The lost continent of Atlantis returned to the news this week with a series of articles in major media outlets claiming that the legendary city had been found, thanks to a new book from author Mark Adams called Meet Me in Atlantis in which the author investigates four hypotheses about where the fictional landmass may have been located. Adams, a travel writer, said that he first became interested in Atlantis as a child watching documentaries like In Search Of…, which sparked an interest in the unusual and unexplained. And like all people influenced by fringe literature, Adams asserts that mainstream scientists and scholars refuse to take Atlantis research seriously: “The subject is like kryptonite for serious academics.”
Adams has a teaser for his book in tomorrow’s New York Times, available online now.
According to National Geographic, Adams is most interested in a new hypothesis advocated by a German man which claims that the lost city was located south of Casablanca in Morocco, which supposedly meets the requirement from Plato’s Critias that Atlantis have concentric circles of black and red stone surrounding it:
Michael Hübner and I walked across the desert and, sure enough, there was black and red striped stone. Then he took me to the edge of the Sahara desert, and walked me up the hillside. Lo and behold, there were these concentric circles on the edge of the desert, and just a few miles away was the Atlantic Ocean. He makes a really compelling case that Atlantis was located in Morocco, and that’s a relatively new theory. Not a lot of people have come up with his hypothesis.
In the Critias, Plato states that Atlantis’s walls were composed of different colored stones, not single stones of multiple colors: “One kind was white, another black, and a third red, and as they quarried, they at the same time hollowed out double docks, having roofs formed out of the native rock” (trans. Benjamin Jowett). Nevertheless, Hübner claims to have statistically correlated hundreds of details from Plato with facts about Morocco, though to make his hypothesis work he has to make several assumptions, particularly that the word “island” was used figuratively rather than literally, and that the people of Dark Age Greece were familiar with Morocco and could have labeled it “the island of Atlas” due to its remote location. These are unprovable assumptions, and no evidence of a Bronze Age civilization has been found in the target region. Hübner claims that the local Amazigh people (more properly Imazighen, better known as Berbers) refer to the region as an “island,” but he provides no source for the claim, using the passive voice to assert that “it is said.” He is on slightly stronger ground when noting that Arab geographers refer to the region between the Sahara and the Mediterranean as jazirat al maghrib, the “island of the West,” but this is a figurative term not attested in Classical sources, based entirely on a poetic view of the Sahara as a “sea of sand.”
According to Lewis Spence, a century ago an Arab writer produced a book making more or less this same claim, placing Atlantis in Morocco.
Adams also investigated claims for Atlantis in Santorini, Tartessus (identified with Doñana in southern Spain), and Malta.
But this made me a bit annoyed: Adams told National Geographic that there isn’t any way to know whether Athanasius Kircher’s famous seventeenth century “map” of Atlantis was accurate: “But there’s no way of knowing whether he based this on any reliable information or whether he just made it up.” There’s a really good way of knowing: READ THE MAP. Anyone who can read Latin can quite clearly see that Kircher explains that he drew the map entirely from Plato. As I translate: “The site of the island of Atlantis, long ago swallowed up by the sea, according to the opinion of the Egyptians and the description of Plato.” The “Egyptians” are the fictitious Egyptians to which Plato attributed his account of the geography of Atlantis in the Timaeus, and the description of Plato is the one given in the Critias.
Meanwhile, the BBC falsely claimed that Atlantis is “one of the oldest myths of mankind,” despite the fact that the story dates back only to the fourth century BCE, nowhere near as old as the Odyssey or the Epic of Gilgamesh. The BBC, following Rhode Island volcanologist Harald Sigurdsson, claims that the story of Atlantis bears a “striking similarity” to the destruction of Santorini by a volcano, and it further asserts that the same eruption—which occurred around 1600 BCE—also inspired Hesiod’s description of the gigantomachy in the Theogony around 700 BCE.
“I started to become interested in the myth of Atlantis and the poem Theogony because these are our only written or only documented descriptions or interpretations of this huge volcanic phenomenon,” Sigurdsson says. “We don't have any other accounts so, if you accept that they are related to this event, then they do give you some information that you otherwise wouldn't have.”
Hawaiian geoscientist John Dvorak concurred that the myths provide strong support for the archaeological excavations at Santorini.
I don’t accept that they are related to that event. The Theogony describes the battle of the Titans and Olympians (664ff.), not the Giants and the Olympians (Apollodorus, Library 1.6), and it describes the gods as doing battle on Mt. Olympus, which is not on Santorini. Given that the Theogony is heavily influenced by Hittite and other Near Eastern models, there is little chance that it is a direct account of a Mediterranean volcano. Even if it were, there is no reason to suppose that the Santonrini volcano provided the model; the Greeks at the same time Hesiod wrote were colonizing Sicily, and they began to claim that Typhon, one of the monsters that attacked Olympus, had been imprisoned beneath Mt. Etna, an active volcano (Apollodorus, Library 1.6.3).
Plato, who knew what a volcano is, describes no exploding mountain in Atlantis, and he places the continent-sized Atlantis out in the Atlantic Ocean. In the Timaeus he says that the island sank after “violent earthquakes and floods,” and in the Critias, the unfinished final section strongly implies that he intended to model its destruction on the Near Eastern Flood myth, akin to that of Deucalion, Noah, and Xisithrus. The lack of any evidence for an Atlantis story before Plato also argues against an identification with Santorini.
The trouble seems to be that the earth scientists are not historians or mythologists, and therefore aren’t fully aware of the complexities of analyzing the deepest layers of myths and legends. The same thing happened with the Golden Fleece myth, where Classicists and archaeologists often have wildly divergent views of the story based on figurative and literal readings of the story.
Somehow in order for Plato to be right he must also be wrong, and only by changing all of the details can we make Plato into an accurate source. The trouble is that Atlantis has become the Ship of Theseus, with all of Plato’s original parts substituted for something else. As Plutarch wrote in the Life of Theseus 23.1: “The ship on which Theseus sailed with the youths and returned in safety, the thirty-oared galley, was preserved by the Athenians down to the time of Demetrius Phalereus. They took away the old timbers from time to time, and put new and sound ones in their places, so that the vessel became a standing illustration for the philosophers in the mooted question of growth, some declaring that it remained the same, others that it was not the same vessel” (trans. Bernadotte Perrin). If we swap out all of Plato’s details about Atlantis for new and slightly different ones, is whatever we find still Atlantis?
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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