Special Edition of National Geographic Promotes Atlantis, Curses, and Other Shopworn "Mysteries of History"
Bioarchaeologist Steph Halmhofer posted to Twitter an excerpt from National Geographic’s recent “special issue” on “Mysteries of History,” and the cover is a depressing look into what journalists think qualifies as “history,” and basically it’s mythology. The three stories teased on the cover are Atlantis, King Arthur, and the Curse of the Hope Diamond. Of the three, Atlantis is fictitious, King Arthur is a myth (or at best a composite legend), and the Hope Diamond curse is fictional. It’s good, I guess, that the magazine asks “What’s real, what’s fantasy, and what’s still a mystery,” but it’s sad that the only “history” on the cover is the picture of Stonehenge.
It’s worth noting that the magazine’s National Geographic moniker is a marketing gimmick. The special edition was produced by Time Inc., a subdivision of the Meredith Corporation, made up of the remains of what used to be Time Warner’s publishing arm, minus Time, which it recently sold. In other words, it’s a fake slapped together by an outside company to exploit the National Geographic brand for cash. Time, Newsweek, and other publications have similarly licensed their names to outside companies, which have produced other exploitative “special editions.”
Like many such products, the quasi-National Geographic leans toward fringe views, though without entirely endorsing them. In discussing Atlantis, the magazine suggests that that the most plausible candidate for Plato’s sunken city is Santorini, ancient Thera, which was destroyed by a volcano around 1600 BCE, burying its ancient city of Aktrotiri. It proposes this because
… the city and its island were blown apart around 3,600 years ago in an enormous volcanic eruption, which may also have triggered a tsunami. The lingering memory of this cataclysm may have shaped Plato’s tale. However, seekers after historical Atlantis have also found suggestive ruins in Spain, the Bahamas, and India, among other places. Explorers continue to look for Atlantis, or its inspiration, in sunken cities around the world.
The idea that a volcanic eruption in the Aegean inspired Plato was put forward by Louis Figuier in the 1870s, and there remains no proof that any legend of the Thera eruption persisted 1,300 years after it occurred. It seems doubtful that Plato would have recalled a volcanic eruption that no other Greek or Egyptian made mention of in any surviving record.
But this view does have some scholarly support, so it is not entirely inappropriate for an article about Atlantis. Much more disturbing is the suggestion that sites in Spain, the Bahamas, and India could be related to Atlantis. The Spanish claim appears to refer to the complex and largely unsupported claim of Richard Freund (on the National Geographic Channel!) that Atlantis had been inspired by Tarsessos, a semi-mythical harbor city in southern Spain, outside the Strait of Gibraltar, and that Tarsessos was also the legendary Tarshish of the Bible, of no certain description or location. The identification of Tarsessos with Tarshish goes back to 1646, but is a minority view, and some epigraphic evidence suggests Tarshish was the name of the Phoenician settlement on Sardinia. Freund attempted to identify a Spanish archaeological site as Atlantis, but the excavators of the site took issue with the claim and accused him of acting in bad faith.
The claim that Atlantis was in the Bahamas has even less support because it is based on Edgar Cayce’s psychic readings. The “ruins” in the Bahamas—the so-called Bimini Road—are a natural formation.
The claim for Atlantis in India really shouldn’t need much discussion since Plato clearly knew the difference between west and east, but the claim identifies the underwater ruins of ancient Dwarka with Atlantis.
None of these claims is without problems, and to lump them all together as “suggestive” is ridiculous. The Bimini Road isn’t even ruins; it’s just natural rock.
But the crowning glory of the small paragraph is the way it implies that “seekers” and “explorers” hunting for Atlantis have some sort of legitimacy beyond their own fantasies. Imagine, for example, writing that “seekers after phlogiston…” or “explorers continue to search for unicorns…” Time Inc.’s writing team—or, let’s be honest, more likely its lowest-bid freelance crew—ought to be a bit more careful about how it summarizes Google searches to enshrine them in print.
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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