Atlantis has been uncovered. Again. It’s easily the most famous ‘lost civilization’ — archeologists, scholars, and historians have been on the lookout for traces of its true earthly origins ever since Plato mentioned the society in his Timaeus and Critias dialogues. And it’s been “discovered” again and again throughout history. Now, an American research team lead by Dr. Richard Freund claims it has discovered Atlantis — for real, this time. The famed nation was actually based in southern Spain, he claims, and was wiped out by a massive tsunami.
But why does Atlantis continue to captivate us? Sure, the idea of a powerful, technologically advanced civilization that vanished without a trace is alluring. But how did it become one of western civilization’s most enduring and important myths? Whether or not Freund turns out to be right, his expedition gives us a fine reason to take a look at the various incarnations of Atlantis, purported to be real or otherwise. Here’s a look at what shaped the modern legend of Atlantis, and why it still manages to keep us all rapt.
1. Plato’s Atlantis
The first recorded mention of Atlantis comes from none other than Plato. He describes Atlantis as a massive island somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean that’s lead by a militarily advanced confederation of kings — in fact, he stresses the society’s naval might above all, claiming it to have once been a threat to Greece and the civilized world. From his dialogue Timaeus:
For it is related in our records how once upon a time your State stayed the course of a mighty host, which, starting from a distant point in the Atlantic ocean, was insolently advancing to attack the whole of Europe, and Asia to boot … the land surrounding it may most rightly be called, in the fullest and truest sense, a continent. Now in this island of Atlantis there existed a confederation of kings, of great and marvelous power, which held sway over all the island, and over many other islands also and parts of the continent.
Here’s another, more modern rendering of Plato’s description:
Plato claims Atlantis conquered much of Western Europe and Africa, but eventually collapsed into the sea “in a single day and night of misfortune” after failing to defeat Athens. So Atlantis was originally discussed as an advanced, powerful empire, and one that was widely feared — and the claim that it vanished entirely ensured spirited debate would rage over whether Plato was mythologizing or making historical claim for centuries to come.
2. The New Atlantis
Sir Francis Bacon used the myth of Atlantis, which was already quite robust by the 1600s, as a basis for his 1627 essay, The New Atlantis, which detailed a fictitious Utopian society in which science and the pursuit of knowledge comprise the nation’s foundation. The story focuses on a shipwrecked crew who explore the Atlantisean country of Bensalem and its most striking institution, the House of Solomon, where enlightened citizens work to gather knowledge using what’s essentially a prototype of the scientific method. Citizens of Bensalem are defined by “”generosity and enlightenment, dignity and splendour, piety and public spirit,” according to Bacon.
The notion that Atlantis was a scientifically-advanced, peaceful society — rather than a military menace — made it all the more intriguing that such a civilization would vanish without a trace. After all, militaristic empires fall all the time. But the idea that even a perfect society could be swallowed up by history all the same — and perhaps was — makes for an even more tantalizing myth.
3. Atlantica, Sweden
Olof Rudbeck was a Swedish physician-turned-historian who was convinced that the remains of Atlantis were in Sweden, which he came to believe was the cradle of civilization. He reportedly discovered bodies buried deep in the hills of Uppsala, a city just outside of Stockholm, which he claimed was the center of Atlantis. Part of Rudbeck’s thesis was that the original Swedish was the language from which all others evolved. Rudbeck published his findings in a gargantuan 1669 4-volume work detailing his case, called Atland, or Atlantica. Rudbeck was perhaps the pioneer in the “I’ve discovered Atlantis” domain that has come to be something of a cottage industry throughout history. And the concept that Atlantis could be buried under the mud in your own nation’s backyard, is arguably as integral a part of the lost civilization’s mythology as anything.
4. Atlantis, the Antediluvian Empire
Though the story of Atlantis was well-known throughout the world by the time Ignatius L. Donnelly showed up with Atlantis: the Antediluvian World in 1831, its myth was fragmentary and unfocused. Donnelly, a politician and faux-scholar, simply packaged up the myriad shreds of the Atlantis legend into one comprehensive book — and then asserted it was fact. Donnelly introduced the concept of Atlantis as we know it: A super-advanced nation sitting on a small continent in the Mediterranean Sea that kick-started the Bronze age, from which all other civilizations sprung. And this is how far the nation reached (Donnelly’s illustration):
Eventually, the island capital falls victim to a terrible natural disaster, and sinks into the sea. Donnelly also fiercely asserted that all the ‘myths’ surrounding Atlantis, all the references made to it by the gods and goddesses of mythology — were all just distortions of real facts. Plato’s words are to be taken at face value, and that Atlantis was real. Period. This work of “scholarship” strengthened to the persistent, ever-intriguing notion that maybe, just maybe, Atlantis could be out there.
5. Modern Day Atlantis – the ‘Discoveries’
Nowadays, Atlantis is everywhere — researchers claim to have discovered it in the Mediterranean, in the Caribbean, in the Atlantic, the Pacific. Countless islands have been suggested to have been home to Atlantis: Cyprus, Santorini, Malta, and so on. A favorite speculation is that Atlantis was really the Minoan civilization on Crete, which was devastated by a tsunami. Atlantis has invaded pop culture, with sci-fi films and TV series perpetually mining it for source material. Two years ago, a meme went viral that someone had discovered Atlantis using Google Earth — the image that inspired the craze is pictured above. And now, “Atlantis” has been discovered in Spain.
So why is it so important for us to find Atlantis? Plenty of civilizations have been swallowed up by time, and most of them were probably just as interesting as whatever the “real” Atlantis may turn out to be. But none of them ever held the promise of being technologically advanced, benevolent, and dominant — only to be lost in a chaotic, violent instant. It’s both the notion that human society can be perfected, and that even then it will only be swept away, that makes Atlantis so alluring. It embodies our most idealistic hopes and most acute paranoia about what society may become.
Image: Paranormal Post