Atlantis has been described as the greatest of all historical mysteries. Plato, writing about 350 BC, was the first to mention the great island in the Atlantic Ocean which had vanished ‘in a day and a night’, and been submerged beneath the waves. Plato’s account in the two late dialogues of Timaeus and Critias has the absorbing quality of good science fiction. According to Plato, Atlantis was already a great civilization when Athens had been founded about 9600 BC. It lay beyond the pillars of Hercules (the Straits of Gibraltar) and was larger than Libya and Asia put together. The sea god, Poseidon, founded the Atlantean race by fathering ten children on a mortal maiden named Cleito. Although they were great engineers and architects, the Atlanteans were, however, also a warlike people who were only finally conquered by the Athenians. At this point violent floods and earthquakes destroyed both nations’ armies and Atlantis sank beneath the waves. The destruction of Atlantis was in part supposedly a punishment from the gods, for when the Atlanteans began to lose the wisdom and virtue they inherited from the gods, and became greedy, corrupt and domineering, the chief god Zeus decided to teach them a lesson. Although many later scholars and commentators have assumed that Atlantis was a myth or allegory, others have been persuaded by the sheer detail of Plato’s account that at its core it was grounded in fact but embellished in the manner of a fable or fairytale. Needless to say, many have taken either side in a debate that has rumbled on for over two thousand years: was Atlantis a reality or a work of fiction?
The first serious work to suggest that Plato was recording a real catastrophe was Ignatius Donnelly’s Atlantis, the Antediluvian World (1882). He points out that modern earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have caused tremendous damage, and that there is evidence that Australia is the only visible part of a continent that once stretched from Africa to the Pacific, which scientists have named Lemuria. He also studied flood legends from Egypt to Mexico, pointing out their similarities, and indicated all kinds of affiinities connecting artifacts from both sides of the Atlantic. So compelling were Donnelly’s arguments that he quickly gained a large number of influential supporters. The British Prime Minister William Gladstone was so impressed by the book that he tried (unsuccessfully) to persuade Parliament to allot funds to sending a ship to trace the outlines of Atlantis. Despite this he also had his critics, including the American writer L Sprague de Camp, who asserted that many of Donnelly’s ‘statements of facts’ were actually either wrong when he made them or have been disproved by subsequent discoveries. It is notable, however, that there is still an awful lot in Donnelly’s mammoth tome that even De Camp leaves unchallenged…
Other writers have waded into the Atlantis debate at the not inconsiderable peril of losing their professional reputations. The Russian occultist Helena Blavatsky suggested in her book Isis Unveiled (1877) that the inhabitants of Atlantis were the fourth race on earth and that they were all naturally telepathic. They quickly became corrupted, she goes on to say, and this is what led to their downfall once they turned their ‘wicked magic’ on each other. Although Isis Unveiled turned its author into a minor celebrity when it became a bestseller, it proved a mixed blessing once a shattering expose on her life revealed that Blavatsky was actually a fraud. Intriguingly, after Blavatsky’s death an unpublished manuscript of an even longer book on Atlantis called The Secret Doctrine was discovered among her papers. This was a commentary on a mystical work called The Book of Dyzan, allegedly written in Atlantis in the Senzar language, and it explains that humanity was not the first intelligent race on earth. Mankind was preceded by four races, including the Atlanteans, and will be succeeded by two more. According to Blavatsky, all knowledge of the past is imprinted on a kind of psychic ether called Akasha, and this knowledge is called the Akashic records. She also claims that the survivors of Atlantis peopled Egypt and built the pyramids about a hundred thousand years ago (modern scholarship dates the earliest about 2500 BC).
Outlandish as her theories sounded, Blavatsky inspired many followers. W Scott-Elliott, a leading member of the Theosophical Society in London, produced a work called The Story of Atlantis (1896), in which he claimed to possess the ability to read the Akashic records. He also made the astonishing claim that the Atlantean civilization was flourishing one million years ago. This was followed by the Austrian Rudolf Steiner’s book From the Akashic Records (1904), which also deals with Atlantis and Lemuria. While it would be easy to dismiss the works of Blavatksy, Scott-Elliott and Steiner as the product of a lunatic fringe, a new and more serious advocate by the name of Lewis Spence appeared on the scene in 1924. His book, The Problem of Atlantis proposed that there was geological evidence for the existence of a great continent in the Atlantic region in the late Miocene era (25 to 10 million years ago). It disintegrated into smaller island masses, the two largest of which were in the Atlantic close to the Mediterranean. Spence adduces evidence that three primitive races, the Cro-Magnon, the Caspian and the Azilian, all emigrated from Atlantis and founded the civilizations of Egypt, Crete and the Mayan empire. Unlike previous Atlantis scholars, Spence was widely respected. He advised Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on his Atlantis novel The Maracot Deep, and also corresponded with the explorer Colonel Percy H Fawcett, who was convinced that Brazil was part of ancient Atlantis – a theory utilized in another Doyle novel, The Lost World.
Numerous other theories as to the nature and origins of Atlantis have appeared since the time of Spence. Hans Hoerbiger believed, with some scientific basis, that Atlantis was in fact destroyed by the falling of one of the many moons that once circled the Earth before we were left with our present moon (Luna). W Whiston, Sir Isaac Newton’s successor at the University of Cambridge, similarly put forward a theory that Atlantis once existed and was destroyed by a comet. In 1975 a symposium held at the University of Indiana discussed the question: Atlantis, fact or fiction? It reached the conclusion, tenaciously disputed by some of the academics present, that there was not one grain of proof of the existence of the sunken continent. Yet a number of questions remain unanswered: Did a continent once exist in middle of the Atlantic Ocean? If not, why have so many respected scholars over the centuries remained so convinced of its existence? If Atlantis did exist, what happened to it and why has there been no similar catastrophe since the time of its destruction? Presumably science one day will advance to the point at which it could conclusively prove or disprove the existence of Atlantis. I would tentatively suggest that this would be a worthwhile exercise, if only to avoid the fate of Atlantis occurring once again.