Legends Summarized: Atlantis


Man. I think everyone loves Atlantis. Just the concept is so compelling and fun: an ancient magical civilization lost at the bottom of the ocean! Where do I sign up? I think the premise is inherently fun because it taps into our primal, deep-rooted desire to explore and discover new incredible things. We want ancient trap-filled temples and hidden stockpiles of pirate treasure and maybe a couple bizarrely intricate puzzles thrown in for flavor. We love the sci-fi vision of outer space because we imagine it full of incredible new worlds and new civilizations just waiting to be sought out through convenient Lightspeed drives or Stargates or other means of bypassing that frustrating speed-of-light limitation. And I think we love Atlantis for the same reason: A fantasy land so close to home, but so alien. Something we could go out and find. As a bonus, it’s also a fantastic hubris story. Atlantis is the go-to example these days for a great civilization brought to ruin by its own hubristic decadence. I mean, if you’re not into Rome. Most commonly, it’s assigned some sort of great power or technological supremacy that it royally screws up and sinks into the ocean as a result. Doesn’t really get more ‘Brought to Ruin’ than that. But narrative appeal aside, the greatest charm of the story of Atlantis is that it’s so close to home. It’s not an alien civilization or another dimension.
It’s here – in our ocean. And you know, it’s not the LEAST
plausible thing in the world. I mean it took us till 2005 to finally snap a photo of a real live giant squid. There’s all kinds of horrifying crap down there and that’s just the stuff we’ve been able to find. As of 2019 over 80% of the oceans remain unexplored. Is it so hard to believe that there could be a lost civilization slumbering below the waves? Alright, calm down there Lovecraft because, unfortunately, Yeah, it is that hard to believe So let’s talk about Plato. The very first reference to the lost city of Atlantis comes to us courtesy of Plato around 360 BC In his philosophical dialogues “Timaeus” and “Critias” Plato claims to be recounting the events of the Athenian lawgiver and part-time poet Solon’s visit to Egypt sometime in the 580s BC According to Plato, according to Solon, he translated ancient Egyptian records recounting events that happened 9000 years earlier, and that’s where he found all this stuff about Atlantis. First problem: There’s no evidence these records ever existed so Plato seems to have pulled all his evidence for these dialogues straight out his own ass. But don’t worry, there’s *way* bigger problems to come. So the purpose of these dialogues is to explain why Athens is really cool and decadence is bad and the evidence provided is that this one time 9000 years ago Athens repelled an invasion from a huge island nation out in the Atlantic. Second problem: Athens had only existed for a few centuries at this point and 9000 years prior, people were still banging rocks together and trying to domesticate goats. Not exactly a good millennium for a golden age of civilization. The dialogue lays out that the ancient Athenians were pure and virtuous and eschewed luxury in favor of a literally Spartan lifestyle of militant training and no personal belongings because Plato thought Sparta’s political structure was really cool So he decided his fanfic version of ancient Athens would be an idealized version of modern Athens with the rad military class of Sparta thrown in for dopeness. Also, fun fact: none of Athens’s weird attitudes towards women! Plato’s legendary ancient Athens was completely egalitarian – even the military Though he did believe that, while ancient women were equal to men, modern women were inherently less virtuous. Thanks, Plato. Your wokeness is appreciated. Anyway, Plato’s main philosophy in the dialogues is that Luxury bad
No luxury good Plato believed that luxury was an inherently corruptive influence that drove people to become less virtuous and he decided to illustrate this *really* directly with his Athens-versus-Atlantis conflict. See, while Athens was off being all rad and Spartan, Atlantis had a very different experience. The root premise of this narrative is that back in the old days, the gods divvied up the world and while Athena got the region of Athens, Poseidon got the island of Atlantis – a huge, beautiful, resource-rich island nation with everything a budding civilization could ask for. The island is described as being bigger than Libya and Anatolia combined which, judging by the size of modern-day Anatolia, makes it bigger than Texas but not by much. There, Poseidon fell in love with a mortal
woman – Cleito – and they had a whole bunch of kids – five sets of twin boys, with the eldest named Atlas. And, by the way, Plato takes a hot minute to assure us that, while all the names he provides are distinctively Greek, these names are translations Solon provided based on the original meaning of the non-Greek names that he derived from the original Egyptian records which, again, don’t exist. That’s why this very much not-Greek invading Empire sounds so Greek and also implies that fictional versions of Atlantis shouldn’t look nearly as Greco-Roman as they frequently do. Anyway, while Poseidon made a walled-off temple paradise for Cleito, he also started divvying up the island among his demigod children Atlantis got divided into ten parts with the central region ruled by Atlas, King of Atlantis and the other nine regions ruled separately by his brothers They put down some rules for each other. Most importantly that, if one of them attacked another, all the other kings and princes had to come defend the injured party. This was supposed to keep things in line and prevent Atlantis from tearing itself apart (Because it worked so well when they tried it with Helen of Troy!) Now there’s a pretty nifty description of the physical layout and appearance of Atlantis but what Plato wants us to focus on is not any of his rad world building. It’s the fact that these ten divine kings produce ten lineages of kings but the farther we go down the generations, the less divine these kings become The first generation is half God, the second is one-quarter, etc. And once the divinity thins out and the blood line gets human enough, Their growing human nature makes them vulnerable to the, according to Plato, “inherently corruptive nature of their incredibly luxurious lifestyle.” So their very rich lifestyle gradually transitions into a colonialist and exploitative lifestyle and they start trying to invade the Mediterranean where they conquer their way through almost everything but find themselves stymied by Athens and their sweet badass totally-original-do-not-steal military society Unfortunately, we’re missing the end of the second dialogue, but while we don’t know exactly what happens, if we read between the lines and refer back to the first dialogue’s summary of the events, We infer that Zeus notices the evil corruption of the kings of Atlantis, calls a meeting of the Olympians, and tells Poseidon to do something about it. So Poseidon responds by striking Atlantis with a devastating earthquake sinking the entire island in a single night. Now, the overt message of this dialogue was an attempt by Plato to demonstrate that wealth, luxury and all the resources in the world – the kind of things empires typically seek out – will just make a people decadent and violent and the real way to handle that kind of thing is to be more like Athens. Specifically the Sparta part of Athens, not the imperialist part of Athens. The point of the story was that Atlantis had everything they’d ever need. But because they were human, and therefore flawed, They were consumed by vice and hubris and lost everything. It’s pretty obviously an allegory meant to illustrate the inherent flaws of humanity with an overt good example – ancient Athens, with their simple lifestyle – and a bad example – Atlantis, with their overwhelming power and luxury driving them to spiral into greed. Also, there’s this little weird bit where Plato says that the sunken Atlantis formed a mud shoal west of the Strait of Gibraltar, and that’s why it’s impossible to sail out into the Atlantic? I did a bunch of googling and asked Blue what the heck he was talking about And, basically, Plato is totally making this up?! There was never any mud shoal and the Atlantic was always accessible from the Mediterranean. I don’t know why he said that. BLUE: Honestly, sometimes Plato just liked to troll his readers; keeps them on their toes, makes sure they’re paying attention. You get it RED: Yeah, that checks out. Now, while Plato seems to have made up Atlantis out of whole cloth There was a very noteworthy event that may have influenced some of the details he included. Specifically the Minoan eruption – a catastrophic volcanic eruption that had occurred about a thousand years prior on the island of Thera (modern-day Santorini). The Minoan eruption devastated the island, wiping out many settlements and dropping huge chunks of the island into the sea. This event was so cataclysmic the consequences might have been felt as far as China where some records from the 1600s BC describe a volcanic winter that caused crop failure and unseasonably cold weather in July. So, when Plato describes an island nation devastated by a natural disaster so severe it collapses into the sea, the contemporary Greek listener would be like, “Oh, damn! Just like what happened to Santorini!” It’s like when modern-day disaster movies evoke Pompeii or the Titanic. So the thing is, even though the story was pretty clearly allegorical and, in fact, Plato had a well-documented habit of making up entire civilizations as thought experiments which is very obvious if you look at the rest of Plato’s writing for context, a lot of contemporary writers thought he was being literal. And so was born the Search for Atlantis. See, because Plato described everything about this island, including literally where it was located. But Atlantis isn’t actually there. But everyone still really liked the idea of Atlantis, so they decided, “Hey! So, Atlantis isn’t where Plato said it was. “But instead of assuming, like, “maybe he just made it up as an allegory and it supposed to be a big metaphor or something, “what if we suppose everything he said about it was literally true, except where it’s physically located? “Yeaaaah.” Remember, this is an island bigger than Texas. Roughly twice as big as Spain. Not many places for an island like that to hide. But still, the base concept fascinated people. So all kinds of real-world locations have been proposed, including one that theorizes that Atlantis is… Troy? I just… I mean… what? You guys know that’s not underwater, right? Anyway, the search for Atlantis has been a popular subject since Plato first came up with it with new theories and possible locations turning up every time we trip over some new and interesting geographical feature. So imagine how stoked everybody was when in the 1500s they sailed really far into the Atlantic and found an enormous brand-new landmass! it was beautiful, rich in resources, aaand America. It was America. Oops. So while some people are still trying to find the real Atlantis, (and really best of luck to you; send me pictures if you get him) the rest of us are mostly content to use it exclusively is a really fun fictional setting. And while Atlantis’s base story is good on its own, there are a few common changes people like to do when integrating it into a modern story or setting. Change number one usually removes the war. And since that was kind of the whole point of the dialogue, I’m sure Plato is spinning in his grave about it. But since the war story binds Atlantis very strongly to this fictionalized version of super-ancient Athens, usually, writers will remove the ‘Atlantis declares war on the rest of the world’ part and just focus on the ‘Atlantis gets too decadent’ bit. This makes a more versatile setting without tying it too strongly to any specific place Similarly, Atlantis is frequently credited with having some kind of incredibly advanced technology or magic This is, bizarrely, because in the dialogues, Atlantis is described as having an excess of orichalcum A mythical, reddish metal that was described as being slightly less valuable than gold. Now, nobody cares about the metal part, but orichalcum makes a very convenient name for any random magical element you want it to be. With this small change, orichalcum becomes a do-anything MacGuffin and Atlantis becomes a civilization living large thanks to the properties of a magical material they have in excess. And that very easily segues into change number three: Instead of being destroyed by the gods, Atlantis crumbles into the sea because of some direct fault of the Atlanteans. and frequently, this is portrayed as some kind of magical consequence of using too much MacGuffin-metal. But sometimes, it’s technological failure, a natural disaster, or even a deliberate move on the part of the Atlanteans. Which brings me to change number four: Atlantis surviving under the sea, sometimes even rebuilding itself better than before. This one’s really popular, because it makes for a more interesting story. Sunken city? Pretty rad. Sunken city full of magic fish people? Super rad. Unless you’re Blue and you have thalassophobia And you can’t watch Aquaman on a big screen because you’d literally rather die- Help me tell him it’s good guys! It has Julie Andrews as a kaiju! BLUE: The deeper you go the more nightmares there are. There’s always a bigger fish! D: RED: Now, all these changes are intended to make Atlantis a more interesting and compelling setting for use in modern stories. By changing their big destructive flaw from warmongering to decadence, It heightens the message that Atlantis crumbled under the weight of its own hubris rather than Plato’s message about the inherent corruptibility of humanity or whatever. Changing orichalcum from gold, but like red, to magical super-element adds some fantastical elements to the narrative and gives us some wacky magical MacGuffins to play with. And making Atlantis survive under the sea produces a really fun set piece – an underwater civilization. Hell, Atlantis has basically become the archetype for underwater civilization even though Plato’s story ends way before anything like that happens. Sinking underwater was supposed to destroy it, not make it cooler. Now, while all this is really cool, the one thing that confuses me is that everyone hell-bent on finding the real Atlantis seems to be ignoring the closest thing we have to a real Atlantis in terms of cool sunken civilization full of artifacts. And that is Doggerland. Now, Doggerland was an enormous landmass that connected modern-day Britain to the European mainland all the way up to Denmark. It had huge forests, tons of wildlife, and a thriving Mesolithic hunter-gatherer society But the lower lying areas were gradually submerged by the slowly rising sea levels as the last ice age came to a close around 11000 years ago. Then, 8200 years ago, a flash flood caused by an underwater landslide, triggered a catastrophic tsunami that drowned the remains of Doggerland shockingly quickly, wiping out everything in the flooded areas and leading to its abandonment for the higher ground that now forms the UK. Fishing trawlers in the area are constantly dredging up Neolithic and Mesolithic tools embedded in the seafloor, Archaeologists have found Neanderthal and mammoth bones in the area, and there are perfectly preserved human footprints in a recently exposed petrified forest along the modern coastline. Basically the modern UK is just the highest highlands of this ancient land mass and the entire North Sea used to be a Mesolithic woodland paradise. Britannia rules the waves indeed! So yeah, if you’re hell-bent on researching Atlantis, try giving Doggerland a shot. I mean, it’s right by Britain. You can, like, get a hotel. Way more convenient than the Eye of the Sahara. Gotta say, I ran into a lot of surprises researching this, but the biggest one for me wasn’t the Minoan eruption, or the imaginary mud shoal, or Brit-lantis, or even the fact that Atlantis is canonically a completely different civilization than ancient Greece and people really shouldn’t design it to look like underwater Greece, It’s the Timaeus and Critias weren’t just the names of Yu-Gi-Oh cards from the filler season about Atlantis. Also that Yu-Gi-Oh knew more about Atlantis than I did. That one… That one kind of stung. [Red singing “Going Under” by Evanescence]

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