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This article is about the mythical lost continent. For the Space Shuttle, see Space Shuttle Atlantis. For the fictitious community of defectors in Atlas Shrugged, see here.

Atlantis, as drawn by German scholar Athanasius Kircher in the 17th century

Atlantis (Greek: Ἀτλαντίδι) is the name given to a legendary island with an advanced civilization supposedly located somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, though other locations have also been proposed. A tale of utopia and calamity, Atlantis has long been fodder for the occult, the paranormal, and crank science; recent archaeological and geological searches of the Aegean Sea point to Crete, whose Minoan Civilization was largely destroyed by a massive volcanic eruption during the second millennium, B.C.


Plato's account


Plato (427-347 B.C.) was a Greek philosopher who left behind a large amount of letters and dialogues (the best known of which is The Republic); and was the founder of the Academy, the first prototype of a modern university. Two of his dialogues are the only known ancient sources of Atlantis: Timeaus and the unfinished Critias. Both dialogues were named for persons in the narrative, with Critias the principle speaker.


In the Timaeus Plato recounts (in the voice of Critias) a story told to him by his grandfather Critias the Elder, who had heard it from the famous lawgiver Solon. Solon in turn was said to have learned from an Egyptian priest) in Sais, a city in the Nile delta, of the heroic stand of Athenian solders against the forces of Atlantis which sought to enslave them and the Egyptians:

Many great and wonderful deeds are recorded of your state in our histories. But one of them exceeds all the rest in greatness and valour. For these histories tell of a mighty power which unprovoked made an expedition against the whole of Europe and Asia, and to which your city put an end. This power came forth out of the Atlantic Ocean, for in those days the Atlantic was navigable; and there was an island situated in front of the straits which are by you called the Pillars of Heracles; the island was larger than Libya and Asia put together, and was the way to other islands, and from these you might pass to the whole of the opposite continent which surrounded the true ocean; for this sea which is within the Straits of Heracles is only a harbour, having a narrow entrance, but that other is a real sea, and the surrounding land may be most truly called a boundless continent. Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others, and over parts of the continent, and, furthermore, the men of Atlantis had subjected the parts of Libya within the columns of Heracles as far as Egypt, and of Europe as far as Tyrrhenia.
This vast power, gathered into one, endeavoured to subdue at a blow our country and yours and the whole of the region within the straits; and then, Solon, your country shone forth, in the excellence of her virtue and strength, among all mankind. She was pre-eminent in courage and military skill, and was the leader of the Hellenes. And when the rest fell off from her, being compelled to stand alone, after having undergone the very extremity of danger, she defeated and triumphed over the invaders, and preserved from slavery those who were not yet subjugated, and generously liberated all the rest of us who dwell within the pillars.
But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea. For which reason the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is a shoal of mud in the way; and this was caused by the subsidence of the island.[1]


Critias tells his companions more detail concerning Atlantis, beginning with the god Poseidon and a maiden named Cleito; their union produced:

...five pairs of twin male children; and dividing the island of Atlantis into ten portions, he gave to the first-born of the eldest pair his mother's dwelling and the surrounding allotment, which was the largest and best, and made him king over the rest; the others he made princes, and gave them rule over many men, and a large territory. And he named them all; the eldest, who was the first king, he named Atlas, and after him the whole island and the ocean were called Atlantic. To his twin brother, who was born after him, and obtained as his lot the extremity of the island towards the Pillars of Heracles, facing the country which is now called the region of Gades in that part of the world, he gave the name which in the Hellenic language is Eumelus, in the language of the country which is named after him, Gadeirus. Of the second pair of twins he called one Ampheres, and the other Evaemon. To the elder of the third pair of twins he gave the name Mneseus, and Autochthon to the one who followed him. Of the fourth pair of twins he called the elder Elasippus, and the younger Mestor. And of the fifth pair he gave to the elder the name of Azaes, and to the younger that of Diaprepes. All these and their descendants for many generations were the inhabitants and rulers of divers islands in the open sea; and also, as has been already said, they held sway in our direction over the country within the Pillars as far as Egypt and Tyrrhenia.

Critias mentions the abundance of the land given to Atlas and his family:

Now Atlas had a numerous and honourable family, and they retained the kingdom, the eldest son handing it on to his eldest for many generations; and they had such an amount of wealth as was never before possessed by kings and potentates, and is not likely ever to be again, and they were furnished with everything which they needed, both in the city and country. For because of the greatness of their empire many things were brought to them from foreign countries, and the island itself provided most of what was required by them for the uses of life. In the first place, they dug out of the earth whatever was to be found there, solid as well as fusile, and that which is now only a name and was then something more than a name, orichalcum, was dug out of the earth in many parts of the island, being more precious in those days than anything except gold. There was an abundance of wood for carpenter's work, and sufficient maintenance for tame and wild animals. Moreover, there were a great number of elephants in the island; for as there was provision for all other sorts of animals, both for those which live in lakes and marshes and rivers, and also for those which live in mountains and on plains, so there was for the animal which is the largest and most voracious of all. Also whatever fragrant things there now are in the earth, whether roots, or herbage, or woods, or essences which distill from fruit and flower, grew and thrived in that land; also the fruit which admits of cultivation, both the dry sort, which is given us for nourishment and any other which we use for food-we call them all by the common name pulse, and the fruits having a hard rind, affording drinks and meats and ointments, and good store of chestnuts and the like, which furnish pleasure and amusement, and are fruits which spoil with keeping, and the pleasant kinds of dessert, with which we console ourselves after dinner, when we are tired of eating-all these that sacred island which then beheld the light of the sun, brought forth fair and wondrous and in infinite abundance...

Part of the story mentions the unique "ringed canal" that is a hallmark of the Atlantis tale:

And beginning from the sea they bored a canal of three hundred feet in width and one hundred feet in depth and fifty stadia in length, which they carried through to the outermost zone, making a passage from the sea up to this, which became a harbour, and leaving an opening sufficient to enable the largest vessels to find ingress. Moreover, they divided at the bridges the zones of land which parted the zones of sea, leaving room for a single trireme to pass out of one zone into another, and they covered over the channels so as to leave a way underneath for the ships; for the banks were raised considerably above the water. Now the largest of the zones into which a passage was cut from the sea was three stadia in breadth, and the zone of land which came next of equal breadth; but the next two zones, the one of water, the other of land, were two stadia, and the one which surrounded the central island was a stadium only in width. The island in which the palace was situated had a diameter of five stadia. All this including the zones and the bridge, which was the sixth part of a stadium in width, they surrounded by a stone wall on every side, placing towers and gates on the bridges where the sea passed in. The stone which was used in the work they quarried from underneath the centre island, and from underneath the zones, on the outer as well as the inner side. One kind was white, another black, and a third red, and as they quarried, they at the same time hollowed out double docks, having roofs formed out of the native rock. Some of their buildings were simple, but in others they put together different stones, varying the colour to please the eye, and to be a natural source of delight. The entire circuit of the wall, which went round the outermost zone, they covered with a coating of brass, and the circuit of the next wall they coated with tin, and the third, which encompassed the citadel, flashed with the red light of orichalcum.

Critias goes on to tell of the island itself, how it had a broad plain with mountains to the north; ditches to divert water from the mountains to the city; sumptuous palaces and buildings. But in the last paragraph, Critias tells of the virtue posed and honored by the Atlanteans had left them, and Zeus is set on preparing a punishment:

...but when the divine portion began to fade away, and became diluted too often and too much with the mortal admixture, and the human nature got the upper hand, they then, being unable to bear their fortune, behaved unseemly, and to him who had an eye to see grew visibly debased, for they were losing the fairest of their precious gifts; but to those who had no eye to see the true happiness, they appeared glorious and blessed at the very time when they were full of avarice and unrighteous power. Zeus, the god of gods, who rules according to law, and is able to see into such things, perceiving that an honourable race was in a woeful plight, and wanting to inflict punishment on them, that they might be chastened and improve, collected all the gods into their most holy habitation, which, being placed in the centre of the world, beholds all created things. And when he had called them together, he spake as follows... (here Critias ends)[2]

Later accounts

Various locations worldwide have been postulated as the site of Atlantis, with the center of the Atlantis Ocean (circle) near the Azores archipelago the most cited, based on the writings of Plato, Donnelly, Mook, and others. Bimini in the Bahamas came into prominence due to the predictions of psychic Edgar Cayce.

Francis Bacon

In 1626 Francis Bacon published The New Atlantis, which was essentially a tale of a ship lost in the Pacific Ocean, and by chance comes upon a hidden, advanced civilization on the island of Bensalem. The governor in the story recounts the history of the island's original inhabitants, the history and fate of Atlantis, as well as the scientific advancements in his own land, led by a college Saloman's House.[3] Although not explicitly named, the concept of an enlightened "utopia" is prevalent in Bacon's work, influencing stories such as James Hilton's Lost Horizon, B.F. Skinner's Walden Two, and James Curney's Dinotopia.

Charles de Bourbourg

Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg, a French writer, ethnographer, and historian, traveled and studied extensively in Mesoamerica; among his works was the first serious attempt at deciphering the Maya language. However, he had also come to believe that Maya culture, as well as the cultures of Mesopotamia and Egypt, were descended from a higher civilization, i.e. Atlantis. His own interpretation of Maya mythology and Atlantean history was put in print with his Quatre lettres sur le Mexique (1868), implying that the mythologies of both the Maya and Egyptians had their common source on Atlantis. Although largely debunked, de Bourbourg's ideas created the theory of "Mayanism", a belief in the Mayas as coming from Atlantis to the detriment of physical evidence and established facts.

Ignatius Donnelly

Ignatius Loyola Donnelly, a Minnesota writer, populist, state legislator and United States Congressman, was fascinated by the tales of Atlantis as postulated by de Bourbourg. Going several steps further, Donnelly set out to prove the existence of Atlantis as a fact with his 1882 best-seller Atlantis: The Antediluvian World[4], which stimulated popular interest in Atlantis during the following century. Using the science of the times, Donnelly made a serious attempt to explain that Atlantis was the "mother culture" of all civilization; that there was a connection between the mythical country of "Aztlan" of the Aztecs and Atlantis; and that the Aryan race which settled in the Punjab of India were direct descendants of Atlanteans[5]. Largely debunked over the years, Donnelly's Atlantis still maintains a following among New-Agers and spiritualists.


The Aryan race was the "master race", according to Nazi philosophy. To expand on the gains made by the Nazi Party in the control of Germany during the early-1930's, the head of the S.S., Heirich Himmler, created "Ancestral Heritage" in 1935, an organization dedicated to discovering the Aryans hidden past, as well as a site which attracted as many scientific cranks that the Nazis could provide. To see if Tibet was an ancestral home, in 1938 an expedition was led for the purpose of anthropological and linguistic study, and led by an ornithologist named Ernst Schäfer, a man with a reputation for firing a gun on anything moving (and who accidentally killed his own wife on the expedition)[6]. Despite numerous studies taken and plaster casts of Tibetan features, no evidence was collected which proved an Aryan-German-Atlantean connection; the organization was shut down as a result of World War II; and the leading members of the expedition were reassigned to assist in the death camps.

Edgar Cayce

Called "The Sleeping Prophet", Edgar Cayce's psychic predictions would come from a couch where he would put himself in a trance, and a writer would jot down what was said. His version of Atlantis was the same as Donnelly's, with the additional belief that many people alive today are "reincarnated Atlanteans".

Among Cayce's predictions was the rising of Atlantis in 1968 or 1969 in the Bahamas. The so-called Bimini Road, a formation of what appears to be square-cut limestone blocks in several feet of water just off the northwest shore of Bimini, was discovered in 1969 by an American diver and heralded as a remnant of Atlantis, despite geologists' claims that the formation is natural.

Minoan Civilization as Atlantis

Detail of the "ringed island" portion of the Flotilla Fresco

Spyridon Marinatos (1901-1974), a Greek archaeologist who continued the earlier excavations on Crete begun by Arthur Evans, was among the first to believe there may have been a connection between the Atlantis myths and the Minoan Civilization, which flourished there up to ca. 1470 B.C., when it disappeared from the historical record. Like the Atlantis myths, the Minoans were a seafaring nation who made contact with Egypt, and had engaged in rituals and sport involving bulls. Structures which have been excavated and studied, such as the palace at Knossos, indicated a skill in engineering and architecture superior to any other prior to the Romans. By 1939, Marinatos' excavations had revealed extensive deposits of volcanic pumice, and he had suggested that the nearby island of Thera - which was then suspected of going through a catastrophic explosion at that point in history - had been the real source of the Atlantis myth. "The Egyptians unquestionably had heard about the sinking of an island, which was Thera," he wrote, "but this island, small and insignificant, was unknown to them. This event they transferred to the neighboring Crete, an island which was dreadfully struck, and with which they had lost contact suddenly"[7]. His search would take him to the islands of Santorini, of which Thera is the largest; on the southernmost side he would discover the city of Akrotiri in 1967, built with a skill surpassing that of Crete.

The Flotilla Fresco, from Akrotiri, Thera

In fiction and cinema

At least one motion picture has described Atlantis as an advanced civilization that, far from being utopian, was cruel, despotic, and dependent upon a slave trade.

In Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, Atlantis, or Galt's Gulch, is a hidden community of defectors from an ultra-socialistic United States. Like the fabled Atlantis, this community commands an advanced technology and functions as a kind of utopia.





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