(Investigator 96, 2004 May)
Atlantis, a mythical island, is claimed to have existed in the Atlantic Ocean, and, according to different versions of the story, was either close to, or far to the west of, the Pillars of Hercules (Straits of Gibraltar).
However, the truth appears to be that the entire myth was created by Plato about 350 BCE when he described the island in two of his dialogues, Timaius and Kritias.
The Atlantean story that Plato told was concerned with the visit of Solon, the great Athenian lawgiver, (circa. 630 - 560 BCE), to Egypt. According to Plato's story Solon was criticized by an Egyptian priest of the city of Sais (in the West Nile delta), about his lack of knowledge concerning the ancient history of Athens.
He was told by the priest that some 9,000 before, Athens had fought a great war with Atlantis, a great island located in the Atlantic Ocean that was larger than both Libya and Asia. The priest explained how, after the Creation the Greek gods divided Earth amongst themselves, and Atlantis had been granted to Poseidon, who blessed and protected the island.
By the mortal Kleito, Poseidon had ten sons, all wise and beneficent demi-gods, the eldest of whom was Atlas. Poseidon divided the land into a hereditary coalition of ten separate kingdoms, each ruled by one son.
Atlantis was described as a rich, fertile land, peopled by people who were dignified, refined, beautiful, highly intelligent people, with an advanced culture, who resided in magnificent buildings. The principal city was circular, some 24 kilometres in diameter, with a great canal through the centre. Strangely enough, although the city had been built during the Golden Age, a time when all races lived in harmony, it was surrounded by a huge defensive wall, with a huge circular fortress, some 4.8 kilometres across located in the centre. One can better understand this description of such a heavily defended city when one realizes that Plato obviously modelled this mythical city upon Greek cities that he knew, where such defences were standard.
Yet, according to Plato, despite their wealth and wisdom the Atlanteans had gradually succumbed to human weaknesses, they became increasingly more selfish, dishonest and warlike. A major sea power, they built a huge fleet and assembled the greatest army ever known to attack and conquer all of Northern Africa as far as Egypt, and those parts of Europe that are now Spain, Portugal, France and Italy many parts of Europe and Africa, until finally, the Athenians and their allies defeated them.
Even worse, according to Plato, the Atlanteans became increasingly impious, neglecting the worship of their gods. As a result of this, Zeus summoned a meeting of the gods and it was agreed that he, and Poseidon, should destroy Atlantis.
According to the
priests this destruction
had occurred in about 9600 BCE, when,
It was explained that a few Atlanteans had survived the inundation and had travelled east and west, taking their advanced knowledge with them. The primitive cultures into which they had settled received an enormous technological boost, propelling them into civilized cultures. Of course, such a claim would of itself totally invalidate Plato's story since he described the Athenians as having been an advanced culture, since they had fought Atlantis on equal terms before the island was destroyed.
The greatest influence on the theory of Atlanteans spreading civilization was Ignatius Donnelly (1831-1901), a Philadelphian lawyer, who published his book, Atlantis: The Antediluvian World in 1882. He reinforced the idea that the Atlanteans had been the first to discover agriculture, writing, Astronomy, art, and other advanced skills and that a few surviving Atlanteans had planted this knowledge amongst other undeveloped races.
Despite the fact that Donnelly's book was pure speculation and full of spurious claims at the time it was printed no one could disprove his claims. The book was tremendously popular book and continued to be printed into the 20th century. Since that time thousands of books have been printed on Atlantis, and so entrenched is the belief in Atlantis that it has been found that four out of five students commencing studies in archaeology actually believe that Atlantis was a real place!
So what are the real facts? Well it appears that the stories Plato told about Atlantis were a complete myth. That Atlantis was a myth was acknowledged by people close to Plato, even Aristotle, (a former student of Plato), insisted that Atlantis was completely fictional.
A clue that Plato made up the story is revealed in the story itself; one must ask why, given that the Egyptians had their own deities and elaborate creation stories, an Egyptian priest would narrate to Solon the Greek version of creation? It would be rather like asking a Jew or a Christian to explain how the universe was created and having them recount the Greek version of creation instead of the Judeao-Christian version found in the Bible.
What about the claims that Plato based his stories upon earlier factual historical material? The fact is that there were no references to Atlantis before Plato.
Some claim that Herodotus mentioned Atlantis in his Histories, 4.184.1 (circa 484 BCE) but this is incorrect. Herodotus' references were not to an island but to Mount Atlas which he located at the westernmost part of Africa, a place he believed to be the western edge of the world. Mount Atlas, he claimed, was, "… a peak so high that its top was never seen," which was inhabited by the "Atlantes" a race who "…eat no living creature, and see no dreams in their sleep." Herodotus was notoriously unreliable as a reporter; he was much given to including fantastic travellers' tales as factual.
Furthermore, Herodotus did mention certain well-known facts that cast serious doubt on the claims made about Atlantis. Herodotus reported that:
In the late 20th century the various claims that the pyramids in America and Egypt and the hieroglyphic characters of the Amerinds and the Egyptians came from a common source were revealed to be completely false. Each culture evolved their cultural knowledge independently, with no need for a common basis of knowledge. Research has shown that even objects such as the pyramids were part of a gradual developmental process.
The mystical nonsense associated with Atlantis has made it very popular with believers in the occult especially with the 19th century Theosophists, and, the 20th century New Agers. They have variously credited the Atlanteans with possessing various forms of esoteric knowledge, supernatural powers, the ability to harness energy from crystals and other mysterious sources of forgotten physical and metaphysical energy.
Such stories were possibly based upon Plato's descriptions of how the buildings of Atlantis were decorated with precious metals, gemstones, and an unknown substance called oreichalkos, (mountain copper), which radiated an everlasting fiery glow.
Atlanteans are very popular with believers in past-lives, many identifying themselves as former Atlantean princes or princesses. Some, like Karl Zschaetsch, identified the Atlanteans as the ancestors of certain noble white European races, "…the original Aryans, blond, virtuous vegetarians and teetotallers."  Such ideas were popular with certain Nazis, such as Himmler.
Using a process called "astral clairvoyance" – based on the belief that all events in the past leave a trace in the astral plane, in the Akashic Records – Theosophist W. Scott-Elliot explored the "history" of Atlantis going back more than a million years. He claimed Atlantis had originally been inhabited by the Toltecs (the rulers) and the Rmaohals, a race of 3.6 metre tall black giant slaves. Then, because the Toltecs had became involved with black magic, a gradual deterioration of their character, had ensued, leading to their final destruction. Then, some 200,000 years ago some of them had immigrated to Egypt, founding the Egyptian civilization and designing the pyramids. Others had visited Britain where they supervised the building of Stonehenge.
Helena Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophists, identified the Atlanteans as the Fourth Root Race, (the first had been astral jellyfish); the 8.2 metre tall descendants of Lemuria. This claim appears to be loosely based upon Greek mythology in which Atlas, and his brothers, were described as the Titans, a race of giants, the first beings created by the gods.
Blavatsky claimed she had learned about Atlantis, and Lemuria, from the Akashic Records which had been revealed to her by the Mahatmas, her spirit guides in Tibet, and she claimed that her multi-volumed work, The Secret Doctrine, consisted of quotations from the Book of Dyzan, a book written in the long-lost Senzar language of Atlantis.
However, as was later shown by William Emmette Coleman, an elderly Californian scholar, most of the material had been plagiarized from such books as H.H. Wilson's translation of the very ancient Indian, Vishnu Purana, and an English translation of the Hymn of Creation in the ancient Indian Rig-Veda. She had liberally added large amounts of her own total gibberish, such as, the, Universal Mind was not, for there was no Ah-hi to contain it... The Wheel whirled for thirty crores more... The Great Chohans called the Lords of the Moon, of the Airy Bodies.
The American "Psychic" Edgar Cayce (1877-1945) claimed to have been the heir to the Throne of Atlantis in a previous incarnation. He claimed Atlantis had been a highly advanced civilization with aircraft, submarines and even nuclear energy, and that that a secret chamber would be found under the Sphinx containing details and records from Atlantis and that the island would be rediscovered in 1968 or 1969.
Theosophist Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy, claimed that the Atlanteans had incredible memories and mental abilities, with the ability to control elemental "life-forces, and to extract this energy from plants. They had craft powered by unknown energies that floated above the ground. Like Blavatsky, he too claimed they were the descendants of Lemuria, but unlike the Lemurians they had no telepathic abilities, and so, developed the first oral language. 
In 1912 Dr. Paul Schliemann announced in an article, How I Discovered Atlantis, that he had inherited from his famous grandfather Heinrich Schliemann, the discoverer of Troy, a quantity of documents and an owl-headed vase containing coins made of an alloy of platinum, aluminium and silver. He even claimed when his grandfather was excavating Troy he had discovered a bronze vase inscribed From the King Cronos of Atlantis.
The fact is, an island the size of Atlantis could never have existed in the Atlantic Ocean! There is no evidence of any sunken continent or island the size of Atlantis. The physical structure of the ocean floor precludes the existence of such an island. The ocean was created hundreds of millions of years ago when the super-continent, Gondwanaland broke apart. As America moved "westward" on its tectonic plate, and Europe and Africa moved "eastward" lava filled the ever-widening gap, creating a relatively "smooth" ocean basin. The few island groups in the Atlantic, such as the Azores, claimed by many to be the tops of Atlantean mountains, are merely the peaks of relatively small subterranean volcanoes, which have arisen in, geologically-speaking, relatively "recent" times.
Although many Atlantis "experts" have tried to overcome such problems by suggesting alternative locations for Atlantis, such as Algiers; Antarctica; America; Bimini (Bermuda); in a lake in the high plains of Bolivia; the Canary Islands; the Celtic Sea off Cornwall; Haig Fras near the Scilly Isles; Southern Sweden; Tartessos; the Sahara; and West Africa. Locations in the Mediterranean basin include Troy; the drowned city of Eliki, (Helike), on the southern coast of the Gulf of Corinth, the islands of Thera and Therasia (now known as Santorini), or lying in 1.6 km of water off the southern tip of Cyprus, they all fail to meet at least some of the necessary criteria.
Plato was quite clear on the details of (1) location, (2) the date of destruction and (3) the size of Atlantis, and so most can be disregarded because they were either not in the Atlantic, the time frame is invalid, or they are far too small.
However, this is not to say that Plato did not use material that would have been common knowledge in his time. The Greeks knew of islands being destroyed by volcanic eruptions or earthquake and submersion; these included Thera circa 1625 BCE (or 1500 BCE according to some records), and much closer in time, the city of Eliki was destroyed during Plato's lifetime, (circa 373 BCE) when it appears the city sunk due to an earthquake and the sea rushed in to cover the land-slip.
Thera, may well have contributed to the Atlantis myth. The island and its people were well a known part of the Minoan Empire, and traded extensively with Egypt. Thera was obliterated in a huge volcanic explosion, most of the land blown into the sky, leaving only a rim of land surrounding a crater 13 km wide and 1.5 km deep. Later sailors who found the island gone, and not understanding it had disappeared into the air, probably assumed that it had sunk beneath the waves.
It seems very likely that the origins of Atlantis are to be found in Plato's personal sense of disillusionment with politics. In his early years he had considered politics as a profession, and was even urged to stand for public office, but in time he became increasingly disillusioned with politics. In particular he saw how the higher principles of humanity were replaced in the struggles for personal power by the worst aspects of human behaviour had led to internal and external warfare.
There appears to be little
doubt that Plato
devised the stories about the mythical island of Atlantis as a
analogy. He was shrewdly warning the citizens of Athens that, just as
had once been a great and prosperous civilization, the emergence of
warring political factions had started the island on a downward path to
destruction. In similar fashion Athens, which was at the height of its
power was being threatened by aggressive policies and disruptive
political division, and, unless these problems were rectified urgently,
Athens could suffer the same fate as the fictional Atlantis.
Sprague de Camp, L. and Sprague de Camp, C. (1964). Atlantis and the City of Silver, in Ancient Ruins and Archaeology. Adelaide: Rigby Books, page 15.
Guiley, R.E. (1991). Atlantis, in Harper's Encyclopedia of Mystical and Paranormal Experience. Edison, NJ: page 38.