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Atlantis or Bust

Voyage to Atlantis

by James W. Mavor Jr.
Putnam’s, 320 pp., $6.95

Plato interrupted the flow of several of his dialogues to tell a myth, the purpose of which was to convey in an imaginative or symbolic way a truth not (or less) accessible to his usual dialectical method of demonstration. They were eschatological or more general religious truths, with one striking exception: the myth of Atlantis, told near the opening of the Timaeus and again, with much fuller detail, in the Critias, a fragment of a dialogue that breaks off in the middle of the myth.

The story is given to Critias, an Athenian political figure in the Socratic circle. He heard it when he was ten years old from his ninety-year-old grandfather, who had it from his father, a friend of Solon’s. The bald outline goes like this (omitting all the social, political, and metaphysical aspects which give the myth its point in the dialogues). When Solon was in Egypt the priests of Saïs told him they had records indicating that 9000 years earlier Athens was the most powerful and best governed state of all. There was then an island called Atlantis, outside the Pillars of Heracles (Straits of Gibraltar), larger than Libya and western Asia combined, under a king so powerful that he controlled Africa to the borders of Egypt and Europe to the Tyrrhenian Sea. He sought to enslave Greece and Egypt, too, and the Athenians led the defense. When the other Greeks deserted the alliance, Athens fought on alone, defeated the Atlantids, and liberated all Europe and Africa. Then one day earthquakes and floods swallowed Atlantis and all the Athenian warriors.

The ancients were quite clear that, despite Homeric and Herodotean echoes in certain details, none of them related to the central narrative, the Atlantis myth was altogether a Platonic invention. It was left to the modern world to treat it as garbled history. A seventeenth-century Swede wrote three volumes to prove that Atlantis was actually located in Scandinavia. Others preferred America, or Heligoland, or a place in Siberia or the Sahara. Pathetic and harmless displays of erudition, they merely added their bit to the story of human gullibility. But now, remarkably, a few scientists and archaeologists have introduced a radically new twist, creating a headline-catching sensation. How they have achieved this mystifies me, but I can record the sequence of events, which began with a discovery about the small Aegean island of Santorini (ancient Thera) that has no apparent connections with Atlantis at all.

Santorini has a long record of volcanic activity. In the nineteenth century two French geologists demonstrated that, together with nearby Therasia and Aspronisi, Santorini is a surviving fragment of a larger complex that blew up and disappeared at some time in the past. (A fourth island, Kamenis, came into existence as the result of volcanic action in 197 B.C.) That explains a phenomenon familiar to all tourists in the Aegean, namely that the sea is too deep here for ships to anchor. Small boats have to be tied to the face of the sheer rock at Santorini, and one then climbs a long narrow stairway (or takes a donkey) to the inhabited plateau at the top.

Underwater investigations in the past two decades have brought the full story to light. The lost volcanic island, named “Stronghyli” by geologists, was of the same type as Krakatoa, which exploded in the straits dividing Java and Sumatra. Normal eruptions sent up great quantities of volcanic ash and pumice (but not lava), which were carried to considerable distances by high-altitude winds. When Krakatoa blew up in 1883, the complex effects included violent wave movements (tsunami) that within minutes engulfed coastal cities to a distance of more than 100 miles, drowning some 35,000 people and creating all sorts of damage. The crater left in the sea-bed was 23 square kilometers in area.

The Stronghyli crater turns out to be three and a half times that size, suggesting an explosive force of comparably greater magnitude. The ash deposit on Santorini itself was as much as thirty meters in thickness; great quantities were blown, chiefly in a southeasterly direction, beyond Crete, but on the evidence of the deposits in deep-sea cores, not as far as Palestine or northern Africa, at least not to a thickness exceeding one millimeter. The engulfing waves, on the other hand, presumably hit not only the northern and eastern coasts of Crete but also the Asiatic and African mainlands, within twenty to thirty minutes for the former, perhaps three hours for the latter.

One of the chief contributors to this recently acquired knowledge is a Greek seismologist, A.G. Galanopoulos. And he is the chief (if not the onlie) begetter of the new mythology which is my present concern. One result of the blow-up, he argues, was the destruction of the Minoan civilization of Crete (best known from the palace of Cnossus). Another was the series of Biblical plagues that forced the Pharaoh to allow the exodus of the Hebrews, as well as the opening of the Red Sea for the crossing on foot. Nor is that all. Here, says Galanopoulos, is the historical kernel of the Atlantis story, not a myth, let alone a Platonic invention, but a folk memory of an event of such shattering impact as to be unforgettable.

In view of the confused picture created through press conferences and publicity handouts, it is essential to distinguish three separate problems. One is a straightforward scientific one: What happened at Santorini? On that question serious scientific study has produced answers which I cannot evaluate, but which those qualified accept as sound. The second problem is that of the effects beyond the immediate area of the catastrophe, and that is not one for seismologists but for archaeologists and historians.

The objections to the Galanopoulos account are, in my judgment, unanswerable. I put aside for the moment the plagues in Egypt: it is really too painful to repeat the “explanations” of the frogs, locusts, pestilence, death of the first-born, and opening of the Red Sea. As for Crete, the word “destruction” needs more careful qualification. There was considerable physical devastation, especially by fire. However, hardly any inhabited center went out of existence, and many off the coast have produced no evidence of serious damage. But the aftermath was one of a substantial and permanent drop in material prosperity; of the permanent disappearance of the power structure that lay behind such great complexes as the one at Cnossus; and of a new relationship between Crete and the Greek mainland.

I shall return to this matter briefly at the end. For the present I note that Krakatoa did not destroy Java or Sumatra. Agriculture was not seriously hindered by thin ash deposits; recovery in such situations is rapid, except at the explosive center with its thirty-meter deposits.

The whole discussion would become more realistic if we could pinpoint the date of the blow-up. Carbon-14 dates from the deep-sea pockets are so wildly in disagreement as to imply contamination and therefore to be worthless. Samples of a piece of carbonized wood buried under the ash of Santorini gave two carbon-14 dates: 1100 ± 150 B.C. before the humic acid was removed, 1422 ± 100 B.C. after treatment. There is reason to prefer the latter date (the earlier one). Now a date plus-or-minus one hundred years may be good enough for geologists (the probability claimed is 68 percent even with the allowance), but it is not much use to the historian. Nor is there a way to narrow the range of possibility by scientific procedures so far discovered. The only control comes from archaeology, and the evidence of pottery styles suggests (no stronger verb is warranted) that the actual date was nearer 1500 than 1450-1400. If so, the eruption was too early for the destructive activity that took place in Crete. Galanopoulos insists on 1450-1400 and makes a series of speculations about earlier volcanic and seismic activity and about their duration prior to the final blow-up—a desperate attempt to save the phenomena. Any of these Stronghyli dates, furthermore, requires a date for the Exodus, on his account 200 or more years earlier than the most probable one.

All this tinkering with the evidence is nothing compared to the sleight of hand by which Atlantis is dragged from Platonic myth to history, from the Atlantic Ocean to a small island in the Aegean. 1450 B.C is about 900 years, not 9000, before the time of Solon. Very easy, says Galanopoulos: either Solon or his Egyptian informants misread the hieroglyphic numerals by a multiple of ten (and so, too, with the other large numbers in the Platonic tale). The Pillars of Heracles are not the Straits of Gibraltar but the two promontories at the southern end of the Greek peninsula. Never mind that for every Greek the Pillars of Heracles meant Gibraltar and nothing else, or that Galanopoulos cannot adduce a single text for his alternative.

The Atlantid social system described by Plato is, it is alleged, that of Minoan Crete—which it isn’t by any possible twisting and stretching. It is a mélange of the system in Plato’s Republic and of a complicated counterpoint between the realities of the Athens of Plato’s day and their mirror image. Besides, it wasn’t Crete that blew up but Stronghyli, but that is only a tiny confusion compared with the others.

As for the Athenian warriors who were swallowed up along with Atlantis, we needn’t worry about that bit of embroidery. Nor about the archaeological evidence, supported by the Athenian tradition, that Athens was far from a major power, let alone the preeminent one, in the Bronze Age. The insignificant role of Athens in the Homeric poems became an embarrassment to the Athenians when they finally did become a great power. The third problem, in sum, is a non-problem, a happening.

If I have gone this far without mentioning the book I am supposed to be reviewing, that expresses my evaluation of it. James W. Mavor is an oceanographic engineer who recently became involved in the Santorini inquiry because of his skill with the type of ship required for deep-sea research. I do not discuss his contribution on that score. Otherwise, much of the book is chit-chat reminiscent of parish magazines, for example, when he tells of the great honor he received by being invited to a “prestigious” dinner. “Even Colonel George Papadopoulos was there.” It is impossible to follow the archaeological reporting, so interlarded is it with pap.

Coherent organization of his material is anyway not his strong point. Nor is accuracy. He calls Plato’s myth “the only authoritative picture we have of Atlantis,” and elsewhere he writes that Plato received the information “through Solon and others.” Both statements are false: Plato’s account is the sole source of all later references to Atlantis, and Plato said very explicitly that it all came from Critias (or from Socrates who got it from Critias).

The first question for anyone to ask himself, if he is embarking on a rescue operation of these proportions, is this: How is it that Solon, having learned the sensational story in Egypt, refrained from telling it to anyone other than Critias’s great-grandfather, who in turn repeated it only to his son, and so on? Not before Plato wrote the Timaeus did the story leak into print. Mavor fails to put the question openly or to deal with it seriously; he merely plays with it in odd and inaccurate remarks. After quoting a passage in the Critias in which Critias is made to say that Solon “was intending” to use the tale for a poem, Mavor comments: “So there was a Greek written version which Plato may have seen. If Solon wrote the poem he intended to, then perhaps Plato saw that.” What Mavor neglects to report is that in the Timaeus Plato took pains to indicate that Solon never wrote such a poem. First Critias expresses regret that Solon was sidetracked by his involvement in social problems. Later he says that he was so astonished at the parallel between Atlantid and Platonic society that he suspected a lapse of memory on his part; only after rehearsing the tale to himself was he satisfied that his memory was sound and that the story could be told.

The critical question of the date is skated over. In the text Mavor reports that examination of the deep-sea cores during a Swedish expedition in 1948 and during others in 1956-58 by the Lamont Geological Observatory of Columbia University produced a number of radiocarbon dates. We have seen the difficulties (the evidence I presented came from the Lamont report), but in his text Mavor neither gives the actual figures nor mentions the weaknesses. He merely asserts: “So, between 1450 and 1400 B.C. the greatest part of the island of Thera collapsed.” Details are reserved for an appendix, neither clear nor rigorous enough, which contains a nasty misprint (1522 rather than 1422 for the preferred carbon-14 date) and which marks no advance on Galanopoulos’s series of maneuvers. A few pages later in the text, when Mavor gets to the plagues, he throws in the Philistines for good measure, “We may speculate that they were refugees dislodged by the Thera catastrophe who had fled Crete and settled in Palestine in time to experience the flooding from the north.” We may not: documentation from Egypt and archaeology together have fixed the arrival of the Philistines in Palestine to 1200 B.C. or a little later. (I leave it to Mavor to work out how they reached Palestine from Crete in the two and a half hours that elapsed, according to the Lamont calculations, between the flooding of Crete and the flooding of Palestine.)

There is little point in multiplying examples, though I cannot resist noting that whoever saw the book through the press not only knows no Greek but is unsure about the Greek alphabet, so that the few Greek titles listed in the curious bibliography are persistently misspelled, and in one case two words are joined, the first printed upside down, the second right side up. Nor can I resist quoting Mavor’s escape from the difficulty that the slaughter could hardly have been restricted to first-born Egyptian males. “The statement that the Israelites were saved could mean that an infectious disease spread through the Egyptian population but did not reach the Israelites because they were a separate community by this time. Mention of firstborn, rather than children in general, could also be explained by the special consideration given them by the Israelites, the Canaanites, the Egyptians, and the Libyans.” No adults?

When Plato moved Atlantis out beyond Gibraltar “simply because it would not fit anywhere…he was evidently not bothered by the logic in placing Atlantis so far from Athens.” That men capable of the nonsense I have exemplified read Plato as a lesson in logic raises two serious questions, contemporary questions having nothing to do with Thera or Atlantis. What is it that prompts scientists capable of precise and rigorous work in their own disciplines to career about in other fields of inquiry where they lack the knowledge, the tools of analysis, or even common sense? That is my first question, to which I offer no answer.

The second requires a preamble. Krakatoa destroyed no civilization. History is filled with violent destructions by flood, earthquake, and volcanic action, which often left behind many more dead than any number one can reasonably put to the Stronghyli victims. Yet life resumes, without significant social changes. One need not go afield for proof. Many parts of Crete were severely damaged by earthquake about 1700 B.C., but the catastrophe was followed not only by immediate rebuilding but also by further growth and expanded settlement. The Galanopoulos-Mavor doctrine makes an exception of 1450-1400 Crete without bothering to explain why there should have been an exception, and in the process it stimulates, at least subconsciously, the notion of human irresponsibility.

For if Stronghyli brought about the complete breakdown of Minoan civilization, then all the painful efforts of nearly a century to seek historical explanations, that is to say explanations according to human behavior, wars, revolutions and the rest, have been an unnecessary exercise. Galanopoulos and Mavor have a few distinguished allies, men and women who possess the professional skill they lack in archaeology. Do they not realize the implications? Early in his book Mavor modestly writes: “But, in addition to learning of these discoveries, the reader will be introduced to something just as intriguing—a new way of looking at history.” The publisher, with equal modesty, brackets Voyage to Atlantis with The Double Helix. This is truly a transvaluation of values, if Nietzsche’s shade will pardon the caricature.


Back to Atlantis Again December 4, 1969

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