The idea of the city beneath the sea has captured the imagination of filmmakers, artists and writers for many years, and although Atlantis may well be nothing more than fiction, expeditions have been launched to remote locations all over the world in an attempt to prove its existence.
The myth of Atlantis has roots in a single source, the writings of the Greek philosopher Plato. Circa 359 BC, Plato mentions an island nation named Atlantis in two of his works, Timaeus and Critias. According to his narratives, the island lay beyond the Pillars of Hercules and was larger than Libya and Asia combined. It was populated by a confederation of kings who possessed exceptional power and naval prowess, and incorporated incredible harbors, temples, palaces and waterways. The island belonged to the Greek god of the ocean, Poseidon, who in turn gave sovereignty of the state to his son, Atlas. The descendants of Poseidon ruled the most powerful nation in the ancient world, and according to Plato’s legend, conquered territory throughout Europe and Northern Africa. The only nation that could oppose them was Plato’s idealized ancient Athens, which not only repelled the Atlanteans’ attack but also fought to free the countries enslaved by the island. Eventually, angered by the arrogance of the Atlantean people, the gods summoned an earthquake, which engulfed the island and its inhabitants and sank them without a trace beneath the waves.
According to the character Critias in the Platonic work of the same name, the war between the Atlanteans and the Athenians took place 9,000 years before the 5th century BC, his own time. Other ancient philosophers and historians were divided as to whether Plato’s Atlantis story represented an actual historical event, or whether the story was pure invention. Some thought that the city was simply a narrative technique used to illustrate the superiority of Athens, which reflected many of the ideals of Plato’s famous dialogue The Republic. However, while many modern-day scholars hypothesize that the story was a parable intended to warn against hubris and that Atlantis never really existed, many eminent ancient philosophers including Strabo, Posidonius and Crantor firmly believed that Atlantis and its people were once real. In the 5th Century AD, Proclus cited the reports of ancient geographers, who (according to him) described a visit to an island in the ‘outer sea,’ near where Atlantis would once have been. The island’s inhabitants recounted stories relayed to them by their ancestors of another island named Atlantis, long since submerged, and whose people had ruled the area for many ages. Over time, scholarly opinion relating to the lost city separated into three categories: those who believed Atlantis was a historical place, those who believed it was a product of Plato’s imagination and intended as an allegory, and those who believed that although Atlantis itself might have been an invention, Plato’s story was inspired by the loss of a real city in the wake of a historical cataclysmic event.
Over the centuries, historians and explorers used the legend to promote their own ambitions, beliefs or ideologies. In the 19th century, for example, credence was given to the theory that the Mayan civilization stemmed from the progeny of Atlantean survivors who ended up in the Americas after their island home disappeared into the ocean. The works of several well-known scholars of the mid- to late-1800s promoted this idea, including those of Charles Etienne Brasseur de Bourbourg, Edward Herbert Thompson and Ignatius L. Donnelly. Although the historical evidence for their beliefs was scant, the idea of a connection between Mayan and Atlantean culture was hugely popular at the time. Europeans of the 1800s considered the indigenous people of Mesoamerica to be inferior, so the idea that the Mayans were a separate race descended from the superior Atlanteans provided an acceptable explanation for that culture’s astounding architectural achievements.
The idea of the Atlanteans as the forefathers of a more advanced race also supported the racist ideology of the 20th century. Searching for a mythology to justify their conviction that the Aryan race was better than all others, the Nazi S.S. latched on to an idea that the Atlanteans themselves stemmed from a Nordic super-race of godlike men, who, after the fall of Atlantis, became the forefathers of the Germanic Aryan race. In an effort to prove their claim to superior origins, an S.S. unit called the Ahnenerbe (ancestral heritage) unit was sent on expeditions all over the globe in an attempt to find archaeological evidence for Atlantis, and therefore for the supremacy of Germanic culture.
Today, the general consensus amongst historians and geographers is that Atlantis never literally existed. Our heightened understanding of plate tectonics and our ability to remotely explore the seafloor has rendered the disappearance of a civilization the size of Libya and Asia combined impossible. For some, the impracticality of Atlantis’ existence does not preclude the possibility that Plato based his story on another, true-life instance of a civilization disappearing beneath the waves. Theories abound about the event that could have caused such an event — perhaps it was the Trojan War, or perhaps it was the eruption of Thera, a volcano that shaped the modern-day archipelago of Santorini and which wiped out the Minoan civilization sometime between the 17th and 16th centuries BC. Explorers continue to look for the lost city that inspired the Atlantis myth, although the search has now expanded far from the Atlantic to include the Mediterranean, the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean. Several institutes have been searching for the city for years, famous American psychic Edgar Cayce, who claimed to have spoken with the reincarnations of Atlantean residents during many of the 14,000 psychic readings that he gave during his lifetime.
Several expeditions have actually yielded archaeological findings that could point to a lost city. In 2000, images from an ROV deployed to look for the wrecks of Spanish treasure ships in the Bahamas revealed what appeared to be stone structures at depths between 1,900 and 2,500 feet. One year later, Professor Collina-Girard claimed to have found Atlantis in the Straits of Gibraltar, where studies of the existing coral reef offered evidence that a mid-channel island was submerged at the end of the Ice Age. In 2002, extensive underwater foundations were discovered off the southeast coast of India, although they are more likely to be proof of the Indian legend of the Seven Pagodas than of the Platonic legend of Atlantis. The most recent claim to an Atlantis discovery occurred in 2011, when a research team led by American professor Richard Freund used satellite imagery to pinpoint what they suspected to be the site of the lost civilization in the marshlands of southern Spain. According to Freund, the team also found the remains of replica cities further inland, which he believes could have been built in memory of the stricken city by Atlantis survivors.
It is impossible to know for sure where Plato got his inspiration for Atlantis, or if he made up the story. What is certain is that the tale of the lost city has become ingrained in the mythology of countless cultures over the course of more than two millennia. It has inspired passionate debates, triggered global expeditions, provided the basis for many tales of wild adventure, and continues to capture imaginations to this very day.