Atlantic Canadians are still recovering from the effects of Hurricane Fiona, as are Americans in Florida and other states from Hurricane Ian; meanwhile, 1/3 of Pakistan was submerged by flooding in late August and early September. While all this has been happening, I was researching the myth of the sunken island Atlantis for my new course Ideas of the Sea and Seafaring. How did early modern authors approach this island ruined by catastrophe, and so what were they thinking about sinking?
The story of Atlantis originates not in Greek mythology, but in two dialogues by the Greek philosopher Plato: the Timaeus and Critias. In these dialogues, the character of Critias relates a story he heard from his great-grandfather, who heard it from the Athenian lawgiver Solon, who heard it from priests recounting a 9000 year-old narrative. The island of Atlantis–situated in the Atlantic Ocean across from the entrance to the Mediterranean–was the seat of a powerful maritime empire which went to war with primeval Athens, ancestor of the eponymous city-state in Plato’s day. Primeval Athens fought off Atlantis and defended the lands around the Mediterranean. But enormous earthquakes and floods submerged both Atlantis and primeval Athens. Plato’s tale appears to evoke the dangers of maritime trade and imperialism, a reflection of Athens’ rapid decline as a sea-power in his day. Bob Dylan might well remark that in Plato’s Athens, the mari-times, they were a-changin’.
Medieval commentators on Plato paid much more attention to the cosmology in the Timaeus than they did to the story of Atlantis. In the Renaissance, however, there was speculation as to the possible existence of Atlantis. The 15th-century neo-Platonist Marsilio Ficino argued that Atlantis was real, influencing others in the 16th century who tried to connect Atlantis to the ‘New World’ of the Americas which Columbus had ‘discovered’. Some argued that the myth of Atlantis could be linked to the Biblical myth of the Flood, and that the survivors of Atlantis who settled in America were members of the lost tribes of Israel; others even posited that the Aztec story of Aztlan, from which the Aztecs came, was the same as Plato’s myth. Imperial ambitions were often at play here: by linking the Americas with Atlantis and thus to Europe, European kingdoms such as Spain or Britain could claim that the Americas already belonged to them. Indigenous peoples in the Americas were understandably Atlan-ticked off by such spurious justifications for colonial possession.
17th-century authors continued to speculate on the reality of Atlantis, including the Jesuit philosopher Athanasius Kircher, whose 1664 map of Atlantis occupying most of the ocean between Europe and Africa to the east and the Americas to the west is pictured above. In contrast, the statesman and natural philosopher Sir Francis Bacon wrote about a New Atlantis (published in 1627), situated in the Pacific rather than Atlantic Ocean, as the metaphor for a Christian society devoted to the pursuit of scientific knowledge. But Bacon’s contemporaries, like Kircher, were far less thoughtful about Atlantis. In 1679-1702, Olof Rudbeck, of the University of Uppsala, speculated that Atlantis was in fact situated in Sweden (as were all the Greek legends)–motivated by a desire to present Scandinavia and especially Sweden as the centre of European civilisation. His theory was enthusiastically read by such luminaries as Samuel Pepys, Isaac Newton, and Pierre Bayle. Others in the following centuries either followed Rudbeck, or located Atlantis in Israel, Spitsbergen, the Caucasus Mountains, Africa, Australia, and Sri Lanka, among many other theories (including those espoused by occultists and Nazis). To this day, Atlantis continues to be the subject of wild speculation on the internet. Credulous scholars and internet conspiracy theorists alike have missed the point of this fictional allegory, which just goes to show that Plato is as pliable and manipulable as Play-Doh.
Till next time,
Early Modern Atlan-“’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished” Studies Program