Never have so few words generated so much sustained interest as the remarks Plato made approximately 2,350 years ago concerning the vanished civilization Atlantis. Plato wrote about Atlantis in both Timaeus and Critias, but the aspects of particular fascination were brief and can be quickly summarized. In five paragraphs of Timaeus, Plato claimed that Atlantis was an island larger than North Africa and Asia Minor combined, situated in the Atlantic Ocean. Its armies occupied Europe until they were driven back by the Athenians and then destroyed by a massive earthquake, at which time Atlantis itself sank beneath the waves. According to an earlier passage in Timaeus, these events took place nine thousand years before the time of Solon the Athenian, i.e., around 11,600 years before the present day. In Critias, Plato described Atlantis as a metal-working civilization, yet there is no evidence of one until several thousand years after the supposed date of destruction of Atlantis. Scholars of the classical world were divided as to whether Plato's account was intended as a factual history or a device to enable him to present his philosophical ideas. More recent scholars have generally supposed the latter to be the case but, from time to time, an author has come forward with plausible arguments for a factual basis to Plato's story, one of the most significant examples being Lewis Spence in The History of Atlantis, first published in 1926. The previous fifty years had seen the appearance of several fanciful accounts of Atlantis derived from occult revelations, including William Scott-Elliot's The Story of Atlantis (1896), as well as more rationaltreatments, such as Ignatius Donnelly's Atlantis-The Antediluvian World (1882). Spence, despite his acknowledged interest in the occult, attempted to present a history of Atlantis that was consistent with the available physical evidence. For this reason, together with Spence's reputation as a scholar of mythology and folklore, The History of Atlantis received widespread attention. Perhaps, more than any other book published in the twentieth century, it brought the Atlantis debate into the public arena, and ensured that the fascination with Plato's story continued to the present day.
James Lewis Thomas Chalmers Spence, to give the author his full name, was born in Forfarshire, Scotland, in 1874. He was educated privately and then went to Edinburgh University to study dentistry. However, after graduation, Spence changed direction and began a career as a journalist. He was sub-editor of Scotland's leading newspaper, The Scotsman, from 1899 to 1906, editor of The Edinburgh Magazine from 1904 to 1905, and sub-editor of The British Weekly from 1906 to 1909. During this period, Spence began his extensive study of mythology and folklore, which was to establish him as an authority on these subjects. Early books included A Dictionary of Mythology (1910), The Myths of Mexico and Peru (1913), and An Introduction to Mythology (1921). He was elected a fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute and became vice-president of the Scottish Anthropological and Folklore Society. Spence's interest in the occult led to the publication of his Encyclopedia of Occultism (1920), the first comprehensive work on this subject. He also wrote poetry, some of it collected in The Phoenix (1924) and Weirds and Vanities (1927). His first book about Plato's island was The Problem of Atlantis (1924), followed by Atlantis in America (1925) and then The History of Atlantis. After this, Spence continued to be a prolific author, writing, for example, The Outlines of Mythology (1944) and The Religion of Ancient Mexico (1948). However, several of his later books, such as The Occult Causes of the Present War (1940) and The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain (1945), were dismissed as too speculative by critics. Similarly, critics distanced themselves from the claim in Will Europe Follow Atlantis? (1942) that there was a linkage between the course of history and morality, so Europe would suffer a fate similar to that of Atlantis unless corruption was eliminated. Nevertheless, Spence was awarded a Royal pension in 1951 for Services to Literature. He died in 1955.
Spence made no secret of his belief in the existence of paranormal powers, suggesting in Second Sight-Its History and Origins (1951) and elsewhere that these were generally better developed in the past than today. He was convinced that, because of their occult practices and powers, the ancients saw the world differently from ourselves. At the beginning of The Fairy Tradition in Britain (1948) he wrote of "the desire to penetrate the nature of man's primitive ideas concerning the belief in spirits, and to ascertain the realities associated with the development of these conceptions." As made clear, for example, in The Occult Sciences in Atlantis (1943), Spence also believed that the various occult traditions around the world had a common origin in Atlantis.
Even in his earlier books, Spence acknowledged his psychic beliefs, concluding The Problem of Atlantis in that way. Similarly, at the beginning of The History of Atlantis, he wrote, "It must be manifest how great a part inspiration has played in the disentangling of archaeological problems during the past century. . . . Inspirational methods, indeed, will be found to be those of the Archaeology of the Future. The Tape-Measure School, dull and full of the credulity of incredulity, is doomed." Different people will no doubt have different views about the value of inspiration, particularly when unconstrained by physical evidence, and whether Spence's later books were characterized by speculation, as his critics said, or by inspiration. Nevertheless, most will surely agree that his arguments in both The Problem of Atlantis and The History of Atlantis generally remained within the bounds imposed by the physical evidence.
In these books, Spence drew attention to the presence of mountain ranges concealed by the waters of the Atlantic. For example, there is a great ridge running in a roughly southerly direction from Iceland, with the highest peaks protruding above the surface of the ocean to form the islands of the Azores. Spence was also aware that the bed of the Atlantic is unstable, containing regions of great volcanic activity. Hence, it seemed quite possible that there had been periodic elevations and collapses of landmasses in the area between Europe and North America. Furthermore, there was clear evidence of a close relationship between animals (and also plants) in Europe and North America, suggesting to many scientists that there had been land bridges spanning the Atlantic Ocean a few million years ago, which is relatively recent on the geological timescale. Another factor considered relevant by Spence was evidence that the first modern humans, termed "Crô-Magnon people" after a site containing their remains, first appeared in western Europe around 25,000 years ago, replacing the Neanderthals who had previously occupied the region. The Stone Age culture of the Crô-Magnon people went through several phases (Aurignacian, Solutrean, and Magdalenian), and another Stone Age culture, termed Azilian, appeared in northern Spain around 10,000 years ago. Several thousand years later, after the introduction of metalworking, came the pyramid-building culture of Egypt, followed, after another significant interval of time, by the pyramid-building cultures of Central America.
In trying to reconcile the physical evidence with Plato's account, Spence gave priority to the former. This meant that, although he continued to maintain the general truth of what Plato had written, he had to depart from some of the details. Thus, in Spence's view, the Atlantean civilization of 11,600 years ago had been a Stone Age one rather than a metalworking one, and the large island on which it was based could not have disappeared in a single cataclysmic event. The claims of Ignatius Donnelly, Augustus Le Plongeon, among others, that the civilizations of Egypt and Central America had been founded by Atlantean colonists around the time of Plato's catastrophe were incompatible with the known chronology.
Developing ideas first discussed in The Problem of Atlantis, and attempting to remain consistent with the evidence, Spence proposed the following scenario in The History of Atlantis. A few million years ago, the North Atlantic Ocean was almost entirely filled by a huge continent, but this eventually began to fragment as a result of volcanic activity. The main products were a landmass to the east (Plato's Atlantis) and a similar one to the west, which Spence called Antillia. Atlantis itself began to break up around 25,000 years ago, with, at each convulsion, a new band of refugees being forced out to settle in Europe, introducing a series of cultures, starting with the Aurignacian. The main destruction of Atlantis took place, as Plato said, around 11,600 years ago, leaving the Azores and the Canaries as the only remnants, although other parts may have survived for some time. Eventually, Atlanteans diffused through Europe and North Africa to found the civilizations of Minoan Crete and Egypt. In the west, Antillia stayed intact throughout this entire period, but sank a few thousand years ago, leaving the islands of the West Indies as its final traces, with many inhabitants seeking refuge in the Americas and founding new civilizations.
Because of similarities between the Azilian culture of western Europe and the contemporary Capsian culture of North Africa, Spence believed that Atlantis had been invaded by a group of North Africans around 12,500 years ago, the invaders interbreeding with native Atlanteans to give rise to the Azilians. He saw support for this in Critias, where Plato told of Poseidon marrying an Atlantean woman and founding a dynasty. Spence noted similar stories in myths from North America, South America, and even Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean. Furthermore, he suggested that flood myths from around the world could be derived from the sinking of Atlantis or Antillia. It was this tendency to believe that most myths had a single origin in the Atlantic region, to maintain that there were similar details in ones from different regions (when there were often numerous variant forms to choose from), and to suppose that each was based on some actual historical event, that has led to the greatest criticism of The History of Atlantis. Other writers, such as Immanuel Velikovsky in Worlds in Collision (1950), Victor Clube and Bill Napier in The Cosmic Serpent (1982), Haraldur Sigurdsson in Melting the Earth (1999), and Mike Baillie in Exodus to Arthur (1999), may have subsequently argued that some myths could be derived from catastrophic events, but that remains a controversial notion. Moreover, even those sympathetic to it have tended to suppose that flood myths were developed locally, from an overflowing of a river or a rise in sea level.
Although Spence's arguments based on science were received more favorably than those based on mythology, it is hardly surprising that not all of them have survived the test of time, because knowledge is constantly changing. During the 1960s, the concept of continental drift became established, and it is now known that Europe and North America are moving apart at about the rate that fingernails grow, with new sea-floor being produced within the Earth and spreading out in both directions from the mid-Atlantic ridge. Europe and North America were once in direct contact with each other, so no hypothetical land bridges are necessary to explain the similarity of animal and plant life on each side of the Atlantic. Also, there is no geological evidence to suggest the subsidence of any large landmass within the Atlantic region. Furthermore, evidence of the Aurignacian culture in western Europe has now been dated back to almost 40,000 years ago, and the last Neanderthals disappeared soon after 35,000 years ago, much earlier than Spence supposed. Fossils of anatomically modern humans have been found in the Middle East dating from around 100,000 years ago, apparently emerging from Africa, so it seems that the Crô-Magnon people entered Europe from the east rather than from the west.
Modern theories concerning Atlantis fall into six main categories. The first is that Plato was telling a morality tale, colored by incidents drawn from the destruction of the Greek city, Helike, by earthquake and flood; the conflict between Greek and Carthaginian colonists for control of volcanic Sicily; and the wars between Greece and Persia. The second scenario follows the revelations of the American psychic, Edgar Cayce, who believed that the Atlanteans had developed technologies such as anti-gravity machines, and set up bases in Mexico and Egypt when their home sank under the Atlantic, a thousand years earlier than suggested by Plato. This was given serious consideration by Robert Bauval, in Secret Chamber (1999). The third scenario, proposed by Rand and Rose Flem-Ath in When the Sky Fell (1995) and supported by Graham Hancock in Fingerprints of the Gods (1995), suggests that Atlantis was Lesser Antarctica, moving close to the South Pole as a result of a crustal displacement rather than sinking beneath the ocean. The fourth places Atlantis in North or South America, an example being Jim Allen's Atlantis-The Andes Solution (1998). The fifth scenario, although keeping to the Atlantic location and date suggested by Plato, generally involves a smaller Atlantis with a Stone Age culture, whose capital city and surrounding region, but not the whole island, were flooded by rising seas. On that basis, Emilio Spedicato, in Apollo Objects, Atlantis and the Deluge (1985), claimed that Atlantis was Hispaniola in the West Indies, whereas Andrew Collins, in Gateway to Atlantis (2000) identified it as Cuba. The sixth scenario also has a smaller Atlantis, but loc it within the Mediterranean region during the Bronze Age, much later than suggested by Plato. Thus, following Spyridon Marinatos, Rodney Castleden in Atlantis Destroyed (1998) and others have seen a link between Atlantis and Minoan Crete, destabilized if not destroyed by the massive eruption of nearby Thera. Similarly, Eberhard Zangger, in The Flood From Heaven (1992) claimed to have identified Atlantis with Troy, whereas Peter James, in The Sunken Kingdom (1995) identified Atlantis with the city of Tantalis, also in Asia Minor.
Few of the issues concerning Atlantis have been resolved, so Spence's The History of Atlantis still merits serious study. Some of the material may be out-of-date after eighty years, but in some respects, it was ahead of its time. When Spence wrote The History of Atlantis, gradualism was dominant, making it difficult for anyone to think that the course of life on Earth could have been influenced by catastrophes or sudden climate changes. When glaciers melted at the end of the last Ice Age, sea levels rose by more than 100 meters, but it was generally thought that this had been a gradual process. However, oxygen-isotope evidence from Greenland ice-cores indicates that average temperatures increased by almost 10°C in less than a decade, around 11,000 years ago. Regardless of whether a large island civilization sank beneath the waves at this time, it must have been, as Spence suggested, a period of great stress for our ancestors.
Trevor Palmer is Professor of Life Sciences and Pro Vice-Chancellor (Academic Development) at Nottingham Trent University, England. Originally a biomedical scientist, he now investigates the possible effects of natural catastrophes on evolution and human history, his most recent book being Perilous Planet Earth (2003).