Friday, June 19, 2015

The Grand-daddy of ancient master myths

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, investigations, Atlantis

Ah, the Good Old Days. Like many "golden agers" I tend to dote on the past. I rather obsessively gather old family photos, the older the better, and scan them or re-photograph whole album and scrapbook pages. But I'm not totally in thrall to allure of a past seen through rose-colored spectacles. There are some periods, including a near-decade, that I'd rather not have gone through, thank you very much. I still think of one period as "the lost years."

I think myself more level-headed than most folks, and I know I am less deluded about supposed glories of past times than a great many. For some, supposed historical greatness has become a religion. In the Watchman Index of Cults and Religions, more than 1,400 groups are described, usually very briefly. Among these, in particular, 393 (more than a quarter) are "New Age", relying on an eclectic mix of ancient "Eastern Wisdom" beliefs and whatever is new about alternative healing whether of body or mind. There are also a couple dozen that focus more specifically on "Ancient Master" beliefs. Those that don't trace these Masters to Tibet, mostly trace them to Atlantis.

Freelance investigator Mark Adams caught the Atlantis bug several years ago, and did his best to track down the most credible (! of a mostly incredible group) leading figures among fans of Atlantis. Right away we can set aside flying saucers, stories of aircars and Star Trek-level technology existing on an enormous, mysterious island some 10,000 years ago. He has done an excellent job of gathering the evidence most likely to be level-headed, and written of his journey/pilgrimage in Meet Me in Atlantis: My Obsessive Quest to Find the Sunken City.

The book has 29 chapters and a Preface, and focuses first on finding the "best" witnesses, then on visiting a handful of candidate locations that might have either been Atlantis, or given rise to the story Plato wrote 2,400 years ago. As Plato wrote, using another's voice, his ancestor Solon visited Egypt about 600 BCE and was told of an ancient and powerful city/continent that was destroyed in a day by a great cataclysm, 9,000 years earlier. The most important facts we can glean are:

  • Atlantis was "beyond the Pillars of Hercules", probably referring to the Strait of Gibraltar, and thus most likely in the Atlantic Ocean rather than the Mediterranean Sea, though some argue strongly that the Pillars were further east.
  • Atlantis warred with ancient Athens and other Mediterranean city-states until its destruction 9,600 years ago. Nobody has shown that Athens was anything close to a city at that time.
  • The catastrophe was both an earthquake and great flood, followed by the land mostly sinking under the sea. This is often interpreted as an earthquake and tsumani, but others think of a comet or asteroid impact somewhat less devastating than the one that eliminated the dinosaurs.

The most reasoned voice in the whole matter is that of Tony O'Connell, of (in Ireland). Adams mentions several others, most of whom he visited and interviewed. There are several candidate sites for a genuinely sunken city or civilization, without resorting to an Australia-sized continent a few hundred miles west of Spain. Cadiz, Spain is one of two located on the Spanish coast, places that clearly suffered a tsunami or something similar, that washed lots of land into the sea, which is one way to interpret "sunken". Another is in Morocco, though it lies a bit too far uphill. The most likely to me is Thera/Santorini, some 85 miles (140 km) north of Crete, which exploded in about 1600BCE. What is left is less than half the original island, a crescent surrounding a drowned crater with a little volcanic cone near its center, now called Santorini.

It is helpful at this point to consider the "other ring of fire", the Mediterranean area. First focus attention on the Triple Junction at Afar, where the Red Sea, the East African Rift, and the Gulf of Aden intersect. This is a tectonic spreading center. The colors on the map indicate spreading in RED, transform faulting in GREEN, and convergence in BLUE. The MAUVE color represents ambiguity in the direction of motion. The little numbers show plate movement, in mm/yr, relative to Africa, which has probably been relatively motionless and is used as a reference. The image is from this article by Catherine Ross. The greatest relative motion is the convergence that is shrinking the Mediterranean Sea by 3.7 cm/year, or about a meter each 27 years (That Sea is some 2.4 m narrower than when I was born, around 8 feet). This is quite similar to the convergence off/under Japan that led to the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami.

The Mediterranean Sea is thus a hotbed of tectonic activity, making earthquakes and floods frequent enough to have spawned numerous disaster legends, without the help of comets. Some may recall the great earthquake in Anchorage, Alaska in 1964. There, a large chunk of land was pushed up about 20 feet (over 6 m) and another section sank an equal amount. You can have an earthquake of similar size along the blue trace above, about every three centuries. That is lots of time for multiple disasters to enter the collective consciousness and be conflated into a story that Plato could recount, with little or no embellishment, as a cautionary tale to attach to his Republic. There have been several comparable disasters since the time of Plato, including Thera.

Did Plato believe the Atlantis tale was true? It is hard to psychologize a great thinker face-to-face, much less so at a 2,400-year remove. Whether he believed it or not, he must have hoped his audience would believe enough of it to amend their ways. Instead, things may have improved in a technological way, but have, if anything, gotten worse in the realm of politics and political wisdom. Those who now take the Atlantis story seriously tend to go much too far, over-interpreting Plato's morality tale into an over-hyped depiction of a golden age even better, perhaps, than Eden.

I suppose I could also have titled this post "Nostalgia on Steroids".

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