Atlantology: Psychotic or Inspired?
Media Stereotypes Aside, What Kind of Person Pursues Knowledge of a Forgotten Civilization?
A mainstream archaeologist interviewed about Atlantis on a recent special for The Discovery Channel declared that the only people who believe in such garbage are cranks, fools, and charlatans. His assessment is shared by conventional scientists, who insist that no one of any intellectual worth would demean him- or herself by seriously considering any sunken civilization. True, virtually no university-trained researchers today are willing to risk the wrath of conservative academics not above sabotaging the careers of independently minded colleagues.
But contrary to the Establishment’s defaming characterization of persons interested in the historical possibility of Atlantis, the subject has for centuries attracted some of the best brains in the world. Solon, one of the Seven Wise Men of Greece, was also the first great poet of Athens. In the late sixth century BC, the great lawgiver traveled to Sais, the Nile Delta capital of the 26th Dynasty, where the Temple of Neith was located.
Here a history of Etelenty was preserved in hieroglyphs inscribed or painted on dedicated columns, which were translated for him by the high priest, Sonchis. Returning to Greece, Solon worked all the details of the account into an epic poem, “Atlantikos,” but was distracted by political problems from completing the project before his death in 560 BC. About 150 years later, the unfinished manuscript was given to Plato, who formed two dialogues, Timaeus and Critias, from it.
As one of the very greatest historical figures in Classical Greek history, Solon’s early connection with the story of Atlantis lends it formidable credibility. But neither he nor Plato were the only towering figures of Classical antiquity to embrace the reality of Atlantis. Statius Sebosus was a Greek geographer and contemporary of Plato mentioned by the Roman scientist Pliny the Elder for his detailed description of Atlantis.
All the works of Statius Sebosus were lost with the fall of Classical civilization. Dionysus of Miletus, also known as “Skytobrachion” for his prosthetic leather arm, wrote A Voyage to Atlantis around 550 BC, predating not only Plato but even Solon. A copy of Dionysus’s manuscript was found among the personal papers of historical writer Pierre Benoit. Tragically, it was lost between the borrowers and restorers who made use of this valuable piece of source material after Benoit’s death.
A utopian novel written by Francis Bacon in 1629, The New Atlantis, was the first written discussion of Atlantis since the fall of Classical civilization and probably sparked Athanasius Kircher’s interest in the subject, when he published his own scientific study of Atlantis in The Subterranean World thirty-six years later. Although a work of fiction, The New Atlantis came about through excited discussions in contemporary scholarly circles of reports from travelers to America. They stated that the indigenous peoples had oral accounts of a land comprising numerous points in common with Plato’s sunken civilization; they even called it Aztlan, which paralleled a native version of the Greek Atlantis. The New Atlantis actually incorporates some Atlanto-American myths Bacon heard repeated in London.
A German polymath of the seventeenth century, the Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher was a pioneering mathematician, physicist, chemist, linguist, and archaeologist. Kircher was also the first scholar to seriously investigate the Atlantis legend. Initially skeptical, he cautiously began reconsidering its credibility while assembling mythic traditions about a great flood from numerous cultures in various parts of the world.
Among the relatively few surviving documents from Imperial Rome, Kircher found a well-preserved, treated-leather map purporting to show the configuration and location of Atlantis. The map was not Roman, but had been brought in the first century AD to Italy from Egypt where it had been executed. It survived the demise of Classical times and found its way into the Vatican Library. Kircher copied it precisely (adding only a visual reference to the New World) and published it in his book The Subterranean World. His caption states it is a map of the island of Atlantis, originally made in Egypt after Plato’s description, which suggests it was created sometime following the fourth century BC, perhaps by a Greek mapmaker attached to the Ptolemies. More probably the map’s first home was the Great Library of Alexandria, where numerous books and references to Atlantis were lost, along with another million-plus volumes, when the institution was burned by religious fanatics. By relocating to Rome, the map escaped that destruction.
Although the map vanished after Kircher’s death in 1680, it was the only known representation of Atlantis to have survived the Ancient World. Thanks to his research and book, it survives today in a close copy. Curiously, it is depicted upside-down, contrary to maps in both his day and ours. Yet this apparent anomaly is proof of the map’s authenticity, because Egyptian mapmakers, even as late as Ptolemaic times, designed their maps with the Upper Nile Valley (located in the south, “Upper” refers to its higher elevation) at the top, because the river’s headwaters are located in the Sudan.
Contrary to mean-spirited characterizations by conservative archaeologists, it says something for the credibility of Atlantis that many of the greatest thinkers in the history of western civilization have been among its most prominent advocates.