Pick from the Past
[Editors Note (2008): Lyon Sprague de Camp (19072000) was known principally as a science fiction and fantasy author, although he also wrote works of nonfiction. His book Lost Continents: The Atlantis Theme in History, Science, and Literature was published in 1970.]
Men have always yearned for a land of beauty and plenty where peace and justice reigned. Failing to make one in fact, they have consoled themselves by imagining Edens, Utopias, and Golden Ages. Formerly they put them in the remote past or in unexplored places. Now that most of the world has been explored and human history is fairly well known, they put them on other planets or in the future.
One of the most successful creators of ideal communities was the Greek philosopher Aristoklés the son of Aristón, better known as Plato. Around 355 B.C. he wrote two Socratic dialogues, Timaeus and Critias, in which is set forth the story of Atlantis. Except for Platos tale and the commentaries on it by his successors, there is not another word about Atlantis in the Greco-Roman, Egyptian and Babylonian literature that has come down to us.
In Timaeus, Critias explains that he got the story from his grandfather, who got it from his father, who got it from the statesman Solón, to whom it had been told by a priest of Saïs, in Egypt.
The story is that 9000 years earlier there had been a great Athenian empire, organized along the lines that Plato had set forth in his Republic. The state was ruled by a communistic military caste, and everybody was brave, handsome, and virtuous. There had also been a mighty empire of Atlantis, an island west of the Pillars of Hercules, larger than North Africa and Asia Minor combined. This power had tried to conquer the Eastern Mediterranean but had been defeated by the Athenians. Then a great earthquake devastated Athens, swallowing the Athenian army and the whole of Atlantis. Hence the seas west of Gibraltar were unnavigable, because of the shoals which were all that was left of Atlantis.
The remainder of the dialogue has to do with the natural sciences. In the next dialogue, Critias, there is more about Atlantis. When the gods divided up the earth, Poseidón received Atlantis. He begat ten sons, and divided the land amongst them. They were to rule it as a confederacy of kings, and the eldest, Atlas, was to be head king. The land was marvelously productive, with minerals and elephants. The descendants of these kings built the city of Atlantis. It was circular, about fifteen miles in diameter.
The kings met every fifth or sixth year to discuss matters of state, which they did after sacrificing a bull with much ceremony. For many generations the Atlanteans were virtuous like the Athenians of that day. But in time they suffered a moral decline and became ambitious and greedy. Zeus decided that they needed chastisement. He called the gods to his palace to discuss the matter, . . . and when he had assembled them, he, spoke thus: . . . Here the dialogue ends in mid-sentence. We never learn the details of the Atheno-Atlantean war.
Aristotle, Strabo, and Pliny assumed that Atlantis was a fiction, an allegory by which Plato intended to expound his social ideals. From what we know of Plato, this would have been quite in character. In the later Roman Empire, critical standards, which had never been high by modern ideals, declined still further, and people like Proclus the Neoplatonist began to take the tale seriously.
After the sixth century little more was heard of Atlantis until the beginning of the European Age of Exploration in the fifteenth century. Then rumors of new lands ran riot, and the Italian and Iberian explorers were often far from exact in their reports. The maps were covered with geographical fictions. The Atlantic in particular was spotted with nonexistent islands, sometimes including Atlantis, even though it was supposed to have sunk. One ghost that was not exorcized from the maps until the nineteenth century was an island supposed to lie about a hundred miles west of Ireland. It was known as Brazil or Hi-Brazil. In 1674 a Captain Nisbet arrived in Scotland with some castaways which he claimed to have rescued from HiBrazil. He said the island was inhabited by large black rabbits and by a magician who had been keeping the castaways captive in his castle until the gallant captain had broken the spell that bound them. Unfortunately there never was any such island.
The writing of fantasies about ideal commonwealths flourished at this time. Sir Francis Bacon wrote The New Atlantis, which he located in America. Sir Thomas More composed his celebrated Utopia (Nowhere), and was disconcerted when people wrote him seriously urging sending missionaries to convert the Utopians to Christianity. This is an old and well-developed art; the Hellenistic writer Iamboulos had written shortly after Platos time about an island in the Indian Ocean where people lived according to the rules of Stoic philosophy. If Platos tale is in this class, it is in lots of good company.
The discovery of America loosed a flood of pseudoscientific speculation about the origin of the American Indian, and this has continued to the present, despite the fact that the sciences have pretty well established that they came from Asia via Alaska. People who met the natives for the first time jumped to the premature conclusion that they were speaking Welsh and were the descendants of Prince Madog and his band, or were practicing Hebrew religious rites and were the Lost Ten Tribes. As anthropology and linguistics hardly existed, such assertions could not be disproved. Since then interest in Atlantis has fluctuated, but more up and down. Today Atlantism is a small but durable cult that enables publishers to issue a new Atlantist book every year or two. Beyond the cult itself, there is a fairly wide public who finds the idea of lost continents romantic and appealing and has never heard the scientific side of the story. Atlantism was stimulated in 1882 by Ignatius Donnellys Atlantis: The Antediluvian World. Donnelly was a Philadelphia lawyer who moved to Minnesota and led an active political career there. He had an active but uncritical mind which absorbed a vast amount of information and misinformation. He was enthusiastic and expert at arguing from a molehill of fact to a mountain of surmise. He also wrote The Great Cryptogram to prove that Bacon wrote Shakespeare. Some unkind cryptographer pointed out that by Donnellys methods one could easily prove that Shakespeare wrote the Forty-sixth Psalm.
Donnelly argued that small islands have disappeared in eruptions, so why not a continent? He cited many alleged resemblances between the appearance and cultures of the peoples of the Americas, Europe, and the Near East, and insisted that, therefore, the civilizations of all must have come from Atlantis. His arguments are not impressive when scrutinized.
His proof of the relationship of Egyptian and Mayan writing is to take the phonetic values given the Mayan characters by Bishop Diego de Landa, line them alongside the Egyptian signs, and concoct intermediate forms to reconcile their glaring differences. He did not know that de Landas Mayan alphabet was a hoax played on the bishop by the Indians, who hated him for having burned nearly all their native literature.
Donnellys linguistic arguments are of similar worth. He gives a comparative table of Chinese and Otomi words, which does not inspire confidence when we discover that his Chinese words for head, night, tooth, man, and I are wrong, or at least not the standard words in the Chinese National Dialect (Donnelly: ten, siao, tien, tin, nugo; Standard Chinese: tou, ye, ya, ren, wo). In the Otomi language of Mexico, as in Chinese, the pitch at which a syllable is pronounced makes a difference in the meaning. Some speculators have inferred herefrom that Otomi is related to Chinese or Japanese, a surmise that is not borne out by even a slight acquaintance with these languages. Several African languages also have tonal distinctions.
For all its faults, Donnellys book became the New Testament of Atlantism, as Timaeus and Critias are its Old Testament. Year after year Atlantists repeat that Otomi is archaic Chinese or Japanese.
Modem Atlantism has been incorporated into the doctrines of the occult societies, which have much more colorful stories to tell than did Platoof Atlanteans with airplanes and vast magical powers, and bisexual Lemurians with astral bodies only. Outside of occultism, Atlantism is a fairly small cult, comprising a few writers and their faithful readers. Even if Platos story were true, there would not be much one could do about the sunken continent.
In Europe secular Atlantism has been more ambitious. Clubs like the Société dEtudes Atlantéenes have been formed. The members have gone on picnics with Atlantean emblems in their buttonholes, printed Atlantean stamps, and met periodically to read papers. At a meeting in France in 1927, a heretical faction threw stink-bombs into a discussion of ancient Corsica.
One can treat the problem of Atlantis in several ways. One can analyze Platos story as a piece of fiction, or search for a real ancient culture corresponding to Platos confederacy. One can investigate Atlantic islands or land bridges from the point of view of geology and biology or, like the occultists, swallow Platos tale whole and expand it by inspired imagination.
We have scientific Atlantists, pseudoscientific Atlantists, and occult Atlantists. Of the first, many seek an ancient culture that could have inspired Plato, without necessarily implying an Atlantic island that sank. In 1679, Olof Rudbeck found Atlantis in Sweden, and since then it has been found in Tunisia, Nigeria, South Africa, Ceylon, and elsewhere. We are embarrassed by a multitude of theories, many of which might be correct; but they can hardly all be true at once. The leading localities contending for the honor of being the proto-Atlantis are Minoan Crete and Tartessos.
The resemblances between Crete and Atlantis include sea power, imperialism, public works, and the ceremonial use of bulls. Tartessos, the Biblical Tarshish, was a flourishing city-state in southwestern Spain, the affinities of whose people are not known. About 500 B.C. the Carthaginian admiral Hamilco went out there with a fleet. He returned with a cook-and-bull story, adopted by Plato, about impassable shoals west of the Pillars. This now looks like Carthaginian propaganda to discourage commercial competition in those parts.
Another approach is that of the English zoologist H. E. Forrest, whose The Atlantean Continent submits a North Atlantic land bridge taking in Iceland. There probably has been such a bridge in geological times. But Forrest wants his bridge in the Pleistocene period, which only ended quite recently, and his arguments, largely based on distribution of species, turn and rend him. He relies on plants, arthropods, and fresh-water fish, which are slowly-evolving organisms, some of which may have been about what and where they are since the Mesozoic period, some 60 million years ago.
For tracing the opening and closing of land bridges, the distribution of the large land animals offers the best evidence, because these creatures move about rapidly on land but cannot cross wide stretches of water by flying or swimming or floating as seeds or riding on driftwood. This sort of evidence and the facts of geology indicate a definite bridge in the Pleistocene era connecting Siberia and Alaska, but none between Labrador and Europe.
A similar objection is fatal to one of the two Pacific continents proposed by the Scottish mythologist Lewis Spence. He has a continent stretching east-west from the Hawaiian Islands to the Malay Archipelago. This ignores one of the sharpest faunal boundaries on earth, the line through Celebes and Timor that separates the animals of the Orient from those of the Australian region. As you go from Borneo to New Guinea you pass in two short steps from the Indo-Malayan world of monkeys, cats, buffaloes, and elephants to the vastly different Australasian world of kangaroos and echidnas. The only placental mammals that have reached New Guinea are dogs and pigs which could have been brought by men and probably were, small rodents that could have come by the driftwood ferry, and bats that could have flown. These facts indicate that the water-barrier of the Celebes, Banda, and Timor Seas and their connecting straits has been where it is for a long time, probably for more than 50 million years.
Then we have pseudoscientific Atlantists like Augustus Le Plongeon, who spent many years among the Mayan ruins of Yucatán. Dr. Le Plongeon was an expert in his way, but was as ready to fit the facts to the theory as Donnelly. He considered the Egyptian hieroglyphics similar to the Mayan and claimed to be able to read the latter, using a modification of Brasseur de Bourbourgs modification of de Landas alphabet. Sad to say, people who tried to decipher Mayan writing by Le Plongeons code got nothing but gibberish, as did those who used the Mayan alphabet of de Landa.
From the Troano Codex in the National Archaeological Museum of Madridone of the few Mayan manuscripts that survived de Landas burning and one which nobody but a few gifted pseudoscientific Atlantists can readand from some pictures on the walls of Chichen-Itza, Le Plongeon built a romantic tale. It concerned the rivalry of the princes Coh and Aac for the hand of their sister Móo, queen of Atlantis or Mu. Coh won, but was murdered by Aac; and then the continent sank and Móo fled to Egypt where, as Isis, she founded the Egyptian civilization.
In 1912 Paul Schliemann, grandson of the great Heinrich Schliemann who dug up Troy, gave the New York American a sensational tale of how his grandfather left secret papers instructing him to break open an owl-headed vase. Schliemann did and found therein archaeological specimens bearing Phoenician writing that told of Atlantis. He also claimed to have read the Troano manuscript and a Chaldean manuscript from Tibet, both of which told of the sinking of the Mu. Further revelations were promised but never came, nor did the vase and its contents ever see the light of public investigation.
Finally there was James Churchward, who in the 1920s and 30s wrote the Mu books, such as The Lost Continent of Mu, containing perhaps the greatest mass of drivel to be found in modern literature. Churchwards primary source was the mysterious Naacal tablets, which he said had been shown and translated to him by an anonymous Hindu temple priest. His authorities were the discredited Schliemann and Le Plongeon. His facts were mostly wrong, like the Otomi-Japanese identity. His theory was an enlargement of the Le Plongeon and Schliemann aberrations. He had Atlantis in the Atlantic and Mu (the occultists Lemuria) in the Pacific.
Churchwards reasoning processes were a marvel. He claimed a preternatural ability to read the symbols of various ancient peoples (a favorite occult obsession). Churchward said that the rectangle was M in the Muvian alphabet, hence the symbol for Mu; therefore any decorative use of a rectangle was evidence of derivation from Mu. As the ordinary brick is entirely bounded by rectangles, Churchward easily derived everybody and everything from Mu. He misquoted Plato and printed nonsensical footnotes reading,
Lemuria and Gondwanaland
A word about Lemuria: About 1875 the scientists Haeckel and Blanford suggested that the distribution of lemurs and their relatives could best be explained by a former land bridge connecting Africa, Madagascar, and the East Indies. P. L. Sclater proposed the name Lemuria for this land, and the word came into general use among geologists. But more recent investigations show that the vanished continent of Lemuria is not necessary to explain the distribution of lemurs, and in fact fails to do so. Lemuria was conceived to be part of a much larger continent, Gondwanaland, which was supposed to have reached three-quarters of the way around the Southern Hemisphere, with a gap in the Pacific. Scientifically, these continents have little to do with Atlantism, and even Gondwanaland is considered speculative, although it is still widely accepted.
The Lemuria theory was picked up by that fascinating thaumaturge, Heliona P. Blavatsky, and incorporated into her own gaudy cosmos along with Atlantis. According to her works and those of her disciples, the Lemurians were the Third Root Race: gigantic apelike men, hermaphroditic and oviparous, some with four arms and some with a third eye at the back of their heads. They interbred with animals, the offspring being the ancestors of the apes. Their discovery of sex (of which Mme. Blavatsky took a poor view) caused their downfall. They were succeeded by the Atlanteans, the Fourth Root Race and the ancestors of the modern Mongoloids. Both the Third and Fourth Races were full of Cosmic Consciousness. There is much more, but interested readers can consult the works of Blavatsky, A. P. Sinnett, A. W. Besant, Scott Elliott, R. Steiner, T. L. Harris, J. B. Newbrough, and other seekers after the higher wisdom. It is hardly worthwhile to argue with them, as they profess contempt for the methods of materialistic science and as their evidence consists of records in secret libraries in Tibet to which nobody but occultists have access.
Some occult Atlantists moved Lemuria from the Indian Ocean (where Mme. Blavatsky had the grace to leave it) to the Central Pacific (where it is unlikely there ever was a continent). In 1894 a novel, A Dweller on Two Planets by Phylos the Thibetan (F. S. Oliver) described, along with the last days of Atlantis, an occult brotherhood living on Mt. Shasta, in northern California. The Mt. Shasta Legend was incorporated into the occult Atlantis tradition, and tales are published now and then of Lemurians in white nightgowns living on the mountain and practicing mystic rites, despite the fact that campers and state forest officials wander freely over Shasta without meeting these interesting persons.
Lets look at Platos story again. It is certainly not, as it implies, a stenographic record of a real conversation that took place three-quarters of a century before. Putting imaginary speeches in the mouths of historical characters was accepted practice in Platos dayeven the conscientious Thucydides did it, and it has not utterly disappeared yet. Eliminating things obviously fictional, such as the god Poseidón, the tale has nothing that Plato could not have derived from the knowledge of his time: the defeat by Athens of barbarian invaders from the Persian wars, the city plan of Atlantis from Babylon, the harbor works from Syracuse, the Atlantean ceremonial from Orphism, and the earthquake from the real tremor that shook Greece in 373 B.C. The unity and verisimilitude of the tale are not beyond the abilities of a competent storyteller, especially one of Platos intellect.
It is, in fact, hinted that Plato is writing what we should call a science-fiction story to illustrate his political theories. In Timaeus, Critias says, And the city with its citizens which you described to us yesterday, (i.e., The Republic) we will now transport hither into the realm of fact; for we will assume that the city is that ancient city of yours,
The strange ending of Critias may be significant. Perhaps old Plato lost interest, or perhaps he had plot trouble. He started out to show how his Republic would work in practice, and then brought in the gods, which involved him in hopeless logical difficulties about free will and divine justice. The ruin of Athens by the quake, necessary to provide a gap in history between Platos fictional Athens and the real one, did not square with divine justice. So maybe he puzzled a while and gave it up.
The conflict with geology
Besides Poseidón there are other obviously fictional elements: there is no record of the prehistoric Athenian empire; if it had existed, its remains could hardly have been missed in a country so well-excavated as Greece. Critias is inconsistent: in Timaeus he lay awake all night trying to remember the story; in Critias he has it at home in manuscript. (The old manuscript is a common literary device, often used by Poe.) There are good geological reasons for refusing to believe that any island of continental size ever sank out of sight as a result of one or a few earthquakes. The material has to go somewhere, and vast gas-filled chambers deep in the earth would violate the known laws of physics. A volcanic eruption may make drastic changes over a few square miles, but appreciable continental changes take place over millions of years. Relative motion of parts of the earths crust during earthquakes (permanent changes, that is) are measured in inches or feet; the very severe San Francisco quake of 1906 produced relative movements of 22 feet.
The substance of myths
Atlantists who confer Atlantean origin on the Egyptians and Mayas infer that Noahs flood and a Mexican flood-legend are both disguised traditions of the sinking of Atlantis. Now it is one thing to admit that myths, like all fiction, have a basis in fact, and quite another to think that one can reconstruct the fact from the fiction. Sinclair Lewiss novel It Cant Happen Here is based on certain facts. But a future historian, who knew nothing else about the twentieth century and tried to reconstruct the history of the United States from that novel, might easily conclude that Windrip the dictator was a real man but that Franklin Roosevelt was a myth, like Osiris. Myths may and generally do distort reality out of all possibility of recognition.
Myths are not handed down to posterity for the simple love of historical facta rare quality even in our culture. They are passed on because they are entertaining, and so provide a living for story-tellers, or because they are useful in answering childrens questions, serving as librettos for rites, or keeping the laity subservient to the priesthood.
The cultural arguments for an Egyptian-Mayan connection concentrate on, resemblances and ignore differences, which are so profound as to make the resemblances look petty and accidental. The New and Old Worlds had no food plants in common. It is incredible that if Atlanteans had colonized Mexico and Egypt, they would have taken wheat to Egypt and maize to Mexico but not vice versa. They had no domestic animals in common but the dog. The Mayans lacked the plow and the wheel. The Mayan calendar was drastically different from those of the Old World, being based on a year of eighteen 20-day months instead of twelve 80-day months. The Egyptian writing, Atlantists to the contrary, has been of no help in decoding Mayan inscriptions. Atlantean chronology, judging from the excellent Mayan system of dating, is wrong: the Mayan civilization arose about the beginning of the Christian era when Egypt was thousands of years old. We must conclude that the Mayans forebears arrived unburdened by food-plants, animals other than dogs, writing, or calendarsthat is, as savages.
The linguistic arguments are like those by which people prove that the Lost Ten Tribes are the Aztecs or the Irish or the Burmese. You find two words in different languages having a similar sound and meaning, and conclude, that the two languages are related, under the mistaken impression that this is the science of philology.
Coincidence in language
The study of linguistic relationships is more complicated than that. There are almost sure to be a few apparent similarities in any pair of languages. Ten is dix in French and disi in Hottentot; search is examine in English and eggamen in Tuareg; time is hour in Szechuanese, and so on. The reason is that most languages have but 20 to 50 significant sound-units, and at least several thousand words. So some pseudocognates are inevitable by coincidence. To find linguistic relations, one must consider all the words in certain classes, such as numbers, colors, family relationships (father etc.), parts of the body, natural categories (water etc.), and so on.
Lets do an experiment along these lines, which may shed light on the assertion of Le Plongeon that Mayan is one-third Greek, and of Braghine (who in his Atlantis book used forgeries of antiques for his frontispiece) and others that Otomi is Old Japanese:
(The Japanese syllable tu is pronounced tsu, u as in put. Mayan x = English sh. There is another set of Japanese numerals borrowed from Chinese: iti, ni, san, etc.)
The English-Greek resemblance is obvious; but the other languages show no resemblances at all, as far as this table goes. Adding Chinese, Hebrew, or Aztec to the table does not help the Atlantists. This list is not a disproof, just a sample to show that the languages in question are not as similar as has been claimed. For an analysis of linguistic relations a much larger list of words would be needed, and also a study of phonology, inflection, and syntax.
When the American languages are so studied, these conclusions appear: Eskimo is related to the languages of Eastern Siberia, which is hardly surprising. The American Indian languages, however, show a wide diversity among themselves, and no clear relationship to any Old World language; some show grammatical features like those of the Ural-Altaic languages, like Turkish, which spread out from Central Asia.
Some Atlantists say that numerous inscriptions in Old World languages have been found in the Americas, though they usually neglect to tell us where these wonders are to be seen. When these cases of Phoenician inscriptions are investigated, they turn out to be something other than what was supposed. Dighton Rock in Massachusetts had its scratches attributed to the Phoenicians, Druids, Hebrews, Chinese, and Atlanteans, until Prof. E. B. Delaware, with black filling-material and a camera, disclosed the name of Miguel Cortereal, a Portuguese explorer who sailed for Newfoundland in 1502 and never returned. The Grace Creek Mound stone from West Virginia was analyzed as Etruscan, Runic, Phoenician, Old British, Celtiberic, and Greek, and when finally solved in 1930 proved to read, Bill Stumps Stone, October 14, 1838.
Then what is there to the sunken continents and vanished civilizations? There is something, but we shant get it from Plato or from Donnelly.
It can be agreed that some of the present land was once water and vice versa. The difficulty comes in trying to find what parts of the globe were dry during a given geological period, say the Triassic. If a place has a fossil-bearing Triassic deposit on the surface, the answer can be easily determined. But if there is no such deposit where we can reach it, or if the area is at the bottom of the sea, we have to resort to inference to determine what the place was like in the Triassic. The farther back we go, the more scanty the evidence becomes and the more uncertain our inferences. But the problem is not hopeless. Much can be learned by studying the distribution of fossil organisms and the structure of the earth.
There is some geological evidence that the Azores Islands, situated about1000 miles west of Gibraltar, may be the remains of an island that was once as large as Spain. If anybody wants to call it Atlantis, there seems no good reason to object. But there is little likelihood of a prehistoric civilization there. Most of the geologists who think this land mass existed, believe it had sunk by the end of the Miocene period, some 15 or 20 million years ago, which was long before the appearance on earth of the most primitive men.
As for undiscovered civilizations, Europe has been well picked over, and sensational discoveries of high cultures there seem unlikely. The rise of the Mayans from barbarism has been fairly well charted. But Asia has hardly been scratched archaeologically. Within the last few decades an Indus Valley civilization contemporary with the Sumerians has come to light, and further discoveries are not unlikely. But we should not expect four-armed hermaphrodites with astral bodies and airplanes. They are more likely to be just people; the men tending herds and crops, building houses, and making utensils; women cooking and sewing; kings waging war and dispensing justice.
The most reasonable way to regard Platos story of Atlantis would seem to be as an impressive if abortive attempt at a politico-historical romance, based on materials of Platos own time and possibly also on traditions of Crete or Tartessos or both-a romance which has been kept alive partly by its literary merit, partly by its nostalgic emotional appeal, and partly by Platos philosophical reputation. That is no reason for not enjoying it. We enjoy Alice in Wonderland, though it isnt history. And Im sure Plato doesnt care.