'Lost' City of Atlantis: Fact & Fable

Atlantis is a legendary "lost" island subcontinent often idealized as an advanced, utopian society holding wisdom that could bring world peace. The idea of Atlantis has captivated dreamers, occultists and New Agers for generations.

Unlike many legends whose origins have been lost in the mists of time, we know exactly when and where the story of Atlantis first appeared. The story was first told in two of Plato's dialogues, the "Timaeus" and the "Critias," written about 330 B.C.

Though today Atlantis is often thought of as a peaceful utopia, the Atlantis that Plato described in his fable was very different. In his book "Frauds, Myths and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology" (McGraw-Hill, 2013) professor of archaeology Ken Feder summarizes the story: "A technologically sophisticated but morally bankrupt evil empire — Atlantis — attempts world domination by force. The only thing standing in its way is a relatively small group of spiritually pure, morally principled and incorruptible people — the ancient Athenians. Overcoming overwhelming odds ... the Athenians are able to defeat their far more powerful adversary simply through the force of their spirit. Sound familiar? Plato's Atlantean dialogues are essentially an ancient Greek version of 'Star Wars.'"

As propaganda, the Atlantis legend is more about the heroic Athens than a sunken civilization; if Atlantis really existed today and was found, its residents would probably try to kill and enslave us all. It's clear that Plato made up Atlantis as a plot device for his stories because there are no other records of it anywhere else in the world. There are many extant Greek texts; surely someone else would have also mentioned, at least in passing, such a remarkable place. There is simply no evidence from any source that the legends about Atlantis existed before Plato wrote about it.

For most of the past two millennia, no one thought much about Atlantis; it was just what it appeared to be: a fictional place mentioned in a fable by the ancient Greek philosopher. The idea that Atlantis was an actual lost historical location is a very recent idea, first proposed by a writer named Ignatius Donnelly in 1881. He believed that most of the important accomplishments of the ancient world — such as metallurgy, agriculture, religion and language — must have come from Atlantis. In essence, he argued that ancient cultures weren't sophisticated enough to develop these things on their own, so they must have spread from some unknown advanced civilization. (It is similar to the widely discredited "ancient astronauts" idea, that Egyptians were not smart enough to build pyramids, and thus extraterrestrials must have helped them.)

Later writers elaborated on Donnelly's theories, adding their own opinions and speculations. These included mystic Madame Blavatsky (in her 1888 book, "The Secret Doctrine") and famous psychic Edgar Cayce in the 1920s and 1930s. Cayce, who put a fundamentalist Christian spin on the Atlantis story, gave psychic readings for thousands of people — many of whom, he claimed, had past lives in Atlantis. Unfortunately, none of the information was verifiable, and Cayce wrongly predicted that the continent would be discovered in 1969. 

Charles Berlitz, author of many popular books on the paranormal and unexplained phenomena, researched Atlantis and wrote a 1969 book titled "The Mystery of Atlantis." Berlitz, whose family created the famous language-learning courses, not only became convinced that Atlantis was real but also that it was the source of the Bermuda Triangle mystery, a subject he explored in his 1974 best-seller "The Bermuda Triangle." Berlitz's wild ideas about the Bermuda Triangle — and, by extension, Atlantis — were definitively debunked the following year by researcher Larry Kusche, author of "The Bermuda Triangle Mystery — Solved." Thousands of books, magazines and websites are devoted to Atlantis, and it remains a popular topic in New Age circles.

Despite Atlantis' clear origin in fiction, many people over the centuries have claimed that there must be some truth behind the myths, and have speculated about where Atlantis would be found. Countless Atlantis "experts" have located the lost continent all around the world, based on the same set of facts. Candidate locations — each accompanied by their own peculiar sets of evidence and arguments — include the Atlantic Ocean, Antarctica, Bolivia, Turkey, Germany, Malta and the Caribbean.

Plato, however, is crystal clear about where his Atlantis is: "For the ocean there was at that time navigable; for in front of the mouth which you Greeks call, as you say, 'the pillars of Heracles,' (i.e., Hercules) there lay an island which was larger than Libya and Asia together." In other words, it lies in the Atlantic Ocean beyond "the pillars of Hercules" (i.e., the Strait of Gibraltar, at the mouth of the Mediterranean). Yet it has never been found in the Atlantic, or anywhere else.

No trace of Atlantis has ever been found, despite advances in oceanography and ocean floor mapping in past decades. For nearly two millennia, readers could be forgiven for suspecting that the vast depths might somehow hide a sunken city or continent. Though there remains much mystery at the bottom of the world's oceans, it is inconceivable that the world's oceanographers, submariners and deep-sea probes have somehow missed a landmass "larger than Libya and Asia together."

Statue of Plato at Academy of Athens, Greece
Statue of Plato at Academy of Athens, Greece
Credit: Anastasios71 shutterstock

Furthermore, plate tectonics demonstrate that it's impossible for Atlantis to exist, as the continents have drifted and the seafloor has spread, not contracted, over time. There would simply be no place for Atlantis to sink into. As Ken Feder noted, "The geology is clear; there could have been no large land surface that then sank in the area where Plato places Atlantis. Together, modern archaeology and geology provide an unambiguous verdict: There was no Atlantic continent; there was no great civilization called Atlantis."

The only way to make a mystery out of Atlantis (and to assume that it was once a real place) is to ignore its obvious origins as a moral fable and to change the details of Plato's story, claiming that he took license with the truth, either out of error or intent to deceive. With the addition, omission or misinterpretation of various details in Plato's work, nearly any proposed location can be made to "fit" his description.

Science and science-fiction writer L. Sprague de Camp thoroughly discredited the Atlantis story in his 1970 book, "Lost Continents: The Atlantis Theme in History, Science, and Literature," noting that "you cannot change all the details of Plato's story and still claim to have Plato's story. That is like saying the legendary King Arthur is 'really' Cleopatra; all you have to do is to change Cleopatra's sex, nationality, period, temperament, moral character, and other details, and the resemblance becomes obvious."

The Atlantis legend has been kept alive, fueled by the public's imagination and fascination with the idea of a hidden, long-lost utopia. Yet the "lost city of Atlantis" was never lost; it is where it always was: in Plato's books.