Atlantis from scratch, but the historical sites that supposedly inspired Plato and sources of history he used are disputed, e.g. Ecbatana, Carthage, Athens, Persia, Syracuse and Minoan Crete have been proposed; if this “pastiche of history” reading is correct (Gill, 1980: xx-xxi; Vidal-Naquet, 2007: 23), it is almost certain Plato modelled Atlantis on more than one historical place. Atlantis as a pastiche of history (from pasticcio “a medley of ingredients”) should not be confused with real history because Plato was mixing diverse sources together into a fiction. However, in the 1960s, a minority of scholars began to popularize the view Atlantis is real history in the form of euhemerism. The latter usually identifies Atlantis with Minoan Crete:

I follow the view that a genuine tradition of the sudden destruction of Minoan power was preserved in Egypt, and that this tradition was brought back to Greece by Solon about 590 BC, but in a garbled and misunderstood form.” (Luce, 1969: 10)

This “Minoan hypothesis” should not be confused with the (1b) view  Plato invented Atlantis but incorporated aspects of the Minoan civilization into his abstract design:

Minoan Crete was one of the models Plato used to create his fictional Atlantis. But, if so, he was drawing on well-known Greek traditions, not on a garbled version of (alleged) Egyptian records.” (Gill, 1980: xii)

Euhemerism (2b) in contrast takes Plato at face value when he says the Atlantis story derived from Egypt as an (alleged recorded) oral tradition Solon heard and took back home with him to Greece; it was retold or sung via word of mouth in the form of bardic poetry (since Solon poeticized the oral tradition), until it was heard by Plato. This means euhemerism can explain discrepancies between Minoan Crete and Plato’s description of Atlantis (see Critias) as having accumulated when the Atlantis story was retold over generations. For John V. Luce (1969) who popularized this view in The End of Atlantis  by the time the oral tradition had reached Plato it was garbled history, e.g. the size of Atlantis had been magnified, the age pushed back from 900 to 9000 years, and so on; similar to how information is altered or lost during a game of Chinese whispers. Euhemerism thus argues Plato was a recipient of the Atlantis story, not its creator and this sharply contrasts to the view Plato made it up as fiction.

In my dissertation I adopted Luce’s euhemerist approach: Atlantis is an oral tradition which contains a core of history, muddled with distortions and exaggerations. Many ancient oral traditions (muthos) preserve recollections of historical places, persons and happenings; it was Luce’s theory the Atlantis story crystallizes a folk memory of Minoan Crete and its destruction. Luce’s euhemerist approach is more credible than donnellianism (named after Ignatius Donnelly, 1882) which classicists have called “crazy” (Lee, 1971: 156). Donnellianism argues Atlantis is straightforward history i.e. there was once a large island in the Atlantic Ocean submerged by a catastrophe. Needless to say, this view is incorrect; geology has falsified Donnelly’s theory and there is no archaeological evidence (using Plato’s dating) for an Atlantic civilization:

“…to hang on to anything of Atlantis, you have to interpret Plato in some other light. One eminently rational attempt to do that (the most rational ever proposed) involved a location in the Mediterranean at a quite different date from the time-scale confidently asserted by Plato, fixing on the eruption of Thera and the decline of the Minoan civilization as sources somehow a little garbled in transmission for the alleged Egyptian records shown to Solon.” (Jordan, 2001: 80, emphasis added)

Euhemerism however remains on the fringe of classical scholarship because Plato is the only prime literary source for the Atlantis story (all other writings are secondary sources). The alleged Egyptian records of Atlantis mentioned by Plato (although if Timaeus is read closely, Solon is not said to have seen them) have never been found (Renfrew, 1992) and its rather odd Atlantis doesn’t even appear in Greek mythology:

Atlantis is much less securely rooted in ancient Greek tradition
than the Trojan War saga.” (Luce, 1969: 16)

My dissertation failed to provide an explanation for this anomaly, nor could Luce. On the other hand, according to Plato the oral or bardic transmission of the Atlantis tale in Greece was confined to a single Athenian family, i.e. Plato descended from Dropides (a relative of Solon), so the Atlantis tradition (if Plato is taken again at face value) has a unique oral pedigree: the story passed from Solon, to Dropides, down several generations, until it reached Plato. This might explain why Plato is the sole Greek literary source Atlantis reflects a family legend (Kopff, 1980) not a common tradition like Troy.  I now though realize this argument is invalid because there are problems with the oral transmission (these I discuss in a forthcoming journal article).

Recently, my euhemerist view on Atlantis has changed to pastiche of history. I no longer maintain Atlantis is an oral tradition with a historical core, but that Atlantis is fiction; Plato invented Atlantis, not from scratch, but amalgamated together diverse historical ingredients and in his mind built a mental picture of Atlantis out of these. As improbable the euhemerist interpretation is (Forsyth, 1980:  77 calculates Atlantis is at least twice as likely to be fictional than an authentic oral tradition), it has not been wholly discredited, but the odds of it being correct are extremely small. For this reason, my dissertation’s identification of Atlantis with Sesklo, is examined in Part 2.

Notes

[1] These include: Kingdon T. Frost (1913),  Robert L. Scranton (1949), Spyridon Marinatos (1950), Rhys Carpenter (1966), John V. Luce (1969), Nikolaos Platon (1971), Mary Settegast (1987) and Peter James (1995); a survey has revealed only 1.3% of teaching archaeologists (US) support the existence of Atlantis (Feder, 1984).