In his superlative examination of myth, Joseph Campbell spoke of the need and function of mythology to convey meaning through metaphor. This is to go beyond words and time, to transcend being and non-being, and to recognise the multitude of narratives as variations of a single story. In these myths there are common themes and patterns, independent of time, culture or birthplace.
One such enduring narrative is the myth of Atlantis. There are those today who interpret this myth on different poles, from Plato’s use of it as a device to elucidate his philosophy of the perfect government, to an ancient utopian place and people that physically existed beyond the Pillars of Hercules, the current Strait of Gibraltar. But we should perhaps heed Campbell’s wisdom and not be limited to these polarities.
Atlantis is discussed in two of Plato’s works written in 360 BC, briefly in the Timaeus which is in the form of a long monologue by Timaeus of Locri, and in more detail in Critias, which tells the story of the attempt of Atlantis to conquer Athens. Plato tells us this story reached Critias via his great-grandfather who was told the tale from Solon, who brought it over from Egypt.
On a vast continent beyond the Pillars of Hercules, the primary city of Atlantis comprised of alternating concentric circles of ocean and land which served as trade canals and defence. It was a knowledge-based culture with scientific and engineering advances making the land fertile, ensuring rich harvests using great irrigation systems. There were heated fountains and magnificent walls and temples coated with brass, tin, silver and gold. They were a prosperous and virtuous nation. But alas, selfishness slowly grew, along with extended invasion and domination of other lands. There was the appearance of wealth and happiness, yet corruption and unrighteous power was evident to those with clear perception. As pursuits for the greater good diminished, the gods grew out of favour and a massive earthquake, extensive subsidence and great inundation followed, leaving only unnavigable gulfs and swirling eddies.
There are echoes of Atlantis in earlier myths, such as in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh (2100 BC) where a great king of Uruk, called Gilgamesh, rules and oppresses his people. The gods then create a wild man, Enkidu, raised by animals and embodying the natural world, to rid Gilgamesh of his arrogance. On these ancient tablets is also a tale of a vast flood which is survived by the hero building a large boat and loading all nearby living beings aboard to safety, and later releasing a dove and sacrificing a sheep. That may sound familiar. While in the Bible’s Book of Genesis the flood occurs as “the wickedness of man was great…” and “…all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth”.
The Atlantis myth reappears in more recent history, as the basis for utopian visions of renaissance writers such as Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627 AD), where in an environment of religious freedom, science and discovery are used to understand and dominate nature. The purpose of future human institutions in New Atlantis are “…knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of the human empire, to the effecting of all things possible”. However, the ensuing disharmony of the original myth and retribution of the gods does not make an entrance, perhaps not unexpectedly at this time of conquering the wild.
It is not denied here the possibility of ancient civilisations and vast cataclysms, but in these myths we should look past the dramatic events, to go beyond words and time to perceive the metaphor. This is the story we keep telling ourselves throughout human history. Modern humans have certainly approached Bacon’s vision, and we should thus heed our overreach and a singular trust in human might and influence. Disharmony and hubris leads to nature rebalancing the books.
These self-reminding myths serve as a warning to us all; not to abandon our knowledge and technology, but rather to perceive ourselves as part of a larger natural system that needs to be kept in mind in all that we seek to create, be it in business, the production of food or the construction of electro-mechanical marvels.