Home » Atlantis: the debrief » Into the Atlantic: beyond the Pillars of Heracles


Written by Graham | Created: Friday 30th August 2019 @ 1152hrs | Revised: Tuesday 29th September 2020 @ 0926rs

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Requesting information on the Classical conception of the Atlantic Ocean.

Present: Interrogator (Third Class) Ветка, interrogating, and Agent Г.


Great. It's you again.
Missed me? Aw, I'm touched! I've only been gone for about five minutes.
Right. Tell me about the Greeks who explored the Atlantic Ocean.
What? No long-winded back-and-forth?
No. I've been told to keep it concise.
Good. While artifacts from the very western end of the Mediterranean and the coasts of Iberia beyond were showing up in Greek contexts during the 7th century, these were most likely brought there by intermediaries, most probably Phoenicians. According to Herodotus, the earliest Greek to directly exploit the Tartessian trade was one Colaeus of Samos, a trader who usually covered the routes between Ionia and Egypt.
On one occasion, says the historian, this Colaeus was driven by a storm (which sounds suspiciously like something from the Odyssey) into the western Mediterranean, eventually making landfall in Tartessus, where he was well-treated by that region's long-ruling king Argantonius, who sent him back with riches beyond anything he had known before. This event is generally dated to somewhere around 638 BC, and the same author also recounts Phocaean expeditions reaching Argantonius' silver-rich kingdom.
It was during this time period, during which the Phoenician city states of the Lebanon, beset by the rapacious Assyrians and Babylonians, entered a terminal decline, and before the Tyrian colony of Carthage came to prominence in the Mediterranean, that Greeks could - and did - reach the Atlantic coasts, bringing back tales of such wealth and splendour that subsequent authors would hardly resist making use of this new geographical knowledge, spread about in knowing whispers, as apt settings for mythological events.
Anything to add about these Phocaeans?
Yes. The scholar Duane W. Roller suggests that Phocaeans, having made contact with Tartessus, extended the reach of Greek geographical knowledge at around 600 BC, with expeditions beyond the Pillars, hugging the coastline of modern-day Portugal at least as far as Cape Roca near Lisbon, giving descriptive names to various landmarks attested in later sources (such as the late Roman Avienus), namely Onoussa ("donkey-like") and Ophioussa ("snaky"), the latter of which Roller notes is "the more remote - and farther north" which "may indicate the limit of Phokaian penetration." Another place name of the same species is Cotinussa, the "island of Olives," which is associated with the largest of three islands in the Gades archipelago [Timaeus, BNJ 566 F 67, apud Pliny the Elder, NH 4.120].
The Phocaeans were also involved in colonisation in the western Mediterranean: their most famous colony was Massalia (moder Marseille, France), founded about 600 BC, with a subsequent foundation at Emporion (Empúries in Catalonia). The former would go on to hold its own as a seat of exploration, with two sons of the city - Euthymenes (see below) and Pytheas - making significant contributions to Greek knowledge of the regions outside the Pillars.
The next exploration to consider is that of Midacritus, an obscure figure, of whom Pliny the Elder [7.56.3] says curtly: -

Tin was first imported by Midacritus from the island of Cassiteris.

This brief allusion is the sole testimony of what must have been a highly important Greek expedition beyond the Pillars. Midacritus - whose name suggests that he was possibly of Phocaean origin - is a potential source for the Phocaean elements identified by Roller and others in Avienus. The precise location of Cassiteris or, as it appears later, the Cassiterides island group - which would later take on a considerable sheen of mythology (leading Herodotus for one to reject it as fable) - remains unclear, with various theories placing it off Galicia, Britanny or even Cornwall. Almost certainly the rise of Carthage, replacing its Phoenician relations as the masters of the western seas, put paid to Greek interests in the area and led to their exclusion.
How long did that last?
Quite a substantial period, from about 500 BC (when the concept of the Pillars as a boundary emerges in Greek sources) to the final defeat of Carthage by the Romans.
In fact, Strabo mentions an anecdote which illustrates how jealously the Phoenicians of Gades guarded their trade route to the Cassiterides: -

Now in former times it was the Phoenicians alone who carried on this commerce (that is, from Gades), for they kept the voyage hidden from every one else. And when once the Romans were closely following a certain ship-captain in order that they too might learn the markets in question, out of jealousy the ship-captain purposely drove his ship out of its course into shoal water; and after he had lured the followers into the same ruin, he himself escaped by a piece of wreckage and received from the State the value of the cargo he had lost.
- Strabo, Geography [3.5.11].

That would certainly explain why Herodotus dismissed them as a myth. Could these be Atlantis?
Hmmm... no. But the description could certainly have influenced Plato. Here's more of what Strabo says in that passage cited above: -

The Cassiterides are ten in number, and they lie near each other in the high sea to the north of the port of the Artabrians. One of them is desert, but the rest are inhabited by people who wear black cloaks, go clad in tunics that reach to their feet, wear belts around their breasts, walk around with canes, and resemble the goddesses of vengeance in tragedies. They live off their herds, leading for the most part a nomadic life. As they have mines of tin and lead, they give these metals and the hides from their cattle to the sea-traders in exchange for pottery, salt and copper utensils.

You see, rather than one island, Strabo has ten, which he locates off the land of the Artabrians, modern-day Galicia, Spain. The black cloaks resemble somewhat the Atlantean archons' ceremonial attire in the Critias [120b]. Both places are rich in metals. Other than that, though, no cigar.
Cuban cigars are the best!
You don't smoke. We've established that.
Well, if I did, I'd smoke Cuban cigars.
Naturally. The next explorer I would like to mention ventured along the African coast. His name was Euthymenes of Massalia and he was likely active towards the end of the 6th century. He is remembered in a number of later testimonies for his claim to have crossed the Atlantic [FGrH V 2207 T 2ac], reaching a freshwater sea populated by crocodiles, hippos and the like, which he theorised was the source of the inundation of the Nile, when preturbed by the Etesian winds. Duane W. Roller suggests that the phenomena reportedly witnessed by Euthymenes occur in the region of the Senegal river estuary, concluding that Euthymenes possibly reached this area.
Wait... he said he crossed the Atlantic? So why do you locate his destination in Africa and not America?
Did you not catch the part about the Nile? That the Nile is in Africa would, I thought, be considered firmly established by now.
Two words: Alpheus and Arethusa.
Good comeback! Bear in mind, though, that this "freshwater sea" occurs elsewhere in an African context. Herodotus cites Etearchus on the expedition of the Libyan Nasamones into West Africa, where they see a great eastward-flowing river: -

A great river ran past this city, from the west towards the rising sun; crocodiles could be seen in it. [...] Etearchus guessed it to be the Nile; and reason proves as much.
- Herodotus, Histories [2.32.7-33.2].

Anyway, by the time Euthymenes was sailing over the Atlantic Ocean back home, the Carthaginians were tightening their grip on the Atlantic seaways, with knowledge slowly filtering to the Greeks of the exploits of two brothers, Hanno and Himilco, who journeyed respectively south and north along the coasts outside the Pillars.
So, despite their best efforts, the Greeks still managed to find out about what these Carthaginians were up to?
It seems that way. Though one suspects that at least some of what the Greeks were told was misinformation.
Very clever! Can't beat a bit of misinformation to misdirect the enemy.
Quite. Himilco's account is the less well-attested of the two, and is now known mainly from Avienus' rather haphazard Ora Maritima [114-128, 380-385, 410-413]. Taking that source at face value, Himilco seems to have stressed various negative features of the ocean (at least when his countrymen were speaking to Greeks and Romans): the sea was difficult to cross, was shallow, lacked winds, and was filled with monstrous animals and seaweed. Nevertheless, it is possibly from Himilco that tidings were first brought about the Tartessian contacts with the Oestrymnides (perhaps in Brittany), as well as conditions among the Hierni of the Holy Island (almost certainly Ireland) and their neighbours, the Albiones of Britain.
America's little lapdog.
Hanno's voyage enjoys a rather more detailed description, most probably derived from a Carthaginian monument or archive, which reputedly passed a considerable way down the African coast.
Colonies were planted at Karikon Teichon (perhaps associated with the Carian people of Anatolia), Gytta, Acra, Melitta (cf Hecataeus, BNJ 1 F 357) and Arambys, as well as the famous island entrepôt of Cerne, and friendly contacts established with the Lixitae, a Libyan tribe inhabiting the region of Lixus. Their relation of their surroundings perhaps served as Herodotus' source for his beast-infested portion of Libya.
Further south, the river Chretes was traced upstream as far as a lake featuring three islands, each larger than Cerne, and the Western Horn and Southern Horn were discovered, with the expedition reaching as far as the foothills about "a very high mountain, called Chariot of the Gods, [...] which seemed to touch the stars" [16], eventually finding a savage race of hirsute humanoids the Lixitae referred to as Gorillae on an island in the midst of a lake on another island near the Southern Horn.
These lakes and islands seem to resemble the centre of Atlantis, as well as Euthymenes' "freshwater sea"...
Very true. And Plato could easily have learned some of these details during his time in Sicily.
... while this "Chariot of the Gods": could that be a landing stage for UFOs?
Was that a rhetorical question?
No. What am I? Erich von Däniken?
Now that you mention it, you do have some strange ideas. Though you're much younger.
Why thank you.
Don't thank me. That guy was knocking on even in the 1980s.
There is another mention of Phoenicians and Carthaginians in the Atlantic, which concerns a beautiful island which is without population. It appears in De Mirabilibus Auscultationibus, a work which was anciently ascribed, wrongly it seems, to Aristotie [85] and, in a more elaborate version, in Diodorus Siculus [5.19.1-5]. Here is "Aristotle" on this island: -

In the sea outside the Pillars of Heracles they say that a desert island was found by the Carthaginians, having woods of all kinds and navigable rivers, remarkable for all other kinds of fruits, and a few days’ voyage away; as the Carthaginians frequented it often owing to its prosperity, and some even lived there, the chief of the Carthaginians announced that they would punish with death any who proposed to sail there, and that they massacred all the inhabitants, that they might not tell the story, and that a crowd might not resort to the island, and get possession of it, and take away the prosperity of the Carthaginians.

In terms of the origin of these tales, pseudo-Aristotle suggests a Carthaginian origin for the account, which is perhaps connected to possible evidence of Carthaginian activity in Macaronesia: for example, Nuno Ribeiro, Anabela Joaquinito and Sérgio Pereira survey material evidence suggesting ancient visitors to Terceira in the Azores, where a number of hypogaea have recently been found. More controversially, a "Carthaginian" statue was discovered on the furthest of the Azores, Corvo, in the 16th century by the earliest Portuguese settlers. It was described by the chronicler Damião de Góis as "a stone statue standing on a slab, representing a man on top of a bone horse, and the man dressed in a rain cape, without hat, with one hand on the horse's mane, and the right arm stretched out, with all the fingers clutched except the second finger, known in Latin as the index, pointed towards the west." A hoard of Carthaginian and Cyrenaican coins dating from the latter part of the 4th century BC (i.e. in the decades after Plato's demise) was also allegedly found on Corvo in 1749.
Diodorus suggests that the Carthaginians had competition over the island from the Etruscans, though this detail may derive from a misunderstanding of Herodotus' account of the Phocaeans in the western Mediterranean [1.165-167], wherein Cyrnus is usually identified with Corsica. It is proposed that the name Cyrnus came to be confused with that of Cerne, derived from Carthaginian sources, where it is one of the furthest known points on the western side of Africa.
Thus, Carthaginian sailors' tales of an island outside the Pillars of Heracles may well be a source for Plato's Atlantis, though this is problematic: the island doesn't feature in the accounts of Hanno or Himilco and the two Greek accounts of the island postdate Plato. In addition, Plato already had a number of conceptual islands to hand from Greek mythology. Nonetheless, from the patchwork of evidence considered above, it could certainly be possible that Plato was familiar with Carthaginian-derived descriptions of an island or islands in the Atlantic Ocean.
Anyway, the last journey I'd like to cover is that of Sataspes. He was in the service of the Persian shah Xerxes I, who sent him out to circumnavigate Africa as punishment for rape.
It would've been easier to chop his balls off.
Yes, but then there'd be no cool story about exploration and stuff.
Sataspes' report appears in Herodotus [4.43]: -

Coming to King Xerxes from there, he related in his narrative that, when he was farthest distant, he sailed by a country of little men, who wore palm-leaf clothing; these, whenever he and his men put in to land with their ship, left their towns and fled to the hills; he and his men did no harm when they landed, and took nothing from the people except cattle. [6] As to his not sailing completely around Libya, the reason (he said) was that the ship could move no farther, but was stopped.

Though Xerxes was unconvinced by Sataspes' explanation of his failure (resulting in his execution), the stopping of the ship finds corroboration from elsewhere in Greek literature. The "little men," meanwhile, were also encountered by the Nasamoneans on their overland quest. The Nasamones were captured by these men and returned home convinced they were sorcerers.
This somewhat disconcerting group also feature in Pliny's Natural History, as "Pygmies" [6.30]. Pygmies were associated with the ends of the earth in Greek mythology from an early period, featuring in Homer as opponents of the cranes on the shores of the great river Oceanus [Iliad 3.1 ff.], and are also located in India, for example, by Ctesias. Their flight in Sataspes also features in descriptions of trade with the Carthaginians in Herodotus, and Hanno's and pseudo-Scylax's works.
As a postscript, I must mention another traveller from Massalia, Pytheas, who, shortly after Plato's death, launched an expedition to the far north, travelling through Britain and another land to the north of it, Thule, before reaching an impassable barrier in the form of a "sea-lung" (probably drift ice) in a sea he called the Cronian Sea.