The idea of Atlantis — the "lost" island subcontinent often idealized as an advanced, utopian society holding wisdom that could bring world peace — has captivated dreamers, occultists and New Agers for generations. Thousands of books, magazines and websites are devoted to Atlantis, and it remains a popular topic. People have lost fortunes — and in some cases even their lives — looking for Atlantis.
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 360 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 "Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology (opens in new tab)," professor of archaeology Ken Feder notes that in Plato's story, "Atlantis is not a place to be honored or emulated at all. Atlantis is not the perfect society ... Quite the contrary, Atlantis is the embodiment of a materially wealthy, technologically advanced, and militarily powerful nation that has become corrupted by its wealth, sophistication, and might." As propaganda in Plato's morality tale, the Atlantis legend is more about the city's heroic rival Athens than a sunken civilization; if Atlantis really existed today and was found intact and inhabited, 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.
In his book "Meet Me In Atlantis: Across Three Continents in Search of the Legendary Lost City (opens in new tab)" Mark Adams explains how an otherwise unremarkable Greek legend became so widely known. It was due to a Minnesota man named Ignatius Donnelly (1831-1901). Donnelly was a Congressmen and amateur historian who claimed, in his 1882 book "The Antediluevian World," that all great advances in civilization and technology could be traced back to the long-lost island mentioned by Plato. But Donnelly went beyond merely popularizing Plato's story; he added some of his own "facts" and ideas that have become part of the Atlantis myth. Donnelly promoted what is now called "diffusionism," the idea that all great cultures can be traced back to a single source.
Adams describes Donnelly "as the first great Atlantis fundamentalist, in that he believed that Plato's story was factually accurate outside of the supernatural elements like Poseidon." Donnelly sent a copy of his book to Charles Darwin, who found it interesting but unpersuasive — reading it, he said, "in a very skeptical spirit." Adams, after poring over much of Donnelly's materials, comes to a similar conclusion: "Donnelly was ... a bag of winds. He knew the results he wanted and rummaged through his sources searching for only those facts that fit his needs, without pausing to note any reasonable doubts."
Later, less skeptical 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. 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.
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 its 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.
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 most obvious sign that Atlantis is a myth is that no trace of it 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."
Ignatius Donnelly was certain of his theory, predicting that hard evidence of the sunken city would soon be found, and that museums around the world would one day be filled with artifacts from Atlantis. Yet over 130 years have passed without a trace of evidence. 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.