Atlantis: Fact and Fiction
An Article pasted from the CSICOP website, skeptic.com.
The enduring question, now two millennia old, is whether Plato's account of Atlantis is a description of an actual civilization
that sunk beneath the waves, or a tantalizing tale that rose up wholly from the depths of the Athenian philosopher's imagination.
In general terms there are three possible conclusions to be made for the Atlantis legend:
- the account is entirely factual and inerrant;
- it is a blend of fact, fiction, and error; or
- it is entirely fictional.
Most cranks and all legitimate scholars alike have jettisoned the first conclusion. Unfortunately these cranks and several
scholars agree on the second possibility, but the great pitfall is that each detail of Plato's Atlantis that is cast aside
so that it will fit a theory weakens the very premise of having solved the question of whether Atlantis existed. Librarian
Rand Flem-Ath thinks Atlantis is really Antarctica; Swiss geoarcheologist Eberhard Zangger thinks Atlantis is Troy. But the
more that Plato's dates, location, and other details are changed, the less stands to be proven about the truth of Atlantis.
It becomes as ridiculous as arguing that a missing Victorian house in Hackensack, New Jersey was really a Spanish Villa in
Mexico City all along, QED.
Scholars who would concede that there is any fact at all behind the Atlantis legend usually argue that Plato has only dimly
recalled a Bronze cataclysm in the Aegean Sea, either on Crete or Santorini, but that his account is largely fictional. Yet
all the evidence shows, I will argue, that Plato's Atlantis account is beyond a reasonable doubt entirely fictional-a utopian
myth concocted to vividly illustrate Plato's political philosophy. Invoking Ray Hyman's categorical imperative of first making
sure an explanation is needed before trying to explain a mystery, we can then dispense with any discussion of "explanations"
or "sources" for the Atlantis legend.
Most people are superficially aware that "Atlantis" refers to an ancient civilization submerged in a cataclysm. Hardly
anyone, however, is aware of the origins, details, or context of the Atlantis myth itself. We first need to closely examine
all of these and pin down exactly what Plato claims as fact, whether or not he intended us to suspend our disbelief. Then
we need to examine the legend in the context of its literary source: as the sequel dialogue to the Republic of Plato. Finally,
I believe, we can make a judgment on the credence that the Atlantis legend deserves.
As mentioned above, Atlantis is first mentioned in two dialogues written by Plato: the Timaeus and the Critias. Before
Plato, there are absolutely no references in any literature anywhere to the alleged civilization-an absence from the literary
and mythological traditions of ancient Greece that speaks volumes.
Cranks who argue that the Atlantis tale is a sort of treasure map to some undiscovered country beneath the waves often
identify with the nineteenth century German businessman-turned-archeologist Heinrich Schliemann. Schliemann discovered the
ruins of the lost city of Troy-scene of Homer's epic poem, the Iliad, in Turkey in 1872.
Before Schliemann the majority of classical scholars held the opinion that the Iliad was a poetic masterpiece woven entirely
out of myths and imagination; Troy simply never existed. Schliemann, however, took Homer's poems as seriously as a fundamentalist
Christian takes the Bible, and was convinced that Troy was indeed somewhere in the Troad, the district in the northwest corner
of Turkey along the Bosporus straits leading from the Aegean Sea to the Black Sea. After consulting the geological descriptions
in the Iliad and observing the Turkish landscape, he was convinced that Troy lay beneath a hill called Hissarlik (a location
first suggested by Charles MacLaren in 1822). Schliemann excavated the hill by digging a deep trench-a destructive hack job
that was common even to professionals during the nineteenth century infancy of archaeology. He found not just one Troy, but
several. There are remains of seven distinct settlements on Hissarlik, with a record of human occupation beginning in the
third millennium b.c.
Schliemann's archeological verification of Homer's Trojan War is an inspiring example of how an intelligent layperson can
make a significant contribution to professional scholarship. Unfortunately Schliemann often serves as the poster child for
isolated cranks who draw hope from his success.
There are important distinctions between Homer's Troy and Plato's Atlantis: the obvious one is that the ruins of Troy have
been found where Homer said they were: the proof is in the pudding. Also, the Iliad and its heroes are part of a mythic tradition
that suffused Greek art and culture. Pottery shows scenes from the Trojan War and depicts heroes like Achilles, Ajax, and
Odysseus. Long-standing local legends and religious myths also allude to many of the characters. Many of the places mentioned
in the Iliad were recognized by Greeks of Plato's time. There is even solid evidence that Iliad (and its companion work, the
Odyssey) themselves have deep roots into the past. Milman Parry's landmark work in the 1930s analyzing the structure of Homeric
poetry and comparing it with oral poetry among the Serbs, demonstrates that the Iliad is essentially an oral poem woven from
conventional phrases and lays handed down through generations of Greek bards. Though committed to writing, the poetry itself
is a product of oral mnemonic and metric composition.
Plato's Timaeus and Critias, by contrast, are non-traditional: his dialogues are original prose compositions. Atlantis
is mentioned by no one before Plato, and was never part of the broader interconnected traditions of ceramic art, poetry, literary
allusions, local legends, or monumental architecture. There is no evidence to show that tales of Atlantis were handed down
through generations from an age long before Plato.
The Atlantis Legend in Detail and Context
There is an established chronology to Plato's dialogues, based on stylistic and other evidence. The philosopher's last
dialogues were the Republic, the Timaeus, and the Critias, the latter two named for the characters who contribute the most
significant part of the dialogue. It is worth noting here that while I call the participants in these dialogues characters,
they in fact portray real contemporaries of Plato and Socrates. In the Timaeus, Plato records a dialogue between Socrates,
Critias, Hermocrates and Timaeus. The latter three are obligated to repay Socrates for his masterly discussion of the ideal
society in the Republic by giving accounts of their own. The character Timaeus describes the creation of the world, but only
after Critias retells a story of Atlantis he claims to have heard when he was ten years old. His grandfather-the elder Critias-relates
this story to the younger Critias and others at a poetry recital competition on Koreotis-"Children's Day"-during the Athenian
festival of Apatouria. On the last day of Apatouria, babies, young men, and newly married wives were enrolled into their phratriai-"brotherhoods"
of related families. I will come back to the significance of this festive occasion for the Atlantis legend later. In the dialogue
Critias, Critias continues his account of Atlantis, giving details about the origins of the society, the geography and the
culture. The dialogue then cuts off abruptly. This break is taken to coincide with Plato's death. The philosopher, of course,
never got around to writing a Hermocrates dialogue.
In the Timaeus, Critias claims that his grandfather, the elder Critias-by then ninety years old-heard the story from his
own father, Dropides. Dropides in turn heard the story from the revered Athenian poet and statesman Solon, which places the
provenance back to the sixth century b.c. Ultimately, the character Critias attributes the story of Atlantis back to priests
of the Egyptian city of Saïs. He alleges that Solon, during his travels in Egypt, met with these clerics. They ridiculed Solon
and his Greek compatriots for their lack of historical knowledge. The sages then astounded him with an account from hoary
antiquity about the lost Atlantean civilization. They told Solon that Athens's history reached back further than any Athenian
remembered, and that the city waged war with Atlantis thousands of years ago. Even during Solon's lifetime, Egyptian civilization
was ancient, already holding claim to more than two thousand years of history, so this part of the story would be entirely
plausible. However, the priests of Saïs-as Plato's character Critias tells-insisted that the Atlantean-Athenian war was waged
some 8,000 years before Solon's lifetime-circa 9,000 b.c.: far older than any evidence modern archeologists have thus far
found for civilization in the Mediterranean Basin, or anywhere in the world for that matter.
Plato's account is unambiguous: it clearly places the existence of Atlantis at circa 10,000 b.c. It also clearly accounts
for the alleged provenance of the Atlantis story up to Plato: priests at the Egyptian city of Saïs keep the historical written
records (gegrammena) of Atlantis lore for 8,000 years before Solon hears the tale. Beyond any doubt, there simply were no
Egyptian writing, no Egyptian priests, nor any Egyptian civilization 11,000 years ago. However, assuming for the sake of argument
that this claim is possible, it is then a matter of a tenuous thread of hearsay: 1) the priests tell Solon about the legend;
2) Solon tells Dropides; 3) Dropides tells his son, the elder Critias, who 4) tells his ten-year-old grandson, the younger
Critias; 5) and finally this Critias, now a grown man, recounts the tale for Socrates and his guests in a semi-fictional dialogue
recorded by Plato. The Atlantis legend-if you believe Plato's provenance-seems quite a stretch to lend credibility to a story
about the distant past.
In 1969, Greek seismologist Angelos Galanopoulos first proposed that the catastrophic eruption of the volcanic island of
Santorini (Thera) in 1500 b.c. was the source of Plato's Atlantis. After all, Santorini is a half-sunken caldera, and a buried
city that perished in the catastrophe-Akrotiri-was uncovered on the island by Greek archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos in 1967.
Unfortunately, Galanopoulos forced the date of the ancient Santorini eruption to jibe with the story of Atlantis by arguing
that Plato had his dates wrong by a factor of ten: the lost civilization was submerged 900 years, not 9000 years, before Solon.
The confusion of hundreds and thousands was, he argued, a mistake of translation between Egyptian and Greek. Yet the fact
remains that Egyptologists have never found any Egyptian texts that record the Atlantis legend, regardless of its alleged
age, in Saïs or anywhere else. Furthermore, Galanopoulos has placed his first foot in the pitfall I mentioned earlier. He
is changing part of the definition of Atlantis in order to prove its existence. By equating Atlantis with Santorini, Galanopoulos
fiddles with the location and the date, begging the very question of whether Plato's, rather than Galanopoulos's, Atlantis
really existed. In his book, Richard Ellis aptly quotes late CSICOP Fellow L. Sprague de Camp: "You cannot change all the
details of Plato's story and still claim to have Plato's story. That is like saying the legendary King Arthur is 'really'
Cleopatra; all you have to do is to change Cleopatra's sex, nationality, period, temperament, moral character, and other details,
and the resemblance becomes obvious."
Critias was quite clear about date of Atlantis; he was also clear about the location: it lay in the ocean outside of the
Pillars of Hercules (Benjamin Jowett translation):
[24e] . . . 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. For the ocean there was at that time navigable; for in front of the mouth which you Greeks call, as you say, 'the
pillars of Heracles,' (i.e., Hercules) there lay an island which was larger than Libya and Asia together; and it was possible
for the travellers of that time to cross from it to the other islands, and from the islands to the whole of the continent
[25a] over against them which encompasses that veritable ocean. For all that we have here, lying within the mouth
of which we speak, is evidently a haven having a narrow entrance; but that yonder is a real ocean, and the land surrounding
it may most rightly be called, in the fullest and truest sense, a continent.
"[25b] of the lands here within the Straits they ruled over Libya as far as Egypt, and over Europe as far as Tuscany.
So this host, being all gathered together, made an attempt one time to enslave by one single onslaught both your country and
ours and the whole of the territory within the Straits. . . .
The claim of Atlantis's location is fairly precise: The Mediterranean is the "haven" with a "narrow entrance," i.e.,
the pillars of Hercules. Atlantis lies outside of the Mediterranean "at a distant point" in the Atlantic ocean. Legitimate
scholars like J.V. Luce follow Galanopoulos in claiming that the Atlantis legend really refers to Akrotiri on Santorini. In
1992, Eberhard Zangger, of the German Archaeological Institute in Athens, Greece, announced his theory that Atlantis was really
Troy, which, as already noted, lies in northwestern Turkey. It is quite a stretch to say that a story about a large island
in the Atlantic Ocean is really about a small island in the Aegean Sea or a citadel in ancient Turkey, yet serious scholarship
is funded arguing this very point. According to Richard Ellis, Stanford University and the German Archaeological Institute
supported Zangger's efforts from 1984 to 1988.
Cranks, however, are guilty of far greater crimes: they take the description of an island outside of the pillar of Hercules
even more loosely. For them, it is carte blanche to place Atlantis nearly anywhere on the surface of the planet. Rand Flem-Ath
correlates Atlantis with Antarctica. John M. Allen, in his book Atlantis: The Andes Solution, places Atlantis in modern-day
Bolivia, or, more specifically, a submerged volcanic island in Lake Poopo on the Bolivian altiplano. For more information
on this theory, see www.geocities.com/webatlantis/.
To correlate Atlantis with a lost civilization-real or imagined-anywhere other than the Atlantic Ocean requires ignoring
a key part of Plato's description:
[25d] and one grievous day and night befell them, when the whole body of your warriors was swallowed up by the
earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner was swallowed up by the sea and vanished; wherefore also the ocean at that
spot has now become impassable and unsearchable, being blocked up by the shoal mud which the island created as it settled
down (Benjamin Jowett translation).
Neither Antarctica nor Lake Poopo are impassable muddy shoals in the Atlantic Ocean.
The power of any possible proof that Atlantis existed depends on sticking to definitions, especially Plato's. He is clear
about the Atlantis he is talking about, and until a large submerged island is found in the Atlantic with ruins of an ancient
seafaring civilization that existed 11,000 years ago, the skeptic can comfortably assume that Atlantis never existed.
Plato's Purpose in Writing the Atlantis Myth
Plato's dialogues expound his philosophy and have some peculiar features. One of these features is the use of extraordinary
tales asserted as truth in order to vividly express his ideas. Towards the end of the Gorgias, for example, Socrates retells
a story of the Isles of the Blessed and Tartarus (Greek versions of Heaven and Hell), and prefaces it thus: "Listen, then,
as story-tellers say, to a very pretty tale, which I dare say that you may be disposed to regard as a fable only, but which,
as I believe, is a true tale, for I mean to speak the truth" (Benjamin Jowett translation).
At the end of the Republic, Socrates tells the story of Er, who, severely wounded in battle, has a near-death experience.
He comes to, finding himself on a funeral pyre (fortunately unlit). "And thus, Glaucon, the tale has been saved and has not
perished, and will save us if we are obedient to the word spoken; and we shall pass safely over the river of Forgetfulness
and our soul will not be defiled" (Jowett). Plato uses the device of the "true" amazing tale in other dialogues, including
the Meno and Laws. The Timaeus, as mentioned above, is the sequel to the Republic-Plato's major dialogue on the nature of
the ideal society and its governance. In laying out the practices of forming the ideal state and citizenry, Plato discusses
the tools to be employed in education of the youth. One tool is the use of totally fabricated stories, presented to the youth
as true history.
[Republic 376] In this education, you would include stories, would you not? These are of two kinds, true stories
and fiction. Our education must use both and start with fiction. . . . And the first step, as you know, is always what matters
most, particularly when we are dealing with those who are young and tender. That is the time when they are easily moulded
and when any impression we choose to make leaves a permanent mark (Desmond Lee translation).
Later, Plato writes, prefacing the "Myth of Blood and Soil,"
[Republic: 414 b-c] "Now I wonder if we could contrive one of those convenient stories we were talking about a
few minutes ago," I asked. "Some magnificent myth that would in itself carry conviction to our whole community, including,
if possible the Guardians themselves. . . . Nothing new-a fairy story like those the poets tell and have persuaded people
to believe about the sort of thing that often happened 'once upon a time,' but never does now and is not likely to: indeed
it would need a lot of persuasion to get people to believe it" (Desmond Lee translation).
As the modern philosopher Karl Popper notes in the first volume of his two-part series The Open Society and Its Enemies
(Princeton, 1962), Plato sees legends about the origins of a people, moral fortitude, and great achievements as socially useful
indoctrination tools-noble lies.
Critias, the character in the Timaeus who tells the story of Atlantis to Socrates and his guests, is special for many reasons.
First, he is the great uncle of Plato. He was also one of the Thirty Tyrants-the authoritarian regime that took over Athens
after the Peloponnesian War. He was anti-democratic and pro-Spartan. The ideal society outlined in Plato's Republic is by
no coincidence both anti-democratic and remarkably like the society of Sparta. Critias was also a poet of some note and professed
the doctrine of the "noble lie" shared by Plato in the Republic.
According to Popper, he "was the first to glorify propaganda lies, whose invention he described in forceful verses eulogizing
the wise and cunning man who fabricated religion . . ." (1962, p. 142).
As propaganda, the Atlantis myth is more about Athens than a sunken civilization. The tale places Athens's history deep
into the past, making the Athenians a people sprung from the soil, and portrays its citizens in a heroic battle against the
menacing power of Atlantean foes. In the Timaeus, Critias answers Socrates request to "accurately describe my city [Athens]
fighting a war worthy of her":
[25c] [Athens] in gallantry and all warlike arts, and acting partly as leader of the Greeks, and partly standing
alone by itself when deserted by all others, after encountering the deadliest perils, it defeated the invaders and reared
a trophy; whereby it saved from slavery such as were not as yet enslaved, and all the rest of us who dwell within the bounds
of Heracles it ungrudgingly set free (Benjamin Jowett translation).
The context of the festival during which Critias hears the story from his grandfather is telling, as I mentioned above.
The feast of Apatouria involves the induction of infants, youth and wives into the phratry, or clan of families. This is where
the society inducts its next generation into the fold-exactly the context where the purpose for education through fictions
presented as fact is laid out in the Republic. Also notable is the fact that this is a contest in epic poetry recital. Epic
poetry was the classic medium in Greek society for tales of heroic men of yore.
There is no evidence whatsoever to indicate that Atlantis represented any real place at any time. Where the story contains
descriptions or events that resemble historic happenings, it only does so to the degree that any piece of fiction relies on
experiences of reality. All of the evidence points to the story being one of Plato's noble lies: useful fictions used to make
a point, not to refer to the past.
Atlantis continues to captivate people's imaginations because it offers the hope that lost ideals or some untapped human
potential will someday be uncovered, not the masonry blocks of a dead civilization. Scrying for crumbled roads in Bimini or
poring over the outline of some terra incognita on a forged map ignore the real Atlantis, the undiscovered country of human
About the Author
Kevin Christopher is Public Relations Director for the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims
of the Paranormal. He has degrees in classics and linguistics from SUNY-Buffalo.
The Myth is the Message, Michael Shermer
Scientific American, October 2004, p. 42.
Shermer is publisher of Skeptic (www.skeptic.com) and author of The Science of Good and Evil.
Myths are stories
that express meaning, morality or motivation. Whether they are true or not is irrelevant. But because we live in an age
of science, we have a preoccupation with corroborating our myths.
the so-called Lost Continent of Atlantis, a mythic place that has been "found" in so many places around the planet that
one wouldn't think there was anywhere left to look. Think again. On June 6 the BBC released a story about satellite images
locating Atlantis in, of all places, the south of Spain (http://news.bbc.co.Uk/2/hi/science/nature/3766863.stm). The story
quoted Rainer Kuhne of the University of Dortmund in Germany as saying, "Plato wrote of an island of five stades (925 m) diameter
that was surrounded by several circular structures—concentric rings—some consisting of Earth and the
others of water. We have in the photos concentric rings just as Plato described."
reported his findings in the online edition of the journal Antiquity, claiming to have identified two rectangular
structures surrounded by concentric rings near the city of Cadiz, Spain. He suggests that the structures match the description
in Plato's dialogue Critias of the silver and golden temples devoted to the Greek god Poseidon and his mortal lover
Cleito and that the high mountains of Atlantis are actually those of the Sierra Morena and Sierra Nevada. "Plato also
wrote that Atlantis is rich in copper and other metals," he adds. "Copper is found in abundance in the mines of the Sierra
also has been "found" in the Mediterranean, the Canaries, the Azores, the Caribbean, Tunisia, West Africa, Sweden, Iceland
and even South America. But what if there is nothing to find? What if Plato made up the story for mythic purposes? He did.
Atlantis is a tale about what happens to a civilization when it becomes combative and corrupt. Plato's purpose was to warn
his fellow Athenians to pull back from the precipice created by war and wealth.
a second Plato dialogue, Timaeus, Critias explains that Egyptian priests told the Greek wise man Solon that his ancestors
once defeated a mighty empire located just beyond the "Pillars of Hercules" (usually identified by Atlantologists as
the Strait of Gibraltar), after which "there were violent earthquakes and in a single day and night all sank into the earth
and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared into the depths of the sea." Critias describes the city as a series
of circular canals lined with colorful palaces adorned in gold. Poseidon resided in a silver temple with an ivory roof, and
a racecourse was built between the canals. Atlantean wealth afforded a military industrial complex 10,000 chariots, 24,000
ships, 60,000 officers, 120,000 hoplites, 240,000 cavalry, and 600,000 archers and javelin throwers. (Your myth-detection
alarm should be going off about now.) Corrupted by excessive belligerence and avarice, Zeus called forth the other gods
to his home, "and when he had gathered them there he said...." The sentence ends there. Plato had made his point.
fodder for Plato's imagination came from his experiences growing up at the terminus of Greece's golden age, brought
about, in part, by the costly wars against the Spartans and Carthaginians. He visited cities such as Syracuse, which
featured numerous Atlantean-like temples, and Carthage, whose circular harbor was controlled from a central island.
Earthquakes were common: when he was 55, one leveled the city of Helice, only 40 miles from Athens, and, most tellingly, the
year before he was born an earthquake flattened a military outpost on the small island of Atalante.
wove historical fact into literary myth. As he wrote of his parables: "We may liken the false to the true for the purpose
of moral instruction." The myth is the message.