Atlantis The Truth Behind the Legend
Lost Atlantis New Light on an Old Legend
In The New York Review of Books for May 22, 1969, I took the opportunity, in reviewing Voyage to Atlantis by James W. Mavor Jr., to discuss at length (and dismiss) current efforts to historicize Plato’s myth of Atlantis. That old game has been revived with the recent discovery that the Aegean island of Santorini (ancient Thera) is a mere fragment which survived one of the greatest volcanic eruptions of all time, in about 1500 B.C. The explosion, the Atlanticists argue, was “remembered” in a mixed-up way, until Plato brought it back to consciousness in his myth.
Of the two books which have since appeared on the subject, the one by A. G. Galanopoulos, the seismologist who is the chief creator of the new Atlantis myth, and Edward Bacon, archaeological editor of the Illustrated London News, introduces some coherence to the story as presented by Mavor, but adds nothing else requiring comment (except for some marvelous photographs, not always relevant). J. V. Luce, on the other hand, is a competent and cautious classical scholar. Although I find his arguments and conclusions no more acceptable, I can recommend his book to anyone interested in the methods by which a Platonic myth is converted into a garbled historical reminiscence.
To examine either book properly would require repetition of most of what I wrote in my earlier review, to which I therefore refer. Here I will just elaborate a bit on two points. The first is that there was no written documentation available to Plato. Not even Luce himself is convinced by his weak attempt to suggest that there may have been. We must accept the fact that the Santorini eruption, a tremendous natural catastrophe occurring in a civilized society, failed to leave any mark on the rich legends and traditions of the Greek Bronze Age. That doesn’t bother me in the least, but scholars who persistently call upon “folk memory” in their search for a historical kernel beneath, say, Noah’s flood, might ponder Santorini carefully.
Second, Plato leaves no doubt that his interest in “Atlantis” centers on the social system he plants on the island. Modern Atlanticists therefore have to correlate that system with what we know (and often pretend to know) about a “society” of “Minoan” Crete, the Crete of the great palaces. The result is ludicrous, as the Galanopoulos-Bacon pages on the subject show. What they dare not do is draw the meaningful comparison, with Plato’s Athens and Plato’s critique of Athens in the Republic, for that at once disposes of too much of the “memory.”1
Santorini, one must immediately add, raises genuine and important problems, unrelated to the Atlantis nonsense. One is that of the impact on neighboring regions, particularly Crete and Egypt. The eruption occurred during the final period of the palace-age of Crete, which came to an end during the fifteenth century B.C. amid much physical destruction, abundantly evident in the archaeological record. Historians have made slow progress during the past half century in trying…
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