BOSTON — IMAGINING ATLANTIS
By Richard Ellis
Alfred A. Knopf
322 pp., $27.50
By Rodney Castleden
225 pp., $35
Atlantis, the fabled continent lost beneath the sea, has fired the imaginations of men and women down through the centuries. Like the biblical account of the flood, it can be read as a story about human vanity overturned by the forces of nature. It also harmonizes with the classical theme of a lost golden age. And, the idea that what was once under water might now be dry land - and vice versa - certainly accords with what we know of geology.
The story of Atlantis first appears in Plato's late dialogues "Timaeus" and "Critias." Plato claims the story comes from Solon, the famed Athenian king and law-giver, who, in turn, was told it by an Egyptian priest.
Some 9,000 years earlier, the story goes, a powerful race from Atlantis, an island-continent in the distant ocean beyond the Pillars of Hercules, tried to conquer the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean. The ancestors of the Athenians bravely defeated the invaders. "Those who were not as yet enslaved she saved from slavery; all the rest of us who dwell within the limits set up by Heracles she ungrudgingly set free," the priest tells Solon. "But afterwards there occurred portentous earthquakes and floods and in one terrible day and night of storm the whole body of your warriors was swallowed up by the earth, and Atlantis likewise was swallowed up by the sea and vanished...."
"Not a part of any religious cosmography, the story has lasted for thousands of years without benefit of a proselytizing clergy," observes Richard Ellis in his book Imagining Atlantis. A marine artist and the author of seven previous books on the world beneath the waves, Ellis now turns his attention to Atlantis and the people who have become caught up in it.
Since Plato's time (c. 428-347 BC), there have been at least 2,000 books on the subject, some by cranks, some by scholars and scientists. Atlantis has also captured the imagination of fiction writers and film-makers, from Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle to Ursula K. LeGuin and Marion Zimmer Bradley.
Ellis offers a wide-ranging, shrewd, often entertaining survey of the various theories - plausible, scientific, far-fetched, or downright loony - that have been proposed over the centuries. Much of his book is devoted to summarizing and examining work done by archaeologists, oceanographers, paleontologists, seismologists. But there is also a chapter on the novels and movies inspired by the ancient legend and another chapter on the mystics and psychics, like Edgar Cayce and Madame Blavatsky, who claim to have got their knowledge of Atlantis through extra-sensory channels.
Having examined all aspects of the hydra-headed topic, Ellis is inclined to conclude that Atlantis existed only in Plato's imagination. Its significance, thus, lies in what it reveals about human nature.
In this respect, the reader may feel shortchanged by a book that devotes so much space to describing the scientific theories only to dismiss them, while spending too little time analyzing the literary versions of the myth, which, presumably, might shed more light on its enduring appeal.
At first glance, Rodney Castleden's Atlantis Destroyed looks somewhat drier, narrower in focus, and less colorful than Ellis's "Imagining Atlantis." It doesn't address the whole question of why this tale has such cultural resonance. But unlike Ellis, Castleden is inclined to believe Plato's story.
The author of books on Stonehenge and Minoan Crete, Castleden offers an intriguing account of what are currently deemed two of the most plausible theories about where Atlantis may have been and what happened to it. This is material that Ellis also covers, but in less detail.
Castleden describes some of the research that has been done on the Bronze Age civilizations of two islands in the Aegean: Crete and Thera. Archaeologists have uncovered extensive remains of ancient towns on both islands, and in the case of Thera, it is clear that much of the island was destroyed by a volcano. Thus, Thera, like Atlantis, might well have seemed to have been swallowed up by the sea. Around the same time, the Cretan maritime economy also collapsed, and so the two "falls" may have been conflated, forming the basis of the story.
For this theory to work, as Castleden explains, we would have to believe that the figure of 9,000 years ago given by Plato was actually a mistake for 900 years ago, which would put the demise of Atlantis at roughly the same time as the fall of Crete's Knossos Labyrinth in 1380 BC.
We would also have to believe that when the Egyptian priests were telling Solon about the location of Atlantis, from their perspective, those pillars were not (as we now think) at the Straits of Gibraltar, but much farther east. "The term 'Atlantic' is misleading," argues Castleden, "As late as the first century BC, Diodorus was using it for the Indian Ocean, so it may be wiser to translate it less precisely as 'outer' or 'distant' ocean."
Whether or not the Bronze Age Aegean sites that Castleden describes in such loving detail really were Atlantis, it is still fascinating to read about them. As for Atlantis, the case remains open. But, fact or fantasy, the story of a powerful civilization destroyed by a sudden cataclysm epitomizes much of what history has to teach us about the transience of worldly glory and the rise and fall of empires.
* Merle Rubin reviews regularly for the Monitor.