The Legend

Atlantis was an island beyond the Pillars of Hercules, on which there was a magnificent and refined civilization. The Atlantean empire dominated Athens. The main city was on a mountain in the middle of rings of water and land, connected by bridges, the inner water rings providing harbourage for the Atlantean fleet. The Atlanteans had running water and other civilized comforts, but for their pride they were humbled by the gods, their island mostly being sunk under the sea in a single day. The Athenians conquered what was left. According to the Egyptian historians, this happened 9000 years before Solon of Athens learned the story from them around 600 BC.

Where did we get the Atlantis legend from?

Most legends come down to us in the form of stories that have been codified from an oral tradition. Often they have variant forms produced by different codifiers. Even Homer's epic poems, written by a single author, seem to be based on an amalgam of different stories that were fitted into a coherent unit. The story of Atlantis is different.

The only original reference we have to the name "Atlantis" comes from Plato, who wrote about it in two of his dialogues. Timaeus has only a very brief mention, but there is a long description in Critias, reproduced here with comments. Some say that he invented the whole story (just as they used to say that Homer invented the story of the Trojan War). They argue that Plato introduced Atlantis only as a fiction to illustrate how a refined and elegant society can be destroyed in a moment by jealous gods. One of the arguments they use is that the Greek names mentioned by the Egyptian priests are all names considered to be lower-class, and if the story had been true, they would have used more normal Greek names. On the other side, others say that while Plato may have used the Atlantis story in this way, he introduced it differently from his other fictitious parables, in a way that suggests that he, at least, believed it might have been true.

According to Plato, Solon of Athens travelled to Egypt to avoid being an undue influence on his successors as leaders of Athens. While there, he met Egyptian historians who told him a strange story about a great island empire that had vanished under the sea in a single day many centuries earlier. On his return to Athens, Solon told this story to the grandfather of Critias, who wrote it in a manuscript Plato said still existed, and on which Plato based his own stories.

Assuming that Plato told the truth as he understood it, and that the actual event on which the story was based was the catastrophic explosion of Thera in 1650 BC,, the linkage between the actual event and Plato's telling is quite tenuous, covering a span of some 1200 years. It goes from the event through whoever told the Egyptians about it, to several centuries of Egyptian archivists, to Solon, to Critias's grandfather's manuscript, and finally to Plato. None of these links can be relied on for accuracy of detail, though if the Egyptians kept written records, they would have remained unchanged up to Solon's time, and Solon might have transcribed them. If such written Egyptian records ever existed, modern archaeologists have not found them. However, if we accept the thesis that the vanished island of Atlantis was Thera while the vanished empire was the Minoan, many details of the event survived the retellings with surprising accuracy, despite the large errors of time, place, and size.

To begin with, we have to ask how the Egyptians would have heard about the event, because that would affect the way they interpreted it. Egyptians were not great sea traders. They were visited by sea traders, mainly from Byblos and Kheftiu, which is ordinarily understood to be Minoan Crete. Egypt maintained a client-state relation with Byblos over a couple of thousand years, and it would have been the place from which they got most of their foreign news. Egyptian record-keepers were notoriously uninterested in foreigners. Most were simply classed as barbarians or "vile Asiatics", except when specific treaties were made (such as with the Hittites). The main exception to this was the people of "Kheftiu". They alone were taken to be a people on a par with the Egyptians. Kheftiu traders and embassies were well known to the Egyptians, and are recorded in several tomb paintings. The fact that the Egyptians actually noted the disappearance of an empire and thought the story worth telling some centuries later makes it a rather special empire, not one of the undifferentiated "vile Asiatics.". And it would have been an empire known to someone with whom they traded.

The transmission between the Egyptians and Solon is problematic because it would have been verbal, in a language in which Solon was unlikely to have been totally fluent. Either they would have talked through an interpreter, or Solon would have relied on his command of Egyptian. He could easily have got the main thrust of the story right while misinterpreting some details. In particular, some authors have argued that it would have been easy for Solon to confuse two Egyptian counting units, effectively making time spans and distances too great by a factor of ten.

When Solon told the story to Critias's grandfather, if that is where Plato's lost manuscript came from, he may have relied on his written record of the conversation with the Egyptians, or he might have relied on his memory. Either way, details always get lost while other details are embellished when a story is retold (unless it is in the form of an epic poem). What Critias's grandfather wrote down would not have been word-for-word what Solon told him. Of course, if the manuscript was actually Solon's transcription of the Egyptian records, that opportunity for exaggeration and omission would not have occurred. Finally, Plato's mentions of Atlantis in his dialogues were not intended to be full retellings of what was in the manuscript. So in the end, we rely on a couple of abstracts of a very old story. And old stories are notorious for thier propensity for exaggeration and hyperbole.

In spite of all this probable loss and exaggeration in the recording and retelling, Plato's story agrees in extraordinarily many details with one singular event in the history of the Eastern Mediterranean--the explosion of Thera in 1650 BC. This identification was first made seriously by J.V. Luce (1973). Since then, it has become popular to identify the Thera explosion with the destruction of Atlantis, to the extent that Atlantis souvenirs and shop and hotel names abound on Santorini (the modern name of Thera). The popularity of an opinion does not, however, automatically mean its falsity.

The argument supported here is that Atlantis (the island) was Thera/Santorini, whereas Atlantis (the empire) was the Minoan trading confederacy, which included many islands and coastal cities such as some or all of Byblos, Ugarit, Rhodes, Cyprus, Thera, Naxos, Lesbos, Samothrace, Keos, but not Malta, which was depopulated around 2500 BC for several centuries. Many of these places have a direct cultural descent from the matrilineal non-warlike "Goddess" culture that established itself in the Balkans after the 5550BC Black Sea flood, whence it was displaced by the hero-worshipping Indo-European warrior culture whose descendants were the Myceneans.

Significant detail that points to the factual basis of the story, and to Santorini/Thera and Minoan Crete as its location

The argument that the use of lower-class Greek names indicates the fictitious nature of the story can be turned on its head. Chadwick, one of the primary decoders of the Linear B script of Crete, notes that many Mycenean names recorded on the Linear B tablets at Pylos (Mainland Greece) are lower-class in classic Greek, because the Myceneans had been overwhelmed by invaders at the beginning of the "Greek Dark Ages", and the Mycenean population had become a subjugated class (J. Chadwick, The Mycenean World, Cambridge University Press, 1976). The process is much the same as that by which Anglo-Saxon names in England such as Smith came to be considered to be lower-class compared to names such as DeVere derived from those of the Normal French conquerors of nearly a thousand years ago. The fact that Plato cites such lower-class names as having been listed by the Egyptian priests argues that the story truly comes from Mycenean times, when they were appropriate names for prominent people. It also tends to date the origin of the story to somwhere before the collapse of the Mycenean city-states in about 1200 BC, which puts it at a time appropriate for the explosion of Thera.

Many of the following points are made either by J.V. Luce or by Charles Pellgrini (1991). They refer mostly to details in Plato's story that would be odd to mention in a pure fiction, but that correspond to things believed to be true of Thera before the explosion:

Atlantis dominated Athens. This immediately contradicts the date of 9600 BC, since Athens did not exist until much later. However, it has been argued that Solon could easily have misinterpreted the Egyptian numbering because of phonetic similarity, and what he was told could have been 900 years rather than 9000. This would put the date claimed by the Egyptians reasonably close to the actual date of the Thera explosion of 1650 BC. At the time of the explosion, the Minoan maritime civilization did indeed dominate Athens, which was one of the few Mycenean city-states to survive into Classical times.

Very approximate shape of pre-eruption Thera.
Is this a picture of Atlantis city? From the Marine Festival fresco in Akrotiri. Click on the thumbnail to see a bigger version.

The island of concentric rings. Other than coral atolls centred on a volcanic peak, ring islands are unusual, and islands with multiple rings are almost unknown. However, Thera seems to have been such an island. According to modern geological reconstruction (as shown in the Santorini archaeological museum) there was an almost complete outer ring of land, an inner ring forming a substantial part of a complete circle, and a central volcanic peak.

In Akrotiri, a fresco was found that seems to show a Naval Festival similar to the annual Venetian marriage of the City to the Sea. I interpret it as showing a festival fleet travelling to Knossos for some special occasion. A part of this fresco (at right) shows a ring of water between an inner city (Atlantis?) from which the fleet is departing, and an outer stretch of land. What may be a second ring of water is ambiguous--it might represent hillcrests from which a river flows. Plato says there were two water rings. He cannot have known personally of any island anywhere that had a concentric ring structure, so it is remarkable that he mentioned rings at all, let alone the two water rings that seem to have existed in pre-explosion Thera.

The Eastern plain: Plato mentions a large, fertile plain to the south of the island, protected from the north winds by the mountain. Santorini has such a plain, but it is to the east, though there is a smaller one south of the pre-existing mountain of Meso Vouno. The eastern plain was probably appreciably larger before its western half was covered with tens of metres of ashfall. Plato's dimensions for the plain were far too large to fit onto Santorini, but this is the same kind of discrepancy, for possibly the same reason, as the obviously wrong 9000 BC date for the domination of Athens by Atlantis.

The modern shape of Santorini, showing the location of the central volcano and suggesting the main ashfall areas.

The shape of Atlantis after the destruction. After the explosion, which threw about 32 cubic km of rock into the sky, Thera consisted only of a fragmentary outer ring. consisting of one large island arc, one moderate island and one tiny island. At present, it has a central volcano in the form of two small islands, but this volcano did not break the surface until centuries after Plato died. Here is what Plato said:" A land carried round in a circle and disappeared in the depths below. By comparison to what then was, there are remaining in small islets only the bones of the wasted body, as they may be called, all the richer and softer parts of the soil having fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the country being left."

Impassable barriers of mud in the sea after the explosion. Similar effects were observed after the explosion of Krakatoa, in Indonesia, in the 19th century AD. The barriers were actually floating islands of pumice. There should have been many such scattered in the regional seas after the Theran explosion.

Elephants. Plato mentions elephants as having lived on Atlantis. They do not live now on Santorini, but Pygmy elephants had lived on Thera before the explosion, and Egyptian paintings show people of Kheftiu bearing gifts of elephant tusks. The reference could have been either to Crete (Kheftiu) or to Thera.

Running water: Plato mentions hot and cold running water. Akrotiri seems to have had these, the hot being derived from hot springs. Present day Santorini has no springs, hot or otherwise (though there are underwater hot springs near the central volcano), since the rainwater percolates directly into the tufa rock that derived from the Thera ashfall. However, not only did the Therans have running water, they also seem to have had flush toilets, according to Pellegrini.

Orichalcum. Plato used the strange word "orichalcum" to refer to some very costly material, but he did not know what it was. He said: "In the first place, they dug out of the earth whatever was to be found there, solid as well as fusile, and that which is now only a name and was then something more than a name, orichalcum, was dug out of the earth in many parts of the island, being more precious in those days than anything except gold." Plato said that it was used to highlight the walls of the citadel, but mostly as interior decoration in the temple, on the ceiling and to coat pillars and walls. Either Plato invented the word "orichalc" or he copied it literally from his source. Either possibility could be contemplated, were it not for the existence of a tablet from Byblos in a script called Gublitic, which has many characters in common with the Masons' Marks found in the Minoan palaces. The tablet is dated around 1700-1900 BC. In it a craftsman extolls the virtue of his own work. Translated and transliterated into English, it reads in part: "These are the words of Lilu: ... The crown of orichalc of the altar I have engraved. This work Lilu has done for the honour of his family..." (E. Doblhofer, Voices in Stone, New York, Viking Press, 1961, p226). Lilu of Byblos used orichalc in the temple, the way Plato says the Atlanteans used it, if more sparingly than did the Atlanteans. Orichalc was evidently a precious commodity in Byblos at the time we assume Atlantis to have been in its glory, if indeed Atlantis was a combination of the Minoan trading empire and the island of Thera. And Byblos traded with the Minoans. Could Lilu's orichalc have come from Thera?

The caldera wall from the volcano, showing some of the rock colours.

Rock colours: Plato said "The stone which was used for the work they quarried from underneath the centre of the island and from underneath the zones of land on the outer as well as the inner side. One kind of stone was white, another black, and a third red." He also said that the city walls were decorated with brass, tin and for the inner citadel, with orichalcum. The predominant colours of buildings in the Akrotiri frescos are black, white, and red, with yellow decoration at least in the "Marine Festival" fresco. Likewise, the fresco of the "Lilies" shows the rock base on which they grow as having red and black lava flows over a white background.

The elegance of Atlantis: Plato makes considerable play of the wealth and artistic elegance of Atlantis. The only archaeological record of pre-eruption Thera we have comes from the excavation of what is thought to be about 3% of what remained of Akrotiri after the inner part blew into the sky, near the ancient south coast of Thera.

What was initially found in Akrotiri led the original excavators under Spyros Marinatos to think they had hit palaces. Only after more excavation did they come to realize that what they had found was typical of the town, and the "palaces" were just houses to the people who lived there. Beautiful, fluidly painted frescos were found in many of the houses. If the hypothesis is correct that the main city was on the central volcano, then Akrotiri was only an outer suburb connected to it by bridges, perhaps a coastal resort town for the rich. Even now, the inner coast at Akrotiri is the lowest part of the caldera wall, and thus the easiest place to build a bridge from the inner ring or the central island,

A plaster cast of a Theran table of 1650 BC (coloured by me to make it look like wood)

Akrotiri was covered by ash in the same way as was Pompeii, 1729 years later. And as happened in Pompeii, some items were covered and encased by the ashfall, but decayed away over the following centuries. When they had decayed away, they left pockets in the ash that later archaeologists could fill with plaster to recover the shape of the person or thing that had been buried. In Akrotiri there were no buried people, but there was buried furniture. A plaster cast of one table that would not have been out of place in a wealthy Victorian drawing room is in the Santorini archeological museum in Fira.

There are several other details that correspond either with Thera or with what we know of the Minoans. The relevant portion of the Critias is here, with comments on the correspondences or discrepancies (copied from the Gutenberg Project version)

Speculative interpretation of the legend

Thera was never the centre of a mighty empire. It was a rich, heavily Minoanized island deeply in the cultural orbit of Minoan Crete. Along with other islands in the Aegean, as well as Cyprus and the Levantine coast as far inland as at least Ebla, the culture was descended from the matrilineal "Goddess" culture that established itself in the Balkans after the Black Sea Flood of 5550BC. The island of Thera did indeed vanish in a single day, as the legend says of Atlantis, but the empire that was destroyed was Cretan, not Theran. The Egyptians might not have known the difference. They would have been told of the fabulously rich island that disappeared, and they would have known at first hand that the Kheftiu people stopped coming. Then they would have seen that the Kheftiu people who started to come once more were dressed in Greek rather than Cretan style, and that the Cretan empire was now dominated by Greece.. It would have been easy for them to assume that the Athenians had beated the Kheftiu in battle, and to backtrack from there to the assumption that there had been war between them.

In Crete there were four major palace/temple complexes. Malia and Zakros on the coast facing Thera, Knossos at the head of a valley about 8 km inland, and Phaestos on a high hill shoulder on the south side of the island. When Thera exploded, 32 cubic km of rock went up into the air, and much of that had been below sea level. There was an enormous hole into which the sea rushed, and from which a huge tidal wave emerged. In some places, including Turkey, evidence shows that the wave hit heights of 250m, or over 800 ft. It would have simply overwhelmed Malia (especially) and Zakros (which was somewhat protected by an offshore island), and might well have funnelled up the valley to reach Knossos as well. The tsunami could not have affected Phaestos.

The tsunami was not the only destructive force to hit Crete. All the palaces burned at around that time. Presumably they would not have burned after having been hit by a wall of water. There are two possibilities. It is not unlikely that severe earthquakes hit Crete either simultaneously with the Thera explosion or shortly before or after. Earthquakes often cause fires, from upset oil lamps that set light to broken wooden beams or papyrus screens, and the like. The other, more esoteric, possiblility, is a pyroclastic flow--a high-speed dump of exceedingly hot air loaded with ash that can burn tens of kilometers from even such a relatively small explosion as Mt. St. Helens. Crete is about 100 km from Thera, and the sea surface would present no significant obstacle to a big pyroclastic blast. As Pellegrini demonstrates, in a flow from a mountain like Mt. St. Helens or Pelée, and one would suppose from Thera, balls of 1200 degree gas can exist mere metres from air cool enough to breathe. Such a blast could well have crossed the Cretan mountains and burned Phaestos while not burning buildings nearer the blast centre. But such a blast should have left a trademark ash layer behind it, and there is no clear evidence of one, whereas there is evidence of a more general ashfall from the volcanic cloud.

The third kind of disaster to hit Crete was the ashfall. Even though the major ashfall was toward present-day Turkey, Crete did not escape. The central and Eastern part of the island were blanketed with enough ash to destroy the agriculture for several seasons. This, indeed, may have been as devastating to the Minoan civilization as the destruction of the palaces, if not more so. The palaces had been destroyed in major earthquakes and rebuilt previously, most recently a couple of centuries before the Theran explosion. This time, they were not rebuilt, except Knossos. Phaestos was superseded by the nearby Agia Triada, and Malia and Zakros simply disappeared.

In previous destructions of the palace-temples, the hinterland was more or less unaffected. Agriculture had continued. This time, much of the agriculture was destroyed, as well as the administrative structures that could have coordinated disaster relief. One can imagine that there was mass starvation and perhaps local fighting over what small resources remained. No such records exist, at least none that we can read, but neither do records exist to the contrary. What we know is that prior to the destruction, what tablets we have are written in Linear A, but those from after the destruction are in Linear B. Linear B was used to write Greek, whereas Linear A was used to write some unknown language, presumably the native language of the Minoans. Some names on tablets in Linear B are found also on Linear A tablets, but none of those duplicated names are of Greek form. Greeks had come to Crete, either for disaster relief or as conquerors. Either way, they ran the administration in Greek, rather than Minoan, fashion. Knossos dominated and kept central records for all except the eastern and western ends of the island of Crete.

The eastern Mediterranean, showing the relative positions of Egypt, Crete, Cyprus, and Byblos--and Thera.

What would this have looked like from outside, say from Cyprus or Byblos? Both places would have felt the effects of the explosion in the form of the tsunami and the ashfall, but not so disastrously as Crete, much closer to the explosion centre. Byblos sailors would perhaps have sailed afterwards to Thera, expecting their normal trading welcome, and found the island no longer there, except for what Plato calls a "skeleton" of its former self. They would have been baffled by the "mud barriers" of floating pumice, and they would have reported the miracle of a vanishing island, an island of great wealth and culture. That report would have found its way to Egypt, through the regular Byblos trade.

The Egyptians, meanwhile, had been trading with the Kheftiu, from another island of great wealth and culture, and suddenly the people of Kheftiu stopped coming. It would not have been hard for them to have put two and two together, making five, and think that the great empire of Kheftiu had been the place that disappeared under the sea. The fact that some years later, people again came from Kheftiu, but now in Greek dress and with Greek manners, would not have dispelled that impression. It would, however, have allowed them to think, and to add to the story, that the Greeks had in some way overcome the empire based on the disappearing island. And that is what they told to Solon.

What remains in question is the name of the vanishing island and the location that the name implies. Because it was called "Atlantis" and was said to lie beyond "The Pillars of Hercules" many modern people have thought it must lie in the Atlantic Ocean. But one has to remember that both "Atlantis" and "Pillars of Hercules" are Greek names, not Egyptian, and that they relate to Greek Mythology, not Egyptian. Both "Atlantis" and "Atlantic" relate to the Titan Atlas, who held up the world, but they do not relate to each other in any more direct way.

The Egyptians at the time of the explosion could not have written anything about the Straits of Gibraltar, which is what we nowadays take to be the "Pillars of Hercules." The Egyptians then knew of nothing so far west. Even Crete itself was further west than they really knew about, though one or two Egyptians do seem to have visited there. Kheftiu, to them, was "beyond the Great Green". What they may have told Solon was that the disappearing island was further west than the furthest known land. To Solon, and to the Egyptians of his day, "the furthest known land" would be the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar). And that was what Solon told Critias's grandfather. But to the Egyptians who originally formulated the tale, the westernmost known land was much closer to home. In fact, for them, Santorini and Crete may well have been further west than the furthest lands they knew.

To me, it seems highly probable that Thera/Santorini was the disappearing island that Plato called "Atlantis" whereas Minoan Crete was the "Atlantean" empire that was destroyed.

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