I’ve been fascinated with Atlantis all of my life. If you are, too, you might enjoy this short history I wrote about Atlantis in myth and fact.
Atlantis has remained the subject of debate – and inspiration – for thousands of years. Writers like Francis Bacon saw in Atlantis much the same things that Plato might have: A great allegorical story that could be easily used to comment on contemporary society. Bacon’s book The New Atlantis described an island off the coast of the Americas that was home to Bensalem, a utopian society explicitly compared to Atlantis by one of the book’s characters.
Even in the 1600s most people understood that Bacon’s book was allegory, but there were some who either began to believe or already believed that the great indigenous nations of Central America were a legacy of the Atlanteans. Other ancient civilizations became subject to Atlantean speculation in time, either as recipients of Atlantis’ cultural legacy or as possible inspiration for the Atlantis myth. The discovery of the remains of the city of Troy – a city once considered mythical – by German archaeologist Heinrich Schleimann 1871 gave some credence to the possibility that perhaps the old Greek myths held more than a grain of truth. Perhaps, then, historians shouldn’t discount folk memory as repositories of truth.
Author and politician Ignatius Donnelly took this idea and ran with it, publishing the incredibly popular Atlantis: The Antediluvian World in 1882. Donnelly suggested that not only was Atlantis fact, it was the cradle of civilization. According to Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, an enormous catastrophe sank the continent beneath the waves and its people scattered across the world bringing culture and technology to primitive tribesmen. It was an attractive idea for European readers who were confused – and perhaps a little intimidated – by the impressive remnants of supposedly primitive non-European peoples. In some ways, Donnelly’s book may have preserved the idea of Western civilization’s superiority.