By Richard Ellis
One of the most enduring myths of Western civilization is that of Atlantis, the island city that sank into the sea. A recent examination of the critical literature suggested that there have probably been two thousand books written about Atlantis since Plato. In this latest contribution, Richard Ellis takes a hard look at some of the leading theories and also discusses the reasons for the story’s seemingly inexhaustible appeal.
The earliest references to Atlantis come from Plato, who used the story to point a moral in a couple of his dialogues. But exactly what Plato had in mind is still a mystery. It is clear that the Atlantis he describes – an enormous island somewhere in the Atlantic that already had a highly advanced civilization when most of mankind was living in caves – never existed anywhere.
The idea of Atlantis, however, continued to grow. Writers from Francis Bacon to Jules Verne have used Atlantis as a setting for allegorical tales and fantasies. Psychics and mystics see Atlantis as a source of spirituality and ancient wisdom. Some even believe that the location of Atlantis will finally be revealed through the use of tarot cards, marijuana, or a secret book buried under the paw of the Sphinx.
Archeologists, classicists, and oceanographers approach Atlantis as a scientific challenge. They are the new Schliemanns, looking for a second Troy. Their theories suggest, with varying amounts of evidence, that Atlantis was really Minoan Crete, the Greek island of Santorini (blasted into the sea by a volcano), or any one of a number of Mediterranean societies wiped out by tsunami.
Given the shaky foundation of the myth, it is not surprising that none of these theories are very convincing. They are better than the real long shots that locate Atlantis in the North Sea, the Sahara Desert, Antarctica, or the Bahamas, but that isn’t saying much.
The fact is that, while there may be many different ways of imagining Atlantis, there is no real, historical Atlantis waiting to be discovered.
Ellis is unapologetic about his rational bias. Imagining Atlantis is part of a healthy backlash against the increasing popularity of pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, and revisionist history in our culture (Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World may have started the trend).
But while Ellis’s approach is critical, he still manages to maintain an engaging sense of wonder. Like the best of its fellows, Imagining Atlantis reminds us that the truth is not only stranger than fiction, but more interesting as well.
Review first published August 8, 1998.