Thursday, 13 November 2014

Atlantis - Part One: Plato's Lost City

The legend of Atlantis has gripped the imagination of humanity since the time of the ancients.  It has sparked many debates amongst historians and scholars and has inspired endless searches to either prove of disprove the fact behind the legend.  Here we will look at the Plato's story of Atlantis and it's age.

The legend of Atlantis in its known form originates from two writings of Plato - Timaeus and Critias, written in around 360 BC.  Here I will tell you the story of Atlantis, using quotes from these two documents.  For full excepts from Timaeus and Critias follow the links.

The legend of Atlantis, which Solon learns from an Egyptian priest during a visit to the land of the Nile, starts with a description of how the island was created by the gods, who divided the earth between them, each taking a piece to rule.  Poseidon was given rule of Atlantis, which he found to have three inhabitants: Evenor, his wife Leucippe, and their daughter, Cleito.  When Cleito's parents died, Poseidon took her as his wife and inclosed the hill in which she dwelt all round, making alternated zones of sea and land larger and smaller, encircling one another; there were two of land and three of water, which he turned as with a lathe, each having its circumference equidistant every way from the centre, so that no man could get to the island...

Poseidon made the island one with paradisiacal qualities:   

He himself, being a god, found no difficulty in making special arrangements for the centre island, bringing up two springs of water from beneath the earth, one of warm water and the other of cold, and making every variety of food to spring up abundantly from the soil... 
     There was an abundance of wood for carpenter's work, and sufficient maintenance for tame and wild animals. Moreover, there were a great number of elephants in the island; for as there was provision for all other sorts of animals, both for those which live in lakes and marshes and rivers, and also for those which live in mountains and on plains, so there was for the animal which is the largest and most voracious of all. Also whatever fragrant things there now are in the earth, whether roots, or herbage, or woods, or essences which distil from fruit and flower, grew and thrived in that land; also the fruit which admits of cultivation, both the dry sort, which is given us for nourishment and any other which we use for food-we call them all by the common name pulse, and the fruits having a hard rind, affording drinks and meats and ointments, and good store of chestnuts and the like, which furnish pleasure and amusement, and are fruits which spoil with keeping, and the pleasant kinds of dessert, with which we console ourselves after dinner, when we are tired of eating-all these that sacred island which then beheld the light of the sun, brought forth fair and wondrous and in infinite abundance...

Life on the island of Atlantis thrived, with the kings who descended from Poseidon and Cleito's union building houses, palaces and the temple of Poseidon where the people could worship the god who gave them this wonderful paradise and to conduct the ritual sacrifice of a great bull which was to absolve them of any wrongs they may have committed .  Poseidon's laws and commands on the ruling of Atlantis were inscribed by the first kings on a pillar of orichalcum, which was situated in the middle of the island, at the temple of Poseidon, whither the kings were gathered together every fifth and every sixth year alternately, thus giving equal honour to the odd and to the even number  

Every fifth or sixth year the kings would bring a sacrifice for Poseidon - a great bull whose throat was slit so that the blood fell upon the sacred inscription. Now on the pillar, besides the laws, there was inscribed an oath invoking mighty curses on the disobedient. When therefore, after slaying the bull in the accustomed manner, they had burnt its limbs, they filled a bowl of wine and cast in a clot of blood for each of them; the rest of the victim they put in the fire, after having purified the column all round. Then they drew from the bowl in golden cups and pouring a libation on the fire, they swore that they would judge according to the laws on the pillar, and would punish him who in any point had already transgressed them, and that for the future they would not, if they could help, offend against the writing on the pillar, and would neither command others, nor obey any ruler who commanded them, to act otherwise than according to the laws of their father Poseidon.

Life on Atlantis was simple, virtuous and peaceful.  For generations the divine nature lasted in them, they were obedient to the laws, and well-affectioned towards the god, whose seed they were; for they possessed true and in every way great spirits, uniting gentleness with wisdom in the various chances of life, and in their intercourse with one another. They despised everything but virtue, caring little for their present state of life, and thinking lightly of the possession of gold and other property, which seemed only a burden to them; neither were they intoxicated by luxury; nor did wealth deprive them of their self-control; but they were sober, and saw clearly that all these goods are increased by virtue and friendship with one another, whereas by too great regard and respect for them, they are lost and friendship with them.  

But in time this began to change.  The people became greedy and indulgent, and when the divine portion began to fade away, and became diluted too often and too much with the mortal admixture, and the human nature got the upper hand, Zeus decided that they should be punished.  The desruction of Atlantis came when there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea.

And that was the end of Atlantis.  But where does this story actually come from and c?  I best place to discover the roots of the legend of Atlantis is probably Egypt, where the priest first told Solon of this story.

Dating Atlantis
To help us discover where the tale of Atlatis originates, as well as enable us to identify any credible theories for the site of Atlantis, we must first try to discover an approximate date for the age of Atlantis.  According to Plato, in Timaeus, the priest tells Solon ''The age of our institutions is given in our sacred records as eight thousand years, and the citizens whose laws andwhose finest achievements I will now briefly describe to you therefore lived nine thousand years ago…”  

So, before we can date the lives of the citizens of Atlantis, we must first date Solon's visit to Egypt.  According to Herodotus, in Book I of his Histories (450s BC), Solon, having left his native country for this reason and for the sake of seeing various lands, came to Amasis in Egypt..  This means that Solon probabheard the legend of Atlantis in around 570BC.  Therefore we can, if we take this account as gospel, date Atlantis to around 9600BC.

However, if we use information from Plato, who states, 'Let me begin by observing first of all, that nine thousand was the sum of years which had elapsed since the war which was said to have taken place between those who dwelt outside the Pillars of Heracles and all who dwelt within them...,' Atlantis would be generations older. 

And, to make matters even more complicated, we must also take into account that the time-keeping of the ancients can be somewhat skewed, as shown in the Royal Canon of Turin or the Turin List.  This fragmented papyrus is believed to date back to the reign of Ramesses II (1303-1213 BC) and is an extensive record of kings compiled by the Egyptians.  The reign of a king, according to this list, could be anywhere between 300 and 7,000 years in length.  Therefore, any date we might give to Atlantis is assuming that the dating we've been given by Plato is correct in either the first or second instance.

That's it for today.  Tomorrow we'll look for the possible inspirations and origins of the Atlantis from Egypt.  Until next time.

Useful Resources
Plato's Timaeus
Plato's Critias
Herodotus - Histories Book I
Atlantis: Egyptian Genesis by Ian Driscoll & Matthew Kurtz

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