Lost Continents

Ever since the days of the Greeks, people have tried to prove that thriving civilizations once existed on huge islands that have since sunk beneath the sea.

Modern legends of lost continents have their roots in early Greek fantasy. This diagram shows Plato’s idea of the capital of the Empire of Atlantis, supposed to exist on a vanished island west of Gibraltar. The rings of land surrounding the Acropolis and royal palace contained parks, temples, barracks, and a race track.

The name “Atlantis” evokes a picture of a beautiful world with a high and colorful culture, now, alas, gone forever, but still celebrated in story and controversy. What about Atlantis, Lemuria, and other “lost continents?” Is there “something to it?”

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 Plato’s 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. Through the middle ran a canal connecting the sea with a great rectangular irrigated plain on the far side. The plain was about 230 by 340 miles. In the center of the city was the citadel, also circular, about three miles in diameter, comprising concentric rings of land and water. The land rings were interconnected by bridges, and the water rings by tunnels large enough for ships. The palaces and temples were lavishly decorated with gold, silver, brass, ivory, and a mysterious oreichalkón, “mountain copper,” which “glowed like fire.” There is no word of explosives, searchlights, or airplanes, with which imaginative modern Atlantists have credited the Atlanteans. The only ship mentioned is the trireme (triéré), and except for oreichalkón, Plato described no technics not known to his own time.

Maps in the century following Columbus were sometimes peppered with islands that did not exist. This section of Ortelius’ World Map of 1570 includes the fictitious (1) Isle of Brazil, just west of Ireland, (2) St. Brendan’s Isle, (3) Isle of The Seven Cities, (4) Green Island, (5) Isle of the Demons, (6) Vlaenderen, (7) Drogio, and (8) Emperadada.

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 Plato’s time about an island in the Indian Ocean where people lived according to the rules of Stoic philosophy. If Plato’s 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 Donnelly’s 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 Donnelly’s methods one could easily prove that Shakespeare wrote the Forty-sixth Psalm.

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