PLATO'S ATLANTIS

Frequently Asked Questions


This will be an attempt to shed light on questions regarding Plato's narratives on Atlantis. Many errors and misunderstandings abound concerning what Plato actually said, which has in turn contributed to the rejection of Atlantis in modern scientific circles. It is hoped that this will help correct some of those mistaken ideas, which should lead to a better understanding of Plato's story.

Q. Since Plato lived circa. 350 B.C. and Atlantis sank circa. 9,700 B.C. (a gap of over 9,000 years), how did he happen to know about Atlantis?

A. According to Plato's Timaeus, Critias learned through his family that the Greek statesman Solon (a distant ancestor of Plato) heard about it from Egyptian priests during a visit to Saïs, Egypt in about 590 B.C. The priests claimed to have access to records about Atlantis written on pillars within the temple. Plutarch writes: "His [Solon's] first voyage was to Egypt . . . [where he] spent some time in study with Psenophis of Heliopolis and Sonchis the Saite, the most learned of all the priests; from whom, as Plato says, getting knowledge of the Atlantic story, he put it into a poem, and proposed to bring it to the knowledge of the Greeks." But a little further on: "Now Solon having begun his great work in verse, the history or fable of the Atlantic Island, which he had learned from the wise men of Saïs, and thought it convenient for the Athenians to know, abandoned it . . . because of his age, and being discouraged at the greatness of the task." (Life of Solon, 90 A.D.)

Plato, Greek Philosopher

Solon was said to have taken down notes during his visit to Egypt to be used as a basis for the poem—notes which might have been available in Plato's day. Moreover, Plutarch is known to have utilized a vast number of manuscripts (many of which are now lost) when writing his "Lives"—the fact that he seemed to know the names of the priests (never mentioned by Plato) proves that Plutarch had sources other than Plato, raising the question of the possible survival of Solon's notes down to his day as well.

Q. Did Plato ever use the words "continent," or "lost continent" to describe the land of Atlantis?

A. No. The word Plato uses to describe the landmass of Atlantis is nesos, the Greek word for "island". Even though he calls it a "large island," one must presume he meant an island, not a continent. We shall see shortly that he describes an extremely large island; but, judging from Plato's account, there is no need to be looking for a continental sized landmass.

Q. Where did Plato locate Atlantis?

A. Although different researchers have located Atlantis just about everywhere on the face of the earth, Plato, in his Timaeus gives several distinctive indications of its true location.

    1. "This power came forth out of the Atlantic Ocean." This gives the general location.
    2. Plato also describes Atlantis as "an island (nesos) situated in front of (pro) the straits which are by you called the pillars of Heracles." The Greek word pro can be translated "before," or "in front of". (Some translators prefer to translate pro as "facing" or "opposite".)
    3. Plato says both the island and the ocean were named after Atlas, the firstborn of Poseidon and Cleito. Even Herodotus, a hundred years before Plato, calls the sea outside the Pillars of Heracles the "Atlantis Sea". (History, Book I)
    4. Plato describes the Mediterranean Sea which is "within the Straits of Heracles" as "only a harbour, having a narrow entrance," but the other sea (outside the Straits) as a "real sea".
    5. Finally, Plato describes Atlantis as "the way to other islands, and from these you might pass to the whole of the opposite continent [America?] which surrounds the true ocean [the Atlantic]." Atlantis was situated just outside Gibraltar in the Atlantic Ocean—I find it difficult to interpret any other way.

In addition to Plato's Timaeus (24e) locating Atlantis directly "in front of" (pro), or "facing," the Pillars of Heracles, Plato's Critias (114b) describes Atlas as having a twin named Gadirus, who was allotted the portion of the island "closest to" (epi to) the Pillars. He says the ancient city of Gades (on the Atlantic shore of southern Spain, now called Cadiz) was named after that individual. The name, in itself, implies proximity. Plato's description categorically eliminates any location other than the North Atlantic Ocean reasonably close to Spain. Yet, in spite of such precise details, many moderns seek to justify other far-flung locations.

Q. Were the two rocky prominences jutting out from Attica into the Mediterranean Sea ever known to anyone in ancient times as the "pillars of Heracles"? (One might ask if they would even qualify as being components of a true strait.)

A. In a word, No! If there existed a single shred of evidence, an inscription, a writing, or a reference calling these features the "pillars of Heracles," the proponents of the Minoan Hypothesis would be touting it from the highest hilltops—but no such evidence is ever brought forth.

Q. Isn't it possible that Plato originally stated that Atlantis was "in between" (as opposed to "larger than") Libya and Asia? The difference in the two statements is only one letter in Greek.

A. The reference is to Plato's Timaeus (25) where the following statement is made: "The island [Atlantis] was larger than Libya and Asia combined." Should we favor "in between" over "larger than" the sentence would look like this: "The island was in between Libya and Asia." (The word "combined" is added by the translators, and does not appear in the Greek text.) The idea is truly ingenious, but does it have any factual basis? Let's take a closer look.

The Greek word for "between" is meson. From this we get Meso-potamia (a land "between rivers") and Meso-america (a land "between [North and South] America"). On the other hand, the Greek word mega means "big" or "large" (as in mega-lithic, or "large stone"): its comparative form, mezon, means "larger than" [something else]. And, yes, the difference between meson and mezon is only one letter.

So what about this "one letter"? Since our s and z look something alike, the argument sounds plausible from this point of view. But we must ask ourselves, how did this look in the Greek of Plato's time; or even later for that matter? (Such a scribal error may have occurred hundreds of years after Plato originally penned his account.) The argument doesn't hold water in either case.

In Plato's time (4th century B.C.) he would have written in large (all-capitals), continuous (no spaces between words), Athenian characters. The old Greek word meson would look like in the Athenian script of Plato's time. But mezon would look like —the ancient Z closely resembled our modern capital letter I—the difference between the S and Z in the large Athenian script is obvious. (The Greek Z resembling our Roman Z is modern and does not apply to the older Attic scripts.)

But even in the later minuscule script the s and z in no wise resemble each other. A minuscule z looks like ζ while a medial s looks like σ (absolutely nothing alike). The final backbreaker is that Plato included the same comparison in his Critias (108), in which his copyists would have to have made an identical mistake in that work as well. The odds are against the same identical mistake occuring in two separate works.

Q. During his interview with the temple priests at Saïs, could Solon have mistranslated the Egyptian hieroglyph meaning "100" mistakenly as "1000" as the advocates of the Minoan Hypothesis have suggested?

A. Not likely. In the first place, contrary to the claims of the advocates of the latter, the glyphs look nothing alike (Budge, 1966). In the second place, Solon was not reading the story from the Egyptian records. It was the Egyptian priests—expert in hieroglyphics—who were relating to Solon what their own temple records said about the lost Atlantis. In the third place, if such an error in translation had occurred, other dates involved in Plato's account would also have been skewed by the same amount. For example, Plato's "8,000 years of Egyptian history" would be reduced to a mere 800, which would barely carry Egyptian civilization back to the time of Moses. To reduce thousands of years of Egyptian history to a few hundred would be ludicrous, to say the least!

Q. How big was Atlantis?

A. Although Plato writes "the island was larger than Libya and Asia put together . . ." which sounds big, we should not imagine that Plato meant what we today call Asia and Africa. Since Plato insists on calling Atlantis an "island," we must realize that his knowledge of Africa most likely consisted of the southern Mediterranean coastland familiar to Herodotus and other Greeks of his day. The "Asia" of Plato's time was what we now call Asia Minor. From the answer to the next question we can estimate that Plato's Atlantis is an island ranging in size between 250,000-500,000 square miles.

Q. How big was the plain?

A. Plato says that the capital city of Atlantis was near a plain measuring 2,000 x 3,000 stadia, which in modern figures is about 230 by 340 miles (slightly larger than the state of South Dakota in the United States). There were mountains surrounding this plain on three sides. The size of Atlantis depends on the extent of these mountain ranges, and Plato doesn't specify how wide these mountain ranges were.

Q. Plato seems to place the capital city near the ocean, but also in the center of the island. If Atlantis is as large as you say it is, then how could both be true?

A. The reference is probably that found in Plato's Critias where he writes: "Looking towards the sea, but in the center of the whole island, there was a plain which is said to have been the fairest of all plains and very fertile. Near the plain again, and also in the center of the island at a distance of about fifty stadia, there was a mountain not very high on any side." This does present a knotty problem, but I think the answer lies in the two shades of meaning in the Greek word mesos, which can indeed mean "center". And it would seem at first glance that he intended to locate the mountain (and the city built on it) in the center of Atlantis. But had Plato really meant the geographical center of the island, he could have wrote eis to kheniron tou nesou ("in the middle of the island").

However, mesos can also mean the "mid-point" in a linear distance, such as a shoreline. It's obvious that for both the city and the plain to be in the center of Atlantis, the city would have to be located in the center of the plain itself, which it is not. Plato locates it "near the plain," but at a distance of about six of our miles. It cannot be both. Notice that Plato begins by saying, "looking towards the sea". It is highly possible that Plato is using mesos in this case to indicate that it is located in the midpoint of the shoreline of the island laterally (that is, looking from left to right), yet being located, at the same time, some six miles south of the plain. This would place the city near the ocean. With its harbor, docks and other port associations, surely Plato's intention was to place the capital city between the plain and the south shoreline of Atlantis (i.e., near the ocean).

Q. Did Plato say that Atlantis sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in one day and night?

A. No he didn't. Let's look at the text of Plato's Timaeus where he appears to say this: "But afterwards 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." Since the Egyptian priest was speaking to an Athenian (Solon), "your warlike men" refers to the Athenian army, which was fighting on the mainland of Europe—possibly in Greece itself. In other words, Plato is saying that not only did portions of Europe suffer an inundation, drowning the Athenian army in a single day; but during the same catastrophe Atlantis was likewise inundated! Read it carefully. If this convulsion of nature resulted in a catastrophic flood (and/or subsidence) in Europe over a thousand miles from Atlantis, then this cataclysm was no local affair. Apollodorus says: "Poseidon was very wrathful, and flooded the Thraisian plain, and submerged Attica under sea-water." (Bibliotheca, III, 14, 1.) One of the Books of Thoth describes a pyramid as standing on the sea-shore, "the waves of which dashed in powerless fury against its base." This is a strong indication that the geographical situation of Egypt has also changed drastically, involving either sea-level rising or land subsidence at some point. There is abundant geological and paleontological evidence supporting our opinion that this catastrophe—ending the ice age and resulting in the Pleistocene extinction—was no mere local disturbance, but was most probably global in nature.

Q. But doesn't Plato's statement imply that Atlantis sank to the bottom in a day and night?

A. If you read Plato carefully it will be clear that Atlantis sank just below sea level during the cataclysm. Plato says merely that it "disappeared beneath the sea." Even though the Atlantean civilization was destroyed in the horrendous catastrophe, after the geological event was over the land itself ended up just barely covered by the sea. This left the sea outside the Pillars unnavigable because it was extremely shallow. In Plato's own words: "For which reason the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is a shoal of mud in the way; and this was caused by the subsidence of the island." We have the statements of several Phoenician and Carthaginian sailors which say the Atlantic was extremely shallow and difficult to navigate because of this. Such stories may have been kept alive long after the fact for political and economic reasons, but these conditions could well have been accurate for an extended period after the disappearance of Atlantis. At least Plato said this was so. Geologists take note: Atlantis has had 12,000 years to settle a distance of approximately two miles to the present position of the ocean bottom.

Q. If Atlantis once existed in the mid-Atlantic as Plato described, why isn't there geological evidence for it?

The question presumes that there is no geological evidence for it. Before making such a presumption one should take a good look at my Geological and Paleontological pages where geological evidence is presented in abundance. In addition, features discovered on the ocean floor (which Plato could not have known about) conform so closely to Plato's account that such coincidences go far beyond mere chance. Look at the color-coded bathemetric chart showing mountains (Azore Islands) in the north, a flat area (Plain of Atlantis) to the south, and even a long chain of seamounts trailing off toward North America ("other islands . . . [passage] to the whole of the opposite continent"). The latter is a relatively late discovery, reaching right up to the continental shelf itself (which would have been above water during the ice age). The only way Plato could have known of such things is if they were once an ancient reality and the information was someway passed down to him.

Q. Why did Plato describe Atlantean technology as being basically on the level of the Bronze Age?

A. In general, Plato's description of Atlantean technology did not exceed that of the Bronze Age. Actually, Plato was at a loss. Solon, on his visit to Egypt, had asked the priests at Saïs about his own Athenian ancestors; not about Atlantean technology. They answered Solon's inquiries, and in doing so it was necessary for them to explain about the cycles of world catastrophes and their consequences; but to answer his queries it was not necessary for them to go into Atlantean technology. It would be natural for Plato "fill in" certain details using familiar technology and terminology when describing the prehistoric Atlanteans.

Since Atlantis was an island empire located some distance from the mainland, it would have to be assumed that they had ships and the associated knowledge of sailing in order for them to attack the mainland successfully. Plato uses such terms as "triremes" (a triple-decked, oar-driven warship) because that's the technology he was familiar with. It has recently been learned that ice age man throughout the world had boats and ships capable of taking him just about anywhere he wanted to go (Thorndike, 1977). This comes as somewhat of a surprise to some anthropologists.

However, there is one element which appears in Plato's Critias involving a technology not re-discovered until almost a thousand years after the passing of the Bronze Age (and some three hundred years after Plato!). He uses the term orichalcum, "which is now only a name, but (kai) was then something more." Some authorities have chosen to rendered it as "mountain copper" ('oros, "mountain," and chalcos, "copper"). The "brass" mentioned just before orichalcum in the Critias is a mistranslation of chalcos, the Greek word for "copper", not "brass". (Likewise, biblical references to brass during Iron Age times is a mistranslation of the Hebrew original.)

Whatever Plato meant to call it, his use of the term in no way implies that he actually understood anything about it. In fact, the "ori" in orichalcum could just as easily reflect a Greek verb meaning "to dig," so mountain may not even belong here. However, professional etymologists have offered the most sensible derivation as follows:

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, aurichalcum, the Latin word for "brass" (literally "golden copper"), is etymogically the direct descendant of orichalcum. Brass is more golden-colored than either copper or bronze (both of which are reddish). Therefore, it is likely that "orichalcum" meant simply a golden-colored metal containing copper, and the metal which fits this description is brass.

Bronze is a copper-tin alloy, but brass is a copper-zinc, and the metallurgical technique for combining zinc with copper was not re-discovered until almost a thousand years after the Bronze Age. Strabo is the earliest classical writer to mention brass (40 B.C.); and the earliest known archeological artifact made of brass is a Roman coin dated 20 B.C. But if Plato is accurate, the Atlantean civilization had mastered this metallurgical technique at least 10,000 years earlier. (He couldn't have made it up, since brass was not "discovered" until three hundred years after his lifetime.)

Q. Professional anthropologists and archeologists do not see evidence of "ancient Athenians" living 12,000 or more years ago: if such a culture did exist, shouldn't there be archeological remains?

A. This is a problem, but not one without a viable explanation. First of all, the Acropolis is "sacred ground" so to speak, and archeological excavation cannot be carried out underneath the present day temple complex. If any evidence of an earlier society exists, it cannot be uncovered by modern archeological investigators.

But more importantly, in his Critias Plato says that the Acropolis as it stood in his day is not the same as it was before the cataclysm which sank Atlantis. He says that before this great catastrophe the area for miles around was covered with deep fertile soil. He states explicitly that the disturbance accompanying the destruction of Atlantis was so powerful that not only was the entire Attic peninsula inundated, but that all of the deep fertile soil surrounding Athens was also washed away in the disaster, leaving only the rocky acropolis standing as the "bare bones" of the once gently rolling landscape. Such a powerful action would have also washed away any structures, artifacts and other human remains.

Plato cannot be accused of making this part up merely to cover himself, since he could not have known of the development of the science of archeology some two thousand years in the future—no more than he could have known that geologists would eventually discover that the end of Atlantis coincided chronologically with the end of the last ice age. A recently published geological treatise quotes Plato's Critias in describing what happened to the Acropolis area due to the flooding of Attica when Atlantis subsided (Nials, 1999).

The description of the "ancient Athenians" given by Plato corresponds favorably with what we now know of man living in Upper Paleolithic Greece. He says there were many artisans, farmers, and husbandmen living on and around where the Acropolis now stands. (See Anthropology and Agriculture sections for details on Upper Paleolithic technology.) Their dwellings and central structures were "modest" and not adorned with silver or gold. He adds that they used neither of these metals "for any purpose," taking the "middle course" between simple crudeness and pretentious ostentation.

In the center of the "city" was a fenced area enclosing a few central structures, surrounded immediately by the dwellings of the warrior class. Such would be a practical defensive arrangment. (Fencing is a feature which has not been verified by modern investigation, but it certainly would not be startling if true.) All in all, this is a very humble description of a people to which such greatness was attributed, and therefore has the ring of truth to it. Plato described the Atlanteans very differently!

Q. If the Atlanteans were technologically advanced over the ancient Athenians, how did the Athenians manage to defeat them?

A good question! It should also be noticed that the areas dominated by Upper Paleolithic Cro-Magnon Man are the very same areas described by the Egyptian priests as having been conquered by the Atlanteans. Since I believe the Atlanteans to have a civilization equal at least in technology to the Aztec and Incas of the Americas (Plato accredits them with a Bronze Age technology), and that the Athenian technology was quite humble in comparison, how could the ancient Athenians have stopped the Atlanteans?

Actually, there is a logical, answer to this incongruity. From a pure military standpoint, I don't believe they did! The Atlanteans were stopped alright. But logic should tell you that this happened because the geological upheaval that drowned both their homeland and flooded Attica (not far from where they were fighting) threatened their very existence. All energies had to be redirected just to survive the catastrophic events that came crashing down upon them.

This was no mere earthquake. It must have seemed that everything in heaven and earth broke loose in an unimaginable cataclysmic event that inundated several entire countries, wiped out millions of animals worldwide, and nearly wiped out mankind itself. Any thoughts about war had to be totally abandoned. If an axial shift was involved, then gales in excess of 100 mph would have raged over the entire planet for days.

The cessation of Atlantean aggression was what lived on in Egyptian history, and the cataclysm which interrupted the war became secondary. Moreover, the Atlanteans could not even return home in their defeat—their homeland was gone forever! The world had suddenly changed for both sides. According to all of our ancient sources (Hesiod, Plato, the Hindu epics) the "gods" had intervened.

Q. Why would Plato give the same apparent date for the "founding" of ancient Athens as a state and the following war with Atlantis?

A. A comparison between statements made in the Timaeus (23e) and Critias (23e) makes it look as if the founding of Athens and the war with Atlantis happened on the same date. In Timaeus (23e) the Egyptian priest says to Solon, "She founded your city [Athens] a thousand years before ours . . . Touching on your citizens of 9000 years ago" etc., etc.

This apparent problem caused the translator to comment: "Observe that Plato gives the same date (9000 years) for the foundation of Athens and for the repulse of the invasion from Atlantis (Crit. 108 E)." In fact, it has caused some Greek scholars to look very carefully at the referenced sentence, usually translated as follows: "Let me begin by observing first of all, that nine thousand was the sum of years which had elapsed since the war . . ." (Critias, 108e)

Scholars have been divided over this issue, mainly because of exegetical problems in the Greek text. But we must not overlook Plato's use of the Greek word γεγονωs, usually left untranslated. The presence of this word in the Greek text introduces an element of indefiniteness into the dates given. He made use of the same (untranslated) Greek word in both statements: in Timaeus (23e) as well as in Critias (108e).

So what is this "indefiniteness" really telling us? Is Plato simply saying that the Egyptian priests were speaking only in "approximate" numbers? Or could he be saying that at some undefined time [within the whole 9,000-year period] the war and cataclysm occurred? (It seems some scholars believe the sinking of Atlantis occurred thousands of years after the founding of Athens).

To enter into a thorough analysis here could become quite lengthy, and most readers would find the discussion rather abstruse. And while all possible interpretations have merit, I am inclined to take the traditional one that Plato's is simply informing his readers that approximate dates were being expressed (which I take to mean several hundred years either way).

Such an interpretation allows for the possibility that Athens had several hundred years to mature before the Atlantean invasion actually occurred. Since there seems to be no data allowing us to fix precise dates to these events, I have purposely utilized "rounded off" figures throughout this entire website. Although the priests assured Solon that the actual temple records could be consulted later, Plato never recorded whether or not such a consultation actually occurred.

As to how the newly founded Athens could have defeated the technically superior Atlanteans, see the question previous to this one. But, I would also point out that America, within 36 years of its initial "founding" (1776-1812), managed to defeat the most potent military machine in the world at that time—the British under King George III.

A Personal Comment

As noted above, Atlantis was overwhelmed by floods and earthquakes during the ending of the last ice age, when massive glaciers were melting and as a result sea levels were rising. The earth's crust was also flexing in an attempt to adjust to the massive decrease in the weight of the ice (much of the ice cap was 2 to 3 miles thick). Such geophysical activity could easily trigger violent earthquakes, subsidence, and massive floods.

If an axial variation was also involved, as some geologists are coming to believe, there would also be massive volcanism (for which there is reliable scientific support, even though Plato doesn't include it) and unimaginable tidal waves raging over land masses of the earth—to say nothing of gale force winds blasting at speeds in the neighborhood of 100 miles per hour over most of the surface of the globe.

Whatever the case, it is becoming abundantly clear scientifically that the end of the last ice age was anything but smooth and gradual. If Plato invented the story of Atlantis, he was unbelievably lucky to date its demise when he did, since he knew nothing of ice ages.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

      Budge, E. A. Wallis, Egyptian Language, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., London, 1966.
      Herodotus, "History": Clio (Rawlinson's translation), 450 B.C.
      Lee, Desmond, "Timaeus and Critias" (translator), Penguin Classics, New York, 1977.
      Nials, Fred L., "Geomorphic Systems and Stratigraphy in Internally-Drained Watersheds of the Northern Great
      Basin: Implications for Archaeological Studies," Sundance Archaological Research Fund, Technical Paper No. 5,
      University of Nevada, February 1999.
      Plato, Timaeus and Critias Dialogues (Benjamin Jowett's translation), 360 B.C.
      Plutarch, Life of Solon, (The Dryden Translation), 90 A.D.
      Strabo of Amasya, Geography (63 B.C.-24 A.D), translated by H. L. Jones, Loeb edition, 1917-1932.
      Taylor, Thomas (translator), Plato's (Critias), published by Axon, London, 1793.
      Thorndike, Joseph J. Jr. (editor), Mysteries of the Past (article by Robert Claiborne), American Heritage Publ. Co.,
      New York, 1977.


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