It should probably not come as news that the latest book examining the legend of Atlantis contains no roadmap to the lost city, and no new evidence for its existence. However, the destination is not always as important as the journey, and the trip to Atlantis can be fun and fascinating in its own right. Mark Adams is a New York Times bestselling author whose previous travel book, Turn Right at Machu Picchu (unread by me), earned praise for its light tone and entertaining examination of the history of Peru’s most famous tourist attraction. His new book is called Meet Me in Atlantis: My Obsessive Quest to Find the Sunken City, and it pulls something of a bait and switch on the reader, though not without reason. While the book’s title suggests that it’s about his search for Atlantis, this isn’t really the case at all. At its core, it’s a book about the people who devote their lives to finding—and failing to find—Plato’s city.
First, a word of disclosure: Adams offered me a review copy of Meet after I wrote about an interview he gave to National Geographic. His publisher, Dutton, which sent me the copy by overnight shipment, is part of the Penguin Random House group, which distributes my book, The Cult of Alien Gods, internationally by arrangement with Prometheus Books.
In Meet Adams profiles a number of researchers who together comprise the modern Atlantis research community. These men—and they are almost all men, and nearly all middle aged or older—know one another and snipe at each other over the many and varied reasons that their hypotheses about Atlantis can’t be true. Their internecine disputes remind me of the crack about the atheist telling the Christian that he simply believes in one fewer god—Here, I find, that I simply believe in one fewer Atlantis location than any of the men in the book. The men involved include such familiar figures as Richard Freund, the Jewish studies professor who hijacked a Spanish archaeological excavation and turned it into a much-reviled National Geographic documentary, Finding Atlantis, claiming that Atlantis was in Spain and was also the Biblical city of Tarshish; Tony O’Connell, the author of the Atlantipedia website; Anton Mifsud, the advocate of the Atlantis-in-Malta theory; and several more.
Adams frames their relationships through the two guiding lights he uses in his search: Freund’s Finding Atlantis NatGeo documentary, on which several appeared or against which they have written, and Atlantipedia, which is Adams’s most important source for research. At one level, Meet Me in Atlantis is a book-length reaction to Finding Atlantis, the program Adams credits (obliquely) with sparking his interest in seeking out the continent. The documentary’s shadow hangs heavily over the volume from beginning to end, often cited by name. This isn’t a flaw—my own books are often reactions, too. Knowing Fear responded to David Skal’s Monster Show, and my Jason and the Argonauts responded, in a sense, to Robert Temple’s Sirius Mystery.
Adams profiles each of the self-proclaimed Atlantis experts, offering portraits of their personalities and the blind spots that prevent them from seeing the bigger picture beyond their pet theories. Tony O’Connell is friendly and personable but clearly fancies himself the arbiter of acceptable evidence. Richard Freund is ebullient but self-important. The late Michael Hüber possessed Teutonic overconfidence in mathematical precision. Rainer Kühne described his obsession with Atlantis as stemming from his Asperger’s Syndrome, and credited an Uncle Scrooge comic book with starting his obsession at age 10. And on it goes, one “expert” after another depicted as seeing himself (or, more rarely, herself) as possessed of the true secret of Atlantis. This part of Adams’s book is fascinating, and it illuminates, without quite meaning to, the web of connections that form to the alternative history community and the outsiders who devote their time, energy, and (often) money to standing against what they perceive as close-minded academics.
Adams repeats many times—and quotes scholars as claiming—that research on Atlantis is frowned upon, discouraged, or forbidden in the halls of academia. This seems to contradict a JSTOR search, which finds more than 7,000 academic articles mentioning Atlantis between the late 1800s and today, with more than 1,200 of them being about Plato’s Atlantis (as opposed to the space shuttle, Bacon’s New Atlantis, etc.). Granted, most articles assume, due to the lack of evidence, that the story is a fiction. The trouble seems to be that people who think they’ve found Atlantis perceive opposition to their claims as a blanket prohibition on examining the Atlantis narrative through any lens.
But that is only part of the story. Adams devotes much of his book to exploring and evaluating the various claims and counterclaims for the location of Atlantis, focusing primarily on Freund’s Spanish theory, the late Michael Hübner’s Moroccan theory, Mifsud’s Malta theory, and the more widely accepted candidates of Santorini and Helike in Greece. Adams shows himself to be a skeptical inquirer, picking apart the flaws in each claim while still holding out hope that there is truth behind the overall vision of Atlantis presented in Plato. Needless to say, he found Atlantis in none of these locations.
It is to his credit that he can, for a time, create a willing suspension of disbelief where it seems just possible that there may have been a historical reality beneath Plato’s allegorical accounts in the Timaeus and Critias, the oldest (and only) primary sources for the Atlantis legend.
However, it is here that the book’s greatest flaw becomes apparent. Adams is no scholar, classical or otherwise, and while he has gathered an enormous number of claims about Atlantis from the past 150 years or so, his discussion skates lightly on the surface of the literature. He freely admits, for example, that he did not understand Plato, and he appears to make no effort to consult any other ancient authors except Aristotle. His knowledge of Atlantis theories and Atlantis literature is overly reliant on what other people tell him, and this means that his views and interpretations are filtered through an extra layer, the biases and misconceptions of the Atlantis believers and mainstream scholars he interviews. Thus, for example, that he knows the hoax text attributed to Eumalos of Cyrene primarily through what true believer Anton Mifsud tells him. He recognizes it as a hoax (or, more accurately, hoax-adjacent) but does not or cannot articulate the reasons why, seemingly for not having read it. (He quotes a sentence or two, almost certainly provided to him by Mifsud.)
A better example makes clearer where Adams’s reliance on secondary sources leaves his book feeling in places a bit superficial. At two points in the book he quotes Aristotle as saying that “He who invented Atlantis also destroyed it,” and the second time he explains that Thorwald Franke argued in a self-published book that the quotation came from “a conflation of two similar-sounding passages” in Strabo’s Geography. OK, so what are they? What does this tell us about Aristotle’s actual views?
For the record, the two quotes run as follows. First, Strabo discusses why Posidonius believed in Atlantis, and compares Posidonius’ reliance on Plato’s authority to a line about Homer’s wall of the Achaeans (Iliad 12.1-33), a wall of which no trace has ever been found: “Posidonius thinks it better to quote this than to say, ‘He who brought it into existence can also cause it to disappear, as the poet did the wall of the Achivi’” (Geography 2.3.6, trans. Hamilton & Falconer). The “conflation” is actually a joint reading of this exact line with an allusion to it later in the Geography at 13.1.36: “…perhaps no wall was built and the erection and destruction of it, as Aristotle says, are due to the invention of the poet.” Thus, the inference is that Aristotle said Atlantis was fictitious. This is, strictly speaking, only an inference, and it depends on weight you place onto whether the “it” in the first quote originally referred to Atlantis or was merely meant to refer to any fictitious creation.
Similarly, Adams prefers a quick, punchy story to the more complex underlying facts. In one passage he briefly tells of Maxine Asher’s failed 1973 Pepperdine University search for Atlantis in Spain. Adams presents it as a wacky hippie adventure, but as I discovered years ago, this actually rose to the level of an international incident that involved members of Congress (particularly Sen. Alan Craston of California), the State Department, and officials up to Sec. of State Henry Kissinger:
The expedition, led by self-proclaimed “psychic” and Pepperdine audio-video specialist Maxine Asher, then 42, received support from members of Congress, who pressured the Nixon administration to lobby the fascist Spanish government of Francisco Franco for unusual access to the waters off Cadiz. The result of the extraordinary intervention of the American ambassador roused the suspicions of the Spanish government, who in turn decided that such high-level interest must have meant that the boatload of New Age hippies was instead a front for a secret spy mission.
(You can read the State Department telegrams about the incident here.)
By playing the story for laughs, Adams misses out on some of the darker consequences of fringe history. And this is true at many stages of the book, where secondhand information and lack of detail prevented Adams from tying together some of the connections that would have made his book deeper and richer, closer to, say, the richness of David King’s Finding Atlantis (Harmony, 2005) or the analytical depth of Paul Jordan’s The Atlantis Syndrome (Sutton, 2001). I know Adams is aiming for a popular audience, but that should not preclude presenting all the facts.
In fact, while he dutifully if briefly reports on racist interpretations of fringe history, he is rather quiet on the social purposes to which the Atlantis story has been put over the centuries. And here I think is the greatest missed opportunity. Regardless of the truth of the Atlantis story, it has served as a reflection for the cultures that have engaged with it. In Plato’s day it was an allegory for how an empire fails. In the Age of Exploration, it was (as Adams notes) a way of understanding the New World but also (as he does not) a justification for European colonization of the Americas, with figures like Francisco López de Gómara and John Dee competing to claim parts of “Atlantis” for the Spanish and British empires respectively. In the Age of Enlightenment, Atlantis was a symbol of the failure of monarchy, swept away by the tides; or, scientific proof of Noah’s Flood. For the Victorians Atlantis became the precedent for imperialism and colonialism, a mythic predecessor to universal (Euro-American and white) Empire. Today in the fractured modern world it again serves as a cautionary tale of failed greatness, a technological paradise that bestrode the world as a colossus and yet somehow could not escape the sands of time and the winds of fate, or the wrath of nature. Adams decontextualizes Atlantis theories, and in so doing decouples them from the social forces that drive the hunt for Atlantis.
This connects back to the biggest difference I have with the author. For the most part, I agree with his conclusions—which are that Atlantis is largely a fiction, an allegory of Plato’s, but one that may have been informed by real life events, like the destruction of Helike, remembered in history and myth. (I’d favor assigning inspiration to Near Eastern Flood myths, but that’s just me.) But I disagree wholeheartedly with the idea that Plato, writing around 360 BCE had access to his ancestor Solon’s well-preserved and accurate notes about what Egyptian priests told him around 600 BCE. Adams believes this because Plato makes his characters, particularly Critias, assert that the story is true—but as should be plain, Critias’ words are fictional and can’t be taken literally. Indeed, other ancient writers said similar things about obviously untrue stories. Euhemerus pretended that his voyage to Panchaea was true (Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica 2.2), and most ludicrously Lucian titled his second century CE tale of a voyage to the moon the True History, though he happily admitted it was fiction. Lucian, though, helps to explain what Plato was doing when he relates in the introduction to the True History that “Many other writers have adopted the same plan, professing to relate their own travels, and describing monstrous beasts, savages, and strange ways of life. […] When I come across a writer of this sort, I do not much mind his lying; the practice is much too well established for that, even with professed philosophers; I am only surprised at his expecting to escape detection” (trans. Fowler and Fowler).
And yet somehow, uniquely, Plato has done just that with Atlantis.
To that end, Adams tries to make the case that Noah’s Flood really happened (citing comets, meteors, and tsunamis) and that Atlantis truly was the antediluvian world, praising Immanuel Velikovsky for rehabilitating catastrophism even while formally debunking his planetary claims. He brings in Charles Hapgood’s claims about the prehistoric accuracy of Renaissance-era maps, which Adams only partially debunks because he does not or cannot read the Latin legends on the maps that clearly explain their mundane origins. (Kircher’s Atlantis map clearly states it simply illustrates Plato, while Oronteus Finaeus’s map of “Antarctica” just as clearly states it is a new map with speculative details and information drawn from recent Spanish explorations of Tierra del Fuego, which Finaeus mistakenly assumed was part of the mythic southern continent Terra Australis.) It does not follow that if catastrophism were true that Atlantis were real.
So in the end, Adams has produced a compulsively readable book that tells us what today’s generation of Atlantis researchers is currently up to and how their myopia has left them overconfident about ideas that are flawed and often absurd. Yet I can’t help but feel that Meet Me in Atlantis could have been a bit more than a popular portrait of fringe subculture if it had layered a little more specificity of detail to fill out its impressionistic narrative and to let the reader feel that its author came to the right conclusion from more thorough research and a mastery of the facts rather than the men who told him many of the facts secondhand. It’s a book that I’m glad I read, but I can’t imagine turning to for reference.
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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