The Atlantis Legend

(Syncroblog suggested by Mahud: Theme “Landscapes”)

Pumice from TheraI’ll tell you a story about Atlantis, the Lost Land.

Once upon a time, a Greek philosopher named Plato was writing about his mentor Socrates and their circle of learned friends. Sometimes they would talk about right and wrong, the soul and other erudite matters by telling stories that illustrated what they meant. In the Republic, Socrates told of a man who died and learned the nature of the soul, but that myth isn’t so well remembered. In the Symposium, Aristophanes told a myth about how people are descended from separated twins, to explain love and why some people are homosexual. That story was written off by the Middle Ages as a joke. In the Timaeus and Kritias, Socrates’ old friend Kritias told about a powerful civilization that Athens had fought 9000 years before his own day. That story, the legend of Atlantis, has taken on a life of its own, so that people who have never read Plato have heard of it, and many people who did read Plato have spent their lives searching for it.

Plato wrote that Kritias said that Solon said that he heard the story from some Egyptian priests. Have you got all that? That’s the first report we have of Atlantis; everyone afterwards was writing with Plato’s story in mind. We’ve never found any records about Atlantis in Egypt. The archaeological record shows no major settlement at Athens 9000 years before classical Greece. The civilization Kritias describes sounds Bronze Age, not Stone Age, which it should have been so long ago. But historical accuracy was irrelevant to these philosophers. They were using stories instead of just dry dusty reason to show how people ought to live in harmony with the land and with their gods.

The marvellous thing about Atlantis, the lost land that may not even have existed, is that so many people have found it. They’ve found it in the Atlantic, in the Mediterranean, in the Bahamas and in the Yucatán. Eden is more elusive, and the Tower of Babel — well, we know where that is. There’s oil wells instead of a single tower in Babylonia nowadays, but we’re still fighting over it.

There have been many myths of Atlantis. Atlantis wakes something in us that yearns for a Lost Land, a golden age when civilization and the land were one — until the land (or rather, the sea) ended it.

Let me tell you about my Atlantis.

Plato’s story was preserved by the Egyptian priests, Solon, Kritias, and Plato himself. My Atlantis legend was reforged by another chain of learned men.

In 1914, a young classicist named K.T. Frost published a remarkable theory unremarked by the scholars of those dark days. He guessed that the Minoan civilization which had flourished on Crete a thousand years before classical Greece was the source of Plato’s Atlantis legend (Braymer p. 115).

Houses cut into pumice cliffs on Thera.Modern houses cut into ancient layers of ash left by the Thera eruption. Beach just downslope from ruins of Akrotiri.

In the 1930s, an archaeologist by the dramatic name of Spyridon Marinatos proposed that the Minoan civilization had been shaken to its foundations by a volcanic eruption on Thera, an island sixty miles to the north. He found evidence of earthquakes and possibly a tsunami on Crete’s shoreline. He never mentioned Atlantis, but he knew of Frost’s theory, and had respected the man (Braymer p. 124).

In the 1950s, seismologist Angelos Galanopoulos, while investigating a devastating earthquake on Thera, was shown pre-Greek ruins at the bottom of a pumice mine. He, too, got to thinking about the Atlantis story. He came to the startling conclusion that if one divided all the figures by ten, Plato’s measurements worked for Thera and Crete (as Atlantis’ metropolis and plain) and so did the date (Mavor p. 21). Had some ancient translator simply confused an Egyptian symbol for 10 with 100?

In the 1960s, Dr. Galanopoulos teamed up with American oceanographer James Mavor, who began pushing for a multidisciplinary team to investigate Thera’s volcanic history and archaeology. They asked Spyridon Marinatos, the Minoan archaeologist, to direct the project. Professor Marinatos never talked about Atlantis save when pressed, and then he would politely dodge fanciful speculation by explaining that a legend was “… something mixed of historic and imaginary elements, and above all, something which became a glorious but dubious tradition” (qtd. by Braymer, p. 152).

Under his leadership, archaeologists began to unearth Akrotiri, a thriving Bronze Age metropolis on the island of Thera whose art was predominantly Minoan, with borrowed Egyptian and Middle Eastern elements. Akrotiri was not only advanced; it was an international and cosmopolitan port of trade. Its houses’ walls were adorned with beautiful frescos of fish and monkeys, flowers and swallows, maidens gathering saffron. Its people loved natural landscapes.

Broken Staircase: Atlantis?Then their volcano awoke. There are poignant signs that the islands clung to their homes and city even after it was half-buried in ash, climbing out of second-story windows and using broken staircases. But no bodies have been found — so far, anyway — and only a tiny bit of gold, so it seems as if they fled their island before the final cataclysm. We hope future excavations won’t find people clustered at the harbor, as was discovered in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Some Therans, at least, escaped, and must have told their tale to amazed listeners across the sea.

Scientists are still arguing about the precise date of the eruption. Archaeologists are still untangling signs of earthquakes, ashfall and possible tsunami damage on the northern coasts of Crete and surrounding islands from the wreckage of invasion and conquest by mainland Mycenaeans a few generations later. (The Mycenaeans were the pre-Greeks who later attacked Troy.) But this much is certain. A huge volcanic eruption destroyed and buried a thriving, advanced sea-port about a thousand years before classical Greece. The impact of that cataclysm on the Minoans of Crete must have been profound. They would have seen the fires of the volcano on the horizon, their day blotted out, ash falling from the sky. Very probably, they watched their fleets and many of their people swept away by tsunamis. Refugees from Thera had already fled and spread word of the island’s final days. If and when they returned, they would have found a large chunk of the circular island gone, apparently sunk beneath the waves.

Recent studies suggest that the Theran eruption was even larger than Krakatoa, more on the scale of Tambora which caused the legendary “year of no summer.” So while the volcano did not end the Minoan civilization in a night and a day, it probably affected the climate and harvests. Religion and society would have been thrown into turmoil. They were not toppled, but they were weakened, ripe prey for conquest by invaders from mainland Greece.

In 2005 I trod the streets of my Atlantis, gazed at the ash-encased houses, and carried a few pebbles of sea-tossed pumice back with me from a nearby beach. Now I can hold my myth in my hand. Thera FarewellIt doesn’t matter that I didn’t see Daedalus or Ariadne, or all the figures I peopled it with in my childhood when I fantasized about that lost land. In my mind’s eye I see those sheer banded cliffs and the steaming volcano rising again the harbor. I remember olive leaves cutting my feet as I walked on a scalding black sand beach. I remember the wind gusting over the vinyards on the cliff-tops, and the sunlight dappling on green waters below a jagged cliff of red lava. I remember one last glimpse of Thera’s vast ring of islands — the lip of an ancient crater — from my airplane window.

Some myths live only in the soul, and it doesn’t matter where they happened. But certain myths are about the home we never had, a gleaming vision of a vanished land that explains why we all feel like exiles. It lets us mourn, symbolically, times and people and places we’ve had to leave behind.

Yet sometimes we can go back, pick up a memento, and carry it with us.

Other Participants in this “Landscapes” Syncroblogging:

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