Introduction: Explaining Atlantis
The nation/city/island of Atlantis was used by Plato as an allegory in one of his works, and has since become incredibly popular and widely known. Though many of us have not read the original myth, most are familiar with the idea of Atlantis: a nation of great learning and pride that angered the gods and was subsequently sunk beneath the waves as punishment. Atlantis as ruin, and as a hidden civilization, has captured the imagination of many writers, archaeologists, historians, philosophers, and others. Ultimately, it was a fictional place, but many have interpreted Plato’s inspiration as coming from a real place due to its popularity among the many flood myths in history.
There are a lot of proposed locations for the mythical Atlantis, but also Atlantis has become a term for lost civilizations that may have been flooded/sunken to the ocean floor. As a maritime archaeologist, my peers largely use Atlantis as an easy explanation when discussing seafaring civilizations whose material culture may be on the seafloor and undiscovered–often we don’t literally mean the society of Atlantis from Plato’s work, but want to inspire the imagery of ruins and lives cut short by a tragic flood.
The Popularity of Atlantis
The legend of Atlantis has clearly captured our minds for hundreds of years, I mean, we’re still talking about it! I was at a beautiful museum exhibit at the Moesgaard Museum in Denmark just about two years ago and an exhibit about the general history of the area even began by telling the myth of Atlantis and hypothesizing where the city may have been located. One of the first books I reviewed on this blog was an adventure novel focused on discovering a Mycenaean Atlantis. The idea of an advanced human civilization living long before us is captivating, it taps into the idea that human beings have always been capable of the greatness we imagine they are. But the story is literally an allegory for hubris and the dangers that come with being too proud to see the signs of the world crumbling around us.
In modern popular culture, Atlantis pops up in a few core representations. There’s the Disney movie, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, as well as its sequel film. There was a brief BBC series about Atlantis produced following the show Merlin (by some of the same writers as well) that took a more Greek inspired approach. Lots of time travel, fantasy, and science fiction shows approach Atlantis in one way or another–even looking into similar myths and cultural influences from other flood myths. Atlantis appears in countless paintings, songs, poems, literary works, and more. Ayn Rand, J.R.R. Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, H.P. Lovecraft, Neil Gaiman, Eoin Colfer, K.A. Applegate, and Marvel and DC Comics have all made allusions to Atlantis from hints that Atlantis exists in the canon of their fictional worlds to confirmed characters and places from Atlantis.
For an Atlantis retelling, you’ve got a few basic factors you need to have covered to really qualify. First and foremost, the setting must be some sort of ancient city with a developed society. This is up to individual interpretation, and the source of cultural inspiration varies; Greco-Roman inspired tends to be popular, as well as a sort of cultural basis for several ancient cultures, drawing inspiration from other civilizations near the Mediterranean. Once the setting is developed, the factor of hubris comes into play. Some stories approach the idea of Atlantis as a colonizing war state, finally inspiring its enemies to rise up against their advanced warfare. Others use divine intervention, portraying the Atlanteans as scholars who eschew the gods and are punished for it.
Ultimately, most Atlantis retellings focus on the post-flood city. They focus on outside explorers who rediscover the mythical lost city/civilization, or at least piece together the cultural mystery of Atlantis and discover its final resting place. Atlantis is most often portrayed as a still-surviving civilization, one that has hidden from the rest of the world for one reason or another. More “realistic” portrayals instead explore the idea of finding the ruins of Atlantis, rediscovering some of the advanced technology and cultural artifacts left behind. For stories that do take place pre-flood the story tends to focus on the build up to the flood, exploring the idea of hubris and determining what part of the collapse of Atlantis is the fault of the Atlanteans.
The original story of Atlantis had a purpose, and the way the myth has grown and captivated others for so long indicates that there’s still plenty of merit to it. Human beings continue to obsess over the idea of a highly sophisticated and advanced civilization calling down the wrath of the gods and being buried under the waves. I think some retellings have a lot of merit when they explore the consequences of the fate of the city for individuals, especially depending on what the Atlanteans ignored that could have saved them.
Do you have a favorite retelling of the Atlantis myth?