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Not seen in the Aquaman trailer — the real roots of the Atlantis legend

Where did this wild idea come from?

The deep, dark waters of the ocean have long called to humans with their intrigue and mystery.  Our ancestors learned they could cast nets into the depths for great bounties of fish and other resources, but how deep its waters ran and what lay beneath them even today is only partially known.  As a legacy of our ancestor’s fascination with the ocean, we still retell stories of mysteries from the deep.

One such mystery will at last appear on the silver screen this December with the premier of DC’s Aquaman, set in the legendary sunken city of Atlantis.  If you haven’t seen the trailer yet, all you need to know is Atlantean Warriors riding shark steeds!

Beyond this blockbuster, Atlantis has further risen in the comic book world with the recent release of Zack Kaplan’s Lost City Explorers, which has also been optioned by Universal to produce for television.  As such, its safe to say, comic book enthusiasts have a lot of Atlantis in their future.

But the question I’d like to explore is whether Atlantis was ever a real place.  A 2017 poll by Chapman University found that 55% of Americans think Atlantis (or something like it) once existed.  This number astounds me — when was the last time 55% of Americans agreed on anything? More frustrating is the fact that, as an archaeologist, I’m convinced Atlantis sadly never was a real place.  Why, then, do so many people think it was real?

The story of Atlantis comes to us from the writings of the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato. In two of his dialogues, Timaeus and Critias, Plato relates the story of a mighty Greek city-state and its battle against Athens, then a feeble, small town (which just so happened to be Plato’s hometown and was no longer quite so small and feeble).  Despite the great disparity in power, Athens won the day on the battlefield because, as Plato tells us, the people of Atlantis had grown prideful and failed to properly worship the gods.

This story has all the markings of a parable, a tale meant to impart a moral lesson and not a true history.  Honor the gods and things will go well for you, but become prideful and the gods will sink your whole damn continent under the ocean.  To add to this, Plato begins his tale by telling us this all took place “9,000 years ago” and “beyond the pillars of Hercules.” In other words “a long time ago, in a place far, far, away!”  Plato very clearly never meant for us to take his writings literally.

And in fact, Plato’s Atlantis was not all that popular in the Classical world, and was largely forgotten as the West moved into the Middle Ages.  With the discovery of America, some scholars of the day trotted Atlantis back out in an attempt to connect the newfound continents with Western history, but again the story sank into obscurity.

It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that Atlantis started to take a firm grasp on the Western imagination, due in large part to the publication of Atlantis: The Antediluvian World by Minnesota Congressman Ignatius Donnelly.  Donnelly attempted to make an archaeological argument to prove that Atlantis had been a real place, suggesting there were so many similarities between the material culture of ancient Egypt and the ancient Maya that they must both have originated from a root culture — Plato’s Atlantis.

Reviewing Donnelly’s list of similarities today is a humorous enterprise.  It includes things like “agriculture,” since clearly two different civilizations couldn’t have figured that one out on their own! Overall, these alleged similarities are extremely weak, or are no longer viable now that we know more about these two ancient cultures. For example, we can now say that the Egyptian pyramids that Donnelley compared to Maya pyramids were not only built and used in different ways, they were also separated by almost 3,000 years of history. Nevertheless, Donnelley’s comparison captured the fascination of his readers and the modern Atlantis craze was born.

In the subsequent decades, Plato’s Atlantis not only grew more popular, but it began to transform into something new.  Esoteric spiritual authors like Helena Blavatsky and Edgar Cayce added new layers of description onto this legendary place that transformed it from an impressive Greek city-state into a source of profound ancient wisdom and technology, including things like crystal energy sources and flying vehicles.  To be clear, none of these details are in Plato’s dialogues.

The writings of these esoteric authors became some of the primary source material for early pulp fiction, and then comic books after that. These stories present a fabulous, lost golden age of human history, a sign of our potential as a species, and a note of inspiration for those confounded by the times in which they live.  The notion that things used to be better sells. Specifically it will sell for $10.50 at a matinee this December.

Now if only the shark steeds had crystal lasers attached to their heads.

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