Atlantis – Yes, Really

It's amazing how much information we have at out fingertips. David Livingston spent five years of his life, and nearly died trying to find the source of the Nile. This morning I did the same thing in about an hour from the comfort of my couch using Google Maps. Unlike any generation before us, we can look up primary sources for ancient antiquities without not just getting to skip learning dead languages, but without even leaving the house for the library.

We're a family that watches a lot of history programming, so Atlantis comes up. I decided to look under the hood, and here is what I found:

Where Did the Atlantis Story Originate?

The only primary sources (first documented accounts)  for the story of Atlantis are two Dialogues of Plato - Critias and Timaeus. Some context is helpful here. Plato's dialogues are a student's (Plato) recollection of some of the very best conversations he overheard or participated in. It's a bit like a fan of someone famous writing down the very best memories of their journey with that famous someone. Hopefully, given the level of detail in the dialogues, Plato is working from notes as well as memory, but there's no indication of that. 

The context of Critias and Timaeus are these two individuals trying to entertain  Socrates with strange-but-true tales. Socrates is Plato's teacher and the person being recollected in the Dialogues. Critias and Timaeus both admit they partly consider the story a myth. Critias was looking at turning the story into a play. Either he never got around to it, or the play is lost.

Critias, now a very old man, received the story when he was ten from a popular poet named Solon. So bear in mind, this is a professional storyteller saying he got this story from another professional storyteller. Searching for Atlantis may be bit like overhearing Michael Bay and Stephen Spielberg discussing the next Transformers movie and using that as the basis to search for a historical Cybertron.

Solon claims to have encountered the story while visiting Egypt. He had intended to turn the story into a poem, but had not gotten around to it. Instead, Solon did translate the story from the original Egyptian, or so Critias claims, into Greek. Critias also claims to still have a copy of the original Egyptian manuscript.

The story Critias passes to Socrates from Solon is one of a great war between all of the nations inside the Mediterranean sea versus all of the nations in and around the Atlantic ocean. The battle, according to Critias took place at least nine thousand years prior to the present (the present being around 360 BC). Socrates' home town Athens was the leader of the Mediterranean forces in the world war, and Atlantis was the leader of the forces from the ocean. 

Characteristics of Atlantis in Original Sources

According to Plato's recollection of Critas and Solon Atlantis was:

  • Located past the Pillars of Hercules, outside the Mediterranean sea in the Atlantic Ocean
  • Close enough to the Pillars of Hercules that the disaster that overtook Atlantis made it impossible for the Greeks to reach the ocean for some time afterward.
  • An island chain (Critias uses the word "islands", not "island")
  • Had natural deposits of copper (red metal)
  • Had hot and cold springs
  • Had native elephants
  • Was destroyed by some natural disaster

The Pillars of Hercules

The Pillars of Hercules were an important landmark in identifying the location of Atlantis. These are two mountains identifying the expanse of water that connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. These are very large and a noticeable feature, not easily mistaken for something else.

Finding Atlantis (Without a Wetsuit)

Although Critias gives us an easily identifiable landmark, you probably see that there is nothing to the west immediately past the Pillars of Hercules. The nothing continues west until you hit North America, causing some to consider places like Bimini in the Bahamas or other parts of North America as candidates for Critias and Solon's early civilization.

The Polynesians may have pointed their boats out into the unknown, but the Greeks didn't sail that way. They hugged the coast when travelling, even in the Mediterranean sea.

And, if you are hugging the African coastline outside the rock of Gibraltar (Pillars of Hercules) the first island chain you find is: the Canary Islands.

The Canary Islands

Close enough that a natural disaster would have prevented coast-hugging European sailors from going any further down the African coast line, the Canary islands were an early candidate for Atlantis.

Not only is the location right, but the islands fit the description in several other respects : having hot and cold springs, precious metals, and an being close enough to Africa that an indigenous population of elephants is possible, if unproven. It's even close enough that a hypothetical armed conflict between Mediterranean nations wanting access to coastal Africa and a hypothetical kingdom of Atlantis situated on the Canary islands seems plausible.

In fact, there was enough of a fit that people spent real money studying the geology of the region to find one significant problem: there is no evidence of any catastrophic natural event having happened there.

What Did Solon Get Wrong?

Did Solon get something wrong? It seems all theories of Atlantis assume something in his description must have been mistaken. Those favoring Thera as Atlantis assume he was mistaken about it being outside the Mediterranean Sea. Those favoring Bimini discard the elephants, hot and cold springs.

Since it was a story about a major war, written by one side, maybe Solon got nothing wrong. Maybe the original Egyptians, or Solon (being a poet), improvised to give the "bad guys" of the story a fitting ending - being struck down by natural disaster, when what might actually have happened is the country fading away, as so many nations do.


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