Atlantis! The name alone is enough to invoke images of mermaids, bubble cities, sunken ruins, and an ancient, technologically advanced situation that suffered ruin at the whims of the gods or their own hubris. But where did the idea of Atlantis come from? Could it have been a real place, or do its origins lie strictly in myth?
The history of Atlantis is a somewhat twisty one that starts with ancient Greek philosophy, gets a boost from an early modern literary movement inspired by Christopher Columbus, and then really takes off when a crackpot Congressman from Minnesota decided to try his hand at science and linguistics. Add in some racist New Age theories and Nazism, and you’ve got a wild trip through history and pseudohistory that has nevertheless left a surprising number of people still hunting down the lost continent.
Strap on your scuba gear and get ready for a deep dive into the history of the sunken city of Atlantis.
To understand the origins of Atlantis, you need to know a little about the Greek philosopher Plato. If all the word "platonic" means to you is a cute friend who doesn’t want to sleep with you, here’s a crash course: Plato lived in Greece in the 5th century B.C.E. and is the main source for the teachings of the philosopher Socrates. Plato’s works largely entail dialogues in which Socrates answers the questions of prominent Greek citizens on a certain topic. He is, without question, the best known and most influential philosopher of all time. He is not, in fact, colored modeling clay for children.
Plato introduced the idea of an island continent called Atlantis in two dialogues: Timaeus and the unfinished Critias, both from around 360 B.C.E. and both named after characters from the dialogues. In these works, Plato describes Atlantis, a continent larger than Northern Africa and Turkey put together, somewhere west of the Pillars of Hercules. Atlantis is originally a pretty fancy spot sacred to the sea god Poseidon, covered with moats and built up with the mysterious metal orichalcum. Atlantis is ruled by various kings who work in confederation with each other, and together, Atlantis became a massive power. However, 9,000 years before Plato’s time, the Atlanteans became warlike (more on that in a second) which displeases the gods, who — maybe you’ve heard this one — sink Atlantis to the ocean floor with a series of earthquakes.
Etymology and mythology
According to the myth as presented by Plato, the Greek gods divided the lands of the Earth among themselves and Poseidon appropriately ended up with Atlantis. There he fell in love with a human woman named Cleito, whom he "protected" by putting her in a cave and then turning the island into a series of concentric circles of land and water so that it kind of looked like the Target logo and so that no one could reach Cleito, since boats had not been invented yet.
Presumably he was also keeping her from running away from him in terror and exhaustion because she gave birth to a staggering five pairs of twins, which is, you will probably agree, a truly improbable number of twins. The oldest of all the twins was named Atlas, and he was appointed rightful king of the place and the ocean that surrounded it. The island continent was subsequently named after him, with the Greek phrase "Atlantis nesos" meaning "island of Atlas." Plato asserts that the Atlantic Ocean is named after this king and his island, as "Atlantic" also derives from the name "Atlas."
In reality, the Atlantic Ocean is actually named after the Atlas Mountains on the western shore of northern Africa, which are more frequently tied to another Atlas, the Titan who was punished by being sentenced to hold up the sky. That Atlas was turned into a mountain range when the hero Perseus showed him Medusa’s head after a fight over some apples. Greek mythology is wild, folks.
Allegory (or is it?)
So what was the point of Plato’s story of Atlantis? Why talk about a fabricated bull’s-eye-shaped island made of fantasy metal that later got turned into some mud shoals by the gods? The … well, let’s call it the "reasonable" approach is that the story of Atlantis is an allegory, kind of an extended metaphor whose hidden meaning reveals a deeper philosophical point. Plato uses this device pretty frequently, with probably his most famous example being the Allegory of the Cave, which he uses to explain his theory of the Forms. For more information on this topic, apply for student loans and take a freshman-level philosophy class.
Anyway, Plato’s Atlantis allegory relates to the idea of the perfect state that he had laid out in his earlier (and more famous) work, The Republic, which you can read here. Actually, let’s be real and just link to the SparkNotes. In Critias, Plato pits his perfect state in the form of "ancient Athens" against the war-like Atlantis, which is basically the anti-Athens. For Atlantis’ hubris in trying to attack Greece and conquer the known world, it is punished by the gods. Ta-da. Moral lesson achieved.
However, as author Mark Adams points out, it was not unheard of for Plato to borrow his allegories from earlier sources, especially Egyptian ones. The story of the Ring of Gyges is a notable example of this. And so, as early as the philosopher Crantor, a student of one of Plato’s students, people started taking Atlantis as something more than allegory. Hold on to your hats.
While Plato’s Timaeus was a major influence on medieval thought, there was no consensus among scholars whether it was real or not. Then the strangest thing happened: in fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
The discovery (by Europeans) of land masses west of Gibraltar opened up a whole new world in terms of what might be possible. This expansion of the common imagination was represented by the emergence of a new genre of writing called utopian literature. Named after Thomas More’s groundbreaking work, Utopia, utopian literature posited the existence of previously unknown worlds whose cultures and mores were presented as being different from "normal" Europeans, usually to make a political or moral point. The fact that these works might include talking monkeys is just a bonus.
One of these works, The New Atlantis by Francis Bacon (pictured above), who himself helped colonize much of the New World, revived interest in the lost continent despite not really being about Atlantis that much apart from one character giving the island’s history, basically cribbed from Plato. However, at the time, European settlers were trying to uncover the origins of the Mayan people, and Bacon’s work helped spark the idea that maybe the Maya were from Atlantis. As you might have put together, the idea was that brown people should not have been as naturally advanced as the Maya were, so maybe they were survivors from a fantasy place that Plato wrote about. Yes, this is super racist.
The work that really touched the match of Atlantis to the powderkeg of the popular imagination was an 1882 book called Atlantis: The Antediluvian World by Ignatius Donnelly (pictured above), who also wrote other works of pseudohistory on such topics as the secret real author of Shakespeare’s plays (he, perhaps coincidentally, attributes them to Francis Bacon, author of The New Atlantis). It might surprise you to learn that this Minnesotan crackpot was elected to Congress multiple times, but hey, anything can happen.
Donnelly uses some really hinky science and linguistics combined with the racist theories of Mayanism to propose that not only was Atlantis real, but that it was in fact the origin of all people in the Americas, Europe, and the Near East. An example of the airtight proof that he offered was that ancient people in both America and Europe got married and divorced. Airtight.
Naturally, his ideas became wildly popular, and people were soon looking for the real location of Atlantis. What was the site of the "real" Atlantis? Maybe it was Sardinia, in the Mediterranean. What about Crete? Sure, literally the only thing that Plato says about Atlantis’ location is that it was west of Gibraltar, but why not keep looking in the Mediterranean? Okay, fine. Maybe Ireland or Spain? How about the Caribbean? Did you check Candy Land? Maybe it sank in the Molasses Swamp. Every day in every way, we are finding more and more Atlantises.
Art and culture
After Donnelly’s book, Atlantis was everywhere in popular culture and the arts. It didn’t hurt that around this time, science fiction was starting to take off as a genre. So you have Captain Nemo finding the sunken continent in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, as well as lesser-known works like C.J. Cutliffe Hyne’s The Lost Continent: The Story of Atlantis from 1899. The 1919 French novel Atlantida by Pierre Benoit proposed the twist that Atlantis is actually in the middle of the Sahara. Atlantis has since featured in books of all kinds, from Robert E. Howard’s Kull to Artemis Fowl.
The first four films to go to Atlantis were all adaptations of Benoit’s Atlantida. The first to do its own thing (kind of) was the serial Undersea Kingdom featuring unabashed Flash Gordon ripoff Crash Corrigan. Since then, dozens of movies have seen characters visit Atlantis, including Disney’s 2001 feature Atlantis: The Lost Empire, with production design by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. Most importantly, in 1994, McGyver found Atlantis in a TV movie.
Atlantis is also the home of superheroes Aquaman and Namor the Sub-Mariner, as well as Superman’s college girlfriend Lori Lemaris. Scrooge McDuck finds Atlantis while hunting for quarters in the classic 1954 story "The Secret of Atlantis" by Disney’s #1 Duck Man, Carl Barks. Stargate: Atlantis also exists.
The most hardcore bit of Atlantis culture might be The Emperor of Atlantis, an opera satirizing Hitler that was written by two dudes while they were prisoners in a concentration camp.
Artists and fiction writers weren’t the only ones to pick up the Atlantis ball and run with it. One person majorly influenced by Donnelly’s book was Russian circus horse rider turned religious leader Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (pictured above), who founded the Theosophical Society in the 1870s.
One of the major works of theosophy is Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine, which Blavatsky claims was dictated in Atlantis itself. You can read the text of the book at the above link, but since the work is pretty unreadable, here’s the short version.
Blavatsky claims there are seven root races of humanity. The first were, naturally, invisible jellyfish. These were followed by the Hyperboreans, who lived at the North Pole but did not have bodies. Next came egg-laying lemurs, who lived on a different lost continent (Lemuria) but were destroyed after they discovered sex. Fourth were the Atlanteans, on which more in a second. Fifth were the (sigh) Aryans, which is to say, Blavatsky’s own race. The sixth and seventh races are still to come and will live on Venus, obviously.
Blavatsky’s version of Atlantis is pretty different from Plato’s. To her, they were heroic figures (contrasted with Plato’s warmongers) who were at their peak a million years ago but ultimately destroyed themselves through unsafe use of magic and psychic powers. Despite its cuckoo Cocoa Puffs (and also pretty super racist/basically impossible to read) nature, The Secret Doctrine has had a surprisingly enduring influence on later cultural depictions of Atlantis.
If mentions of "enduring influence" and "super racist" and "Aryan" with regard to Blavatsky’s work set off any alarms, it should have, because guess which goose-stepping murder boys were big fans of The Secret Doctrine? Here’s a hint: Indiana Jones was pretty happy to punch them.
The Nazis seeking out magical and occult items is not strictly the stuff of movies, however. The 1985 book The Occult Roots of Nazism describes how Nazi philosophy had many ties to ariosophy, a white nationalist occult philosophy with roots in Blavatsky’s theosophy. According to The Independent, SS head Heinrich Himmler (pictured above) sought out the Holy Grail in an attempt to prove that Jesus was an Aryan.
Foundational works of Nazi philosophy such as Alfred Rosenberg’s The Myth of the Twentieth Century (that link goes to a pivotal Nazi text, so, you know, be warned) are based around a racial theory that posits that modern white Europeans were descended from the Hyperborean people of Atlantis, all based on ideas from Blavatasky’s work.
If your head isn’t reeling from the combined implications of the past several paragraphs, here it is laid out for you: Nazis believed that they were racially superior because they were descended from a race of Nordic supermen from Atlantis, that Jesus was also from Atlantis like them, and that ultimately they came from a race of lemurs that laid eggs. These underwater egg lemur boys thought they deserved to live more than non-underwater lemur boys. We live in a wild world.
Other lost and sunken lands
While Atlantis is pretty handily the most famous sunken lost continent, it’s hardly the only one. There are a pretty shocking number, really. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to lose one continent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose a dozen looks like carelessness.
One of the most famous non-Atlantis lost continents is the aforementioned Lemuria. While Blavatsky supposed this sunken continent was home to egg-laying lemurs that got too sexy for their own good, in fact, the continent was first proposed by British zoologist Philip Lutley Sclater to explain why there were lemur-like animals separated by oceans. This idea never gained any real scientific traction, but Blavatsky’s work introduced the idea into popular culture. Did we mention Blavatsky’s lemurs had four arms, sometimes had extra eyes, were hermaphrodites, and hung out with dinosaurs? Why wouldn’t this ignite popular imagination?
The lost continent of Mu was an attempt to explain similarities between distant cultures (like pyramids in Egypt and Central America) before aliens started getting credit for it. A popular legend held that there was an island, called Hy-Brasil, off Ireland’s coast that would mysteriously appear once every seven years before returning to a shroud of mist. (Despite similarities in the names, it is not at all related to Brazil, the actual country that really exists.) The legend of Ys tells of a city that sank under the ocean when a princess accidentally opened a dike while trying to visit her lover who might have been the devil.
Science has bad news
People who follow Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Twitter account already know that science’s main goal is to ruin anything cool or fun, and Atlantis is no exception. Let’s set aside the fact that there is no historical evidence of Plato’s ancient Athenian empire and even less evidence of them as a spiritually pure rebel alliance that destroyed a technologically superior evil empire through force of will in Plato’s proto-Star Wars fan fiction. Let’s set aside the fact that no sign of Atlantis has been found west of Gibraltar even though ocean mapping technology is pretty solid these days. (We can also safely ignore claims of orichalcum being found near Sicily, which, you might notice, is not in the Atlantic.)
The fact is, geology flat out disproves it. According to LiveScience, the science of plate tectonics proves that it is impossible for a large land mass to have sunk to the sea floor within human history, because there’s nowhere for it to have gone: the sea floor has spread out over time, not contracted. Furthermore, Natural History magazine points out that no earthquake has ever been measured that would be sufficient to sink a continent-sized landmass. Even the historic San Francisco quake of 1906 produced relative movement of only about 22 feet, hardly enough to put it on the sea floor.
While a fictional understanding of Atlantis has led to fun stuff like Aquaman, a more literal belief in the lost continent has helped along racist philosophies and Nazism, so maybe it’s best if Atlantis remains debunked.