This fall, Britain will discover Atlantis. The makers of the television show Merlin are turning the age-old tale of a submerged city into a series (it will be called, unsurprisingly, Atlantis), which is slated to air in the United States in late 2013.
But this is only the latest in a long search to find Atlantis. The allegedly “lost” empire has had a hold on us for centuries. How? And, for that matter, why do people keep trying to find it?
Before it was a pop culture phenomenon, Atlantis was a legend. It first appeared in writing as a literary device in the Plato dialogues Critias and Timaeus, both of which are among his later writings. In the text, Critias, who, depending on the classics scholar to whom you’re speaking, may or may not be a representation of the historical figure Critias the tyrant, tells of a war that took place 9,000 years before Plato’s writing, between an ancient, land-power version of Athens and Atlantis, the sea power. In Plato’s telling, Atlantis, a city dripping in riches and marked by avarice, loses to virtuous Athens. Atlantis was subsequently destroyed by a nasty combination of an earthquake and a flood. At the time of writing, Athens was transforming from the birthplace of democracy into the invader of Sicily and the wager of war. Clearly, there was some sort of message to Athens in all of this, but classics scholars dispute what that message was: To some, it was a warning to democracies not to become overly concerned with military expansion; to others, a lament of the democratization that accompanies building a navy; and to still others, an Athenian origin story.
But the Plato story is only the beginning of the Atlantis we now know. Professor emeritus Alan Cameron of Columbia University says that the belief that Atlantis was a place that ever actually existed, as opposed to a literary device, came about around 1492. Whatever was in the air during the age of exploration—the idea that the world was filled with limitless and rich possibilities, there to be discovered by those who dared to look—transformed Atlantis from a Plato myth into a destination for discoverers. Read More