Nov 08 2022

Atlantis is a Myth

The allure of the myth of Atlantis is understandable, and it has been promulgated in popular culture for over a century. As evidence of the draw of this topic is the comments thread to my discussion of the Richat Structure and why it is not Atlantis. People clearly want to talk about it.

The status of Atlantis as a real archeological location can be quickly summarized – there is absolutely no evidence. There are no artifacts, there is no cultural history, there are no ruins, there is simply nothing. This is not surprising, since there was never any reason to expect that Atlantis was real in the first place. The notion of Atlantis as an ancient civilization was clearly an invented mythology of Plato. This was largely understood by scholars throughout history. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the notion Atlantis might be a real place became popular. Enthusiasts at the time expected that within 50 years or so we would have museums full of Atlantean artifacts. That never came to be – and here we are well over a century later and we don’t have a single shard of pottery.

I’ll come back to the lack of evidence in a bit, but first let’s review why Atlantis is clearly an invented mythology. The first historical mention of Atlantis as a place comes from Plato’s two works, Critias and Timaeus. There is a prior mention of the name Atlantis but not as a reference to a place. All other references come after Plato and trace back to Plato (who lived between 428 and 348 BCE). Plato used the idea of Atlantis as an evil empire that was at war with the virtuous Athens. This was a device to discuss the nature of the perfect virtuous city (Athens). Atlantis, in Plato’s telling, may have began as a virtuous city, because its citizens were partly descended from Poseidon, but as their part god blood was diluted over time their more aggressive and base human nature took over and they became corrupt.

There is general agreement among scholars of Plato that reference to Atlantis was never intended to be a claim that Atlantis actually existed, and was a clear literary device. Plato reports that he overheard a person named Solon telling his father about Atlantis, and Solon heard the story from Egyptian priests. Plato cites no references and makes no attempt at credibly supporting a claim for the reality of Atlantis. The whole thing is a blatant wink and a nod from Plato, signaling to his readers that he is making the whole thing up for the sake of discussion. Here is a paraphrase to capture the vibe:

“What I’m about to tell you is completely true. I know because I overheard some guy telling my father about it, and he heard it from some Egyptian priests who said that us Greeks don’t know about it because we’re stupid.”

Scholars understand this to mean – yeah, I’m making this whole thing up, just go with it. Scholars also point out that if Plato were seriously claiming, based upon flimsy hearsay, that Atlantis were real then that would have caused quite the academic stir in his time. Yet there was exactly zero reaction – because everyone knew Plato was making no such claim.

Also supporting the interpretation that Plato was not making a serious claim is that the details he makes up for Atlantis are absurd. He said that Atlantis was bigger than Asia and Africa combined.  It was located “beyond the pillars of Hercules” which would mean somewhere in the Atlantic. This giant empire made war against tiny Athens, who prevailed because of their stunning virtue. The gods, angry at Atlantis, then destroyed it in a day with earthquakes and tsunamis.

But most absurd of all was that Plato’s Atlantis existed 9,000 years prior to his writing. This in and of itself strains credulity for a number of reasons. First – 9000 years before Plato puts us into the stone age. There was no Athens at this time. There were no cities. There was no advanced civilization. We were just getting started with agriculture. Clearly, there was no giant now sunken continent in the Atlantic with an advanced civilization in the otherwise stone age that made war and lost to a city that didn’t exist yet.

Those wanting to rescue the notion that Atlantis was based on a real place would have to then argue that Plato essentially got all the details wrong. He was wrong about the size, perhaps the location, and the age of Atlantis, which had to be smaller and more recent. There is no historical reference to any such war against Athens, so maybe he is wrong about that also. So then why should we think he was correct about anything? The simplest explanation is that Plato made the whole thing up, which is what it sounds like, and how his contemporaries interpreted it.

Let’s also consider what it would mean for any of the claims for Atlantis to be true. We would have to believe that there was a large and relatively advanced civilization somewhere in the same region of the world as Athens that has somehow entirely escaped the notice of history and archaeology. Further still, some priests in Egypt new about it because of some unbroken oral history over hundreds or even thousands of years. A 9,000 year continuous and reliable oral history would be entirely unprecedented in human history, and beyond plausibility.

Some argue that Plato was basing his reference to Atlantis on an existing mythology that was based on some reality, even if the details have changed. But there is no reason to believe this. Further still, if this is true, so what? There may have been beliefs circulating in the popular culture that an older and now lost cities existed, but without some factual connection, this is irrelevant. It would still not be the Atlantis of Plato, especially if you have to change all of the details. Then it’s just a vague idea, which at most is based on some cultural notion of a city destroyed sometime in the past by a natural disaster. That doesn’t make Atlantis real.

When I discussed this in the context of the Richat Structure, the comments quickly (and continued to) fill will logical fallacies, desperately trying to rescue the notion that Atlantis is somehow in Africa. This required mostly a great deal of special pleading. Many fans of the Richat is Atlantis idea simply mischaracterized my arguments, many saying that I did not make any and just called people names. This is demonstrably not true. I made many specific arguments: the Richat structure is clearly a geological structure (a magma dome), it is not near the ocean, nor would it have been 12,000 years ago, it does not match the description by Plato in any detail, there are no structures or worked stone there, there are no artifacts there except the expected stone age tools.

The argument, essentially, is that the Richat structure fits with Atlantis, except in a long list of important details (which proponents will conveniently just ignore). Plato was dramatically wrong about its size and location, but somehow the details of the color of the stones and patterns used in construction survived for 9,000 years. Why would that tiny detail survive such a long time? In fact, the inclusion of such irrelevant details that could not possibly be historical is just more evidence that Plato was blatantly making it up.

Another common argument raised as a form of special pleading was that Troy was just a myth until it was discovered. I have already written separately about this. There is no analogy between Troy and Atlantis, and the story that is being told about Troy is simply not true. Just read the article to get the details.

The final refuge of the Atlantis proponents is the special pleading that we just haven’t found the evidence yet because no one has looked hard enough. It still leaves us with no evidence. It’s also not true about the Richat structure. There have been geological surveys of the structure, and enough digging to find lots of stone-age tools and artifacts, and yet – not a single artifact that could plausibly be Atlantean. No evidence that a city was there. You could argue that a buried city could still be under there and the only way to find out is to do a dedicated archaeological dig, but you could also say that about any place on Earth.

Atlantis remains an invented myth by Plato. There is no serious scholarly debate about this. Arguments that any particular location might be Atlantis are all laughably unscientific, based on selective reading of Plato, blatantly ignoring details ad hoc, and special pleading away the lack of evidence.

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