Senior Sem Journal: The History of (the Idea of) Atlantis

Today we’ll return to our ongoing series of posts by students in our capstone course, Senior Seminar. At this point in the semester, students are reading articles, essays, and books by other scholars who have researched their topics, trying to get a handle on historiographical debates and methodological challenges.

The following post comes from Matthew Nelson (’12), who is researching the history of the “lost city” of Atlantis — or, perhaps more properly, the history of the idea of Atlantis, which goes back at least as far as the great Greek philosopher Plato. In this entry in his seminar journal, he summarizes two articles on the subject and starts to identify some crucial debates about Atlantis.

Alan Cameron’s “Crantor and Posidonius on Atlantis”[1] examines Plato’s tale of Atlantis by examining some of his earliest commentators, Crantor and Posidonius, who both supported Plato to different extents. Cameron examines Crantor’s support of Plato’s account and his Crantor’s evidence and refers to his contemporaries.  He then continues to look at what Posidonius has to say in his On the Ocean. One specific chapter examines earthquakes and tsunamis, which Plato asserts were responsible for the destruction of Atlantis. Cameron notes that Posidonius, rather than supporting Plato’s claim of Atlantis’ existence, asserts that it is scientifically possible. Cameron concludes by criticizing Crantor’s belief in a literal Atlantis, asserting that Posidonius should not be considered a true believer in Atlantis, and suggesting that Plato’s Atlantis is merely an allegory.

J. Gwyn Griffiths’ “Atlantis and Egypt”[2] suggests that Atlantis was not an allegory.  He suggests that Plato’s account is based on an actual civilization, but rather than a unique civilization on a now-collapsed island, he sees a number of similarities that he connects to Egypt, specifically the New Kingdom. He points to governmental structure, the use of chariots, and divine kings as some indications of Atlantis’ possible Egyptian origins.

One of the biggest disagreements I can see is about the literal existence of Atlantis.  On one side, some people view Atlantis as completely allegorical, while others believe Plato’s account is a historical account of a destroyed civilization.  Still others believe that Plato’s Atlantis did not exist exactly as he described, drawing connections between Plato’s accounts and other civilizations and locations; some even suggest that Plato was referring to Scandinavian “Hypoboreans.”  The approaches also vary, drawing on everything from geographic or historical research to fantastic material from séances or visions.

Among those who believe in a certain general belief (literal, allegorical, etc.) there is still a wide range of varying opinions. For instance, among those who believe a literal Atlantis existed, the location of the island varies widely from in the Atlantic Ocean to Scandinavia to the American continent.  Almost every Atlantean scholar has a different opinion and different evidence to support it.

[1] Alan Cameron, “Crantor and Posidonius on Atlantis,” The Classical Quarterly, New Series 33 (1983): 81–91.

[2] J.P. Griffiths, “Atlantis and Egypt,” Historia 34 (1985): 35f.

– Matthew Nelson

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