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  • Plato Meets the Meteorite: Solon, Egypt and Atlantis February 22, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback


    ***Dedicated to ANL who sent this in***

    The story is well-known and comes in Plato’s Timaeus. Solon, the law-giver, has travelled to Egypt and there, in the city of Sais, he speaks to one old priest, who tell him how 9,000 years before a power named Atlantis had fought against Europe and Asia. These passages are celebrated: in fact, they are a fundamental part of the canon of western knowledge, whether as metaphor or darkly-twisted truth. However, there is a passage at the beginning that is overlooked, at least has been overlooked by me in the past. In it the priest, named doubtfully Sonchis by Plutarch in a later age, describes periodic catastrophes breezing over the earth, destroying knowledge and memory: this is why according to Plato the Greeks retain no memory of Atlantis.

    Thereupon one of the priests, who was of a very great age, said: ‘O Solon, Solon, you Hellenes are never anything but children, and there is not an old man among you.’ Solon in return asked him what he meant. ‘I mean to say,’ he replied, ‘that in mind you are all young; there is no old opinion handed down among you by ancient tradition, nor any science which is hoary with age. And I will tell you why. There have been, and will be again, many destructions of mankind arising out of many causes; the greatest have been brought about by the agencies of fire and water, and other lesser ones by innumerable other causes.’

    So far so easy. ‘Sonchis’ says that periodically the world is destroyed by fire and periodically by water: cue Robert Frost ‘Some say the world will end in fire, Some say in ice.’ Did the Egyptians have this as an age old belief handed down with the regular flooding of the Nile? Or was this something that had come out of the Hindu east and been borrowed or appropriated? Or is just part of the human condition? In any case, ‘Sonchis’ now get down to details

    There is a story, which even you have preserved, that once upon a time Paethon, the son of Helios, having yoked the steeds in his father’s chariot, because he was not able to drive them in the path of his father, burnt up all that was upon the earth, and was himself destroyed by a thunderbolt.

    This is a reference to the myth of Phaethon who accidentally burns the world: Zeus has to kill him with a thunderbolt to stop the damage to ‘middle earth’. There is here the idea that Egyptians and Greeks have the same legends in much the same way that Solon and ‘Sonchis’ earlier in the dialogue agree that their respective cities were both founded by Athena, a scrambling for common origins. However, ‘Sonchis’ after patronising Solon a little (those baby Greeks…) continues, instead, with a non-mythical interpretation.

    Now this has the form of a myth, but really signifies a declination of the bodies moving in the heavens around the earth, and a great conflagration of things upon the earth, which recurs after long intervals; at such times those who live upon the mountains and in dry and lofty places are more liable to destruction than those who dwell by rivers or on the seashore. And from this calamity the Nile, who is our never-failing saviour, delivers and preserves us. When, on the other hand, the gods purge the earth with a deluge of water, the survivors in your country are herdsmen and shepherds who dwell on the mountains, but those who, like you, live in cities are carried by the rivers into the sea. Whereas in this land, neither then nor at any other time, does the water come down from above on the fields, having always a tendency to come up from below; for which reason the traditions preserved here are the most ancient.

    This is all part of ‘Sonchis’’ explanation as to why the Athenians know less than the Egyptians. But peddle back and look at that peculiar phrase about ‘a declination’ (in bold).  ‘Sonchis’ is not referring to a single event here but a periodic cleansing of the earth. The cleansing though has (surely) to depend on some knowledge of natural events: and Plato is describing what sounds like a catastrophic sky event, say, at the level of Tunguska (or the memory of one), drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com If so this may be the earliest description of a meteorite (and a pretty big meteorite at that) in history. Alan who sent this passage in writes: ‘The explosion of the Chelyabinsk bolide has given this passage new meaning, as we now know that Plato is describing a phenomenon that really exists. Note that, at its most intense, the meteor fireball glowed 30 times brighter than the sun causing skin and retinal burns.’

    Two further notes in the interests of clarity for any resulting arguments: first, this ‘declination of the bodies in heaven’ has nothing to do with the destruction of Atlantis and, second, in terms of sources:  (i) we cannot be absolutely sure that Solon travelled to Egypt; (ii) even if he did ‘Socrates’ did not necessarily know anything about the conversations Solon had at Sais; and (iii) even if there were oral or literate records of those conversations we have no guarantee that Plato recorded them faithfully (Plato was a lying dog). For present purposes though the source of Plato’s knowledge of meteorites is of only secondary importance, much more interesting is the fact of the knowledge itself (if that is indeed what it is).

    I’ve found lots of dross on the internet about this but nothing academic: strange or all too depressingly predictable.

    Also proud to note that this is Strange History’s fifth post in the meteorite tag.

    28 Feb 2013: ANL in his original email defended the idea of real information from Egypt, something I’m a little skeptical about: without being fanatically so. Here, in a subsequent email he made the point more forcefully: ‘I don’t think I explained the Egyptian aspect very well. To be able to say that “a great conflagration of things upon the earth …. recurs after long intervals”, requires the observation of at least two such events. However, such events are quite rare. Quote: “Nothing the size of the Chelyabinsk meteorite had fallen to Earth in 100 years, and never over an urban centre”. This is probably an exaggeration, as quite a few events over the world’s oceans have been recorded by US military satellites designed to detect nuclear explosions. But even if we assume that such an event occurs somewhere in the world every fifty years or so, how long would a civilisation have to last to be able to record at least two events within its sphere of awareness? Probably a very long time. As far as I can see, the only civilisations to fit the bill would be Egypt and China. As the latter is out of the question here, the information must have come from Egypt. Ergo, Solon etc.’’ I disagree with the logic a little here. Let’s imagine that if you are living in a land in a borderline volcanic region and experience a volcano (a rare event) you will presume that this is natural and that these things happen from time to time, even from epoch to epoch. You don’t need to see two to generalize about them.  I keep wondering whether something else in nature is being described here. ANL also included the is fascinating piece from the BBC: “An international team looked at the last 20 years of data collected from sensors used by the US government and infrasound sensors positioned around the globe. These detectors are in place to detect the threat of nuclear weapons, but they can also capture the blasts caused by asteroid impacts. The researchers found that during this time about 60 asteroids up to 20m in size had smashed into the Earth’s atmosphere: far more than was previously thought. Most went undetected because they exploded over the ocean or in very remote areas. Prof Brown explained: “We were able to capture the occurrence rate you would expect of things like Chelyabinsk and smaller impacts. When you compare that to the numbers you get from telescopic [observations], our numbers are several times higher.”  This suggests that the risk from asteroids of this scale has been underestimated. The team estimates that the strike rate of asteroids that are tens of metres in size is between two and 10 times higher than was previously thought. “Something like Chelyabinsk, you would only expect every 150 years on the basis of the telescopic information. But when you look at our data and extrapolate from that, we see that these things seem to be happening every 30 years or so,” said Prof Brown. An event such as the Tunguska impact in 1908, where an asteroid flattened thousands of square kilometres of forest in Siberia, would probably happen every few hundred years rather than every few thousand years, he added.” thanks ANL

    28 Feb 2014, KMH writes: Meteors are able to strike the earth so violently that they may cause tremendous earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and land subsidence. The more scientists look the more they find remains of impact craters on the earth dating back millions of years. Evidence is growing that an important strike happened around 11,000 BC, near the beginning of the Holocene Epoch. So your conjecture that “Plato is describing what sounds like a catastrophic sky event, say, at the level of Tunguska” is quite reasonable. The problem with the Atlantis story  is we have no archaeological reason to believe that Athens truly existed in c. 9,500 BC and was populated at that time by a Hellenic culture with a Hellenic mythology and language. The name “Atlantis” means ‘daughter of Atlas’ who himself was a figure in Hellenic mythology. Except for the extreme western location of Atlantis and the 9,500 BC date, the whole story most probably refers to the Minoan culture of Crete which was at its peak before the gigantic volcanic eruption of Santorini destroyed it around 1600 BC. One possible explanation is that  the 9,000 years was actually only 900 due to a scribal error or exaggeration in the Egyptian records. Whatever may have actually occurred in 9,500 BC, we are looking at the whole thing with Plato through Greek eyes and their proclivity for translating everything into terms of their own religion and mythology.  If there actually was something like Atlantis in the Atlantic Ocean back then it could not have been literally named ‘Atlantis.’ The real question is how could the Egyptian priests have known of anything at all that far back, given their own explanation of the rise and abrupt fall of cultures, their own included. Note that there is a geological period known as the Younger Dryas which is of interest here. From Wikipedia: The Younger Dryas stadial, also referred to as the Big Freeze,[1] was a geologically brief (1,300 ± 70 years) period of cold climatic conditions and drought which occurred between approximately 12,800 and 11,500 years BP.[2] The Younger Dryas stadial is thought to have been caused by the collapse of the North American ice sheets, although rival theories have been proposed. Interestingly, the period seems to have began with a meteor strike according to the latest research and ended in 9,500 BC, the date of the loss of Atlantis (for want of a better word), perhaps due to another meteor strike. The strike could have altered the paths of the ocean currents and led to the warm-up we have been experiencing since then.  Thanks for pointing out the possibility of a catastrophic sky event destroying a notable  Mediterranean culture (whatever the actual date). This dovetails nicely  with my own more radical ideas expressed in “The Heck Hypothesis.” Thanks Ken!