Mysteries of the Past, Chapter 1, Who First Crossed the Oceans, Lionel Casson,
American Heritage Publishing Co, New York, 1977, p. 11-17.
One favored solution [today to the travel between old and new worlds]
has been to make sober fact out of Plato’s allegorical tale about an imaginary continent called atlantis. The countless words that have been written about lost Atlantis all go back to a handful
of pages in the Dialogues, the Timaeus and the Critias, particularly the latter.
Plato, who was as much poet as philosopher, has Critias relate a myth, one that Critias explains he heard when but
ten years old and at third had: it was told him by his ninety-year-old grandfather,
who had gotten it from his father, who in turn had gotten it from Solon. According
to Solon, when he was traveling in Egypt, he met certain priests who claimed to have records which showed that nine thousand
years earlier Athens was the strongest and best-governed state of all, that there existed in that remote age an island called
Atlantis located outside the Pillars of Hercules (the Strait of Gibraltar) and bigger than North Africa and western Asia combined,
that its king tried to enslave Greece and Egypt, that Athens fought on alone after all others had deserted, and that one day earthquakes and floods swallowed up Atlantis and the Athenian army with it. Plato's ancient readers never once thought of trying
to locate Atlantis, any more than we would of locating Utopia or Shangri-la. The search began some two millennia after he wrote —and has never stopped.
Savants like Montaigne and Voltaire seriously debated the island's existence, a learned Swede of the seventeenth century
wrote no less than three volumes to demonstrate it was in Scandinavia, and the stream
of books which prove to the authors' utter satisfaction precisely where it
must have been still burbles along. Two were published in 1969. Both connect
Atlantis with the Aegean island of Thera, half of which (see Chapter 3) disappeared
into the sea in the wake of a volcanic explosion now dated about 1600 B.C. One, more cautious, merely takes Thera as
the inspiration for the tale; the other boldly identifies it as the lost Atlantis. Plato, of course, talks not of a pocket-size
island hut an enormous land mass, not in the Aegean but in the Atlantic, and destroyed a dim 9,000 years earlier; but all
this leaves the authors undaunted —undauntability, however, seems to be
one of the strong points of most writers on Atlantis.
The new continent solved everything. With its vast bulk filling most of the ocean, ancient voyagers no
longer had to traverse thousands of miles of open water to go from the Old World to the New; all they had to do was get over
a negligible stretch on either side, and thereafter they did most of their traveling on foot and, what is more, across a land
that happened to be a veritable paradise.
MORE MYTH MAKING
Atlantis proved so convenient that it opened up other heady
possibilities besides an Egyptian migration to America. A school of thought arose that reversed the traffic, that
sent Mayas scuttling eastward across this paradise to bring pyramids to the valley of the Nile. The most dazzling idea,
and the one that probably came to command the greatest number of adherents, was that
Atlantis itself deserves the credit for being the fountainhead of civilization. The lost continent, some asserted,
had supported a superlatively gifted people who, long before the disastrous
total drowning, thought up things like pyramids and hieroglyphs, and, migrating eastward and westward, were the common
source for both Egyptian and Mayan civilizations. Even professional academics, presumably sober seekers of fact, succumbed to Atlantis' allure. A. W. Br0gger,
noted Norwegian archaeologist and director of the museum at Oslo during the thirties, connected it with Bronze Age seafaring of the second millennium B.C. The mariners of the time, he was
convinced, were so able and daring that they not only made their way along most of the coastline of western Europe but
actually got to America, and their discovery of the new continent was the nugget of truth behind Plato's tale.
Another voyager seen dimly through the mists of the North Atlantic is Saint Brendan. According to Irish legend, he
set sail in the sixth century A.D. with fourteen monks from the monastery of Clonfert in Galway. Their boat was "a very light
little vessel, ribbed and sided with wood, but covered with oak-tanned ox-hides and caulked with ox-tallow" —what is
now called a curragh. After forty days at sea, they landed on an island where they found a great castle and a table laid for
them with bread and fish. During the next eight years Brendan sailed from one magical island to another, met such notables
as Judas Iscariot and Pontius Pilate, and witnessed many marvels but, so far as our records show, left no material trace of
his presence on American shores. Their next stop was not so successful; when they built a fire to cook their food they discovered
that their landing place was the back of a very angry whale.
One ghost which long haunted the Atlantic will do so no more. The Aztec god Quetzalcoatl was described by early
friars in Mexico as blond-haired and fair-skinned. As a result, he was hailed as an early arrival from the Old World
and identified with Saint Thomas the Apostle, Saint Brendan, an errant Norseman, even someone from Atlantis traveling
about to spread Atlantean sweetness and light. A recent study based on a scrupulous examination of New World materials, including
illustrations, has been able to demonstrate that contrary to legend, Quetzalcoatl was dark-visaged and black-bearded, in other
words, a purely local figure.
Users of the Atlantean land route, Lost Tribes of Israel, Phoenician businessmen or refugees — these are the
best the ancient world can offer for the honor of having been the first to cross the Atlantic. We have to move down the centuries
to the early Middle Ages to arrive at a serious candidate —the Vikings. For the longest while their claim was based
only on the sagas, their epic tales starring Eric the Red, his son Leif, Olaf Tryggvesson, and other mighty mariners and brandishers
of the battle-axe. In the last few decades it has triumphantly received the confirmation of archaeological discovery.