Atlantis: a grain of truth behind the fiction?
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    The myth of Atlantis stems from two late Dialogues of Plato (Timaeus and Critias) [1], in which the philosopher wrote of a powerful Mediterranean empire that had conquered Egypt about nine thousand years earlier, before being defeated by the primordial Athenians and then destroyed by a cataclysm. The two dialogues praise the perfect social structure of the original Athenian polis (mirroring that described in Plato’s masterwork, The Republic) and the heroism of the founding fathers of Athens (from whom the aristocrat Plato descended), giving the immediate feeling that the philosopher forged the legend of Atlantis to support his political ideal and celebrate his ancestors. [2]

    Inventing stories to sustain a thesis has always been a common practice among writers. And since the more the legends are believed, the more they support the author’s assumptions, various techniques have been developed to substantiate the forgery. The trick of modifying true stories (or stories believed to be true) by inserting one’s own inventions in them is widespread and boasts illustrious examples. Both the Aeneid and the Orlando Furioso, to name just two classical cases, modified popular legends to glorify the ancestry of their commissioners. [3]

    Scholars’ scepticism about the possible existence of Atlantis is therefore well justified. The present article takes for granted the ‘invention’ of the legend, but attempts to analyse whether it might contain references to actual events, even though artfully retouched. The working hypothesis is that Plato inserted the propaganda elements (the social structure of the ideal polis and his ancestors’ heroism) in a narrative of episodes believed to be real by his countrymen (the recipients of his message), to render them more credible.

    Plato’s fellow citizens had the sense of an obscure grand past, witnessed by the mysterious cyclopean walls still visible on the acropolis, although they were not sure about how far it dated back. What they seemed to know more accurately was the age of Egypt: according to Herodotus, the human kingdom of Egypt (which followed the divine one) began 341 generations before his visit to Thebes (Book II, 142-144) (Herodotus 1890). With a generation gap of 25 years this meant about 8500 years earlier (plus the duration of the divine realm).

    The Egyptians, at the time considered the oldest people in the world, themselves provided further support to the myth of a vanished ancient civilization. [4] Their chronologies reported that their first pharaohs had been gods (Van De Mieroop 2011, p.18) who came from the West, a polite way of saying that their kingdom had begun when foreign conquerors with ‘magical powers’ (i.e. unseen technologies) arrived in the area, bringing agriculture and new knowledge.

    The whole story could therefore result in a syncretism blending mythological legends and impressive natural phenomena, to be placed in a period well-suited to the beliefs of the time. For example, it could have mixed the myth of a flood hitting a primordial society which had grown so powerful and wicked as to deserve divine punishment (rather common among ancient cultures, including Greece) with the shocking experience of the earthquake cum tsunami that erased the city of Helike in the Gulf of Corinth in 373 BC. (Paus. 7.24.12) (Pausanias 1918). [5]

    In short, in Plato’s times, legends regarding lost civilizations and the time of the ‘divine’ birth of Egypt were somewhat widespread among literate Athenians. The thesis supported in the present article is that Atlantis was the name given by Plato to the land where the god-founders of Egypt originated. To this extent, note that according to the likely independent view of Diodorus of Sicily [6], the Atlanteans were an extremely refined and pious people because the gods had been born among them: their first king had been Uranus, a god who taught them agriculture (Diodorus Siculus, 1935) (Book III, 56, 3). For the sake of completeness, Appendix A summarizes Plato’s and Diodorus’ references to the geographical position of Atlantis, although their credibility is questionable.

    Identifying Atlantis with the land of Egypt’s founders would solve the problem of the passing down of the myth to Plato’s days (through their traditional mythology), while coercing the epoch of the episode. Let us focus on the date set by Plato for the purported flourishing of Atlantis (coherent with Herodotus’ estimate and with the antiquity that Egyptians traditionally attributed to themselves): it would correspond roughly to 11,500 years ago (9500 BC), a period of substantial climatic upheaval and archaeological novelties.

    This is the key problem with the story: this was the end of the Ice Age, a time before agriculture when humans were still engaged in hunting and gathering, and therefore an unlikely time for an 'advanced' human society like the one described by Plato. What do we know about this crucial period, the end of the Ice Age? Are there any environmental factors which could help us explain elements of the myth of Atlantis, in particular its destruction by flooding and earthquake/volcanic eruption?

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[1] The Platonic text analysed in this article is the translation by W. R. M. Lamb (Plato in Twelve Volumes 1925).

[2] Plato was the son of Ariston (whose pedigree went back to the first kings of Athens and, through them to the god Poseidon) and Perictione (belonging to another prominent family, related through Critias, to Solon, the legislator) (Taylor 1926).

[3] Virgil’s Aeneid attributes the origin of the gens Julia (the family of Caesar and Augustus) to Aeneas of Troy. In Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, a poem dealing with the Carolingian cycle, Bradamante and Ruggero are supposed to be the founders of the Este family.

[4] Egyptians themselves estimated their own antiquity to be even older than that claimed by Herodotus (Rapisarda 2015).

[5] Even the demise of Santorini could have contributed to inspire the story (supposing that Plato knew about it).

[6] Although Diodorus probably knew the Platonic Dialogues, he does not seem to have drawn from them. His main source about Atlantis, quoted by Diodorus himself, was Dionysius, almost certainly Scytobrachion, a mythographer of Mytilene who lived and taught in Alexandria in the second century BC.

Posted September 1st, 2016; last modified July 1st, 2018.

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