Sunday, September 25, 2011

Atlantis Was Actually Two Separate Places

All too often human beings, emotionally and intellectually, operate in accordance with their Inner Cave Man's (or Cave Woman's) survival imperative, which is that he or she simplifies matters down to their most easily understood formulations. This is done to expedite decision-making in a fight-or-flight survival situation. However, in the context of the modern world, where survival is much more certain on a day to day basis and the modern milieu is a much more nuanced complex of time and place, such formulations are mostly inaccurate and invalid.

Roughly 2,400 years ago, Plato gave the world the Atlantis myth within two of his dialogues: Timaeus, but moreover in Critius.  Plato expounded upon many myths in his lifetime, but his marvelous tales of Atlantis, its civilization, and its sinking into the ocean became the familiar story we became acquainted with as children.  Myths are typically a mix of fact and fiction with the fiction often inspired by facts; the resulting combination is designed to explain something or to teach something. Throughout the centuries since Plato's time, some people, as long ago as Classical Antiquity, believed Atlantis might have been a real place, and so they tried to figure out where it was located.

Plato places Atlantis outside the "Pillars of Hercules," which lies on the western side of the mouth of the Straight of Gibraltar. However, no suitable locations have ever been found in or on the margins of the Atlantic Ocean Basin that might point to where Atlantis was likely located. This fact has led many intelligent people (as well as some not so intelligent) to start looking nearer to Plato's homeland, which, to the inquisitive, was the smarter bet. A suitable suspect was found in the Aegean Sea at an island called Thera ("fear" in Greek) in ancient times and Santorini in modern times. The area was formed by a cataclysmic eruption of a massive volcano (VEI of 6 or 7) that devastated the immediate area around Thera circa 1628 BC; this volcanic event even wreaked havoc upon peoples all around the Mediterranean Sea Basin.

A well accepted fact is that the Minoan Civilization was based in the Aegean Sea; Crete was their capitol, but Thera was their crown jewel. Ancient Thera's volcano caused the cataclysmic destruction of that island, which in turn, led to the ultimate destruction of the Minoan Civilization by mainland Mycenaeans. The Mycenaeans absorbed the Minoans genetically and culturally, and in the aggregate, they all became the Greeks.

The Greek Island of Santorini in the Aegean Sea
Image courtesy of the Thera Foundation
In terms of their cultures, the circumstantial and anecdotal evidence connecting the Minoans to Atlantis  is quite convincing. The connectivity between the Minoans and  King Minos' kingdom on the island of Crete (in Greek mythology) is even greater. This connection demonstrates that the ancient Greeks had a strong cultural memory of the Minoans, centuries after the latter's civilization was absorbed. The tri-partite problem with the Minoans representing the factual inspiration for Plato's Atlantis is location, location, location. My own theory (until this new Spanish discovery, whose theory was not uniquely my own invention) is that Plato merely moved the Minoan story outside the Mediterranean Sea Basin to give it a more exotic and mysterious flavoring to his Greek audience. Setting the Atlantians in the Aegean Sea would place them too close to home for the ancient Greeks to be as impressed. Such a location would be too domestic, and thus, harder to believe such things could happen, as opposed to a much less well known and well-understood region like that beyond the Straight of Gibraltar; to ancient Greeks, such a distant locale was like saying it lay beyond the frontiers of the known world.

Now comes word of a discovery along the Atlantic Coast of Spain, north of Cadiz; a remarkable footprint of a splendid coastal city buried beneath a marsh. The means of interment could have been caused by an ancient tsunami created by an ocean impact of an extraterrestrial body, or a massive submarine landslide, or a flank failure of a volcano  (like Cumbre Vieja on the island of  La Palma in the Canary Islands) or perhaps even an earthquake such as a major fault rupture along the nascent subduction zone west of Cadiz that was responsible much later in time the tsunami-genic 1755 Lisbon Earthquake (and resulting urban conflagration). Certainly the location of this lost city and its layout (multi-ringed port city) perfectly match Plato's descriptions of both aspects of Atlantis. Also, the time factor better fits Atlantis because, according to Plato, Atlantis was destroyed 9,000 years prior to his reporting. Although that time is certainly contrived, it better suits this new discovery which, according to initial indications, is much older yet than the Minoan Civilization. 

The buried city under Dona Ana Park just north of Cadiz, Spain.
Image courtesy of the National Geographic Society.
My conclusion is that Plato created the story of Atlantis using two separate stories based upon oral traditions of two separate historical events: the doomed pre-Spanish civilization and the doomed pre-Greek civilization. These two incidents were, in turn, recorded to some degree at the ancient Library of Alexandria, to which Plato's ancestor, Solon, had access and was known to have visited as a visiting Greek statesman. Solon shared these tales within his family, which were passed down to Plato generations later. Plato then merged the stories into the single myth we know as Atlantis.

Modern writers of historical fiction conflate multiple locations, events or people into one place or event or character as a matter of routine and we call it poetic license. Plato certainly was poetically licensed, as were all of the Greek philosophers and historians. Factual accuracy was often not the top priority; think Herodotus. Simply put, Plato took the location and the cause of death of one doomed city-state and married it to the culture and the cause of death of another doomed city-state and created a moral lesson about hubris and decadence called Atlantis. Additionally, this theme is also found in Sodom & Gomorrah in the Book of Genesis and in The Lost City of Ubar from the Qur'an.


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