Atlantis is not a myth. And I don’t mean it’s real, either. Atlantis is something neither mythic nor real: it’s fiction.
Atlantis is an old Greek story, but not all old stories are myths. Myths are stories passed down and retold over time as part of a culture’s collective tradition. They have no identifiable author and no original, canonical form. Every version of a mythic story is a retelling of something older and usually already familiar to its audience. The stories of the Trojan War, for example, are myths. They were part of the common oral tradition of ancient Greece, reimagined in particular versions by the Homeric poets, Athenian dramatists, the Roman poet Virgil, and countless other storytellers and artists in the ancient Mediterranean and beyond. Every version of the story represents just one person’s imagination playing with existing ideas, characters, and motifs.
Modern attempts to find some truth behind the story of Atlantis often approach it as if it were a myth, something from deep in Greek history with an unrecovered truth behind it. It isn’t. There is no myth of Atlantis, no long tradition of reinterpreting a shared narrative like the tradition of the Trojan War. Stories about Atlantis appear in only two ancient texts, Timaeus and Critias, both written by Plato.
Plato was a philosopher who liked to create thought experiments and fictional stories to illustrate his ideas. He told a story about people chained up in a cave watching shadows on a wall to describe minds unenlightened by philosophy. He imagined a magic ring that made its wearer invisible as a way of talking about how people behave when they have the power to do what they want without fear of consequences. He made an analogy between the human soul and a charioteer trying to manage unruly horses. None of these stories were myths; they were invented to get philosophical ideas across. There was no deep oral tradition about people trapped in a cave. Plato just made it up.
Atlantis is the same. Plato made up a story about an ancient rival to Athens as a vehicle for philosophical discussions about law, society, and human nature. There is no deeper history behind Atlantis. No writer or artist before Plato had ever depicted the city; no one after him told any stories about it either. Some later authors discussed Plato’s Atlantis story and its meaning, but no one in antiquity independently told their own story of Atlantis the way that Greek poets and playwrights created their own versions of the Trojan War. Folks today looking for some historical reality behind Atlantis are missing the point just as much as if they were to go looking for an actual cave with people chained up watching shadows.
Now, this does not mean that Plato’s imaginary city has no connection to the real world. When people make up fictional stories, they often draw on actual things they know about. When Tolkien invented Middle Earth, he based the Shire on his childhood memories of the English countryside, the Dead Marshes on the horrific battlefields of the Great War, and the Riders of Rohan on his knowledge of early English history and legend. Elements of the real world found their way into Tolkien’s imaginary world, but these do not make Middle Earth real. You could go out and explore English villages and country pubs, even the very same ones that Tolkien knew from his youth, but that doesn’t mean you’ve found the Shire.
The same is true of Plato’s Atlantis. When Plato was imagining his fictional city, he probably drew on details of the world and history that he knew. Plato described Atlantis as the home of a powerful empire based in a circular city with concentric rings of land and sea that was ultimately destroyed by earthquakes. The idea of a powerful empire was not much of a reach for an Athenian; in the century before Plato, Athens had fought against the expansion of the Persian Empire before becoming an imperialist power itself. The idea of a city with a circular plan suited Plato’s philosophical allegory, but it might also have been suggested by real-world settlements he had seen or heard about (possibly translated through the imagination of other Greeks, such as Herodotus’ rather fantastical description of the city of Ecbatana). The idea of concentric harbors may have been suggested by the island of Thera (modern Santorini), which has a core island nearly surrounded by outer islands. The Greek world in Plato’s day had plenty of experience with earthquakes, landslides, and coastal floods from which he could imagine a land sinking beneath the water. Given Greek trade connections with the eastern Mediterranean, he may well have also heard flood myths from the Levant or Mesopotamia that he drew on for his tale of destruction. While Plato’s fictional Atlantis may have drawn on some preexisting real or mythic features for its details, that does not mean there is any more substance to the story. Thera is not the “real” Atlantis any more than a house with a green door is the “real” Bag End. We can’t use the Atlantis story to learn anything about actual history any more than we can learn the history of England from Tolkien.
Our desire to find a truth behind a myth can lead us to dismiss the intelligence and creativity of people in the past. Ancient people were just as complicated and imaginative as we are. Every story we tell does not have some shadowy reality behind it; sometimes we just make stuff up. So did they. In the case of Atlantis, we’re not even dealing with a mythic tradition handed down from previous generations. It’s fiction. Plato just made it up. There is no reality to find behind the story. There isn’t even a myth behind it.
Image: Fictive map of Atlantis from Mundus Subterraneus via Wikimedia (1664; engraving; by Athanasius Kircher)
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