In a great hurry you’ve gathered what few belongings you can carry into a bundle. For days the tension has been growing and the great mountain in the distance has become restless. Ships are leaving the island and you find yourself on board one, amongst your neighbors. Soon you find 'safety' among your relatives on the outlying islands. You find yourself looking towards your home from a distance when it happens. The first tremors are only felt in your bones but when the volcano at the heart of your world throws earth and fire into the sky, the quakes begin to shake apart the ground at your feet. Yet it still seems far away – until the ocean itself rushes you in waves that seem to reach as high as the sun itself. In that instant the world you know is lost to the elements. This was the fate of the people of Atlantis.
What is Atlantis? For starters it’s a myth. Joseph Campbell in ‘The Power of Myth’ has said that "myths are the clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life", or in other words, mythology is our cultural heritage and it allows us to understand what we, as a people are capable of.
As a myth Atlantis is everywhere. Several movies have been made - some about discovering a lost city in ruins, others telling the story of an underwater nation. There have been multiple books, and even comic books. In both Marvel and DC Atlantis is a city under the sea.
Atlantis the myth has power - the power to inspire, intrigue and fuel great debate. If Atlantis has this much power as an idea, imagine what it would be like to know Atlantis as a reality.
Atlantis, like any myth or fairy tale, finds its roots in real historical events.
In order to illustrate this I’m going to tell you a little about both the legend of Atlantis and the legend’s possible origin.
The story of Atlantis can be traced back to an unfinished dialogue written by Plato. In both Timaeus and Critias Plato describes a great civilization destroyed thousands of years ago.
The first mention of Atlantis is in the Timaeus dialogue:
Later, the island nation of Atlantis is described in greater detail in Critias:
“Looking towards the sea, but in the centre of the whole island, there was a plain which is said to
have been the fairest of all plains and very fertile. Near the plain again, and also in the centre of
the island at a distance of about fifty stadia, there was a mountain not very high on any side.”
Interestingly enough, Atlantis is described as a great civilization that had fallen into corruption –
Atlantis is the invader in Plato’s scenario and ancient Athens must stand against this much larger
and more powerful nation.
Regardless, we learn that Atlantis herself is wiped out by a great catastrophe and the island is
swallowed by the ocean.
This is an image of Satorini with its’ largest island, Thera. This was once a single island and a
cultural center for Minoan civilization. The Minoans were hundreds of years more advanced than
the surrounding civilizations. About 3,600 years ago what is believed to be the second largest
eruption in known history. It was so powerful that it sunk a large portion of the island and left the
rest of the island covered in ash and volcanic rock. It believed that the eruption could be seen as
far away as Egypt.Tsunami after tsunami washed over the outlying islands – including Crete, the
other major hub of Minoan society.
The excavation of Akrotiri (on Thera) started by Spyros Marinatos yielded further proof.
ruins were found – not only were they extremely advanced, but they were very similar to Plato’s
description of Atlantis. These ruins were almost perfectly preserved in the volcanic rock that
covers the island
All this points to a great and advanced civilization that was wiped out by a tremendous disaster –
much of which disappeared beneath the waves.
The Santorini disaster is one of many events that have been linked to Plato’s mythic civilization. However, whether Atlantis is a myth, a reality – or both – it is an important part of our world culture. As John F Kennedy said, “A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on.” The idea of a civilization that was advanced, cultured and powerful and yet almost completely lost in the events of one day is a humbling one. This is a story that deserves to be remembered and explored even as we ourselves strive towards a more perfect civilization.