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Scientific American

The Myth Is The Message

published October 2004 | Comments Off
Yet another discovery of the lost continent of Atlantis shows why science and myth make uneasy bedfellows
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Myths are stories that express meaning, morality or motivation. Whether they are true or not is irrelevant. But because we live in an age of science, we have a preoccupation with corroborating our myths.

Consider the so-called Lost Continent of Atlantis, a mythic place that has been “found” in so many places around the planet that one wouldn’t think there was anywhere left to look. Think again. On June 6 the BBC released a story about satellite images locating Atlantis in, of all places, the south of Spain. The story quoted Rainer Kuhne of the University of Dortmund in Germany as saying, “Plato wrote of an island of five stades (925 m) diameter that was surrounded by several circular structures — concentric rings — some consisting of Earth and the others of water. We have in the photos concentric rings just as Plato described.”

Kuhne reported his findings in the online edition of the journal Antiquity, claiming to have identified two rectangular structures surrounded by concentric rings near the city of Cádiz, Spain. He suggests that the structures match the description in Plato’s dialogue Critias of the silver and golden temples devoted to the Greek god Poseidon and his mortal lover Cleito and that the high mountains of Atlantis are actually those of the Sierra Morena and Sierra Nevada. “Plato also wrote that Atlantis is rich in copper and other metals,” he adds. “Copper is found in abundance in the mines of the Sierra Morena.”

Atlantis also has been “found” in the Mediterranean, the Canaries, the Azores, the Caribbean, Tunisia, West Africa, Sweden, Iceland and even South America. But what if there is nothing to find? What if Plato made up the story for mythic purposes? He did. Atlantis is a tale about what happens to a civilization when it becomes combative and corrupt. Plato’s purpose was to warn his fellow Athenians to pull back from the precipice created by war and wealth.

In a second Plato dialogue, Timaeus, Critias explains that Egyptian priests told the Greek wise man Solon that his ancestors once defeated a mighty empire located just beyond the “Pillars of Hercules” (usually identified by Atlantologists as the Strait of Gibraltar), after which “there were violent earthquakes and in a single day and night all sank into the earth and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared into the depths of the sea.” Critias describes the city as a series of circular canals lined with colorful palaces adorned in gold. Poseidon resided in a silver temple with an ivory roof, and a racecourse was built between the canals. Atlantean wealth afforded a military industrial complex of 10,000 chariots, 24,000 ships, 60,000 officers, 120,000 hoplites, 240,000 cavalry, and 600,000 archers and javelin throwers. (Your myth-detection alarm should be going off about now.) Corrupted by excessive belligerence and avarice, Zeus called forth the other gods to his home, “and when he had gathered them there he said…” The sentence ends there. Plato had made his point.

The fodder for Plato’s imagination came from his experiences growing up at the terminus of Greece’s golden age, brought about, in part, by the costly wars against the Spartans and Carthaginians. He visited cities such as Syracuse, which featured numerous Atlantean-like temples, and Carthage, whose circular harbor was controlled from a central island. Earthquakes were common: when he was 55, one leveled the city of Helice, only 40 miles from Athens, and, most tellingly, the year before he was born an earthquake flattened a military outpost on the small island of Atalantë.

Plato wove historical fact into literary myth. As he wrote of his parables: “We may liken the false to the true for the purpose of moral instruction.” The myth is the message.

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