Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Neither here nor there

Yesterday, one of Skeptophilia's chief investigative reporters, whom I will refer to only by her code name of Cria Havoc so as not to compromise her activities in the field, brought to my attention a breaking news story about a University of Hartford archaeologist who is claiming to have discovered Atlantis.

Atlantis, you will recall, is the fabled island mentioned in two dialogues by Plato.  Plato states that the island was the land that was bequeathed to Poseidon, and lay beyond the Pillars of Hercules, thus pointing out its location using not just one, but two, fictional deities.  It's a little as if I gave directions to my house by saying, "Take a left at Thor's castle - we're the white Cape Cod just past the cave where Cerberus guards the Gates of Hell."

Of course, this hasn't stopped people from arguing incessantly about its location.  I suppose if you need a hobby, debating the exact GPS coordinates of a place that (1) no one has seen, (2) no one has any evidence for, and (3) probably doesn't exist, is as entertaining as any.  Prior to these recent discoveries, the two leading hypotheses were that Atlantis was somewhere out in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of present-day Ireland, or near the Greek island of Thera, which was destroyed by a cataclysmic volcanic eruption in around 1500 BCE.

This sounds a little spurious right from the get-go.  I mean, Thera and Ireland aren't exactly next-door neighbors.   If I came to you and said, "I know exactly where Blackbeard's treasure is!  It's either in Pensacola, Florida or Penobscot, Maine!  Or possibly Nebraska!" you would be right to feel a degree of skepticism.  So I think we're to be excused if we're doubtful about Atlantis' existence, given that even the diehard believers have no idea where it supposedly is.  Or was.  Or whatever.

On the other hand, there have been times when a story that was thought to be myth has proven to be factually accurate.  Okay, there was that one time, at least.  I'm thinking, of course, of Heinrich Schliemann's discovery of Troy using the clues from Homer's Iliad.  There's a difference, though, between Homer, who described epic battles involving cities that are known to have existed, and a couple of mentions of a mythical island paradise in Plato's dialogues.  Right?

Enter Richard Freund.  My informant Ms. Havoc sent me a link to a story (here) describing how Freund and his team, using satellite images, have located what they think is the ruins of an ancient city, submerged in the wetlands that are now Doñana National Park in southern Spain.  The alleged ruins do lie reasonably close to Gibraltar, which most people think are the Pillars of Hercules that Plato mentioned, so the theory has at least that much going for it.  Some of the ruins seem to be offshore, and Atlantis, of course, met its doom when one of the gods smote it and it "sank beneath the waves in a single day."

It's the downfall of Atlantis that captures the imagination, and even I have to admit that it's a pretty dramatic story.  If you've read any Greek mythology, however, you will discover that this sort of thing was quite commonplace.  The ancient Greeks were constantly having the crap smitten out of them by some god or another, which is probably why you see so few ancient Greeks around any more.

In any case, I have no serious doubt that Freund has found some cool ruins of an ancient city.  Even so, this doesn't vindicate the whole Atlantis legend, because Plato didn't say that Atlantis was a city along the coast of Spain -- he said that it was an island, "larger than Libya and Asia together," with mountains that "soared to the sky," which is hardly the same thing.  That the city Freund discovered might have given rise to the legend, I can perhaps believe; that it proves the whole legend to be true is a bit of an overstatement.  And given that Freund is now being featured in a new National Geographic documentary called Finding Atlantis, the whole thing has the hallmarks of a publicity stunt.

So, the bottom line is, Atlantis as described by Plato probably didn't exist.  In fact, his mention of the alleged continent would likely have escaped the notice of all but a few philosophy majors, had it not been for two people.  One was Ignatius Donnelly, a huckster and politician of the late 19th century, who wrote Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, the single volume that has become the bible for Atlanteans worldwide.  The second, much as I hate to admit it, was J. R. R. Tolkien, whose tales of the land of Númenor have been considered widely (by people who don't understand the definition of the word "fiction") to be an account of the real history of the Lost Island.

So, all of this leads us right back to where we started.  Ruins of the ancient world are pretty common.  So are myths.  Sometimes myths have a grain of truth to them, and sometimes they don't, which is a good thing, because although Homer got the location of Troy basically right, he completely missed the mark in claiming that there is a horrible six-headed monster guarding the Straits of Messina, which if it had been true would have been a serious inconvenience for cruise ships.  So I'm still casting a jaundiced eye at the whole "we've discovered Atlantis!" thing.  It'll be interesting to see what turns up when they start poking around at Doñana, but I'm doubting that they'll find anything that I would consider hard evidence.

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