Of all the mythic statements that have come down to us from the Classical Greek world only one remains vital – and, indeed, may number more believers now than it did two and a half millennia ago. This is the story of Atlantis, as narrated by Plato (circa 429-347BC) in his Timaeus and Critias.
According to Plato, the Athenian lawgiver Solon (circa 640-559BC), on a visit to Egypt, heard the story of Atlantis from an Egyptian priest, who used it as an illustration of Cycles in the history of the world. Founded by Poseidon, Atlantis was a small continent in the Atlantic Ocean beyond the Gates of Hercules. Originally a land of just rule, it degenerated into an Oriental-type empire extending far into the Mediterranean. At the height of its power it was waging war against the men of the Eastern Mediterranean, who were led by Ur-Athens, when the Gods (led by Zeus), outraged by Atlantean hubris and decadence, intervened, sinking Atlantis beneath the sea and incidentally destroying ancient Athens and its army. Since then the Atlantic Ocean had been unnavigable. All this happened about 9000 years ago and is recorded on Egyptian monuments, said the Egyptian priest, said Solon, said Critias, said Plato.
The ancient world was perplexed as to the interpretation of Plato's literary myth, since there was no other account of Atlantis. Was it a historical narrative or a flight of fancy? Aristotle (384-322BC), according to Strabo (circa 60BC-AD20), seems to have rejected historicity, while the members of the Platonic succession, for the most part, allegorized the story in various ways. Proclus (circa 410-485), in his Commentary on the Timaeus, mentions various interpretations: as a metaphor for the battle of Good and Evil stars, the conflict of the fixed stars with the moving planets, the battles of Heroes and Demons, and so on. Proclus and his master Iamblichus, however, took the story of Atlantis as a philosophical statement in which contraries would be destroyed to create a new unity. This seems to have been the general interpretation of Atlantis in the Neoplatonic stream.
Today, our interpretation of Plato's account is closely linked to our knowledge of his sources. Modern rational conclusions about Plato's sources (and meaning) fall into several groups:
(a) Solon/Critias/Plato were honestly reporting a perhaps greatly garbled legend of Egyptian origin. Against this is that nothing substantiating Atlantis has been found in Egyptian documents and that the Egyptians were anyway largely indifferent to foreign history. A recent, not very convincing, version of the Egyptian theory interprets Plato's account as a distorted reminiscence of Troy and the Trojan War.
(b) The story of Atlantis, what with the thalassocracy and the catastrophism, is a folk memory of Minoan civilization, particularly the seismic destruction of Th¯era. This is attractive, but negates almost all of Plato's account.
(c) Plato's narrative is a construct, a deliberately concocted mythic history incorporating echoes of the Persian Wars, elements of Greek Folklore, Travellers' Tales and traditional Myth, probably with a philosophical intention. This has been the overwhelming position among modern Classical scholars and historians.
As the story of Atlantis moved down from the Graeco-Roman world, it underwent changes. In the Middle Ages and early Renaissance the geographic component of Atlantis – an island in the Atlantic – was often taken literally, and maps up until the Renaissance occasionally show Atlantis along with Hy-Brasil, St Brendan's Island, the Hesperides and similar mythical Islands (see Lost Lands and Continents). As geographical knowledge increased, however, the mode of interpretation changed again: it was not the "island-ness" of Atlantis that was accepted but a vague historicity. Thus geographers and speculative thinkers, both reasonable and crackpot (see Scholarly Fantasy), often relocated Atlantis, since the Atlantic was somewhat unsuitable. For example, the 17th-century Swedish botanist Olof Rudbeck (1630-1702) wrote a huge work proving Atlantis was really pre-Christian Sweden, while the late 17th-century German Classical scholar Johann Albert Fabricius (1668-1736) set Atlantis in Palestine. At an earlier period, Francis Bacon (1561-1626), in his The New Atlantis (1629), identified Plato's Atlantis with the Americas, describing a Mexican raid on Europe and a Peruvian raid on Bensalem; Atlantis-America was then devastated by the Biblical Flood. It is not known how seriously Bacon took this history. This translocation of Atlantis has continued to the present, with Atlantean revisionists seriously relocating Plato's Atlantis almost everywhere in the world, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, Central America to Central Africa and Central Asia.
The bibliography of Atlantean studies is enormous, with hundreds of documents from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. Of all these, by far the most influential has been Atlantis, the Antediluvian World (1882) by Ignatius Donnelly (1831-1901). Donnelly, a US Populist politician and part-time scholar, set out to prove that Plato's account (surreptitiously dropping Zeus) was literally correct: Atlantis was an Atlantic island that sank very suddenly. He carried matters a step farther: drawing on contemporary archaeology, Anthropology, geology and philology, he claimed that Bronze-Age Atlantis was the mother of ancient civilizations from Peru and Mexico to Europe and Egypt, perhaps even China. He also believed that the fall of Atlantis should be a lesson to his contemporary world. A sidebranch to Donnelly was provided by Lewis Spence in The History of Atlantis (1926). Spence considered Atlantis the home and origin of Upper Palaeolithic Cro-Magnon Man, who came to Europe just before the subsidence.
Opposed to Donnelly's rational, if wrong, reconstruction of Atlantis is that of the occultists, the most notable of whom was H P Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophical Society (see Theosophy). According to The Secret Doctrine (1888), Atlantis marked an evolutionary step in the development of modern humanity. The Atlanteans were Giants, perhaps 25ft tall, who had a superscience based on occult powers. At first a moral people, the Atlanteans became "black with sin" and destroyed themselves and their continent by their obsession with Black Magic. This destruction was hundreds of thousands of years ago. Many more recent occultists, like the groups emergent from the Order of the Golden Dawn, accept a later Atlantis, peopled by modern humanity, but one that was likewise concerned with magical operations that caused the destruction of the land. In the Society of the Inner Light, for example, Dion Fortune attempted a recreation of the magic practised before the Submersion, as described in part in her The Sea Priestess (1938).
Thanks to the renewed interest in Atlantis created by Donnelly and Blavatsky, it became a Playground. A major research project would be required to identify all Atlantean fictions, but a safe estimate for the English language alone would range in the upper hundreds. Unfortunately, in this plethora of writing, there is very little of literary value.
As described by Plato, Atlantis was a rich land, fertilely set amid sheltering mountains, productive of tropical fruits, and for long the child of a God; among the exotic fauna were elephants. (Such richness and exoticism may have been familiar to Plato from his residence in Sicily, which would have offered contrast to the already overcultivated small lands of Greece.) This double characterization of Atlantis – as glamour place (like Avalon or Eden) and as minatory victim (in its fall) – continues in other fiction, with proportions variously changed.
Three early novelistic treatments of Atlantis convey different images of the lost continent. Atla: The Story of the Lost Island (1886) by Mrs J Gregory Smith (1818-1905) follows Donnelly's Bronze-Age transatlantic Atlantis closely, presenting, in Wardour Street language, a sentimental Love story. Atlantis (1895 as by André Laurie; trans as The Crystal City under the Sea 1896) by Paschal Grousset (1845-1909) (see SFE link below) is essentially a boys' costume romance with some attempt at character humour. It established the image of Atlantis surviving deep Under the Sea under glass, a situation probably suggested by the powerful Victorian institution of the stove greenhouse. Earlier than this, Grousset's occasional collaborator Jules Verne, in Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1869-1870), offered the wonderful promenade of Nemo and Arronax among the flooded statuary and temples of Atlantis. Popular in its day, The Lost Continent (1900) by C J Cutcliffe Hyne (1865-1944), heavily based on Donnelly and the novels of H Rider Haggard, presented a stodgy dynastic romance that is now occasionally laughable. The Scarlet Empire (1906) by David M Parry (1852-1915), President of the National Association of Manufacturers, used Atlantis as a situation for a bitterly anti-labour, anti-socialist Tendenzfiktion. His (perhaps ghosted) work describes a crystal-dome Atlantis that is totally regimented, corrupt, cynical and inhuman.
In the 1920s L'Atlantide (1919; translated variously as Atlantida and The Queen of Atlantis 1920) by Pierre Benoît (1886-1962) offered new elements: Atlantis in the Sahara, isolated by the disappearance of an ancient sea; a scholarly treatment of Roman remains in the area; and erotica. It centred on a feminist Femme Fatale who avenged wrongs committed against Oriental women by killing her European lovers and copperplating their corpses. Benoît's novel has been filmed several times: L'Atlantide (1921); Die Herrin von Atlantis (1932 vt L'Atlantide; vt Lost Atlantis; vt The Mistress of Atlantis; vt Queen of Atlantis); Siren of Atlantis (1948); and L'Atlantide (1961); the most significant of these is Siren of Atlantis. All in all, Benoît's story is the most readable of the early renderings of Atlantis.
Cultural forces played a part in the sinking of several Atlantises. "The Veiled Feminists of Atlantis" (1926) by Booth Tarkington (1869-1946) linked aggressive, unreasonable Feminism to destruction of values and black Magic to the Submersion, while "The Fall of Atlantis" (in Recreations of a Psychologist coll 1920) by G(ranville) Stanley Hall (1844-1924) postulated a superscientific Atlantis that fell and was destroyed because of occupational syndicalism and other thinly disguised equivalents of modern social developments, a metaphor for our own times. The earlier The Sin of Atlantis (1900) by Roy Horniman (1874-1930), although largely a modern society novel, invokes an Atlantis that fell because of truck with evil. Good and Evil, in the form of hypostatizations, are associated with a surviving glass-bowl Atlantis in Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Maracot Deep" (1927-1928 The Strand).
Other popular novels dealing with Atlantis are They Found Atlantis (1936) by Dennis Wheatley, which ineptly combines a crime thriller with an underground Atlantis inhabited by only 12 men and women who enjoy sexual communism, astral wanderings around the world and high-minded pursuits. Three Go Back (1932) by James Leslie Mitchell (1901-1935), superior novelistically to Wheatley's work, is based on Spence's concept of Atlantis as bearing an upper Palaeolithic culture. Three people are precipitated by a timewarp into a primitive land that contains both Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal humans. The Ultimate Island (1925) by Lance Sieveking (1896-1972) portrays a small surviving Atlantean island as a hermit land with a culture based on obsessive social integration and minimalism. The culture is interesting, but the plotting is badly handled sensationalism.
More recent novelistic treatments include: Alas, That Great City (1948) by Francis Ashton (1904-1994), a somewhat plodding adventure novel based on archetypal psychology and crank astronomy; Jane Gaskell's Cija series (1963-1977), full of colourful, overwritten battles of Sex and power that might have taken place in any other Fantasyland; The Romance of Atlantis (1975) by Taylor Caldwell (1900-1985) with Jess Stearn, a piece of Caldwell's juvenilia – she was 12 when she first wrote it – that perhaps should have remained unpublished; Marion Zimmer Bradley's Atlantean Chronicles (1982-1984) and Poul Anderson's The Dancer from Atlantis (1971), which edges into Minoan history.
The US pulp efflorescence of the first half of this century has been rich in Atlantean pryings, although there is little work of quality among the scores of such stories. Trivial Atlantean material appears in several Tarzan novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs – The Return of Tarzan (1915), Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar (1918), Tarzan and the Golden Lion (1924) and Tarzan the Invincible (1931). Adventure fantasies with ancient Atlantean settings are found also in the work of Henry Kuttner and others of the pulp Heroic-Fantasy school.
Descendants of Atlantis are found in the most varied places: in the Sahara, as in "The City of Glass" (1927 WT) by Joel Martin Nicholls; in the Arctic, in "Phalanxes of Atlans" (1931 Astounding Stories) by F Van Wyck Mason (1901-1978); in Colorado, in "The Moth Message" (1934 Wonder Stories) by Laurence Manning (1899-1972); on Venus, in "The Swordsman of Sarvon" (1932 Amazing Stories) by Charles Cloukey; on Ganymede, in "What the Sodium Lines Revealed" (1929 Amazing Stories Quarterly) by L Taylor Hansen (1899-1985); in other dimensions, as in "The Heads of Apex" (1931 Astounding Stories) by Francis Flagg (George Henry Weiss; 1898-1946); underneath New Jersey, in "Silver Dome" (1931 Astounding Stories) by Harl Vincent (1893-1968); and in gigantic mile-across cubes that float in the upper atmosphere, as in "The Empire in the Sky" (1930 Wonder Stories) by Ralph Wilkins. Such modern Atlanteans are usually, though not always, possessed of science much superior to our own.
In most instances Atlantis in the pulps stresses Plato's original notion of a glamour place, but occasionally it is a metaphor for social situations, sometimes minatory or premonitory. Thus "The Sunken World" (1928 Amazing Stories Quarterly) by Stanton A Coblentz (1896-1982) depicted a glass-bowl Atlantis that embodied socialist perfection but was brought to ruin by cultural stasis and the human frailty of boredom. Laurence Manning's "Voice of Atlantis" (1934 Wonder Stories) was an antimechanistic plea for natural conservation and Golden Age values. The pacifist "The Third Vibrator" (1933 Wonder Stories) by John Beynon Harris (better known as John Wyndham; 1903-1969) describes cyclical cultural destructions, including Atlantis, as the result of the development of superweapons.
On occasion Atlantis cannot be kept down: it arises once again, with varied impact. In Jules Verne's "L'éternel Adam" (1910) the re-emergence of drowned Atlantis and the discovery of a dead high civilization shatter faith in progress and demonstrate both a cyclical history of mankind and the impermanence of civilization. In The Crystal Button (1891) by Chauncey Thomas (1822-1898) the rising of Atlantis, making available enormous supplies of gold, destroys monetary standards and helps usher in a new age. And Ursula K Le Guin's "The New Atlantis" (in The New Atlantis anth 1975 ed Robert Silverberg) shows Atlantis as a metaphor for a grinding totalitarianism.
Particularly strong in fiction is the emphasis on the magical aspect of Atlantis, both as a site of Magic and as itself a source of magic. Atlantis, as a glamour place, can become hope, perfection, aspiration, and promise. For example, in E T A Hoffmann's "Der goldne Topf" (1814) Atlantis is a wonderful dreamland, the home of ecstasy, the place of poesy, where a young would-be poet ventures spiritually. Socially, too, Atlantis has become the dream of something better. In Young West (1894) by Solomon Schindler (1842-1915), one of the Sequels by Other Hands to Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888) by Edward Bellamy (1850-1898), the new Communist Boston is called Atlantis. Similarly, in A.D. 2050, Electrical Development of Atlantis (1890) by John Bachelder, another Bellamy epigone, a utopian community called Atlantis is established off the coast of California.
Despite its enormous significance in fantastic fiction, Atlantis has inspired relatively little in other arts. In music, Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) left an unfinished Atlantida for chorus and orchestra, and Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) composed the music for a ballet called Atlantis (performed 1964). There has been no good Atlantis movie; most are of the poor standard of Atlantis, The Lost Continent (1961) or Warlords of Atlantis (1978); the US tv series Man from Atlantis (1977-1978) was similarly uninspiring.
Closely related to Atlantis, but without either its impressive history or its emotional appeal, are two poor relations, Lemuria and Mu (see Lost Lands) that are likewise said to have been inundated. [EFB]
further reading: Lost Continents (1954; rev 1970) by L Sprague de Camp; The Search for Lost Worlds (1975) by James Wellard; Atlantis: Fact or Fiction? (anth 1978) ed Edwin S Ramage; The Guide to Supernatural Fiction (1983), Science Fiction: The Early Years (1990) and Science Fiction: The Gernsback Years (1998) by E F Bleiler; the video Cousteau Odyssey 8: Calypso's Search for Atlantis (1978) by Jacques Cousteau (1910-1997) has interesting sections on the excavation of Th¯era.
- The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: Paschal Grousset.