Home » Atlantis: the debrief » The muddy sea: the concept of the shallow, impassable Atlantis


Written by Graham | Created: Monday 26th August 2019 @ 1220hrs | Revised: Tuesday 29th September 2020 @ 2345hrs

1 2 3 5 6 7 8 9


Examining the concept of the Atlantis as a muddy, shallow, monster-infested tract of water.

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


The notion of shoals and mud serving as a barrier preventing navigation of a shallow stretch of the Atlantic did not originate with Plato, though his tale of Atlantis appears to be the foremost attempt to explain this circumstance.
Ooh, no foreplay this time!
I prefer not to. Better to get right to the point, lest your bosses upstairs object.
Well, go on then.
Plato's description of a shallow Atlantic, which he explains as the result of the sinking of Atlantis, has a number of precursors and successors in ancient literature. Plato is, however, unique among extant sources in that he is the only one to proffer a potential explanation for the source of these shallows. It is quite probably this suggestion, developed rationally, which made his suggestion of a major sunken island off the western side of Europe and Africa compelling to later thinkers.
So far, what you said in a nutshell earlier has now been said again, only with more big words.
Soon after Plato, his one-time student Aristotle would write: -

Outside the pillars of Heracles the sea is shallow owing to the mud, but calm, for it lies in a hollow.
- Aristotle, Meteorology [2.1].

I don't like big words!
Herodotus notes three attempts to circumnavigate Africa. A Phoenician expedition chartered by Necho of Egypt [4.42] was apparently successful, but the other two - that of "Sesostris" [2.102] and Sataspes on the orders of Xerxes [4.43] - both failed, with the reasons given being the impassability of the sea.
First, Sesostris, a composite figure whose manifold accomplishments seem to be based on any number of successful pharaohs of the Middle and New Kingdoms. He: -

[...] proceeded in a fleet of ships of war from the Arabian gulf along the shores of the Erythraean sea, subduing the nations as he went, until he finally reached a sea which could not be navigated by reason of the shoals.

It is likely that this expedition never made it into the west: Pliny the Elder [6.36], citing Ephorus, notes the existence of small islands: -

Ephorus states that those who sail from the Red Sea into the Æthiopian Ocean cannot get beyond the Columnæ there, some little islands so called.

These islands were most likely located at the end of the Red Sea we know today, though Pliny's survey suggests that they were at the southernmost extremity of Africa.
Sataspes, meanwhile, claims that he got as far as the land of a "dwarfish race, who wore a dress made from the palm-tree," thought could get no further "because the ship stopped, and would not go any further." Xerxes is unamused and has Sataspes impaled for failing to carry out his orders.
We've been over this...
I know, I know. Sorry. But it fits in here too. I would also note that it was in this general region of West Africa that the Carthaginian admiral Hanno was forced to turn back, though, in his case, this was due to lack of provisions (and probably no little homesickness besides).
Yep. Wherever you may wander, there's nothing like that homely little two-room flat where you grow... grew up.
Anyway, as a result of these and other accounts, Strabo, summarising previous efforts to sail around Africa, makes the following observation: -

For all those who have made coasting-voyages on the ocean along the shores of Libya, whether they started from the Red Sea or from the Pillars of Heracles, always turned back, after they had advanced a certain distance, because they were hindered by many perplexing circumstances, and consequently they left in the minds of most people the conviction that the intervening space was blocked by an isthmus; and yet the whole Atlantic Ocean is one unbroken body of water, and this is particularly true of the Southern Atlantic. All those voyagers have spoken of the last districts to which they came in their voyagings as Ethiopic territory and have so reported them.
- Strabo, Geography [1.2.26].

Strabo, who is discussing Homer's sundered Ethiopians [Odyssey 1.22-24], dismisses the existence of an isthmus as a potential solution, and instead suspects that all countries bordering the southernmost reaches of the ocean were anciently termed Ethiopia [1.2.27]. The southerly location for the blockages also contrasts with a notice in Aristotle's Meteorology [2.1], which states that the northern seas are shallower than those of the south: -

the greatest volume of water flows from the higher regions in the north. Their alluvium makes the northern seas shallow, while the outer seas are deeper.

Writing in the same century as Herodotus, Pindar places "the streams of the shallows" and "monstrous beasts in the sea" beyond the Pillars of Heracles [Nemean 3:20-26], whilst Euripides [Hippolytus 742-727] also attests to the western ocean being blocked: -

How I wish I could fly to that shore where the apple trees grow.
The trees of the harmony lovers, the Hesperides!
There, where Poseidon, the Lord of the sea, forbids the mariners from passing through into the turbulent waters and where he marks the boundary in the sky which Atlas holds.

Note, of course, the mention of Atlas associated with the boundary in the sky, as well as Poseidon. Also, the apples evoke Eumelus: the words μῆλον (signifying a "sheep," "goat," or "herds") and μῆλον (meaning "apple") are, shall we say, somewhat similar. Thus, Plato's choice of the name Eumelus as a twin of Atlas brings to mind allusions to the golden apples of the Hesperides. Furthermore, Diodorus Siculus, giving a rationanlised account of Atlas' career, grants him a brother called Hesperus, and notes that they own large flocks of sheep, which gave rise to the concept of the golden apples due to a misunderstanding: -

but we must not fail to mention what the myths relate about Atlas and about the race of the Hesperides. The account runs like this: In the country known as Hesperitis there were two brothers whose fame was known abroad, Hesperus and Atlas. These brothers possessed flocks of sheep which excelled in beauty and were in colour of a golden yellow, this being the reason why the poets, in speaking of these sheep as mela, called them golden mela. Now Hesperus begat a daughter named Hesperis, whom he gave in marriage to his brother and after whom the land was given the name Hesperitis; and Atlas begat by her seven daughters, who were named after their father Atlantides, and after their mother, Hesperides. And since these Atlantides excelled in beauty and chastity, Busiris the king of the Egyptians, the account says, was seized with desire to get the maidens into his power; and consequently he dispatched pirates by sea with orders to seize the girls and deliver them into his hands.
- Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History [4.27.1-2].

Er, I'm not really a fan of Greek words either.
May I continue?
Uh, yes. Please carry on.
The origins of Plato's description of the sea which cannot be passed by ship is perhaps the Phoenician Himilco, who I also alluded to before. The account of his voyage according to Avienus [114-129; 380-389; 404-415] describes Himilco's successful attempt to garner ties in north-western Europe being hampered by a variety of factors: the sea has many sandbars [125-126], seaweed [122] and sea monsters [128-129], and there are long periods with no wind [120], and vast amounts of fog [380-389]. Of these, seaweed and sea monsters are features which recur elsewhere, and the sandbars evoke Plato's shoals [Tim. 25d; Crit. 108e-109a].
... and the one the Phoenician captain ran aground on in Strabo.
So you *were* listening, then, after all?
I am an eager student.
An eager student who does not like big words.
Or Greek words.
How about Polish?
Polish is wonderful. The phonology of Polish is unique and beautiful.
Not like the other guy then?
Forget it.
Anyhow, Duane Roller notes that: "[i]t is more probable that [Himilco] came to the area four days beyond the Pillars of Herakles used by the fishermen of Gades, a place thick with seaweed that appeared when the tide was low - hence a coastal location - and where tuna of unusual size were caught and send to Carthage."
Further to the south, Marijean Eichel and Joan Markley Todd note an interesting phenomenon mentioned in the Africa Pilot: -

The Africa Pilot reports that north and south of Cape Nun there is an interesting phenomenon, apparently caused by the immense volume of fine sand blown off the desert: "For some distance both north and south of Cape Nun, as well as to seaward, the water has a red tinge, with a thick muddy appearance, so that the track of a vessel is visible for some time."

Cape Nun in this description is the furthest point known to have been definitively reached by European sailors well into the 15th century, when the Portuguese began their series of great navigations and discoveries.
Also, though they concede that this could "be a modern phenomenon, due to the accelerated drying-up of the Sahara in modern times," Eichel and Markley Todd add that "there is no doubt that the same strange juxtaposition of desert and fog existed then as now." Such a phenomenon, if present during the Classical age of the Greeks, could provide an alternative explanation of the sea of mud mentioned by Plato.
I'm hungry!
The ocean beyond the Pillars of Heracles was also associated with profuse seaweed. Though unmentioned by Plato, seaweed features in Avienus' description of the voyage of Himilco, as well as in a passage from the pseudo-Aristotlean De Mirabilibus Auscultationibus [136]. Therein, it is associated with Carthaginian tuna fishing, and a discussion of tuna occurs in Claudius Aelian's On Animals [15.3e], where it is juxtaposed with the description of the θαλάττιος κριός, which lived in the seas around Sardinia and Corsica, and which provided the model for the headgear of Atlantean royalty [15.2].
Ah! Atlantis news unknown to Plato! Explain *that* away!
All in good time, son, all in good time. But first, back to Plato, and some heavy theorising on my part.
With regards to the sea monsters alleged to have lived in the seas beyond the Pillars, Plato gives the following account of the origin of sea creatures in the Timaeus [92b]: -

And the fourth kind, which lives in the water, came from the most utterly thoughtless and stupid of men, whom those that remolded them deemed no longer worthy even of pure respiration, seeing that they were unclean of soul through utter wickedness; wherefore in place of air, for refined and pure respiring, they thrust them into water, there to respire its turbid depths. Thence have come into being the tribe of fishes and of shellfish and all creatures of the waters, which have for their portion the extremest of all abodes in requital for the extremity of their witlessness.

Thus, this account of villains being punished through reincarnation, coupled with the notional sea dwellers in the Phaedo [109c-110a] - who are depicted as being as much lower than humanity than humanity are in relation to the aether-breathing friends of the gods (who can be compared to Homer's Ethiopians and Phaeacians [Odyssey 1.22-26; 7.199-206, cf Phaedo 110a-111c, especially 111b: "they have sacred groves and temples of the gods, in which the gods really dwell, and they have intercourse with the gods by speech and prophecies and visions"], as well as the Hyperboreans in Pindar's Tenth Pythian Ode [29-44] - lends an aptness to Plato's placing of a continent inhabited by a people latterly "unable to bear the burden of their possessions," and "filled [...] with lawless ambition and power" [Crit. 121b] outside the Pillars of Heracles in the Atlantic Ocean.
Are we there yet? The end I mean...
No, not quite.
The eventual transformation of the people of Atlantis - or at the very least the upper class - into sea creatures also makes sense in terms of the depiction in the Critias: Zeus is initially resolved to bring them into conflict with Athens as a means to chastise them into correcting their conduct. That this didn't have the desired effect is evident, leading the the destruction of the island. Thus, the Atlanteans could indeed be described as "the most utterly thoughtless and stupid of men [...] unclean of soul through utter wickedness," who required a drastic remoulding.
Oh. He fell asleep.
Oh well. I'll leave him to his nap I guess...