What is Atlantis? "Atlantis" is today's popular name of an island which was described around 360 BC by the Greek philosopher Plato in his dialogues Timaeus and Critias. It became usual to call this island simply "Atlantis" although "Atlantis" is not a name in the original text but a grammatical form of "Atlas", the island's king. Thus in truth, the island was not called "Atlantis" but "island of Atlas".
For further reading: The dialogues Timaeus and Critias
Wasn't Atlantis a city? On the island of Atlantis there was a big city with three times nested circular water ditches. It became popular to call this city simply "city of Atlantis", although in the original text this city has no name at all. The name of the people of Atlantis, too, is unknown. It became popular to call them simply "Atlanteans".
What was Plato's intention with the Atlantis story? Plato described in the Atlantis account not only one but two very ancient cities: Primeval Athens and Atlantis. While primeval Athens is described by Plato as an ideal state which always stays an ideal state, Atlantis more and more succumbs to decadence. By the comparison of both political systems Plato wanted to demonstrate conclusions concerning the appropriate political philosophy.
Where was Atlantis? According to Plato the island of Atlantis was situated in the Atlantic directly to the west of the Pillars of Hercules. The "Pillars of Hercules" was the name of the Straits of Gibraltar in the times of Solon and Plato. Whether Atlantis really was situated there is of course the big question at the beginning of each Atlantis hypothesis.
Was the Atlantic named after Atlantis? No. The Atlantic was originally named after the titan Atlas known from Greek mythology. Plato replaces this name patron by king Atlas of Atlantis. Please consider that king Atlas of Atlantis is not the same person as titan Atlas known from Greek mythology.
When did Atlantis exist? According to Plato Atlantis existed around 9000 years before Solon's time, i.e. ca. 9600 BC. Yet again, it is the question at the beginning of each Atlantis hypothesis whether this can be true resp. how to interpret it.
When did Atlantis sink? This is not exactly told by Plato. The rulers of Atlantis succumbed more and more to decadence. Thus Atlantis started to wage war with primeval Athens and Egypt and other countries of the Eastern mediterranean. Some time after Atlantis had lost this war it sank.
How did Atlantis sink? The only keyword in Plato's text which can explain the procedure of sinking is "earth quake". There is no explicit talk of volcano eruptions, tsunamis, meteorites and others. Please consider that even primeval Athens is destroyed by a catastrophe, by earth quakes and rain.
Did the gods decide to sink Atlantis? According to Plato the gods decided first to punish the island of Atlantis in order to lead Atlantis back to the right path. Of course, this cannot be the sinking. Whether the gods later decided to sink Atlantis is unknown.
Why was primeval Athens destroyed, too? Plato advocates a theory of cyclically repeating catastrophes. The Atlantis catastrophe is said to be the third catastrophe before Plato's time. Only Egypt is spared from the catastrophes, so the knowledge about prehistoric times is preserved there. So, the catastrophe of primeval Athens is no punishment. Maybe even the sinking of Atlantis was not meant to be a punishment?
Why does the Atlantis story break off? The dialogue Critias probably was never finished by Plato, thus we do not know many details about Atlantis. Why Plato did not finish the dialogue is unknown.
Where did Plato get the Atlantis story from? Plato writes that it came from Solon. Solon in turn allegedly brought it from Egypt. In Egypt the Atlantis story existed in written form since it was written down in the days of the war of Atlantis with Egypt. Important is, that Plato himself says that he added some details to the description of primeval Athens in order to make it a perfect representation of his ideal state. Yet he does not say this concerning Atlantis, since Atlantis is no ideal state. Thus it is clear that not every detail of the story comes from a historical tradition but its core could be historical.
Which hypotheses are there? There are principally three types of Atlantis hypotheses:
a) Invention: Atlantis is an invention by Plato. This is at the moment the opinion of the vast majority of academics.
b) Existence: Atlantis really existed but it did not look exactly like the description of Plato. Surely, some mistakes were made while handing down the story through history, and maybe Plato changed some details.
c) Misunderstanding: Plato himself believed in Atlantis as a real place but the historical tradition of Atlantis is only a sum of various mistakes in the process of historical tradition such that there is no real Atlantis behind this sum of mistakes.
Isn't it easy to see which hypothesis is right? No, unfortunately not. Neither the alleged location in front of Gibraltar nor the alleged 9000 years nor the strange story of the historical tradition from Egypt provide a final proof for or against the existence of Atlantis. Find a more detailed discussion of the problems in the following article:
The Labyrinth of Atlantis: Meanderings and Dead Ends of Atlantis Research
Are certain hypotheses surely wrong? It is surely wrong that Atlantis was situated in front of Gibraltar since the sea-bed there is known, today. It is surely wrong that Atlantis existed around 9600 BC since such a developed civilization and a historial tradition over such a long time can be excluded. These high numbers of years are a common mistake among ancient Greek historians. If Atlantis was real then it was not that old. It is surely wrong, too, that Atlantis was huge like a continent since nowhere on earth did a continent sink, especially not several thousands of years ago.
Surely wrong are hypotheses which consider Atlantis to be the origin of mankind or of a certain human race, or which connect Atlantis to mysticism or modern inventions. Since all this is not contained in Plato's descriptions. Surely wrong is the idea that Plato wanted to create with the Atlantis story a deceptive myth in order to provide the illusion of a glorious past to the Athenians, since Plato openly admits to have added something to the description of primeval Athens in order to make it a perfect representation of his ideal state.
Is it allowed just to "scale down" Atlantis? Of course it is not allowed to "scale down" Atlantis without good reasons or just to convert the 9000 years into any other date: This must be based on very good reasons in every single case and to justify such interpretations belongs to the major tasks of every good hypothesis.
Has Atlantis always been considered to be an invention? No. In Antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Baroque, Atlantis usually was considered to be a real place. Only around 1800 the academic opinion started to shift towards the interpretation as invention.
Are there academics who consider Atlantis to be real? Yes, there always have been academics who considered the possibility that Atlantis was a real place, and such academics still exist today. Among them names such as Alexander von Humboldt, August Boeckh, Wilhelm Christ, Theodor Gomperz, Wilhelm Brandenstein, Massimo Pallottino, Spyridon Marinatos, John V. Luce, Eberhard Zangger, Herwig Görgemanns.
Which picture of Atlantis should we make in our minds? If Atlantis existed then it was probably a much smaller island with a less ancient civilization. Maybe it was situated in the Mediterranean sea. The hypothesis about the islands of Crete and Santorini being Atlantis have their difficulties but to create a picture of what is realistically possible, this hypothesis is very well-suited. The same is valid for the hypothesis of Troy being Atlantis.
By this introduction the reader is now enabled to find his own way through the extensive literature about Atlantis. While doing so, the reader will realize step by step why this short introduction made this or that statement with this or that words, and that the reader was well-informed by this short but precise introduction. Successful findings!
Tips on introductory literature about Atlantis!
FAQ on the point of view of Thorwald C. Franke