Written by Graham | Created: Thursday 8th October 2020 @ 2314hrs | Revised: Monday 21st December 2020 @ 2345hrs; Friday 1st January 2020 @ 1158hrs
Hesiod provides the first attestation of the word Atlantis in his Theogony , where he writes: "Ζηνὶ δ' ἄρ' Ἀτλαντὶς Μαίη τέκε κύδιμον Ἑρμῆν." Is this, perchance, a reference to a legendary island of the west? Unfortunately not: in translation, the text in question becomes: "Maia, daughter of Atlas, bore glorious Hermes to Zeus."
Herodotus names the western ocean "Ἀτλαντὶς" in 1.203, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with the Atlantis in Plato. He is comparing the Mediterranean ("the sea frequented by the Greeks"), Atlantic, and the "Erythraean Sea" (denoting the modern-day Red Sea and Indian Ocean), with the Caspian Sea, noting that, while the Caspian is a landlocked body of water, the other three are connected. This fact was established by the voyage of the Phoenicians at the behest of Pharaoh Necho [4.42], after work on Necho's canal linking the Nile to the Arabian Gulf was put on ice.
Of potential Atlantic islands, only the Cassiterides appear, and Herodotus only mentions them to express his scepticism.
The most frequently cited pre-Platonic writer alleged to have made reference to Atlantis (and who definitely used the term Ἀτλαντὶς) was Hellanicus, a logographer (and, crucially, genealogist) from Mytilene on the island of Lesbos who flourished during the late-5th century BC. Among his body of work was a piece entitled Atlantis or Atlantias, of which a number of possible fragments have been identified, the best-known of which is Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 11, 1359, either from Hellanicus' Atlantis or from one of its sources, which has been quoted as proof positive for the existence of an Atlantis narrative before Plato: Stavros P. Papamarinopoulos discusses the possibility and at least tries to provide some evidence in support of his optimistic contention. The same cannot be said for R. Cedric Leonard, who elsewhere maintains that Hellanicus' work "could well be the oldest Greek writing mentioning Atlantis." He continues: "[a]lthough not much is known about the content, we find the mention of Poseidon (founder of Atlantis), Poseidon's firstborn son Atlas (first king of Atlantis), as well as his seven daughters," though Plato fails to mention the seven daughters of this Atlas. Additionally, Leonard opines that: "[t]he very title itself demonstrates the use of the word 'Atlantis' at such an early date," though the relevance of this to Plato's application of the term to a sunken island west of Europe and Africa is unclear, particularly as the word had previously been used by Hesiod to denote one of the daughters of the Titan Atlas.
Of key interest from the perspective of those who wish to take Plato's account at face value is the passage mentioning Poseidon's siring a son, Lycus, on Celaeno and placement of him in the "Islands of the Blessed," usually located to the west of the known world in Greek cosmological thought. Tantalising as this may be, it does not concur with what Plato actually writes about Atlantis. Atlantis, far from being cognate with the Islands of the Blessed - which was a Greek version of the paradisiacal afterlife - was the villain of the piece and is presented very much as the home of the living. Additionally, Lycus is not mentioned in Plato's roll call of Poseidon's ten sons in the Critias, nor is his mother called Cleito in the papyrus. Instead, Celaeno is mentioned in a context also containing the names of Taygete and Hermes, noting the former as the mother by Zeus of Lacedaemon and the latter as the son of Maia (as stated by Hesiod in the Theogony). Celaeno, Taygete and Maia were all counted among the Pleiades, daughters of Atlas the Titan, since well before Hellanicus or Plato's time: a fragment of the Astronomy, traditionally attributed to Hesiod, names all seven: -
Lovely Taygete, and dark-faced Electra, and Alcyone, and bright Asterope, and Celaeno, and Maia, and Merope, whom glorious Atlas begot [...] In the mountains of Cyllene she [i.e. Maia] bare Hermes, the herald of the gods.
Additionally, the additional fragments of Hellanicus' Atlantis, as organised by Karl and Theodor Müller in the Fragmenta historicorum graecorum, discuss the children of Niobe [Fr. 54], Iasion [Fr. 58], and the early life of the Trojan War hero Patroclus [Fr. 57], all descendents of the Titan Atlas - and none of whom are specifically associated in any way by Plato with his Atlantis. Thus, I conclude, this work was based on standard notions of Greek mythology and has nothing to do with the Atlantis of Plato's philosophical treatise.
The first of the writers after Plato of whom I will make a brief mention is Aristotle. Of his work, this is what Tony O'Connell has this to say: -
Plato’s pupil is constantly quoted in connection with his alleged criticism of Plato's story. This claim was not made until 1819, when Delambre misinterpreted a commentary on Strabo by Isaac Casaubon. This error has been totally refuted by Thorwald C. Franke. Furthermore it was Aristotle who stated that the Phoenicians knew of a large island in the Atlantic known as 'Antilia'.
O'Connell is correct to commend Franke's valuable work on the issue of Aristotle on Atlantis. That does not, however, mean that Aristotle believed in the story. As for the island of "Antilia," this island appears in a work attributed to Aristotle, but is never named Antilia: this name only appears on late medieval maps, and the association between the two first appears in Ferdinand Columbus' account of his father's search for knowledge before his voyage: -
In his book concerning the wonderful things of nature, Aristotle informs us of a report, that some Carthaginian merchants had sailed across the Atlantic to a most beautiful and fertile island [...]. Some Portuguese cosmographers have inserted this island in their maps under the name of Antilla.
It is also apparently the younger Columbus who associates the Hesperides with the West Indies, which identification O'Connell endorses.
It has often been alleged that Aristotle offered a curt dismissal of the historicity of Atlantis. According to Strabo [2.3.6], the Hellenistic thinker Poseidonius, in discussing irruptions of the sea, regarded Plato's tale of the sinking of the island as plausible based upon Socrates' statement [Tim. 26e] and prior observations of seismic events and their effects: -
On the other hand, he correctly sets down in his work the fact that the earth sometimes rises and undergoes settling processes, and undergoes changes that result from earthquakes and the other similar agencies, all of which I too have enumerated above. And on this point he does well to cite the statement of Plato that it is possible that the story about the island of Atlantis is not a fiction. Concerning Atlantis Plato relates that Solon, after having made inquiry of the Egyptian priests, reported that Atlantis did once exist, but disappeared — an island no smaller in size than a continent; and Poseidonius thinks that it is better to put the matter in that way than to say of Atlantis: "Its inventor caused it to disappear, just as did the Poet the wall of the Achaeans."
The source for this quote about the Achaean Wall at the time of the Trojan War is later identified as Aristotle: "for Homer says that the wall had only recently been built (or else it was not built at all, but fabricated and then abolished by the poet, as Aristotle says)" [12.1.36]. While Franke, as noted, is to be commended for his efforts in ascertaining how this notion of Aristotle's dismissal of Atlantis, the remainder of his theory, which posits that Aristotle's "eloquent silence" on the subject reflected his ambivalence, and the evidence he puts forward, seems to this e-scribbler to be unlikely.
There is nothing here per se to suggest that Aristotle dismissed Atlantis out of hand, and the most parsimonious explanation would see Strabo paraphrasing Aristotle's opinion on Homer's Achaean Wall and applying it to Poseidonius' statement about Atlantis.
Of Aristotle's student Theophrastus, the ever-optimistic O'Connell claims that he "refers to colonies of Atlantis in the sea." No he doesn't. Theophrastus, apparently, was amenable to the possibility that the Atlantic island had once existed, quoting the Timaeus at face value. H. Baltussen notes a "reference [...] to the Atlantis myth (24e, 25c)," and references S. Amigues: "[h]er inference that Plato published his Tim. at the time when Theophrastus came to Athens (ca. 354 BC) is interesting, but cannot be proved."
It should, however, be noted that neither Aristotle nor Theophrastus had access to the findings of modern geology.
Theopompus, a Chian who lived & worked in Athens during the 4th century BC, is best known as a widely-read writer of histories. One of his works was a sprawling epic on Macedonian history, which contains, among a good deal of other material of no particular import to the region which was his focus, a curious tale related to the legendary Phrygian ruler Midas by Silenus, an old soak from the train of Dionysus, described as "son of a nymph, inferior by nature to the gods only, superior to men and death." The country is generally known as Meropis, due to one named group among the inhabitants, the "Meropes, who inhabit many great cities" The account survives in Aelian's Various History [3.18].
"Amongst other things," we are told, "Silenus told Midas that Europe, Asia and Africa were islands surrounded by the ocean: that there was but one continent only, which was beyond this world, and that as to magnitude it was infinite." In the island were "men twice as big as those here" who "lived to double our age," echoing tales of the Macrobians of southernmost Ethiopia. The continent, which is to be differentiated from Atlantis, which is consistently described as an island [Tim. 24e ff; Crit. 108e, 113c ff.], housed many cities, of which two in particular are discussed at length: "one [is] named Machimus, warlike, the other Eusebes, pious": -
[T]he pious people live in peace, abounding in wealth & reap the fruits of the earth without ploughs or oxen, having no need of tillage or sowing. They live, as he said, free from sickness, and die laughing, and with great pleasure: they are so exactly just, that the gods many times vouchsafe to converse with them.
The inhabitants of the city Machimus are very warlike, continually armed and fighting: they subdue their neighbours, and this one city predominates over many. The inhabitants are not fewer than two hundred myriads: they die sometimes of sickness, but this happens very rarely, for most commonly they are killed in the wars by stones or wood, for they are invulnerable by steel. They have vast plenty of gold and silver, insomuch that gold is of less value with them then iron with us.
In an echo of Atlantis, this vast force once devised an expedition to the known world, "being in number a thousand myriads of men, till they came to the Hyperboreans; but understanding that they were the happiest men amongst us, they condemned us as persons that led a mean inglorious life, and therefore thought it not worth their going farther."
Theopompus' imagined land stretches far into the very depths of the west: -
[A]t the farthest end of their country there is a place named Anostus, from whence there is no return, which resembles a gulf; it is neither very light nor very dark, the air being dusky intermingled with a kind of red: that there are two rivers in this place, one of pleasure, the other of grief; and that along each river grow trees of the bigness of a plane-tree. Those which grow up by the river of grief bear fruit of this nature; if any one eat of them, he shall spend all the rest of his life in tears and grief, and so die. The other trees which grow by the river of pleasure produce fruit of a contrary nature, for who tastes thereof shall be eased from all his former desires: if he loved any thing, he shall quite forget it; and in a short time shall become younger, and live over again his former years: he shall cast off old age, and return to the prime of his strength, becoming first a young man, then a child, lastly, an infant, and so die.
Aelian's summation seems valid: "This, if any man think the Chian worthy credit, he may believe. To me he appears an egregious romancer as well in this as other things." The most common explanation of Theopompus' account is that it is a mockery of Plato's Atlantis. In both accounts we meet substantial military forces possessed of vast amounts of material wealth. Additionally, Theopompus, in all likelihood a student of Plato's great rival Isocrates, was a fierce critic of Plato, writing a polemic against him. Speusippus, writing to Philip of Macedon, paints a picture of Theopompus as a "truculent" man seeking to denigrate Plato's name & work. Speusippus emphasises Plato's formerly being well-disposed to Philip & his aims, even suggesting that the philosopher was instrumental in Philip's rise to power, and, in reminding Philip of this, wishes to stave off any jeopardy which may come to the Academy as a result of the king of Macedon having Theopompus proverbially whispering into his ear.
Nevertheless, Theopompus may also have been making a serious political & philosophical point in his tale of Meropis: Slobodan Dušanić suggests a potential conjunction in the points of view of Theopompus & Plato, meaning that both the Atlantis & Meropis myths were intended to counsel against Athenian aggression & involvement with Phocis. It is worth noting that the name Meropis, in addition to evoking Atlas' daughter Merope &, by extension, Atlantis, is also related to Meropis of Cos. Says Dušanić: -
To judge from the placing of fragments 74-75 Jac. within Theopompus' Philippica (Bk. VIII), which belongs to the events of the (mid) 350's, the whole complex of the Meropis-Atlantis parable [...] will have been constructed, or reactualized at least, as a reflection of the Social War, or the Social and Sacred Wars together. The Machimoi with their continuous ὅμορος πόλεμος were quite likely to disguise a tyrannical Athens. The geographical and palaeohistorical affinities of the mythonym Meropis (~ Cos and its hostility towards Athena's city) were such that it was easily understood as a symbol of the Social War, in which Cos, fighting on the rebels' side, had a remarkable role.
A fragment from the Astronomy also has a Merope on Theopompus' home island of Chios. She was the daughter of Oenopion and was ravaged by an inebriated Orion. Chios was another leading light in the anti-Athenian alliance during the Social War.
The account of Crantor of Soli's development of a commentary on the Timaeus, related by Proclus Lycaeus, a Neo-Platonic writer of the early Christian era, is fraught with ambiguity. It has been used to suggest that Crantor, following in the footsteps of Solon, visited Egypt, and was shown inscriptions wherein the history of Atlantis was contained. Alan Cameron, discussing the relevant material in Proclus, concludes that "the run of the passage points more naturally to Plato" as the visitor to Egypt, a journey which also appears in Diogenes Laërtius' biography of Plato [3.6-7]. It is also pertinent that Diogenes, in his biography of Crantor [4.24-27], makes no mention of a journey to Egypt, though "[h]e left memoirs extending to 30,000 lines."
Cameron adds: -
Note too that in its context this brief sentence does not at all suggest the dramatic confirmation and vindication of Plato's story that has been claimed for it in modern times. Nor is there any indication whether Crantor (if he were really the subject) obtained this Egyptian information in person, from a written source or by consulting travellers. Yet if he had indeed discovered the 'priceless document' [Atlantis researcher Otto] Muck supposed, he would surely have given (and Proclus would have repeated) some such circumstantial validating details as the modern writers quoted above [in Cameron's essay], perceiving the need, supply out of their own imagination.
That such and so great an island formerly existed is recorded by some of the historians who have treated of the concerns of the outward sea. For they say that in their times there were seven islands situated in that sea which were sacred to Persephone, and three others of an immense magnitude one of which was consecrated to Pluto, another to Ammon, and that which was between them to Poseidon; the size of this last was no less than a thousand stadia. The inhabitants of this island preserved a tradition handed down from their ancestors concerning the existence of the Atlantic island of a prodigious magnitude, which had really existed in those seas; and which, during a long period of time, governed all the islands of the Atlantic ocean. Such is the relation of Marcellus in his Ethiopian history.
This statement, which Proclus quotes from the otherwise-unknown Marcellus, is clearly referring to Atlantis. However, it dates from well after Plato and is characterised by Heinz-Günther Nesselrath as a romance. This is no independent testimony. The account may also be influenced by Pliny the Elder, who variously put the "Fortunate Isles" in the Canaries or off the Galician coast.
The Italian writer Claudius Aelianus (commonly known as Aelian), writing in the second and third centuries AD, composed a multi-volume work on the nature and characteristics of various animals. At one point [15.2], whilst furnishing a description of the θαλάττιος κριός (usually translated "ram-fish," as below, or "sea-ram"), which menaced the seas off Corsica and Sardinia, Aelian interjects the following: -
Those who live on the shores of Oceanus tell a fable of how the ancient kings of Atlantis, sprung from the seed of Poseidon, wore upon their head the bands from the male Ram-fish, as an emblem of their authority, while their wives, the queens, wore the curls of the females as a proof of theirs.
This is certainly a striking piece of information and the only surviving ancient statement about Atlantis deriving from a source other than - and independent from - Plato. But is it real? Again, Nesselrath, is unconvinced: -
Aelian's detail about the head-bands of the kings and queens of Atlantis is not really the remnant of an old and independent tradition confirming Critias' tale in Plato, but rather a nicely elaborated detail coming from a romance or novel after Plato which in some way touched on Atlantis and its pseudo-history as it had earlier been conceived by Plato.
It should also be noted that Aelian's choice of phrase, which makes mention of the ancient concept of Oceanus, is redolent of mythological writing.
Timagenes is dealt with here.
Leonard does like his Indian (as well as Egyptian) references, and is apparently versed in Sanskrit to an academic level. However, his notions are heavily reliant on the work of Francis Wilford, a Hanoverian in British service during the early part of the 19th century.
Now, it may be suspected that Crantor, if the description of his visit to Egypt is accurate, was shown what he wanted to see by Egyptian priests who wished to humour this gullible foreigner. The same can be said for Wilford and other westerners in India and Tibet during the 19th century. Such prompting from Indian notables - in particular, Wilford's "friend" Mughal Beg (who was actually a Muslim rather than a Hindu) may well have led to his conclusions about Indian literature being an accurate reflection of history and geography.
Meanwhile, Leonard develops a theory which associates Plato's Atlantis with three names from Indian literature: Atala; Šakadvipa; and Svetadvipa. These, Leonard contests, appear in sources such as the Viṣṇu Purāṇa, Bhaviṣya Purāṇa and Mahābhārata, all of which he claims predate Plato. The reality is different: while the the Mahābhārata arose from oral tradition in some form by the 9th or 8th century BC in all probability, the Viṣṇu Purāṇa likely dates from the early part of the Christian era (though may be as early as the end of Plato's life), while the earlier parts of the Bhaviṣya Purāṇa are later still.
Additionally, while Šakadvipa is used for a continent on earth (which appears to have originally referred to the lands of the Saka Scythians and early Eastern Iranians), Svetadvipa is the home of the gods and Atala a region of the netherworld. These are different places.