Saturday, 31 January 2009

Citadels of Mystery

"Citadels of Mystery" by L. Sprague de Camp & Catherine C. de Camp: A Review
This book gives an exciting and well researched guide to the archaeological exploration of famous mysteries - "ruins widely scattered about the globe, in which the shards of history lie waiting to be sifted out of the dust heaps of myth and ignorance."
One of the most interesting of the mysteries which the authors investigate is the lost continent of Atlantis, about which "nearly two thousand books and articles have been written." The story of Atlantis "has given rise to speculations from the soberest science to the wildest fantasy."
Where did the idea of Atlantis come from? And what truth is there in a tale of a continent that was engulfed in a cataclysm, and lost beneath the sea?
Atlantis has its origins in the writings of Plato. In two of the Socratic dialogues, "Timaios" and "Kritias", Plato has the speakers tell the story of Atlantis, which was both the name of an island and the city on it - "a perfectly circular metropolis." In the centre of the city, as in the Athens of Plato's time, "were palaces, temples, race tracks and other public structures." It is clear from the detail which Plato gave that he was describing what was, from his point of view, an idealised and perfect state, like his "Republic". But he continues by making the story of Atlantis become a cautionary tale to his fellow countrymen: the people of Atlantis become greedy and corrupt, so that the gods punished them by sending a fearful earthquake which "sank Atlantis beneath the sea."
Other ancient writers saw this simply as "an allegorical fiction". Aristotle (Plato's pupil), Strabo the geographer and Pliny the Roman encyclopaedist "all took it for granted that Atlantis was a fiction, which Plato had made up to set forth his theories about the perfect state." Yet if Atlantis had existed, we might expect such writers to know of it.
However, in the later Roman Empire, there was a marked decline in critical standards, in failing to check up on facts. It is then that we find that "writers like Proklos the Neo-Platonist began to take the Atlantis tale seriously." He was the first of a great multitude who, over the centuries, speculated about Atlantis. The authors examine these theories and point out their deficiencies and faults, and argue cogently the' geological reasons why "whole continents do not sink out of sight overnight as the result of a few earthquakes."

But if Atlantis is just a fiction, what inspired Plato with the idea of a continent lost beneath the waves? In 426 BC, the year after Plato was born, there was "an earthquake wave than inundated the little Greek island of Atalante." There is such a close resemblance in names that it is almost certain that it is from this island that Plato derived the name of his vast continent "somewhere at the western end of the Mediterranean"; and it is the catastrophe that overwhelmed Atalante, magnified, that destroys Plato's fictional Atlantis.
Other investigations in the book deal with Troy, the Pyramids, the Round Table of King Arthur and King Solomon's Mines. This is an exciting book, well written, and a fine introduction to historical and archaeological research, often showing that fact can be even more curious than fiction.

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