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Feedback on Stephanie Halmhofer's
The Harmful Pseudoarchaeology of Mythological Atlantis

Thorwald C. Franke
© 08 September 2021

The archaeologist Stephanie Halmhofer wrote an article about pseudoarchaeology and Atlantis in 2019 which is well-intentioned, but full of mistakes. Therefore, I wrote her the e-mail below. Until now, I did not receive an answer. (Bibliography and Web links below)

Subject: Feedback on your Atlantis article
From: Thorwald C. Franke
To: Stephanie Halmhofer
Date: 08 June 2021

Hello Stephanie,

I just stumbled upon your Atlantis article concerning a comic strip:

Here, I have some comments to make:

I fully respect and acknowledge your intentions and your basic message: Pseudoarchaeology is harmful, and Atlantis had indeed been abused for sinister purposes. And it is disappointing that a comic strip presents a pseudoscientific Atlantis as real, without any reservations. Really strange is, that it is said that a people before the early American immigrants from Asia, aka the Indians, built a city, and not the Indians themselves.

Nevertheless, I cannot agree with many details in your depiction.

First of all, it is not so clear whether Plato meant Atlantis (and primeval Athens) to be real places or not. It is not true that the story of primeval Athens and Atlantis fits into a pattern of other invented stories, or that the invention would be obvious by any means. To the contrary: The story fits perfectly into Plato's serious hypotheses of world and history, and it complies with typical mistakes about history common in Plato's time, which were really believed. Only one thing is obvious: Judged by modern knowledge, the story cannot be true in a literal sense.

If Plato meant it as a true story, it can only be a heavily distorted and combined historical tradition. This makes it difficult (if not impossible) to find the real place, and this real place surely looks quite differently to what the usual Atlantis searcher expects. If Plato did not think of a real place, then it is a deception, a "Noble Lie". In any case, it is quite unlikely that Plato wanted his readers to recognize the story as a fictional story. This kind of fictional stories developed only centuries later. Proponents of the "novel" hypothesis have a real problem here. So, if you prefer Atlantis to be invented, the "Noble Lie" hypothesis seems most likely under this perspective.

It is not true that belief in Atlantis started only with the discovery of technologically advanced cities in America. The belief in Atlantis as a real place goes back to Plato's times, with Theophrastus and Crantor as early text witnesses of an Atlantis belief. Also in the Middle Ages, there can be many authors found believing in Atlantis (this is a relatively new discovery, since 2016). And it was not the technology in America which sparked speculations, but the existence of America itself: It did fit too good into Plato's geographical descriptions (the continent beyond the sunken island). When Francis Bacon placed Atlantis in America, he did so because this corresponded to a general belief in his time.

Brasseur de Bourbourg, Augustus Le Plongeon, Ignatius Donnelly -- they did not "invent" a "new" belief in Atlantis, but were only few among many to believe in Atlantis as a real place. E.g. the respected German scholar Johann Gottfried Stallbaum had published in 1838 the idea that Atlantis was basically an ancient memory of America. Granted: Donnelly's ideas gained more popularity over other hypotheses. Yes.

At the same time, only very late in the course of the 19th century, science abandonded the idea of Atlantis as a real place quite strictly: This was (IMHO) a premature conclusion, and left the field to cranks. Few scientists continued with a legitimate historical-critical approach, like Wilhelm Brandenstein and John V. Luce. But they were and are not heard. Between the two points of view, that Atlantis was either literally real -- and simplistic Atlantis denial, there is a huge gap. It is this gap which is dangerous. Like in politics, if the two sides radicalize each other. It is dangerous to leave good arguments to the other side. And there are still good arguments for the existence of Atlantis in the sense of a distorted historical tradition.

Especially concerning Sigüenza you screwed it up: Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora was among those who argued in favour of the American Indians. The idea that the American Indians had been citizens of Atlantis helped early supporters of Indian rights to back up their claims against colonialists. Because, if the Indians once had come from Atlantis like (allegedly) the Europeans, then they would be on equal foot. Though weird the idea may seem, it lived for centuries, and was proposed e.g. by Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora 1680 and by Gian Rinaldo Carli 1780, to name only few examples of many, against those who thought that the American Indians would be a people inferior by nature.

Furthermore, what Sigüenza and Carli thought in their time was not yet pseudoscience. It only became pseudoscience much later in the 19th century (Donnelly e.g. continued to propose falsified hypotheses). In their time, these were legitimate though speculative hypotheses.

Though pseudoscientific Donnelly is, also Donnelly did not argue for an Atlantean people before the Indians, but for the Indians being descendants from Atlantis. Donnelly himself was a very progressive politician, quite anti-racist for his time. Of course, judged by modern-day standards, not. But Donnelly was not a stubborn right-wing politician, nor was his Atlantis meant a racist paradise. There were not only white people in Donnelly's Atlantis. Also the Europeans were not of pure race for Donnelly. This came only later with Blavatsky. Donnelly did not claim, as you write, "that there was no way the Indigenous peoples of Mexico could be responsible for their own incredible architecture and mythologies."

Concerning the Spanish position: The official Spanish solicitor to justify the claims of Spain in the New World, Juan de Solórzano Pereira, explicitly rejected the idea that America was Atlantis in 1629. So did the official Spanish historian of the Spanish conquest in the New World, Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas in 1601. The reason is easy to see: They based their claims on the right of the first discoverer. If America was Atlantis and had been known before Columbus, then this claim had no basis any more. So Spain officially and explicitly rejected the idea that America was Atlantis. These are the two official figures, and their position is clear.

The English often called America Atlantis in early times, but not to justify any claims but just because they believed America to be Atlantis. The English claim to America was based on the same claim as the Spanish claim: On the right of the first discoverer. Therefore, the English brought up the idea that a certain Welsh prince named Medoc arrived in America centuries before Columbus. This was the base of the English claims, not Atlantis.

In short: If the Atlantis story played any role concerning the colonization of America, then it was a positive role.

It is alarming to me that there is the sentence "even before Native Americans settled here" in this comic strip: Because this is not part of any of these traditional Atlantis hypotheses, though weird they are. This must have been inserted into the comic strip from other sources. I suggest to dig deeper here: Where did especially this idea come from?

Remaining the National Socialists:

There was Himmler and his Atlantis belief, but there was no such thing as a general National Socialist Atlantis belief. Hitler explicitly and publicly mocked Atlantis searchers in a speech, once. There was no Atlantis in NS school books. And at German universities, scholars continued to declare Atlantis unanimously a fictional story under Hitler, as they had done since the 19th century. Alfred Rosenberg mentioned Atlantis very reluctantly and shortly as a mere possibility, and made sure that his ideas were valid also without Atlantis -- and in addition to that, his book was mocked by Hitler and Goebbles as too intellectual. For Hitler, German(ic) history started with the battle in the Teutoburg forest. Everything earlier was explicitly not of interest to him.

Himmler does not represent National Socialism here. There were and are also socialist Atlantis believers, but it would be similarly exaggerated to claim that socialism is strongly connected to an Atlantis belief. Also the expeditions of the Ahnenerbe never had Atlantis as official theme. Only by personal connections to persons believing in Atlantis (e.g. Edmund Kiss) a few of these expeditions could be seen as inofficial Atlantis expeditions. But e.g. the leader of the Tibet expedition Ernst Schäfer managed successfully to avoid to accept Edmund Kiss as a member of his expedition, because he despised the pseudoscience of Edmund Kiss. Therefore, the Tibet expedition was not in any sense an Atlantis expedition (it was still a racist expedition, of course).

Long story short: The history of Atlantis research is not so dark as many believe. Many claims are exaggerated because it is so exciting to connect Atlantis with Nazis, or with racism, etc. etc. Some parts of the Atlantis reception history are even good and golden, who would believe it!

Let me point you to my book with all sources and secondary literature (bibliography open in the PDF preview), from 2016, 2nd edition 2021 (German only):

I hope I could give you some brain food!

Please do not despair because things are more complicated than thought. Your basic intentions are OK.

With best regards
Thorwald C. Franke
Frankfurt am Main / Germany.

PS 23 September 2021 on the "Mound Builders"

In the 19th century, there were various theories about who were the builders of the Indian mounds in America. Many of these theories did not believe that the Indians or their ancestors were the "mound builders", but assumed a settlement of America before the Indians. Some of these theories were racially motivated or were misused for racist motives to dispute the Indians' right to exist in America. But only few believed that the "mound builders" – unlike the Indians – had came from Atlantis or via Atlantis as a land bridge, e.g. Josiah Priest 1833. Most racists abused not Atlantis but other theories. On the contrary: Most of those who speculated about Atlantis believed that the "mound builders" once came from Atlantis and at the same time were the ancestors of the Indians. For example, Rafinesque-Schmaltz 1836, David Baillie Warden 1836, Brasseur de Bourbourg 1862/1864, John Denison Baldwin 1869, Lafcadio Hearn 1876, John Thomas Short 1880, or Ignatius Donnelly 1882. Even though this idea is of course completely wrong, it did have a humanistic aspect: for it acknowledged that the "mound builders" were indeed the Indians respectively their ancestors.

But unfortunately many modern Atlantis sceptics lump everything together. For them, it is enough to note the pseudo-scientific nature of the thesis in order to conclude directly and without further ado that it has every conceivable racist motive. They see no difference between the racist Josiah Priest and e.g. John Thomas Short ("... leads us to the truth that God 'hath made of one blood all nations of men.' ") or Ignatius Donnelly who was quite a progressive politician in his time. In this way, Atlantis scepticism once again paints a far too black picture of reality out of sheer zeal. And some radical Atlantis sceptics even go so far as to claim that the subject of Atlantis itself – regardless of context and perspective – is racist, in order to promote a radical left political agenda. In this way, it's now radical Atlantis scepticism itself which has begun to produce politically motivated pseudo-science, though the initial goal was to fight pseudo-science.

Bibliography and Web links

Stephanie Halmhofer, The Harmful Pseudoarchaeology of Mythological Atlantis, in: Women Write About Comics WWAC 20 September 2019 (Online journal that features a diverse group of intersectional, international feminists who provide equally diverse insight into the world of comic book culture).
External Web Link

Thorwald C. Franke, Kritische Geschichte der Meinungen und Hypothesen zu Platons Atlantis – von der Antike über das Mittelalter bis zur Moderne, 2nd edition in two volumes, published by Books on Demand, Norderstedt 2021. First edition was 2016 in one volume. There is no English translation yet.
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