Many explorers, like Captain Nemo at Jules Verne, wanted to set sail for Atlantis, a city that a tidal wave would have engulfed in the depths of the Atlantic about 9,000 years before our era.
Plato tells the story of Atlantis
It is in two of his last dialogues, composed in the fourth century BCE, that Plato tells this story “nine thousand years old”. The account of Atlantis was transmitted orally by an old Egyptian priest to the famous Athenian legislator Solon around 590 BC. Back in Athens, Solon is said to have reported it to Critias, a pupil of Socrates and Plato’s maternal uncle.
It is therefore in the Critias, a dialogue he maintains with Socrates, that Plato tells the myth of Atlantis, ending it in the middle of an unfinished sentence:
To this end, he brings together all the gods, in their noblest abode, which is at the center of the universe and which has a view of all that participates in the future. And, having gathered them, he said…
The suspense is sustainable because Plato has already summarized the story of Atlantis in the Timaeus – one of the last dialogues of the philosopher – and told its sudden and tragic end: “In the space of a single day and a terrible night, all that you had of gathered fighters was swallowed up in the earth, and the island Atlantis likewise was engulfed in the sea and disappeared.”
The mythical island, which would be the size of a continent and would be located in the Atlantic Ocean, at the limit of the universe known by the Greeks, would have been attributed to the god of the sea Poseidon during the division of the world. The Atlanteans, who ruled the island, attempted to dominate the waters of the Mediterranean before being repulsed by Athens.
Zeus’ anger provokes a tidal wave
Around 9,600 BCE, the island was the victim of terrible cataclysms: “There were extraordinary earthquakes and floods, and in the space of a single harmful day and night, all that you had of fighters was swallowed up in one fell swoop in the earth, and the island Atlantis having been damaged in the sea disappeared likewise. This is why, even today, this sea is impassable and unexplorable, navigation being hampered by the muddy shallows that the island has formed by sagging, “says Plato in the Timaeus.
This natural disaster is actually the work of Zeus. If the god of the gods entered into such anger, it was to punish the inhabitants of Atlantis after understanding “how much depravity an excellent race had come from it”. He, therefore, wanted to “apply a punishment to them in order to make them think and bring them back to more moderation.” How to explain that the exceptional civilization of the Atlanteans fell “into impravenness”? Well, it is because they descend from a god, Poseidon, and a mortal, Clito, and the human element has taken over their character, making them greedy, corruptible, and materialistic.
The city of Atlantis: myth or reality?
Plato presents his account as “a true story” by lending Socrates, in the Timaeus, the following words: “That it is not a fabricated fiction but a true story, this is essential”. And this is enough to open the doors of all imaginations.
While many Hellenists and archaeology scholars agree that Plato’s account is a political allegory whose purpose is to demonstrate the triumph of democracy over a despotic system, nothing prevents some dreamers from seeking the location of the sunken city.
The Greek word used by Plato, “nesos” can be translated in five different ways: an island, a promontory, a peninsula, a coast, and land surrounded by lakes or rivers. The columns of Hercules correspond to the current Strait of Gibraltar but Atlantis was imagined everywhere: in the Canary Islands, Madeira, Santorini, the Bahamas, or the Azores. The explorer Percy Fawcett thought he had found it in the heart of the Amazon in a place called “Point Z”, while the novelist Pierre Benoit placed it in the middle of the Sahara desert.
A mythical city invented in order to serve a political ideology, Atlantis served as a model for Utopia (1516), a work in which the English humanist Thomas More imagines an island where the happiness of the inhabitants is guaranteed by social justice.