Atlantis: Historical Sources

Part of elementamundi.com. By author Mark David: Twitter @authorMarkDavid


“This power came forth out of the Atlantic Ocean, for in those days the Atlantic was navigable; and there was an island situated in front of the straits which are by you called the Pillars of Heracles; the island was larger than Libya and Asia put together, and was the way to other islands, and from these you might pass to the whole of the opposite continent which surrounded the true ocean; for this sea which is within the Straits of Heracles is only a harbour, having a narrow entrance, but that other is a real sea, and the surrounding land may be most truly called a boundless continent.”


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The Great Day of His Wrath by John Martin

The story of Atlantis

Comes to us from Timaeus, a Socratic dialogue, written in about 360 B.C. by Plato. There are four people at this meeting who had met the previous day to hear Socrates describes the ideal state. Socrates wants Timaeus of Locri, Hermocrates, and Critias to tell him stories about Athens interacting with other states. The first is Critias, who talks about his grandfather’s meeting with Solon, one of the 7 sages, an Athenian poet and famous lawgiver. Solon had been to Egypt where priests had compared Egypt and Athens and talked about the gods and legends of both lands. One such Egyptian story is about Atlantis.

“[Egyptian Historian to Solon, Plato’s ancestor]
O Solon, Solon, you Hellenes are never anything but children, and there is not an old man among you. Solon in return asked him what he meant. I mean to say, he replied, that in mind you are all young; there is no old opinion handed down among you by ancient tradition, nor any science which is hoary with age. And I will tell you why.

“There have been, and will be again, many destructions of mankind arising out of many causes; the greatest have been brought about by the agencies of fire and water, and other lesser ones by innumerable other causes.”

Plato’s account of Atlantis as translated by Benjamin Jowett.

Many great and wonderful deeds are recorded of your state in our histories. But one of them exceeds all the rest in greatness and valour. For these histories tell of a mighty power which unprovoked made an expedition against the whole of Europe and Asia, and to which your city put an end. This power came forth out of the Atlantic Ocean, for in those days the Atlantic was navigable; and there was an island situated in front of the straits which are by you called the Pillars of Heracles; the island was larger than Libya and Asia put together, and was the way to other islands, and from these you might pass to the whole of the opposite continent which surrounded the true ocean; for this sea which is within the Straits of Heracles is only a harbour, having a narrow entrance, but that other is a real sea, and the surrounding land may be most truly called a boundless continent. Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others, and over parts of the continent, and, furthermore, the men of Atlantis had subjected the parts of Libya within the columns of Heracles as far as Egypt, and of Europe as far as Tyrrhenia.

This vast power, gathered into one, endeavoured to subdue at a blow our country and yours and the whole of the region within the straits; and then, Solon, your country shone forth, in the excellence of her virtue and strength, among all mankind. She was pre-eminent in courage and military skill, and was the leader of the Hellenes. And when the rest fell off from her, being compelled to stand alone, after having undergone the very extremity of danger, she defeated and triumphed over the invaders, and preserved from slavery those who were not yet subjugated, and generously liberated all the rest of us who dwell within the pillars.

‘Among the artifacts was discovered a brass lighter and a ladies ring of Byzantium that seemed familiar, coming as it did from the Tell es Sarkan… and a most curious little wooden box, probably made of mahogany. Within, coins of old, amongst which was a talisman… the most remarkable I had ever seen.’ Diary of Archaeologist Karl Oskar Eklund. Discovered hidden in the false wall of his apartment 1982.

Destruction of Tyre by John Martin

Destruction of Tyre by John Martin

But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea. For which reason the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is a shoal of mud in the way; and this was caused by the subsidence of the island.

Plato, Timaeus and Critias

The End — Gathering The Evidence

There is little doubt amongst sholars of the Atlantis legend that the empire was brought to a close with a cataclysm — such as the eruption of Thera — the present day island of Santorini–sometime in the early Bronze Age. For example, the philosopher Crantor, a student of Plato’s student Xenocrates, is often cited as an example of a writer who thought the story to be historical fact. The evidence is seen in the murals at Akrotiri, the seat of the Minoans on Thera, that there existed a thriving boat-based civilisation rich in custom and trade. If not Minoan people, then who were the Atlantians?

As for literary evidence, much has come down to us from the tales of the Ancient Egyptians. In particular Crantor’s work, a commentary on Plato’sTimaeus, is lost, but Proclus, a Neoplatonist of the 5th century AD, reports on it. The following passage has been represented in the modern literature either as claiming that Crantor actually visited Egypt, had conversations with priests, and saw hieroglyphs confirming the story or as claiming that he learned about them from other visitors to Egypt. Proclus wrote:

As for the whole of this account of the Atlanteans, some say that it is unadorned history, such as Crantor, the first commentator on Plato.

Crantor says that Plato’s contemporaries used to criticize him jokingly for not being the inventor of his Republic but copying the institutions of the Egyptians. Plato took these critics seriously enough to assign to the Egyptians this story about the Athenians and Atlanteans, so as to make them say that the Athenians really once lived according to that system. The next sentence is often translated “Crantor adds, that this is testified by the prophets of the Egyptians, who assert that these particulars [which are narrated by Plato] are written on pillars which are still preserved.”

Pandemonium by John Martin

Pandemonium by John Martin

So where were they written? In the original, the sentence starts not with the name Crantor but with the ambiguous He, and whether this referred to Crantor or to Plato is the subject of considerable debate.

The War with the Athenians

“We must bear in mind concerning this whole feat of the Athenians, that it is neither a mere myth nor unadorned history, although some take it as history and others as myth”. Proclus

Scholar Cameron points out that whether he refers to Plato or to Crantor, the statement does not support conclusions such as Otto Muck’s “Crantor came to Sais and saw there in the temple of Neith the column, completely covered with hieroglyphs, on which the history of Atlantis was recorded. Scholars translated it for him, and he testified that their account fully agreed with Plato’s account of Atlantis” or J. V. Luce’s suggestion that Crantor sent “a special enquiry to Egypt” and that he may simply be referring to Plato’s own claims. Another passage from Proclus’ commentary on the Timaeus gives a description of the geography of Atlantis:

That an island of such nature and size once existed is evident from what is said by certain authors who investigated the things around the outer sea. For according to them, there were seven islands in that sea in their time, sacred to Persephone, and also three others of enormous size, one of which was sacred to Hades, another to Ammon, and another one between them to Poseidon, the extent of which was a thousand stadia [200 km]; and the inhabitants of it — they add — preserved the remembrance from their ancestors of the immeasurably large island of Atlantis which had really existed there and which for many ages had reigned over all islands in the Atlantic sea and which itself had like-wise been sacred to Poseidon. Now these things Marcellus has written in his Aethiopica”.

Marcellus remains unidentified. Other ancient historians and philosophers believing in the existence of Atlantis were Strabo and Posidonius.

Plato’s account of Atlantis may have inspired others. For example, writing only a few decades after the Timaeus and Critias, the historian Theopompus of Chios wrote of a land beyond the ocean known as Meropis. This description was included in Book 8 of his voluminous Philippica, which contains a dialogue between King Midas and Silenus, a companion of Dionysus. Silenus describes the Meropids, a race of men who grow to twice normal size, and inhabit two cities on the island of Meropis: Eusebes(Εὐσεβής, “Pious-town”) and Machimos (Μάχιμος, “Fighting-town”).

Sodom and Gomorrah by John Martin

Sodom and Gomorrah by John Martin

Hyperborea and a tradition of grand tales

Theopompus obviously loved to tell a grand story, perhaps trying to outdo Plato in a tradition of embellishing that that was into something that the populace would love to be, a form of entertainment in much the same way that films are the medium we use to project our fantasies and engage the imagination. He reports that an army of ten million soldiers crossed the ocean to conquer Hyperborea, but abandoned this proposal when they realized that the Hyperboreans were the luckiest people on earth. Heinz-Günther Nesselrath has argued that these and other details of Silenus’ story are meant as imitation and exaggeration of the Atlantis story, for the purpose of exposing Plato’s ideas to ridicule.

Of others following the same tradition is Zoticus, a Neoplatonist philosopher of the 3rd century AD, who wrote an epic poem based on Plato’s account of Atlantis. The 4th-century historian Ammianus Marcellinus, relying on a lost work by Timagenes, a historian writing in the 1st century BC, writes that the Druidsof Gaul said that part of the inhabitants of Gaul had migrated there from distant islands. Some have understood Ammianus’s testimony as a claim that at the time of Atlantis’s actual sinking into the sea, its inhabitants fled to western Europe; but Ammianus in fact says that “the Drasidae (Druids) recall that a part of the population is indigenous but others also migrated in from islands and lands beyond the Rhine” (Res Gestae 15.9), an indication that the immigrants came to Gaul from the north (Britain, the Netherlands or Germany), not from a theorized location in the Atlantic Ocean to the south-west. Instead, the Celts that dwelled along the ocean were reported to venerate twin gods (Dioscori) that appeared to them coming from that ocean.

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Featured image by Steve Swayne
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