According to the ancient Greeks, Atlantis was an island located in the Atlantic Ocean beyond the Straits of Gibraltar. It was an island paradise that sank into the sea one day. Since ancient times, many people have tried to explain the legend of Atlantis or to find what remains of the island.
Origin of the Legend
The tale of Atlantis comes from the Greek philosopher Plato, who lived in the 300s B . C . In two of his works, the Timaeus and the Critias, he relates that the famous Athenian lawgiver Solon had heard the story of Atlantis when he visited Egypt. In the very distant past, a great island as large as North Africa and the Near East combined existed in the Atlantic Ocean. The island belonged to Poseidon (Neptune) *, who fell in love with a young woman of the island named Cleito and married her. Poseidon built a city on the island, and on a mountain in the center of the city, he built a palace for Cleito. The couple had ten children, and in time Poseidon divided the island among them, giving each a section to rule.
Atlantis was a paradise: no one had to work hard, every type of wonderful food grew there, and animals were plentiful. Poseidon had created a stream of hot water and a stream of cold water for the island. It had a glorious culture with wonderful palaces and temples. The kings were rich in gold, silver, and other precious metals. The people of Atlantis lived in a golden age of harmony and abundance.
Then things began to change. The gods started to intermarry with humans. The Atlanteans became greedy for more than they had. They decided to conquer the lands around the Mediterranean. Angered by the Atlanteans' behavior, Zeus * sent an earthquake, or perhaps a series of earthquakes, that made Atlantis sink into the sea in the course of one day and one night.
Λ Lasting Legend
Scholars of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance believed that Plato was recounting a real event. They were curious about the location of Atlantis. After the discovery of the Americas, some Europeans
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
made a connection between the newly found lands and Atlantis. Some thought that the Native Americans might be descendants of the people of Atlantis who fled their destroyed island. The legend of Atlantis inspired writers and thinkers. Sir Francis Bacon, an English philosopher of the l600s, wrote a political fable called The New Atlantis that described an ideal world.
In the 1800s, the myth regained popularity. Scholars and popular writers both tried to use scientific evidence to support the existence of Atlantis. Many, however, used only the evidence that supported their ideas and conveniently ignored the rest. Although geological studies of the ocean floor revealed no sunken islands or continents at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, the legend persisted. In fact, people from lands as diverse as Scotland, the Basque region of Spain, and Scandinavia have claimed the Atlanteans as their ancestors.
Many cultures have stories about a "golden age" in the distant past when people were happy and lived without working. Usually the earthly paradise was lost as a result of greed. The golden age of the ancient Greeks was ruled by Cronus (called Saturn by the Romans). When Zeus took over, the Silver, Bronze, and Iron Ages followed, each less happy and less prosperous than the previous one. In the mythology of Persia *, Masha and Mashyoi lost their paradise when they were fooled by the evil spirit A Mayan myth tells of perfect people, made out of cornmeal, who became too proud. The gods put a mist before their eyes to weaken their understanding.
Since 1960, geological, meteorological, and archaeological studies have tended to support the legend, though not in its original form. Many scientists now think that Atlantis was actually the island of Thera in the Mediterranean Sea, near the island of Crete. Thera (now called Thíra) was one of the colonies of the rich Minoan civilization of Crete. The Minoans built luxurious palaces and temples and traded all over the Mediterranean. Geologists and meteorologists have established that around 1470 B . C . the volcano of Thera erupted, and part of the island sank into the sea. Subsequent earthquakes destroyed much that was on Crete. Archaeologists have studied Thíra and have found the remains of a large Minoan town built around the volcano. The town has a palace and waterways that seem to match the general plan described by Plato.