Last week the Greek island of Santorini engaged in a bit of morbid celebration, marking with a festival the 150th anniversary of the eruption of its volcano, which devastated the island between 1866 and 1870. At the time, the sea turned red with detritus and residents of the island were nearly smothered by volcanic gases. The celebration included lectures about the volcano, art, music, and agricultural products, especially the island’s famous cherry tomatoes. Regular readers will of course recognize that an earlier eruption of the same volcano, from 1600 BCE, is frequently blamed for spawning the legend of the lost continent of Atlantis. As I discovered this week, the 1866 eruption helped make that happen.
In 1872, the French polymath and popular science writer Louis Figuier added a chapter on Atlantis to the fourth edition of his book La terre et les mers (Earth and Sea), whose third edition had been translated into English in 1870. Figuier had been inspired by the eruption of Santorini’s volcano and came to a surprising conclusion, namely that the devastation created by that eruption must have been akin to that which destroyed Atlantis. He said that he hoped to “establish that the Atlantis of Plato, accepted by some and denied by others, and interpreted a hundred ways at different times, actually existed and disappeared under the waves because of a concussion, a convulsion of the ground similar to that which recently upset the vicinity of Santorini” (my trans.).
Figuier’s arguments were unimpressive, boiling down to his claim that other scholars were wrong to take Plato literally on the location of Atlantis and figuratively on its destruction in order to make it America, while he was correct to take Plato figuratively on the location of Atlantis and literally on its destruction in order to make it one of the Greek islands. He did not specifically claim that the Santorini volcano destroyed Atlantis, but he was unable to identify another volcano in the area of similar power.
By the middle twentieth century, Figuier’s speculation found new life with the discovery that the Santorini volcano had erupted around 1600 BCE. This led some scholars and many fringe historians to conclude that Santorini itself—ancient Thera—had been Atlantis.
I have translated Figuier’s text and placed it in my Library.
I would be remiss not to point out an interesting fact that I found in Figuier’s chapter, which bears on the upcoming National Geographic Channel documentary that aims to connect Atlantis to Sardinia. Figuier writes that “Delisle de Sales, the author of the Philosophy of Nature, made Plato’s Atlantis none other than Homer’s Ogygia, inhabited by Calypso. Delisle de Sales found that the Pillars of Hercules signify the Gulf of Tunis, and since the vanished island was very great, Sardinia could be its remains.” This pushes back the idea of Atlantis is Sardinia farther than I would have guessed! Jean-Baptiste-Claude Delisle de Sales published The Philosophy of Nature: Treatise on Human Moral Nature in 1770, with new editions expanding the work to a staggering dozen volumes by the end of his life. According to his account, published in the Philosophical History of the Primitive World, Atlantis existed before the Earth had fully formed, when only the Caucasus mountains presided over the first continent. This Atlantis birthed the master race, who spread out across the newly formed lands of the Earth. Sardinia was all that remained of the original part of Atlantis that the master race once inhabited, and he said that it was the only solution that met Plato’s criteria:
Assuming, for example, that the Isle of Plato was in the middle of the Mediterranean, to the twenty-ninth degree of longitude and the forty-first of latitude, in nearly in the position of our Sardinia, which did not exist, or rather is the remains of Atlantis, one will have fulfilled nearly all conditions of the problem. (my trans.)
The Atlanteans, he thought, were the “benefactors of humanity,” whose activities were the key to understanding history.
It would be interesting to translate his whole argument, but de Sales wrote hundreds of pages about Atlantis, and while I am interested, I’m not that masochistic. I translated the chapter on Sardinia as Atlantis so you can see that almost literally nothing has changed in this argument in two hundred and twenty years.
This view has clear anticipations of Theosophy and later fringe history. His identification of Atlantis with Ogygia would carry over into the work of Eugène Beauvois, who used the claim to identify all these lands with America and thus carry Europeans to Mexico.
Finally, I should mention that I have posted the complete text of K. T. Frost’s 1913 academic article making the case for the Minoan civilization as the “real” Atlantis. It is the historical corollary to Figuier’s geological argument, and together those two claims would combine to give us the modern Santorini hypothesis. Frost’s article—a formal write-up of an idea he proposed in the Times of London in 1909—is widely accepted as the first claim that the Minoans were the inspiration for Atlantis. The article has, to the best of my knowledge, never been freely available on the internet outside of paid databases.
It was a huge pain in the ass to post because I couldn’t get a decent OCR on my scan of the article, and even the best only rendered the left three-quarters of each page. I had to type the rest by hand. That’s why I’ve put it off for the last three months.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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