Atlantis presents a mystifying riddle. There are undoubtedly elements of its architecture and remnants of its civilization all around the globe. Yet it is inconceivable that any such global civilization ever existed.
The story of Atlantis begins quite literally with two of Plato's dialogues, Timaeus and Critias. These accounts are the only known written records which refer specifically to a lost civilization called Atlantis.
Archaeology got a “wake up” call in the mid-Victorian period. Most ruins were very well documented and explored in Georgian times, and the Victorians had meticulously documented the ancient world. The existence of “mythical” Troy had no place in that scheme – Troy was a literary convention invented by Homer. Then in 1871, a German Chemist and amateur archaeologist named Heinrich Schliemann found an ancient city of northwest Asia Minor near the Dardanelles. Originally a Phrygian city dating from the Bronze Age, there was little doubt that it was the legendary site of the Trojan War and was captured and destroyed by Greek forces c. 1200 B.C.
This began a flurry of new archaeological activity as Archaeologists and students realized there was a great deal yet to be discovered about the ancient world. A new generation of archaeologists was fired by boyhood readings of Schliemann’s discovery which was widely publicized (somewhat along the lines of Ballard’s discovery of Titanic).
In 1898 Sir Arthur Evans discovered a vast palace site on Crete, which he fairly reasonably linked to King Minos. That the palace, and “Minoan” civilization were real was beyond doubt, and the ancient stories of Crete fell neatly into place with scientific fact.
Thus Atlantis remains a historic possibility – after all, was not Troy thought fictional? Schliemann and Evans both believed in Atlantis, and Schliemann spent a fair amount of money trying to find it. The classic “map” of Atlantis, developed from the description in Plato, originates with Schliemann. That Atlantis was a place of strange super science seems doubtful, but Atlantis may well have represented a civilization more advanced than the one which came immediately after it as the Greeks went through some periodic cycle of barbarism. Certainly the Greeks possessed great skills at calculation as shown by objects such as the Antikythera device, recovered in 1901, which is a sort of complex astronomical computer.
Atlantis was the domain of Poseidon, god of the sea. When Poseidon fell in love with a mortal woman, Cleito, he created a dwelling at the top of a hill near the middle of the island and surrounded the dwelling with rings of water and land to protect her.
Cleito gave birth to five sets of twin boys who became the first rulers of Atlantis. The island was divided among the brothers with the eldest, Atlas, first King of Atlantis, being given control over the central hill and surrounding areas.
At the top of the central hill, a temple was built to honor Poseidon which housed a giant gold statue of Poseidon riding a chariot pulled by winged horses. It was here that the rulers of Atlantis would come to discuss laws, pass judgments, and pay tribute to Poseidon.
To facilitate travel and trade, a water canal was cut through of the rings of land and water running south for 5.5 miles (~9 km) to the sea.
The city of Atlantis sat just outside the outer ring of water and spread across the plain covering a circle of 11 miles (1.7 km). This was a densely populated area where the majority of the population lived.
Beyond the city lay a fertile plain 330 miles (530 km) long and 110 miles (190 km) wide surrounded by another canal used to collect water from the rivers and streams of the mountains. The climate was such that two harvests were possible each year. One in the winter fed by the rains and one in the summer fed by irrigation from the canal.
Surrounding the plain to the north were mountains which soared to the skies. Villages, lakes, rivers, and meadows dotted the mountains.
Besides the harvests, the island provided all kinds of herbs, fruits, and nuts. An abundance of animals, including elephants, roamed the island.
For generations the Atlanteans lived simple, virtuous lives. But slowly they began to change. Greed and power began to corrupt them. When Zeus saw the immorality of the Atlanteans he gathered the other gods to determine a suitable punishment.
Soon, in one violent surge it was gone. The island of Atlantis, its people, and its memory were swallowed by the sea.
Other ancient writers, like Diodorus, Pliny, and Virgil wrote about other “lost continents.” Probably the most common is Thule, a land the Greeks said existed before their time. They described Thule in the North Atlantic as warm and green surrounded by high mountains, known for breathtakingly beautiful women. The ancients agreed that the Hyperborean race was tall and in excellent physical condition, and some told of how they conquered the aging process and looked youthful in old age. They were sometimes described as vegetarians and fruitarians who lived in harmony with nature.
The primary modern resource for Atlantis is Ignatius Donnelly’s The Antediluvian World published in 1882. It is a compendium of every strange archaeological anomaly in the world, and many which are purely invented, and purports to “prove” the existence of Atlantis. Doubtless there are real gems of archaeology mired among the mass, but Donnelly’s …er hem…”uncritical” approach to his material leaves much to be desired. (GM Note - This material is, interestingly, the source of much of the “historic fact” repeated by late 20th century writers such as Charles Berlitz and Erich Von Dankien)
Atlantis is supposed to have perished in destruction, but the Thule legend is likely true – a remembrance of times of better weather on the Steppes of Russia, before the invasions that toppled the Mycenae Kings, and brought about centuries of chaos in Greece.
Other references like “Mu,” or “Lemuria” are probably modern. A French pseudo-scientist named Dr. Augustus le Plongeon and his wife spend years trying to prove that a “Queen Moo of Yucatan” founded a colonly in Egypt, however their science was completely spurious, since it included the apparent ability to read a “Mayan” alphabet which they invented.
More recently The Problem of Atlantis by Lewis Spence was released in 1924, and between the turn of the century and the twenties a number of spiritualists and the like churned out masses of writing about Atlantis.
Lewis Spence, whose works on Atlantis were published in the 1920's, revived the popular fifteenth-century tradition of a rectangular continent between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific called Antilia. The legend of an “Atlantic Continent” is maintained by nearly all the Western European peoples, exemplified by Hy Breasil the Irish earthly paradise, which probably gave its name to the South American land discovered by the Spanish.
There is some suggestion that Christopher Columbus believed this theory, hoping to find Antilia on his westward course to the Indies. The present traces of Antilia are claimed to be the Antilles Islands in the West Indies.
Spence modified this historical belief by suggesting that Antilia was a land bridge connecting Atlantis to the Americas. Placing Atlantis in its common spot, the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, Spence envisioned refugees fleeing from the sinking Atlantis, over the land bridge of Antilia, and into the Yucatan Peninsula. "He traced the origins of the Maya culture to those uprooted early Atlantians. To Spence, a Mexican Indian legend about the destruction of the old Toltec capital was a distorted memory of the Atlantis disaster"
Believing that western Europe was populated by successive waves of Atlantians, Spence used the early paintings of the Cro-Magnons to argue that these non- Europeans had to come from the lost continent. Using proof that pointed to the existence of foreigners creating these paintings, Spence argued that these "invaders" were not large tribes of nomadic peoples, but instead were "small, organized hunting expeditions sent out from the highly civilized island"
To further prove that Europe was settled by these immigrants, he "puts the date of the catastrophe that overwhelmed Atlantis as 13,000 years ago at the earliest, which agrees very well with Plato's summary dating"
While Spence’s science is flawed, his basic thesis has an element of truth. Atlantis is an archaeological “problem” or rather the symbolic name for a much bigger problem. Throughout archaeology and history there are elements that do not fit, strange artifacts, and things that do not fit in with their culture or do not seem to be possible to explain except in the wildest terms of chance. From the strange device found near Antikythera to the most recent rumors from Baghdad that William König, a German archaeologist, has discovered strange 2000 year old cylinders in jars, which have the form and function of a “battery.” As a symbol of all these riddles “Atlantis” is as valid a name as any other.