When we talk about lost kingdoms and sunken realms, it is a conversation with an elephant in the room called Atlantis. It is so well-known it has a Disney movie and multiple TV shows to its credit. But where does Atlantis originally come from?
Not myth, is the answer, which I for one feel a tad aggrieved about. The Greek philosopher Plato is the only source for the story of Atlantis, which makes it more of a literary fable. According to Plato’s writings, Atlantis was an enormous island located in the Atlantic Ocean, close to Spain. This island was under the protection of the god Poseidon. His relationship with a mortal woman, Cleito, resulted five sets of twins and the eldest, Atlas, was not only the first king of the island, it was named after him. His twin Eumelus was given territory on the western edge of Atlantis, while the other brothers – Ampheres, Evaemon, Mneseus, Autochthon, Elasippus, Mestor, Azaes and Diaprepes – were also given fiefdoms.
The north of the island was predominantly mountainous and in the south there was a large plain. Atlantis was a utopian kingdom of rich natural resources and a peaceful, law-abiding populace, basically a dream to rule, the kind of cushy positions a god probably would bestow on his children. For their mother, Poseidon built an enormous palace ringed by three concentric moats. The city was also constructed in defensible walled rings, using the local red, white and black stone. Among the magnificent art and architecture of Atlantis, there was of course a glorious temple dedicated to a certain sea-god.
For a time, the people of Atlantis were content to follow Poseidon’s laws, but eventually they rebelled and went empire-building. They conquered a swathe of North Africa from the Pillars of Hercules (i.e. the Strait of Gibraltar) all the way to Egypt, and a big chunk of southern Europe too. When they marched on Greece, the city-states fell before them one by one until only Athens was left. Then, in a startling turn of events, the Athenian army not only beat back the Atlanteans, they freed the rest of their empire.
Take a wild guess where Plato came from.
But because crushing military defeat was apparently not a strong enough moral judgement, a terrible earthquake struck and in a single day and night the island of Atlantis disappeared beneath the sea. Plato claimed that these events took place less than two hundred years before he wrote the story, and that the resulting mud shoal was still there as evidence.
There are a slew of theories about Atlantis, some dating back millennia. It is entirely possible that there was a natural disaster in the region Plato references; a volcanic eruption took place on Thera (modern day Santorini) in the mid-second millennium B.C., effectively destroying the Minoan civilisation on the surrounding islands. In The Greek Myths, Robert Graves suggests that Plato may have been drawing heavily on Minoan Crete in his descriptions of Atlantis, but that the ‘real’ Atlantis was in Western Libya.
Whether or not Atlantis was based on history or legend, or was simply Plato’s literary fable, it’s stuck around for the long haul. It has provided the inspiration for generations of storytellers and become a cultural touchstone.
Maybe it’s not officially a myth, but what the hell. It’s part of the family.
These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!
References: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Atlantis-legendary-island, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies – [chief consultant] Dr. Alice Mills (Hodder, 2003), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantis, The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Greek Mythology – Sofia Souli (Editions Michalis Toubis, 1995)