Atlantis: The Legendary Island


Related Resource: Atlantis: A Select Bibliography


Atlantis, Atalantis, or Atlantica was a legendary island in the Atlantic Ocean, first mentioned by the Greek philosopher Plato (circa 427-347 BC) in his Timaeus dialog.

Plato described how certain Egyptian priests, in a conversation with the Athenian politician Solon (circa 638-558 BC), represented the island as a country larger than Asia Minor and Libya united, and situated just to the west of the Pillars of Hercules (Straits of Gibraltar). Beyond it lay an archipelago of lesser islands. According to the priests, Atlantis had been a powerful kingdom nine thousand years before the birth of Solon, and its armies had overrun the lands which bordered the Mediterranean Sea. Athens alone had withstood them with success.

Finally the sea had overwhelmed Atlantis, and had thenceforward become unnavigable owing to shoals which marked the spot. In the Critias dialog Plato added a history of the ideal commonwealth of Atlantis. It is impossible to decide how far this legend is due to Plato’s invention, and how far it is based on facts of which no record remains. Medieval writers, for whom the tale was preserved by the Arabian geographers, believed it true, and were fortified in their belief by numerous traditions of islands in the western sea, which offered various points of resemblance to Atlantis.

Such in particular were the Greek Isles of the Blest, or Fortunate Islands, the Welsh Avalon, the Portuguese Antilia or Isle of Seven Cities, and St Brendan’s island, the subject of many sagas in many languages. These legendary isles helped maintain the tradition of an earthly paradise which had become associated with the myth of Atlantis; and all except Avalon were marked in maps of the 14th and 15th centuries, and formed the object of voyages of discovery, in one case (St Brendan’s island) until the 18th century. In early legends, of whatever nationality, they are almost invariably described in terms which closely resemble Homer’s account of the island of the Phaeacians (Odyssey, book 8) - a fact which may be an indication of their common origin in some folk-tale current among several races. Somewhat similar legends are those of the island of Brazil, of Lyonnesse, the sunken land off the Cornish coast, of the lost Breton city of Is, and of Mayda or Asmaide - the French Isle Verle and Portuguese Ilha Verde or “Green Island”-which appears in many folktales from Gibraltar to the Hebrides, and until 1853 was marked on English charts as a rock at 44 48’N. and 26 10’W. After the Renaissance, with its renewal of interest in Platonic studies, numerous attempts were made to rationalize the myth of Atlantis. The island was variously identified with America, Scandinavia, the Canaries and even Palestine; ethnologists saw in its inhabitants the ancestors of the Guanchos (Canary Islands), the Basques or the ancient Italians; and even in the 17th and 18th centuries the credibility of the whole legend was seriously debated, and sometimes admitted, even by Montaigne, Buffon, and Voltaire.

One explanation for the origin of the Atlantis story involves major volcanic activity occurring on the island of Thera (present day Santorini) in the Aegean Sea during the middle of the second millennium BC. Volcanic eruptions on the island had at least some impact on the Bronze Age Minoan civilization centered on the Island of Crete, though this impact is difficult to access. At the very least, eruptions had a devastating impact on Minoan settlements on Thera. The island has a long history of eruptions, both large and small, including three in the 20th century. There was at least one massive eruption of Thera during the half century prior to 1600 BC. This volcanic event was significantly larger than the devastating eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, and makes the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii in 79 AD appear to be a minor event by comparison. It is believed that this eruption of Thera produced a column of smoke and ash that reached a height of thirty or forty kilometers, up into the stratosphere. Huge tsunamis (tidal waves) would likely have swept across the Aegean Sea and eastern Mediterranean, devastating the affected coastlines and their human populations. No human remains linked to the eruption(s) have been found on the island, indicating that the Minoan inhabitants of the island fled before the catastrophic event.


Adapted from: The Encyclopaedia Britannica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature and General Information. 11th ed. New York: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1910. [See vol. 2, pp. 857-858].


Source: Carte Conjecturale de L'Atlantide: D'après le Colonel Bory de St. Vincent... / gravè par Berthe. Hand colored map; 33 x 24 cm. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Washington, DC 20540-4650. Library of Congress call number G9930 18-- .B4. Library of Congress digital identification g9930 ct001849 http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.gmd/g9930.ct001849.

Conjectural map of Atlantis