This week scientists reported that the Aegean volcano at Santorini (ancient Thera) is filling an underwater chamber with magma, spurring worries that the volcano might erupt again. The Santorini volcano is most famous for the eruption that took place around 1620 BCE. That eruption was among the most powerful in the recent geologic history of the earth and has been blamed by alternative theorists for everything from the collapse of Minoan Crete to the ten plagues of Biblical Egypt.
In the news coverage of the volcano’s magma, reporters have been quick to link Santorini with the Plato’s myth of Atlantis. The Christian Science Monitor’s coverage is typical:
This claim has been the basis for countless Atlantis books, documentaries, and websites. In the past few years both 1421 author Gavin Menzies and independent writer Rodney Castleden have put out books claiming that the Minoans were Atlantis, and that the Thera eruption was Plato’s single-night cataclysm destroying the island empire.
I have had trouble with this claim for a long time. It just doesn’t make sense to me. Even setting aside the obvious problem of how Plato would learn about an event that no ancient historians—Greek or Egyptian—between 1600 BCE and 300 BCE made reference to, we have a chronological problem. The eruption at Thera took place around 1620 BCE, but the Minoans soldiered on for two centuries after this. (Only 5 mm of ash fell on Crete itself, not enough to destroy the civilization.) In fact, following 1600 BCE, the Minoan palaces actually increased in size. Minoan civilization continued on until the Mycenaeans invaded around 1420 BCE and took over the island. Much of what had been Minoan continued on under the new rulers, down to the end of Mycenaean civilization in 1200-1100 BCE. This just doesn’t sound like the Apocalypse to me.
While Santorini was undoubtedly destroyed by the volcano, there is little evidence that the island was, frankly, important enough to have lingered in the historical memory of the faraway mainland Greeks, or even the Egyptians, for 1,300 years. The larger Minoan civilization didn’t fall, and the whole theory of a Minoan Atlantis just doesn’t work out chronologically. Worse, since the Egyptians and the mainland Greeks both knew who the Minoans were (the Egyptians traded with them), it seems difficult to imagine that they somehow turned them into a second, unrelated civilization (Atlantis) while also maintaining memories of Minoan Crete, as evidenced by the Daedalus and Minotaur myths.
I think the answer is fairly simply: Like Euhemerus’s contemporary fantasy island of Panchaea, Atlantis is simply the product of Plato’s imagination.
All the news coverage of Santorini goes to show is that if an alternative claim is published in a high-profile book and featured in enough documentaries on cable TV, it can exist in a world beyond facts.
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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