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.
In the 1800s, mystic Madame Blavatsky claimed that she learned about Atlantis from Tibetan gurus; a century later, psychic Edgar Cayce claimed that Atlantis (which he described as an ancient, highly evolved civilization powered by crystals) would be discovered by 1969. In the 1980s, New Age mystic J.Z. Knight claimed that she learned about Atlantis from Ramtha, a 35,000-year-old warrior spirit who speaks through her. Thousands of books, magazines and websites are devoted to Atlantis, and it remains a popular topic.
The origins of Atlantis
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 conceived 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, 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 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.
The 'lost' continent
Despite its clear origin in fiction, many people over the centuries have claimed that there must be some truth behind the myths, speculating 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. Candidates — 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 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 word it lies in the Atlantic Ocean beyond "the pillars of Hercules" (i.e., the Straits 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 some how missed a landmass "larger than Libya and Asia together."
Furthermore plate tectonics demonstrate that Atlantis is impossible; as the continents have drifted, the seafloor has spread over time, not contracted. There would simply be no place for Atlantis to sink into. As Ken Feder notes, "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."
Myth from misinterpretation
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.
Yet as writer L. Sprague de Camp noted in his book Lost Continents, "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.
Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of six books including Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. His Web site is www.BenjaminRadford.com.