Imagining Atlantis

Katharine Whittemore reviews 'Imagining Atlantis' by Richard Ellis

Published July 3, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

This is a skeet shoot of a book. For if you target the subject of Atlantis -- there are some 2,000 to 10,000 Atlantean works out there -- you must explode endless philosophical clay pigeons. There are an infinite number of crackpot explanations regarding the lost city's location and demise, as marine expert Richard Ellis admits. God love him, he's game to compass all he can. But the task is just too Sisyphean; "Imagining Atlantis" reads like a long, heavy sigh. Then again, if you're a buff, it's downright handy. Ellis begins by walking us through Plato, who first mentioned "an island opposite ... the Pillars of Hercules, an island larger than Libya and Asia combined." Plato's Atlantis supposedly existed 9,000 years before he wrote that (though many "scholars" think he meant 900 years, which places Atlantis in the biblical era). It boasted great soil, fine crops and the wisest of citizens, who had covered its brilliant walls "with a veneer of bronze [and] fused tin."

Then an earthquake/flood, apparently, sunk it all into the sea. Was Plato talking about a real place or was he spinning a "noble lie" parable? Ellis himself believes Plato made the whole thing up, using Atlantis (whose aggression would bring a comeuppance) as an example of what could happen to his own hubristic Athens. The bulk of "Imagining Atlantis," however, chronicles the theories of literalists. Most take the "Pillars of Hercules" to mean Gibraltar. Some believe Atlantis was the Garden of Eden and that the few who escaped its ruination lived to create the Deluge and Flood legends; the most famous proponent of this hypothesis was Ignatius Donnelly, an eccentric Minnesota congressman whose 1882 tome, "Atlantis: The Antediluvian World," is still in print.

After Donnelly, Ellis tosses in everyone from Madame Blavatsky, the famous psychic -- she thought Atlantis was populated by a hermaphroditic race whose downfall came from the discovery of sex -- to archeologist Angelos Galanopolous, whose 1969 book posits, among other things, that eels offer a clue to Atlantis. Eels? The Sargasso Sea, where they are genetically programmed to breed, merely covers the freshwater rivers of Atlantis, where they originally spawned.

It gets weirder than eels, believe me. There's a hypothesis that pivots on bananas, another on Mayan deities, another on Antarctica. Einstein gets in on the act, plus Rachel Carson, Jacques Cousteau, Arthur C. Clarke, even Cokie Roberts (she and husband Steven V. Roberts wrote a 1976 New York Times piece about Atlantean research on the island of Thera, near Crete). Many Atlanticists now believe Plato meant the Aegean, not the Atlantic, and that the fabled lost civilization is on or near Crete; it was destroyed by a volcanic eruption on Santorini.

"Does it matter?" our dog-tired writer asks at the end. God knows, Atlantis is a hoary topic, yet as Ellis says, "It means so much to so many." Whence this noble effort.

By Katharine Whittemore

Katharine Whittemore is the editor of American Movie Classics magazine.

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