Sept/Oct 2005 – #53
Atlantis on Ogygia? — Was Newton Right?
The Great Scientist Did Not Keep His Thoughts on the Lost Continent to Himself
The island country of Malta, set in the glittering Mediterranean 60 miles south of Sicily, covers a total area of only 122 square miles—a little smaller than Martha’s Vineyard. It consists mainly of three inhabited islands, Malta, Comino and Gozo. Comino is a mere speck peeping above the ocean between Malta and Gozo, lying to the northwest of Malta and 15 minutes away by helicopter and 30 by ferry, is only eight miles long by four miles across and contains barely one-tenth of the total population (under half-a-million) of the Maltese archipelago.
Nonetheless, what Gozo lacks in size and population it makes up for in the beauty of its lush, green, terraced fields and in the immense richness of its history, which dates back at least 6,000 years and includes the dolmen-like structures of the Ggantija temples.
These megalithic temples are apparently the world’s oldest freestanding buildings, with walls standing over 18 feet high and the two temples together spanning 120 feet (Ggantija means ‘giantess’). Built around 3,600 B.C., they are a thousand years older than the pyramids and Stonehenge. Probably, they were constructed by transporting huge rocks on spherical boulders. Faint traces of spiral patterns—said to depict eternal life—are still visible in the soft limestone interior of the Ggantija temples.
The inhabitants of Gozo claim that their island is Ogygia, home of Calypso, the sea nymph who, as Homer tells us in the Odyssey, kept Odysseus, shipwrecked on his way home from the Trojan Wars, a prisoner on the island for seven years (a mid-1990s TV miniseries, based on The Odyssey and starring Armand Assante, made the story of the frustrated love of the immortal daughter of Atlas for Odysseus all the more memorable by casting as Calypso the African-American actress Vanessa Williams).
The mass of myth and history converging on this deep green island has added up to something even more remarkable: Some believe that Gozo, a.k.a, Ogygia, is a remnant of the sunken continent of Atlantis. In 1997, the publication by Maltese medical doctor Anton Mifsud, Simon Mifsud, Chris Agius Sultana and Charles Savona Ventura of Echoes of Plato’s Island fleshed out the details of this theory. In his book Malta fdal Atlantis, Frances Galea summarized the results of his lifelong research on several ancient studies and known theories on Atlantis, particularly that of Giorgio Grongnet, the Maltese architect who in 1854 was the first to claim the Maltese Islands are the remnants of Atlantis. The discovery by a German film crew in 1999 of what may be underwater temples off the coast of the island of Malta has further stoked the controversy.
Dr. Mifsud and his co-authors didn’t know when they published Echoes of Plato’s Island that they had an ally of towering stature sharing their beliefs. This was Sir Isaac Newton, the discoverer of gravitation, the laws of motion, the laws of optics, the differential calculus, and much, much more.
Sir Isaac’s secret writings on alchemy, Biblical interpretation, Christian history and comparative mythology (2 1/2 million words on theology and one million on alchemy, far in excess of his “scientific” output) have emerged into the public eye only since 1936, when Newton’s heirs auctioned off the bulk of these manuscripts at Sotheby’s in London. Subsequently the manuscripts were dispersed to libraries all over the world, notably Trinity College, Cambridge, and the Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem. As a result of the ensuing, steadily expanding examination of these texts (continued online by Cambridge’s Newton Project, launched in 1999), the simplistic ‘two-Newtons’ interpretation of Newton—one a young brilliant scientist, the other a senile religious nut case—has “completely gone by the boards,” according to Newton scholar Dr. James Force. Force declares that, “We can today see the possibility that one man, a product of many intellectual and religious currents in the 17th century, could write great scientific works, great works in church history, in Biblical interpretation, etc., as part of one great enterprise, that of understanding man and his place in the grand scheme of God’s creation.”
Among the many documents that have been revealed to the world virtually for the first time is Newton’s The Original of Monarchies (New College, Oxford, Ms. 361.1B (section 4). In drafts of this work only recently edited and assembled, we can follow Newton’s fiercely determined attempts to trace back the histories of all the kingships of the world and demonstrate their common ancestry in the descendants of the sons of Noah. In a few brief paragraphs in The Original of Monarchies—almost as an aside—Newton sets forth his theory of Atlantis.
His departure point is the well-known story of the journey of Solon, Plato’s great-uncle, into Egypt where he obtained information about Atlantis, which was later used by Plato in his dialogues the Timaeus and the (unfinished) Critias. Newton writes:
“For Solon, having traveled into Egypt and conversed with the priests (of Sais) about their antiquities, wrote a poem of what he had learnt, but did not finish it. And this poem fell into the hands of Plato, who relates out of it that at the mouth of the straits near Hercules pillars there was an island called Atlantis, the people of which, nine thousand years before the days of Solon, reigned over Libya as far as Egypt and over Europe as far as the Tyrrhene Sea, and all this force collected into one body invaded Egypt and Greece and what ever was contained within the pillars of Hercules, but was resisted and stopped by the Athenians and other Greeks, and thereby the rest of the nations not yet conquered, were preserved.”
Newton continues his recapitulation of Plato’s story by explaining that the gods, having completed their conquests, divided the entire earth up among themselves and “the island Atlantis fell to the lot of Neptune, who made his eldest son Atlas king of the whole island, a part of which was called Gadir.”
Newton believed Atlantis was far smaller than most commentators have supposed, consisting mainly of the island of Gadir, lying somewhat west of the country of Libya and probably west of the Pillars of Hercules. He explains that the Egyptian priests who talked to Solon thought this “lost continent” was huge because they remembered that Gadir had once had “dominions thereof over Libya as far as Egypt.” Newton says the Egyptian priests had forgotten that in the great war in which the Athenians decisively defeated the Atlanteans, “Gadir” had been stripped of all its overseas possessions.
This island of Gadir—at least in Newton’s conception of it—was called Gades in recorded history. It was synonymous with Ogygia, the island on which, according to myth, the nymph Calypso seduced Odysseus and kept him a prisoner of love for seven years (she couldn’t overcome his longing for his home in Ithaca and Zeus eventually had to send Hermes to command her to release him).
Newton writes: “In that island Homer places Calypso, the daughter of Atlas, presently after the Trojan War when Ulysses’ being shipwrecked, escaped thither. Homer calls it the Ogygian Island and places it 18 or 20 days’ sail westward from Phoenicia or Corcyra. And so many days’ sail Gades is from Corcyra, reckoning with the ancients a thousand stadia to a day’s sail. This island is by Homer described as a small one, destitute of shipping and cities and inhabited only by Calypso and her women who dwelt in a cave in the midst of a wood, there being no men in the island to assist Ulysses in building a new ship or to accompany him thence to Corcyra: which description of the island agrees to Gades.”
Through a complex series of arguments, Newton next demonstrates that not only did the Egyptian priests greatly exaggerate the size of the ancient island of Atlantis, but they also exaggerated the period of time separating Solon from the time of Atlantis’s heyday. That period of time was not 9,000 years, he says, but a mere 400 years.
“But the priests of Egypt in those 400 years, had magnified the stories and antiquity of their gods so exceedingly as to make them nine thousand years older than Solon, and the island Atlantis bigger than all Africa and Asia together, and full of people. And because in the days of Solon this great island did not appear, they pretended that it was sunk into the sea with all of its people. Thus great was the vanity of the priests of Egypt in magnifying their antiquities.”
This is all Newton has to say about Atlantis in The Original of Monarchies when he identifies it with the island of Ogygia which is today called Gozo. But Newton’s belief in the “succession of worlds” is also intriguing and, in the eyes of some, suggests Newton may somewhere else have more to say about the destruction of a place like Atlantis.
Late in life, the great scientist came to believe, through extrapolation from what he considered to be solid scientific evidence, that our solar system (and perhaps our entire universe) is periodically destroyed, then renewed, in a cycle resembling the Kalpa or “Great Year” described by the sages of ancient India. Even in his extreme youth Sir Isaac believed in something like the periodic destruction and renewal of the universe, but through reasoning based almost entirely on arguments from theology. Scholar Frank Manuel explains in Newton as Historian that:
“In turning to the problem of whether his was the only world that would ever be, Newton adopted an independent position in his interpretation of the Bible. He accepted outright neither the simple millenarian view that the eternal Sabbath would follow Judgment Day nor the Stoic vision of an infinite succession of worlds ended by conflagrations, but introduced once again the idea of likelihood, supported by subtle traditionalist proofs.”