The quest for Atlantis

Athens the birthplace of Atlantis

No one knew better than Plato how to invent a ‘noble lie’.

(Benjamin Jowett, M.A)

Atlantis; the most elusive island in history.

Randomly put your finger down on a map and I could probably find you an interpretation of Plato’s Dialogues stating why Atlantis is exactly where your finger is. 

The variation of locations attributed to Atlantis throughout history is staggering. From Africa, Spain, the Caribbeans, Bolivia, Antarctica, to the Atlantic… Many great minds have studied Atlantis, elaborated theories as to its whereabouts and have insisted on the existence of this lost Eden where human culture reached a pinnacle, fell, and has not yet returned.

But what is the true location of Atlantis?

Original Atlantis book Timaeus
Timaeus (360BC) tells the first tale of Atlantis.

Plato’s ideal.

The first accounts of Atlantis appear in Plato’s Socratic dialogue in two parts: Timaeus and Critias (360BC).

At the beginning of Timaeus, Plato mentions Atlantis for the first time: “Then listen, Socrates, to a tale which, though strange, is certainly true, having been attested by Solon… For these histories tell of a mighty power… This power came forth out of the Atlantic Ocean, for in those days the Atlantic was navigable; and there was an island situated in front of the straits which are by you called the Pillars of Heracles; the island was larger than Libya and Asia put together… Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others, and over parts of the continent, and, furthermore, the men of Atlantis had subjected the parts of Libya within the columns of Heracles as far as Egypt, and of Europe as far as Tyrrhenia….. But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea.”

In Critias, Plato goes into greater detail about Atlantis’ geography and wealth: “…they had such an amount of wealth as was never before possessed by kings and potentates, and is not likely ever to be again… For because of the greatness of their empire many things were brought to them from foreign countries, and the island itself provided most of what was required by them for the uses of life. In the first place, they dug out of the earth whatever was to be found there, solid as well as fusile… orichalcum was dug out of the earth in many parts of the island, being more precious in those days than anything except gold. There was an abundance of wood… there were a great number of elephants… there was provision for all other sorts of animals… Also whatever fragrant things there now are in the earth, whether roots, or herbage, or woods, or essences which distill from fruit and flower, grew and thrived in that land; also the fruit.. we call them all by the common name pulse, and the fruits having a hard rind, affording drinks and meats and ointments, and good store of chestnuts and the like… that sacred island… brought forth fair and wondrous and in infinite abundance. With such blessings the earth freely furnished them…”

Atlantis was born. Not a tale, but a true story.

On the tale of Atlantis, Plato received no critique from his contemporaries and Aristotle, Plato’s student, never dismissed Plato’s Atlantis as fiction, on the contrary, Thorwald C. Franke argues that Aristotle “expresses support for many relevant details that suggest he is far from denying the existence of Plato’s Atlantis.”

Other eminent philosophers accepted the tale of Atlantis as history.

H.S. Bellamy has found over 100 Atlantis references in post-Platonic classical literature.

Plato’s Atlantis passed the test of time.  

There was little discussion of Atlantis after the 6th century but two events in the 15th  century helped to resuscitate interest for Atlantis.

The first was Marsilio Ficino’s translation of Plato’s work into Latin, and the second was the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus. People now suddenly understood that the world was so much larger than they had originally thought and Atlantis promised limitless riches waiting to be discovered. Who wouldn’t dream of finding paradise?

The earliest map we have of Atlantis came from a German Jesuit in 17th-century Rome: Athanasius Kircher. Intensely pious, he was a polymath and a prolific author. Kircher had a theory by which the Earth was like a living body and water flew in and out of the Earth. Establishing Atlantis on his map was mainly to help advance his theory.

Atlantis became more palpable.

Old Atlantis map from 17th Century
1664 Upside down map of Atlantis by the scholar Athanasius Kircher.
Map of Atlantis dated 1675
Map from 1675, Amsterdam, by Athanasius Kircher showing Atlantis between Spain and America, with enlargement of Atlantis’ location.

Bory de St Vincent, an educated French politician and naturalist, believed Atlantis to be the original home of all civilisation.

In his book “Essais sur les isles fortunées”, he theorises that the island of Atlantis had suffered two blows. The first, after a volcanic eruption in the Mediterranean that reduced the Island by half. The second, after the Atlanteans were defeated by the Athenians and what was left of Atlantis sank, leaving only the islands of the Canaries, Madeiras, and the Azores as remnants.

Bory de St Vincent might have gotten his idea from J.P de Tournefort who, a century earlier, suggested that an earthquake in the Mediterranean had sent a rush of water to wash over Atlantis.

Bory de St Vincent illustrated a map: “Carte conjecturale de l’Atlantide”, to support his argument.

Original map of Atlantis dated 1803
Map locating Atlantis (1803) taken from “ESSAIS SUR LES ISLES FORTUNÉES.” (p. 427) by Jean Baptiste Bory de Saint-Vincent.

The interest for Atlantis was reignited with further passion by American Congressman Ignatius L. Donnelly when he published his very popular book: Atlantis: The Antediluvian World in 1882. Donnely took Plato’s myth and ran with it. He embellished the myth, created new connections between the Atlanteans and the Mayans and basically created the great Atlantis as we think of it today.

Donnely didn’t argue with Plato’s location for Atlantis, and in his book, we find a map that locates Atlantis where it is said to be in Timaeus.

Map from Donnely showing Atlantis
Map from Ignatius Donnely’s book: Atlantis: the Antediluvian World, 1882.

In 1885, the President of Boston University, William F. Warren, wrote a book called: Paradise Found: “the Cradle of the Human Race at the North Pole” (1885) in which he suggested Atlantis and the birthplace of the humankind be located at the North Pole.

Because nobody had ever been there, Warren’s suppositions were taken very seriously. A race began to become the first to reach the unknown arctic landscape in the hopes of gaining fame and fortune. Wealthy individuals and public fascination fueled the race to the North which took off in the 1900s.

After many, many disastrous, and some more successful expeditions to the North Pole, it was concluded that Atlantis wasn’t waiting in the land of walruses.

In 1896,  a theosophist, William Scott-Elliot, wrote The Story of Atlantis (1896) to support the concept of root races by Helena Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society. Based on the “astral clairvoyance” of fellow theosophist Charles Webster Leadbeater, Scott-Elliot seriously fleshed out Plato’s Atlantis to fit the Theosophical Society’s beliefs.

After that, Atlantis became a regular fixture in bodies of Western esotericism.

Scott-Elliot created a series of four maps that show four periods: Atlantis in its Prime (below), Atlantis in its decadence, Atlantis after it splits into two islands: Ruta and Daitya, and his last map is of the Island of Ruta becoming Poseidonis.

Atlantis in its prime map
First Map Period when the Atlantean Race was at its height by Scott-Elliot (1895).

By the early 20th century, the Atlantis myth had taken a life of its own. It belonged to anyone and everyone. 

But technology eventually allowed us to look at the seafloor. Atlantic ocean geophysical and deep ocean surveys have shown that there is no possibility for an island to be sunken in that area.

atlantic ocean floor mapped
Ocean floor mapping of the Atlantic Ocean with no signs of the Lost City of Atlantis.

Not that any amount of proof could destroy the faith of the true believer!

An Atlantis called Thera?

Some archeologists believe that Thera could have been Plato’s Atlantis. Thera, now known as Santorini (a small Greek island in the Aegean sea), was destroyed during the Minoan volcanic eruption around 1600 BCE.

The discovery of Akrotiri on Thera, a city which like Pompei was buried and preserved under tons of volcanic ash has reinforced this belief. It was revealed that the Minoan Civilisation was wealthy, powerful and possibly warlike. That would match Plato’s description of the Atlanteans.

However, the location of Thera does not coincide with Plato’s description of where Atlantis was supposed to be: in front of the pillars of Hercules (the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar). 

Fresco of Plato's Atlantis Thera
Fresco dated 1550 BCE representing ships passing Akrotiri, a Minoan settlement on Thera. It also depicts a lush and diverse flora and fauna consistent with Plato’s description of Atlantis in Critias.

So, is Atlantis just a myth? A vision of what Plato’s ideal society would look like. A morality tale, one of Plato’s ‘noble lies’ as described in his Republic.

Atlantis might have come to Plato in a quest to educate and warn democracies against the greed that fuels military expansion. Plato knew that few are capable of understanding, or even interested, in philosophical discourse, whereas everyone loves a good story. 

Yes, Plato’s Atlantis was… but “its inventor caused it to disappear.”

Catherine x


  • Timaeus, Plato
  • Critias, Plato
  • The genre of the Atlantis Story, Christopher Gill.
  • Essais sur les isles fortunées, Bory de St Vincent.
  • Aristotle and Plato’s Atlantis, Thorwald C, Franke.
  • Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, Ignatius L. Donnelly.
  • The Phantom Atlas, Edward Brooke-Hitching.
  • Lost Continents, L. Sprague De Camp.
  • A Study of the Life and Works of Athanasius Kircher, ‘Germanus Incredibilis’, John Edward Fletcher.
  • Wikimedia & Wikipedia.

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