Slate has an article that says something I’ve been saying for years, that all those people out there searching for the lost city of Atlantis are wasting their time because there is no such place and there never was. It was written as a myth and stayed a myth for nearly 2000 years before people suddenly started believing it was a real place and started to look for it.
Before it was a pop culture phenomenon, Atlantis was a legend. It first appeared in writing as a literary device in the Plato dialogues Critias and Timaeus, both of which are among his later writings. In the text, Critias, who, depending on the classics scholar to whom you’re speaking, may or may not be a representation of the historical figure Critias the tyrant, tells of a war that took place 9,000 years before Plato’s writing, between an ancient, land-power version of Athens and Atlantis, the sea power. In Plato’s telling, Atlantis, a city dripping in riches and marked by avarice, loses to virtuous Athens. Atlantis was subsequently destroyed by a nasty combination of an earthquake and a flood. At the time of writing, Athens was transforming from the birthplace of democracy into the invader of Sicily and the wager of war. Clearly, there was some sort of message to Athens in all of this, but classics scholars dispute what that message was: To some, it was a warning to democracies not to become overly concerned with military expansion; to others, a lament of the democratization that accompanies building a navy; and to still others, an Athenian origin story.
But the Plato story is only the beginning of the Atlantis we now know. Professor emeritus Alan Cameron of Columbia University says that the belief that Atlantis was a place that ever actually existed, as opposed to a literary device, came about around 1492. Whatever was in the air during the age of exploration—the idea that the world was filled with limitless and rich possibilities, there to be discovered by those who dared to look—transformed Atlantis from a Plato myth into a destination for discoverers.
There doesn’t seem to have been any one prominent explorer, writer, or scientist championing Atlantis in the 15th century, but, according to writings and recorded conversations from that period, this was the time in which it was reborn in popular consciousness. This was the age, Cameron says, when people really became aware that the world was “enormously larger than they’d ever imagined” and when some began to suppose that Atlantis could be a real place, after all.
My favorite is the guy who declared that Atlantis was in Bolivia in the Andes mountains, a place that Plato could not possibly have known about. The Discovery Channel turned that into a show because, well, that’s what they do on that crap channel. It ranks up there with all that Chariots of the Gods nonsense.