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Plato’s Atlantis Before Plato December 5, 2010

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

Ah Atlantis… Say the word to a marine biologist, whose marriage has just ended, or a billionaire at a loose end and the chances are that they will go running off and find Plato’s mysterious continent in Bolivia or Ireland…

Indeed, almost every region, island and country in the western hemisphere – including Bolivia and Ireland… – have been offered up as the ‘true’ Atlantis in the last hundred years by men and women with (at least temporarily) more energy than sense.

But Plato’s Atlantis begins with, well, Plato and, unlike other legendary or mythic locations – e.g. Troy,  there is, scholars assure the reading public, not a trace of this other world in the writings of the Greeks and their neighbours before it appears in the fourth century. Not surprisingly there has long been the suspicion that Plato just made the whole continent up to serve as a political examplar of how the human ant-nest should function.

However, not so fast! Beachcombing has given the general scholarly view on Atlantis here: Plato pulls Atlantis like a dying dove out of his philosopher’s top hat in the middle of the fourth century B.C., blah, blah, blah… But that is not, in fact, the whole story. For in the fifth century B.C., forgotten by all but bookworms and Beachcombing, Hellanicus of Mytilene (obit 405 BC) had got to Atlantis before Plato.

Now Hellanicus was one of these writers beloved of burning-library buffs who wrote many works (22?) and yet whose works were so unloved in their day that none survive bar fragments. What an indictment…

Still the titles, which do survive, are worth salivating over: the Facts of Troy (an oxymoron if ever there was one), the History of Lesbos (Hellanicus’ home island) and perhaps, most excitingly, Atlantis.

And what was Atlantis about? Are we to imagine that Hellanicus had, as Plato claimed to have, links to Pharonic Egypt with knowledge drills pushing down deep into the wells of time?

Not a bit of it.

Atlantis, for Hellanicus, was the daughter of the titan Atlas. And a fragment of Hellanicus’s opus survives with the following line: Poseidon coupled with Celaeno, and their son Lycus was settled by Poseidon in the Isles of the Blessed and made immortal.’

Now Beachcombing would certainly run around the town a few times naked if that would bring back Atlantis from the furnace of lost books. But, even if Classicists get really lucky – and it is never going to happen – the truth is that there would only be a long list of genealogical happenings in the Atlas family such as that quoted above: deaths, couplings, births and – Mediterranean divinities being Mediterranean divinities – rapes.

Atlantis then is a dead end at least as far as Plato’s island Atlantis goes. But it does lead to a question. Did Plato – if he really invented the whole story – cast around for a name and borrow it from Hellanicus’ recent scribbling?

Beachcombing suspects that there is something more to the Atlantis legend than pure invention, while not subscribing to Bolivian, Irish or extra-terrestrial theories. But he wouldn’t put it past Plato to greedy-read ‘Atlantis’ from a near contemporary, especially one who had something of his own reverence for traditional religion. This would have been particularly easy if he wanted to establish the connection with the Atlantic – where Atlantis was – a term that Herodotus had introduced or popularised.

Beachcombing is always on the look out for modern theories on Atlantis – particularly the crazy ones. Any suggestions gratefully received. drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

For more on Atlantis from Beachcombing click here.