On the Ancient Aliens episode “Underwater Worlds” (Nov. 11, 2010), so-called “ancient astronaut theorists” argued about the existence of Atlantis and its possible connection to aliens. I previously discussed this episode's inconsistencies. Despite the official position of the ancient astronaut theory’s main organization, the Archaeology, Astronautics and SETI Research Association (AAS-RA), that Atlantis never existed, AAS-RA head Giorgio Tsoukalos appeared on the program to promote his theory that Atlantis was in fact an extraterrestrial spacecraft using what he claimed were genuine Greek myths of bronze islands that fell from the sky—UFOs. This assertion has bothered me since I first saw the episode a few months ago, and I decided to investigate further.
At first blush this theory seems impossible. The Greek philosopher Aristotle doubted the ability of even small rocks—meteors—to fall from the sky and instead believed them to be the tops of exploded volcanoes, but the Roman Pliny did believe in falling space rocks. In neither case, however, did these ancient authors suggest that whole islands were descending from the heavens. This would have been a blatant impossibility, since in the mythological scheme of things the Greek sky was itself a dome made of bronze (Iliad 17.425) or iron (Odyssey 15.329).
In order to make the case that Atlantis was a UFO, Ancient Aliens provided two pieces of evidence. Let’s take them in order. First, according to the narrator of the program, “One myth tells of the Titan goddess named Asteria who fell from the sky and became an island.” But is this what the myth really says? Surprisingly, the show has it almost right. But not quite.
According to the Greek mythographer Apollodorus (Library, 1.4.1), “Of the daughters of Coeus, Asteria in the likeness of a quail flung herself into the sea in order to escape the amorous advances of Zeus, and a city was formerly called after her Asteria, but afterwards it was named Delos” (trans. James Frazer). While Hyginus, the Roman mythographer, gives it slightly differently in his Fabulae: “Though Jove [= Zeus] loved Asterie, daughter of Titan, she scorned him. Therefore she was transformed into the bird ortux, which we call a quail, and he cast her into the sea. From her an island sprang up, which was named Ortygia. This was floating” (Fabula 53, trans. Mary Grant).
Notice that Ancient Aliens leaves out the part about the bird, lest the real myth seem to stray too far from the idea that the island was an alien spaceship. Nor in myth does Asteria become an island before falling into the sea. Further, other “ancient texts” make clear that the island of Asteria (or Ortygia, or Delos, depending on the source) fell “like a star,” meaning that the ancients were attempting to liken the island to meteors (as the well-known phenomenon of shooting stars), not to aliens, since Asteria was (surprise!) the goddess of falling stars. Thus, the non-extraterrestrial explanation for this myth is both obvious and evident: The goddess of falling stars was associated, poetically but not unnaturally, with an island that was one of the falling stars. No UFOs necessary. And since other islands were said to have grown from such origins as a clump of sod (Pindar, Pythian 4) or the union of the sun god and a nymph, we can discount the idea of a widespread sky-island tradition as the origin of Greek islands.
But then things get weird. Immediately following the narrator’s mention of Asteria, Giorgio Tsoukalos says:
“In Ancient Greece we have a number of myths which describe islands—bronze, gleaming islands—that fell from the sky and landed in water. I don’t think that Atlantis therefore was an actual, stationary, physical island. Atlantis, according to Plato, disappeared in one night with a lot of fire and a lot of smoke. See, I don’t think that Atlantis sank. I think that Atlantis lifted off.”
Let’s leave aside the inconsistency of taking Plato’s allegorical dialogues literally for the age and description of Atlantis while arguing that Plato’s plain statement of its sinking should be discounted. I must admit that here I am at a complete loss. I cannot find a reference to “bronze, gleaming islands” anywhere in Greek mythology. The closest I can find is the “island of bronze” in the 1963 Ray Harryhausen movie Jason and the Argonauts, but this was not an island made of bronze but rather one that housed bronze statues. There are some myths that are sort of in the ballpark:
Now, I am the first to admit that Greek mythology is a sprawling, ramshackle mess in which a few bronze islands might well have hidden from my survey. But I cannot find “a number of myths” of falling bronze islands, or even a single one. They do not exist in the many manuals and handbooks of Greek myth I consulted, nor any of the ancient authors who would have been expected to record such happenings. So, while it is possible that these bronze islands exist in Greek myth, the burden at this point falls on Giorgio Tsoukalos to show that they are more than the product of his admittedly fertile imagination.
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