Why the search for the sunken ancient civilization still interests us
For thousands of years, myths about the world beneath the ocean waves have influenced fields from mythology to philosophy. Characters like the Kraken Monster (1) in Scandinavian folklore, believed to have engulfed a whole ship of men in the deep sea, and the Philippine Bakunawa (2), thought to cause eclipses and earthquakes, have shaped the world and our traditions as we know them. Among the most famous is the legend of Atlantis, a utopian empire overtaken by massive earthquakes and submerged underwater.
In recent decades, the story of Atlantis has captivated audiences and become a staple of pop culture, appearing in movies such as “Atlantis: The Lost Continent” (1961), Disney’s two-movie series “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” (2001), and even “Aquaman” (2018). Yet, the origin of the legend is much older; Atlantis was first mentioned in 360 BC by Plato, a Greek philosopher, and thinker, in his dialogues “Timaeus” and “Critias.” (3) And even before then, the existence of Atlantis was speculated.
According to Plato, Atlantis was a thriving civilization whose founders were half-god and half-human. With lush forests, exotic wildlife, silver, and gold, Plato described Atlantis as an arrangement of concentric islands located near the Pillars of Hercules. (3) In the modern day, this would fall around the eastern ends of the Strait of Gibraltar, a body of water between Spain and Africa that connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea. How did this mythical beautiful island meet its demise? Plato believed that the people of Atlantis––known for their naval power and expansion––grew greedy, and incurred the punishment of the gods: a dreadful earthquake and flood that destroyed the islands. Plato believed that Atlantis existed 9000 years before his time, meaning more than 10,000 years from today; however, this story had already been passed down to him through priests, family members, and poets to reach Plato.
Regardless of its enthralling history and the fact that many prehistoric civilizations have been destroyed by natural disasters, according to National Geographic, “few, if any, scientists think Atlantis actually existed.” (4) Because of a lack of factual information such as the location, and its traditions, even if we were to find a submerged civilization, historians would not be able to confidently say that it was Atlantis rather than any other ancient civilization.
Thousands of years later, new technology, such as Sperre Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) technology, can “explore the ocean without being in it.” ROVs are usually equipped with cameras, flashlights, and even robotic arms, and can be used in tasks that range from collecting water samples to manipulating the ocean floor. In the case of the National Geographics excursion in search of Atlantis, scientists used Sperre ROVs to scan the ocean floor to develop a 3D image of the ground in search of any building that could be related to Atlantis. (6) Yet despite extensive research, not enough evidence has been found to prove its existence.
So if the history behind this legendary city has little basis in fact, why has it been passed down for thousands of years, and why does it still remain one of the most speculated ocean myths in the world? There are two main explanations:
The first is that however superficial, the idea of a utopian land located in a symmetrical group of islands sounds attractive. Like fantasy novel plots, allegories and myths often spread because they provide an escape from the laws of reality.
The second reason, though, might be one that contributes to the development of myths and legends in the first place: their message. In order to group their plots and themes, according to the World History Encyclopedia, myths are divided into three major types: Etiological Myths, or origin stories, Historical Myths, which tell the story of a potentially unrealistic event and “elevate it with greater meaning,” and Psychological Myths, which reveal a balance of external factors and internal development during a journey or hardship. (7) Allegories, on the other hand, are thought to be fictitious stories meant to express a larger meaning.
Though experts debate whether Atlantis is a myth or allegory, it is clear that its history is charged with messages about the consequences of wealth, corruption, greed, and violence. Because Plato’s telling is similar to the utopia portrayed in his book, “The Republic,” many speculate that Atlantis is an embodiment of his utopia (8) and the events that lead to its destruction are simply a commentary on human nature and extension of his philosophical beliefs. Moreover, some historians speculate this allegory was inspired by the militaristic invasion of Sicily by democratic Athens in around 415 BC. (9) The messages extracted from Atlantis have inspired writers such as Francis Bacon’s “The New Atlantis”, and Thomas More’s “Utopia” whose works have influenced Renaissance socio-political ideals and discussions around what an ideal society should be.
To this day, the story of Atlantis carries many mysteries that historians, philosophers, scientists, and archeologists have not been able to answer. And thousands of more stories, which revolve around the unknowns of the sea, have been passed on across cultures and time periods. However, one thing is for certain: myths like Atlantis that challenge our understanding of human nature and history will continue to persist.
- Simon, M. (2014, September 10). Fantastically wrong: The legend of the Kraken, a monster that hunts with its own poop. Wired. Retrieved October 3, 2021, from https://www.wired.com/2014/09/fantastically-wrong-legend-of-the-kraken/.
- Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, September 21). Bakunawa. Wikipedia. Retrieved October 3, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bakunawa.
- History.com Editors. (2010, October 7). Atlantis. History.com. Retrieved October 3, 2021, from https://www.history.com/topics/folklore/atlantis.
- Drye, W. (2021, May 4). Explaining the legend of Atlantis. History. Retrieved October 3, 2021, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/atlantis?loggedin=true.
- These four natural disasters wiped out entire cities and civilizations. HistoryCollection.com. (2017, July 8). Retrieved October 3, 2021, from https://historycollection.com/four-natural-disasters-wiped-entire-cities-civilizations/.
- YouTube. (2020). YouTube. Retrieved October 3, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ErPsyBUCijM&t=259s.
- Mark, J. J. (2021, October 1). Mythology. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved October 3, 2021, from https://www.worldhistory.org/mythology/.
- Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, September 20). Atlantis. Wikipedia. Retrieved October 3, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantis#cite_note-5.