Pytheas was a 3rd century BC navigator from the Greek colony of Massalia (Marseilles) and is best known for his voyage in the North Atlantic, possibly around 240 BC. His trip took in the British Isles and as he ventured further North and claimed to have reached Thule.
>Gregory Douglas Wear, in his study of early excursions by Mediterranean peoples into the North Atlantic concluded that with the current state of archaeological and historical research, it is nothing less than impossible to verify with certainty, whether Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians or any other pre-Pythean Mediterranean dweller actually set foot on the British Isles, northern France, or anywhere else in north-western Europe north of Galicia(c).<
Thule has generated volumes of debate regarding its location. Pytheas described Thule as lying six days’ sail to the north of Britain. Iceland, Norway(a) and the Faroes along with the Scottish Shetland and Orkney Islands have all been proposed as Pytheas’ Thule.
Søren Tillisch, a Danish archaeologist, accepts that the identification of the Faeroes as the Thule of Pytheas is reasonable, but he still thinks that the Estonian island of Saaremaa in the Baltic is also a feasible candidate(b).
Rhys Carpenter devoted an interesting chapter of his Beyond the Pillars of Hercules in which he suggested that Pytheas’ voyage was undertaken with commercial objectives in mind, but on that level it was unsuccessful. However, as a voyage of discovery, it was an unparalleled achievement, earning for Pytheas Carpenter’s accolade of ”antiquity’s Greatest Explorer”.
Carpenter favours the idea that the term, ‘Pillars of Hercules’, when applied to the Strait of Gibraltar was used with the sense of boundary markers, indicating ”the limits of the Inner Sea that, for the Greeks, was the navigable world.”[p156]
Stele (pl. Stelai) is defined in Wikipedia as a stone or wooden slab, generally taller than it is wide, erected for funerals or commemorative purposes, most usually decorated with the names and titles of the deceased or living — inscribed, carved in relief or painted onto the slab. It can also be used as a territorial marker to delineate land ownership. Ireland is littered with solitary standing stones or menhirs that many consider to be boundary markers. They are to be found across Europe and North Africa as well as Asia.
The words come into the Atlantis narrative when Plato refers to what is usually translated as ‘the Pillars of Heracles’. In fact, Plato does not use the Greek word ‘stulos’ which means pillar or supporting column. Commenting on this word, Riaan Booysen wrote(a) “The Greek word for pillar is stulos, which is similar but not identical to either stêlas or even stele. The latter two words are not to be found in any of Strong’s Concordance, the Pocket Oxford Classical Greek Dictionary, the Oxford Greek Minidictionary or the Oxford Greek-English Learner’s Dictionary. That is however not to say that it does not exist, and I have indeed been able to find an interpretation of the word stele as:
“Greek: an inscribed stone slab; a block of stone, gravestone; a column, a pillar…”
It therefore seems that stêlas should be interpreted as an inscribed block of stone, possibly even a gravestone, rather than a pillar or pillars as it is understood today.>Rhys Carpenter [221-156] has proposed that the term ‘Pillars of Hercules’ probably arose from a mistranslation of the Greek ‘stelai’ as ‘Columnae’ in Latin, which does mean columns or pillars, obscuring the original meaning of boundary marker. I find this more reasonable as it would seem to better suit the context.<
Anton Mifsud correctly insists that ‘stelai’ can only refer to commemorative slabs rather than supportive pillars and that the distinction between a pillar and commemorative slab is important as Mifsud has identified two previously recorded blocks found on Malta as the ‘Pillars of Hercules.’
For my part, I favour the secondary meaning of ‘boundary marker’ as it would seem to better suit the context.
The Voyage of Hanno, the Carthaginian navigator, was undertaken around 500 BC. The general consensus is that his journey took him through the Strait of Gibraltar and along part of the west coast of Africa. A record, or periplus, of the voyage was inscribed on tablets and displayed in the Temple of Baal at Carthage. Richard Hennig speculated that the contents of the periplus were copied by the Greek historian, Polybius, after the Romans captured Carthage. It did not surface again until the 10th century when a copy, in Greek, was discovered (Codex Heildelbergensis 398) and was not widely published until the 16th century.
The 1797 English translation of the periplus by Thomas Falconer along with the original Greek text can be downloaded or read online(h).
Edmund Marsden Goldsmid (1849-?) published a translation of A Treatise On Foreign Languages and Unknown Islands by Peter Albinus. In footnotes on page 39 he describes Hanno’s periplus as ‘apocryphal’. A number of other commentators(c)(d) have also cast doubts on the authenticity of the Hanno text.
Three years after Ignatius Donnelly published Atlantis, Lord Arundell of Wardour published The Secret of Plato’s Atlantis intended as a rebuttal of Donnelly’s groundbreaking book. The ‘secret’ referred to in the title is that Plato’s Atlantis story is based on the account we have of the Voyage of Hanno.
Nicolai Zhirov speculated that Hanno may have witnessed ‘the destruction of the southern remnants of Atlantis’, based on some of his descriptions.
Rhys Carpenter commented that ”The modern literature about his (Hanno’s) voyage is unexpectedly large. But it is so filled with disagreement that to summarize it with any thoroughness would be to annul its effectiveness, as the variant opinions would cancel each other out”[221.86].
Further discussion of the text and topography encountered by Hanno can be read in a paper by Duane W. Roller.
What I find interesting is that so much attention was given to Hanno’s voyage as if it was unique and not what you would expect if Atlantic travel was as commonplace at that time, as many ‘alternative’ history writers claim.
However, even more questionable is the description of Hanno sailing off “with a fleet of sixty fifty-oared ships, and a large number of men and women to the number of thirty thousand, and with wheat and other provisions.” The problem with this is that the 50-oared ships would have been penteconters, which had limited room for much more than the oarsmen. If we include the crew, an additional 450 persons per ship would have been impossible, in fact it, is unlikely that even the provisions for 500 hundred people could have been accommodated!
Lionel Casson, the author of The Ancient Mariners commented that “if the whole expedition had been put aboard sixty penteconters, the ships would have quietly settled on the harbour bottom instead of leaving Carthage: a penteconter barely had room to carry a few days’ provisions for its crew, to say nothing of a load of passengers with all the equipment they needed to start a life in a colony.“
The American writer, William H. Russeth, commented(f) on the various interpretations of Hanno’s route, noting that “It is hard for modern scholars to figure out exactly where Hanno traveled, because descriptions changed with each version of the original document and place names change as different cultures exert their influence over the various regions. Even Pliny the Elder, the famous Roman Historian, complained of writers committing errors and adding their own descriptions concerning Hanno’s journey, a bit ironic considering that Romans levelled the temple of Ba’al losing the famous plaque forever.”
George Sarantitis has a more radical interpretation of Hanno’s journey, proposing
(e) that instead of taking a route along the North African coast and then out into the Atlantic, he proposes that Hanno travelled inland along waterways that no longer exist. He insists that the location of the Pillars of Heracles, as referred to in the narrative, matches the Gulf of Gabes .
The most recent commentary on Hanno’s voyage is on offer from Antonio Usai in his 2014 book, The Pillars of Hercules in Aristotle’s Ecumene. He also has a controversial view of Hanno’s account, claiming that in the “second part, Hanno makes up everything because he does not want to continue that voyage.” (p.24) However, the main objective of Usai’s essays is to demonstrate that the Pillars of Hercules were originally situated in the Central Mediterranean between eastern Tunisia and its Kerkennah Islands.
A 1912 English translation of the text can be read online(a),>as well as a modern English translation by Jason Colavito(k).<
Another Carthaginian voyager, Himilco, is also thought to have travelled northward in the Atlantic and possibly reached Ireland, referred to as ‘isola sacra’. Unfortunately, his account is no longer available(g).
The livius.org website offers three articles(i) on the text, history and credibility of the surviving periplus together with a commentary.
The Credibility and Veracity of the Atlantis story must be considered on three levels. Was the story true and did Plato himself believe it to be so and is it credible to us today? Any reading of the text reveals that Plato did believe it even though he had reservations about some of its contents. Plato’s faith is clearly based on the fact that he traced the tale back to Solon whose reputation placed him beyond question for the Athenians of Plato’s era. For Plato to claim Solon as the primary conduit for the Atlantis story is the equivalent of an American writer today claiming George Washington as a source. Unless the citation is factually correct, any such writer would be committing literary suicide. In Plato’s case he not only quoted the ‘canonised’ Solon but also included two of his own dead relatives in the chain of transmission from Egypt. This combination of Solon and his own relatives in the provenance of the narrative has led many to conclude that it is highly improbable that Plato would have done so in the perpetration of a literary fraud, leading to the reasonable assumption that there must be some basis to the story. The fact that the chain of transmission is so convoluted, has also added to the view that the Atlantis story is to be believed.
To my mind, if Plato had invented the Atlantis story he would have had no reason to refer to childhood memories. In fact, unless we are to attribute very great deviousness to Plato, his very reference to Mnemosyne reinforces the veracity of his narrative.
The account of how Plato received the story contains no logical contradictions, which further enhances its credibility. In addition to this, as H.S. Bellamy pointed out, it is remarkable that Plato was able to credit the Egyptians with knowledge and antiquity superior to that of the Greeks.
Plato relates how the priests of Sais told Solon that the last flood to engulf Athens led to the art of writing being lost and not regained for some considerable period. That the Egyptians were aware of this seems to come as a surprise to Solon. It was not until the 19th century that it was confirmed that the Greeks had possessed writing prior to the ‘Dark Age’, a discovery that adds further credence to the whole narrative.
In addition to all this, is the fact that Plato unambiguously claimed on four occasions in Timaeus that the story was true, as if anticipating the incredulity of some of his audience. It is not impossible, in fact it is more than likely, that Plato added his own elaboration to the Atlantis story in keeping with the norms of literary licence of his time. However, he has never been shown to be guilty of wholesale fabrication. Interestingly, Plato declared that his Republic is a fiction but that Atlantis is true.
John Michael Greer[0345.15] notes that Plato stated “three times in the Timaeus alone that the story Solon heard from the Egyptian priest is true, ‘not a mere legend but an actual fact (Tim.21a).’ This is the only place anywhere in Plato’s dialogues that he puts this much emphasis on the factual nature of one of his stories. This dosen’t guarantee the truth of his account of Atlantis, of course, but it does suggest that he wanted to make sure that his story was not dismissed as ‘a mere legend’.”
The Greek researcher, Anthony N. Kontaratos, listed twenty-two instances of Plato asserting the truthfulness of the Atlantis story, directly and indirectly, in a paper delivered to the 2005 Atlantis Conference on Melos.*This led him to ask the question; “How many times in a narration does an author have to insist that his story is true and then again use a credible side plot to drive the point home? Why would Plato go to such lengths to convince his readers that his story is real, if it were not?” [p.80]*
A common criticism is that Plato was merely using the Atlantis story to advance his own views of an ideal state. In fact, he had no need to concoct a country unknown to his listeners to promote his political philosophy when he had already expounded them more than once in other works without resorting to historical or geographical invention. It does seem far-fetched to suggest that Plato used the exotic story of Atlantis to highlight his ideal state system while his prehistoric Athens as outlined in Timaeus was already available for this very purpose.
If Plato had invented the Atlantis story it makes no sense that he included in the narrative his disquiet at some of the details contained in it. In Critias 118c he has the speaker, Critias, declare “now as regards the depth of this trench and its breadth and length, it seems incredible that it should be so large as the account states, considering that it was made by hand, and in addition to all the other operations. But none the less we must report what we heard”. Galanopoulos and Bacon drew attention to this extract as an inexplicable comment by a ‘fabulist’ intent on misleading an audience. They surmise that Plato was torn between the reputation of his source, Solon, and the incredibility of the content of his tale and opted for reputation over reason. If Plato had invented the story he would have devised more credible dimensions. They very fact that he offers such seemingly exaggerated numbers, which in other circumstances might have generated open derision, is in itself evidence that he accepted their veracity and believed that he was relaying a true story.
If we compare the manner in which Plato presents Atlantis in Timaeus and Critias with his introduction of the myth of Theuth and Thamus in his dialogue Phaedrus, where the speaker, Socrates, announces “I can tell you a story from the men of former times but only they know whether or not it is true”, we can see an element of doubt which he does not apply in the case of the Atlantis story. Although Plato clearly accepts that the Atlantis account is a ‘strange’ one, he is adamant that it is true, ‘having been attested by Solon, the wisest of the Seven Sages’. In his dialogue Timaeus, Plato has the speaker, Critias, twice emphasise that his story is about something that actually happened and he has Socrates himself welcome the story on that understanding.
The weight of evidence is that Plato believed the story to be true and if doubt is to be cast anywhere it should be directed towards Plato’s source, Solon, the Egyptian priests or the subsequent line of transmission. And so, the key questions are: (i) did the Egyptian priests tell Solon the truth and (ii) did Solon fully understand what he was being told and (iii) was the story transmitted intact to Plato?
In a March 2014 interview George Sarantitis gave his reasons for accepting Plato’s credibility, “So, going back to its author, Atlantis was written almost 2.360 years ago by the Greek philosopher-scientist Plato. He wrote about it in two separate books, Timaeus and Critias. Plato was renowned in his time and is considered to be of the greatest thinkers ever. Many believe Atlantis to be a figment of his imagination, written to illustrate a point. But Plato was an arch exponent of rationalism and logic, renowned and acclaimed philosopher-scientist of wide interdisciplinary knowledge and he wrote about Atlantis in the latter part of his life. It was in his last works. So the question is; would one like him, at his age and reputation and in that era, write a work of pure fiction, a fairytale? The logical answer is no. It’s illogical to expect that one under his circumstances would spend time to write such an incredible story solely for philosophical instruction. Would one reasonably expect Einstein or Hawkins for example, to write fairytales as part of their life’s work and especially while approaching the end of it? Besides, Plato’s account of Atlantis contains geographical directions, mathematical descriptions and precise measurements; hardly the stuff of fairy stories. Why (did) he write about it in two separate books?”(a)
Lewis Spence pointed out[259.41] that Sais, which had a Greek quarter, had very strong religious, social and commercial links with Athens that would have generated regular traffic between the two cities. It is highly unlikely that the Atlantis story was related to Solon alone and further remarks that as a consequence, “if Plato’s account had not been inherited from Solon, and had its Egyptian form not been current in Sais, there were thousands of Greeks there who could have contradicted it, and that some negative of the kind would have reached Athens sooner or later.”
Eberhard Zangger contends that there is no reason to believe that Plato saw the Atlantis story as anything other than an actual historical account. He argues that the length and specificity of detail would render the tale purposeless as fiction.
*Rhys Carpenter pointed out “A remarkable detail that should convince the most skeptical of the genuineness of Solon’s conversation with the Saite priests is the latter’s unambiguous statement that the older Greek race had been reduced to an unlettered and uncivilized remnant which, like children, had to learn its letters anew. This claim we know to be entirely exact, but we have no reason to believe that Plato himself was aware of it.” [629.498]*
The strongest case that can be brought against the credibility of Plato’s tale is perhaps the high numerical values given to both architectural dimensions and the antiquity ascribed to Egypt, Athens and Atlantis alike. Since Plato did not treat his audience as fools, we can only attribute these apparent exaggerations to a transmission error as the narrative passed through many persons from the Egyptian priests to Plato or, as some have suggested, from even earlier sources such as Sumeria or the Indus Valley.
The fact that Plato incorporated such excessive numbers into his Dialogues only enhances the view the Plato really believed the data given to him and that they were not the outpourings of a deluded romantic.
Finally, had Plato’s intention been to totally deceive his listeners then it is reasonable to expect that he would have used the long recognised ploy of carefully mixing the false with large dollops of commonly accepted truths, thus luring his audience into accepting everything presented as fact. There is no evidence of such a strategy, instead we have Plato doubting some of his own story but obviously compelled to relate it as given to him out of regard for its source, Solon.
Nevertheless, in spite of all this we cannot ignore the fact that there is a high level of scepticism regarding the Atlantis story, particularly among academics. I suspect that in many instances that this intellectual cowardice stems more from a need to protect careers rather than engage in controversy.
He expressed the view that the collapse of eastern Mediterranean Bronze Age civilisations was the result of climate change while ignoring the more extensive evidence for concurrent widespread seismic activity in the region. The most recent (August,2013) studies have again pointed to climate change as the culprit(b).
In one of his books, Discontinuity in Greek Civilisation. Carpenter declared his conviction that the catastrophic destruction of Santorini was the original inspiration for Plato’s Atlantis narrative. In another, Beyond the Pillars of Heracles he voiced the opinion that Tartessos was not a city but the name of the river, today’s Guadalquivir, which assisted the extensive mining activities in the area.
The Identity of the Atlanteans has produced a range of speculative suggestions nearly as extensive as that of the proposed locations for Plato’s lost island. However, it is highly probable that we already know who the Atlanteans were, but under a different name.
The list below includes some of the more popular suggestions and as such is not necessarily exhaustive. While researchers have proposed particular locations for Atlantis, not all have identified an archaeologically identified culture to go with their chosen location. The problem being that most of the places suggested have endured successive invasions over the millennia by different peoples.
It would seem therefore that the most fruitful approach to solving the problem of identifying the Atlanteans would be to first focus on trying to determine the date of the demise of Atlantis. This should reduce the number of possible candidates, making it easier to identify the Atlanteans.
A final point to consider, is that the historical Atlanteans were a military alliance, and as such may have included more than one or none of those listed here. The mythological Atlanteans, who included the five sets of male twins and their successors would be expected to share a common culture, wheras military coalitions are frequently more disparate.
Basques: William Lewy d’Abartiague, Edward Taylor Fletcher
Maltese: Anton Mifsud, Francis Xavier Aloisio, Kevin Falzon, Bibischok, Joseph Bosco, David Calvert-Orange, Giorgio Grongnet de Vasse, Albert Nikas, Joseph S. Ellul, Francis Galea, Tammam Kisrawi, Charles Savona-Ventura, Hubert Zeitlmair.
Maya: Robert B. Stacy-Judd, Charles Gates Dawes, Colin Wilson, Adrian Gilbert, L. M. Hosea, Augustus le Plongeon, Teobert Maler, Joachim Rittstieg, Lewis Spence, Edward Herbert Thompson, Jean-Frédérick de Waldeck,
Minoans: K.T. Frost, James Baikie, Walter Leaf, Edwin Balch, Donald A. Mackenzie, Ralph Magoffin, Spyridon Marinatos, Georges Poisson, Wilhelm Brandenstein, A. Galanopoulos, J. G. Bennett, Rhys Carpenter, P.B.S. Andrews, Edward Bacon, Willy Ley, J.V. Luce, James W. Mavor, Henry M. Eichner, Prince Michael of Greece, Nicholas Platon, N.W. Tschoegl, Richard Mooney, Rupert Furneaux, Martin Ebon, Francis Hitching, Charles Pellegrino, Rodney Castleden, Graham Phillips, Jacques Lebeau, Luana Monte, Fredrik Bruins, Gavin Menzies, Lee R. Kerr, Daniel P. Buckley.