Tuesday, March 10, 2009


January 15, 1996

Despite the scores of books written on Atlantis, and I’ve read all of them, I’ve come to the conclusion, as many have, that Plato has taken us for a ride. We’ve enjoyed the ride, of course, in the same way we enjoy any good tale, especially those that hint of the magical. Eventually, however, we have to come to the conclusion that it is just a tale.

Two powerful factors have kept the legend of Atlantis alive over the centuries. One is the ability of great storytellers to weave a fabric so tantalizingly real it seizes our collective imagination and won’t let go. Sometimes these stories can acquire a reality so compelling and so reflective of the human condition they eventually become the star-seed stuff around which great myths form.

Plato , Aristotle..... Bust of Plato

Such is the case with Plato’s Atlantis. Although we think of Plato as a philosopher, he was also a master storyteller. One mark of his greatness lies in the fact he is so artless it is easy to mistake his fiction for fact.

One has only to compare I.F. Stone’s description of Socrates (as an acerbic gadfly living a dangerously foolish life in politically-charged Athens) with the idealized Socrates of Plato’s Dialogues to see a master storyteller at work. Like Castenada’s Don Juan, Plato’s Socrates has no faults.

He is a force of nature, focused on cutting the dross away until there is nothing left but the nagging realization that we can never really know anything. Under the sinuous questioning of Plato’s Socrates, all the proposed definitions of Love, Beauty, Courage, indeed Truth itself, dissolve into a fog of contradictions.

The Books of Carlos Castenada

It shouldn’t surprise us then to find Plato’s prose remarkably similar to Carlos Castenada’s. Both cast themselves as reporters. Their stories are always grounded with known verifiable facts: places, times, names, events, but not so much as to ever let you get both feet on the ground. The way Plato covers his tracks as to how the story of Atlantis was handed down to him is masterful. Castaneda is equally adept at covering his tracks. More to the point, the deceptively simple prose of both authors harbors a genius capable of suddenly leaving you wondering, looking up at the leaves.
Atlantis in the highlands of Peru

Despite the difference in terminology and the physical worlds they inhabited, as artists, Plato and Castenada would have understood each other completely.

Both are master storytellers who achieve much of their effect through the employment of archetypes that resonate within us like a tuning fork. In Castaneda's case, he draws his reader in by employing the archetypal form of a mysterious, prophetic landscape (the desert) and an archetypal shaman (Don Juan) with psychic powers.

Plato’s story of Atlantis is driven by a slightly different archetype: our instinctive belief that there exists, or did exist, a superior race or civilization. That is one reason we can’t put the story down. Plato lights up his archetypal fire and we resonate to it instinctively..

This is what has kept Atlantis alive through the centuries. For Plato as artist, it didn't hurt that in his time there were many stories circulating about disasters that had brought civilizations, or cities, to an end,. even disasters like the explosion at Santorini, which took place long before the Greeks learned to read or write, because these stories became part of an ongoing oral tradition which continued right thru Plato's literate time.

Tidal waves and volcanic eruptions were a part of many disaster stories

Although Plato lived in a literate time, some 600 years after the Greeks discovered writing, we have to remember that few could read and write, so everyday Greece remained essentially an oral culture where the air was filled with spoken stories, from common gossip to great spoken poems of Homer, The Illiad and The Odyssey.

Homer's great epic poems filled the Greek marketplace

So in Plato’s time, we would find a mix of stories floating in the spoken marketplace. Some were stories of disasters, and some of ancestors, and giants, and Gods. Think of them as ancient oral soap operas that were continually being played. It was a heady mixture. So when Plato was ready to spin his own disaster story, he had plenty of inspiration.
The Greek marketplace was afloat with disaster stories

Nothing pleases a master storyteller more than to be surrounded by a vast fog of related stories. They provide the foundation for the successful launching of an even better story. We need look no further than Shakespeare to see how true this is. His masterpieces were built on the stories of others.

Although there are no contemporary accounts of Atlantis other than Plato’s, we shouldn’t be surprised. Little has survived from Plato’s time, but even more to the point, Plato’s story was not the kind of thing that would have caused a commotion.

Disaster stories filled the marketplace
Many related disaster stories would have been in existence. Plato’s was just one more, but a very small one, because we have to remember that Plato’s story was written and therefore would have been read by only a few. It may have never become a part of the general gossip and oral tradition that continued well into the literate period of Greece. 

Again, there were no printing presses, only a few handwritten copies. If Plato’s writings hadn’t been by some miracle passed down to us, there would have been no Atlantis.

Yet the story somehow survived and continues to fascinate us.. As I've suggested earlier, our continued fascination with Plato's Atlantis is fueled not so much by its destruction, which was a commonplace occurrence, but by our archetypal instinctive belief, or suspicion, that a superior race, or civilization, exists, or did exist somewhere in the past.

A tale of mere destruction (in newspaper parlance) is dog bites man. Who cares? But a tale of a mysterious, superior civilization is man bites dog. That's news

By our instinctive archetypal belief in hidden superior civilizations I don't mean our instinctive belief that a superior intelligence or being exists who orders the universe (God). That belief is concerned with a non-physical, spiritual entity.

The belief I'm talking about is an archetypal instinctive belief in the physical existence of a superior race or civilization. What gave birth to this instinct is hard to say, but I suspect it happened very early in our evolutionary development.

Some of it may be due to early man's repeated discovery of large fossil bones dinosaurs and the like) which he took to be the bones of Giants. Those discoveries could have led very easily to a belief that these Giants had giant intellects as well.

The psychic archetypes or instincts that would be formed as a result of these ongoing discoveries (and our endlessly repeated stories about them) would eventually become part of the human instincts or archetypes that inhabit our collective unconscious.

But there is still another circumstance that could have led to the forming of this instinct, and that is the discovery by early humans of other tribes of humans who were much further advanced along the evolutionary scale i.e., others who knew things or could figure out things that simply dazzled the less advanced humans who happened upon them.

To think that all of the descendents of the First Mother(s) evolved at the same rate is highly unlikely. What we most probably had in the beginning were competing chains of human development.

What would happen, then , on occasion, is that tribes or clans from competing chains would discover each other and be immediately aware of the difference. That would have been a much deeper emotional experience than discovering large bones.

The stories that would have been spun out of those experiences would be full of wonder and fear, the best fuel for archetype formation.

Plato’s Atlantis is a fiction that takes advantage of that archetype of a hidden superior race or civilization. His Atlantis is indeed an advanced civilization, thousands of years older and yet far superior to Plato’s Greece in every aspect.

The Egyptians were supposed source of Atlantis Story

If the archetype is the bait that Plato casts in front of his readers, the wiggle that makes it truly irresistible is Plato's claim the Egyptian priests were the source of the Atlantis story. We have to remember that the Greeks and their contemporaries were awed by Egyptian civilization. I think it’s fair to say the Greeks felt the Egyptians knew things the Greeks and other civilizations didn’t.

For one thing, the sheer antiquity of the Egyptian civilization was almost unthinkable. Their knowledge of the soul, the world behind the world, was respected if not completely understood by others, including the super-logical Greeks. 

Thus Plato’s superior, Olympus-like Atlantis is served up to the Greeks through the hands of the mystical, mysterious Egyptians, who knew things they didn’t. That combination was the final, convincing twist for hooking the Greeks, or so Plato hoped. 

Today, we’re not as impressed as the Greeks undoubtedly were with the paternity of Plato’s story. We respect the Egyptians for their art and their pyramids, but see everything else about them as religious gobbledygook.

Deep sea scan of sunken city
Still, Plato was able to include enough pieces of the disaster soap operas that were floating all around him to create an archetypal Atlantis with enough real characteristics to drive future western scholars to continually declare they have finally discovered the location of the real Atlantis. 

 We mustn’t forget that those disaster soap operas contained real facts of geography, time, flora, fauna, climate, behavior, architecture, not to mention the disasters themselves. Plato picked from them like a plate of olives. He was one clever devil.

Atlantis off Bermuda

These "facts" impress us much more than the story’s supposed Egyptian’ paternity. We are great digesters of facts. What’s more, we have a great store of modern facts to run them against. New Atlantis locations are deduced every few years. Edgar Cayce picked up on some of the olives and declared Bermuda to be Atlantis. Cayce was correct of course; he picked up psychically on one of the olives that pointed to such a disaster in the general area. of Bermuda. But he was also incorrect, because Plato’s Atlantis was made of many olives, each of them reflecting a different soap opera.

That is why I’ve never tried to psychically divine where Atlantis was located. I’d be at the mercy of the same olives as Edgar Cayce.

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