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Legendary islands of the Atlantic; a study in medieval geography

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Author Topic: Legendary islands of the Atlantic; a study in medieval geography  (Read 7660 times)
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« Reply #15 on: July 19, 2009, 02:21:54 am »


The Bretons shared in the Irish monk voyages, their Saint Malo
appearing in tradition sometimes as a companion of Saint Bren-
dan, sometimes as an imitator or competitor. Also their fisher-
men, with the Basques, from an early time had pushed out into
remote regions of the sea. The Pizigani map of I367 10 (Fig. 2)
represents a Breton voyage of adventure and disaster near one of

M. d'Avezac: Notice des decouvertes faites au Moyen Age dans 1'Ocean At-
lantique anterieurement aux grandes explorations portugaises du quinzieme siScle,
Paris, 1845, p. 23.

10 [E. F.] Jomard: Les monuments de la geographic, ou recueil d'anciennes cartes
europeennes et orientales .... Paris, [1842-62], PI. X, I.


les lies fantastiques, appearing for the first time thereon. Their
presence on the American shore in the years shortly following
Cabot's discovery is commemorated by Cape Breton Island.
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« Reply #16 on: July 19, 2009, 02:22:15 am »


It has been alleged that two Venetian brothers, Antonio and
Nicold Zeno, in the service of an earl of the northern islands, took
part with him about 1400 A. D. in certain explorations west-
ward, he being incited thereto by the report of a fisherman, who
claimed to have spent many years as a castaway and captive in
regions southwest of Greenland. The Zeno narrative, dealt with
later (Ch. IX), was accompanied by a map (Fig. 19), which
exercised a great influence during a long period on all maps that
succeeded it, adding several islands never before heard of. Both
map and narrative are recognized as spurious or at best so cor-
rupted by misunderstandings and transformed by rough treat-
ment and a post-Columbian attempt at reconstruction as to be
wholly unreliable. It is, indeed, possible that a fisherman of the
Faroes made an involuntary sojourn in Newfoundland and else-
where in America from about 1375 or 1380 onward and that his
story induced the ruler of certain northern islands to sail west-
ward and investigate. But both features are very dubious, and
at any rate nothing was accomplished except the confusion of


This brings us down to the rise of Portuguese nautical en-
deavor, which seems to have begun earlier than has generally
been supposed but became most conspicuous under the direction
of Prince Henry the Navigator. Its achievements included the
rediscovery of Madeira and the Azores, which in many quarters
had been forgotten, the exploration of the African coast, the
accidental discovery or rediscovery of South American Brazil by
Cabral, and the voyage of Vasco da Gama to India around the
Cape of Good Hope. Perhaps we might insert in the list the
discovery of Antillia. At any rate, it got on the map with a
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« Reply #17 on: July 19, 2009, 02:22:32 am »


Portuguese name in the first half of the fifteenth century, and
several other islands accompanied it. They all certainly seem
to be American and West Indian.


Incidentally the Portuguese activity stimulated the enthu-
siasm of Columbus, guided his plans, and contributed to the em-
inent success of his great undertaking. In Antillia it provided a
first goal, which he believed to be nearer than it really was. He
fully meant to attain it and probably really did so, but without
recognizing Antillia in Cuba or Hispaniola, for he thought he had
missed it on the way and left it far behind. Vignaud insists that
Columbus did not aim at Asia until after he actually reached the
West Indies but sought to attain Antillia only. 11 However this
may be, there is no doubt that he found in the island a notable
prompting to his supreme adventure.

The discoveries of Columbus, Vespucius, and Cabot, with
their immediate followers, heralded the opening of an effective
knowledge of the western world and the ocean world to the
centers of civilization. Thereafter the delineation of new islands
did not cease but for a long time rather multiplied; yet they had
little significance or importance, being chiefly the products of
fancy, optical illusion, or error in reckoning. One of the latest
worth considering is the island of Buss (Ch. XII), reported where
there is no land by a separated vessel of Frobisher's expedition
near the end of the sixteenth century. Afterward it was known
as the Sunken Land of Bus, or Buss, to the grave concern of

We are reasonably secure against such imposition now, though
perhaps it is not yet impossible. The old mythical or apocryphal
islands, too, are gone from standard maps and most others,
though you may yet find in cartographic work of little authority
one or two of the more tenacious specimens making a final stand.

Henry Vignaud: The Columbian Tradition on the Discovery of America and
of the Part Played Therein by the Astronomer Toscanelli, Oxford, 1920.
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« Reply #18 on: July 19, 2009, 02:22:50 am »


About 2,300 years ago Plato wrote of a great and populous
island empire in the outer (Atlantic) ocean, which had warred
against Athens more than 9,000 years before his time and been
suddenly engulfed by a natural cataclysm. According to his
statement of the case this prodigious phenomenon, with all the
splendor of national achievement that shortly preceded it, Jiad
been quite forgotten by the Athenians; but the tradition was
recorded in the sacred books of the priests of Sais at the head of
the Nile delta and was related by these Egyptians to Solon of
Athens when he visited them apparently somewhere near
550 B. C. Solon embodied it, or began to embody it, in a poem
(all trace of which is lost) and also related it to Dropides, his
friend. It is probably to be understood that he further commu-
nicated it to this friend in some written form, for we find Critias
in a dialogue with Socrates represented by Plato as declaring:
"My great-grandfather, Dropides, had the original writing, which
is still in my possession." 1 If so, it has vanished.
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« Reply #19 on: July 19, 2009, 02:23:32 am »


It is evident that the Atlantis tale must be treated either as
mainly historical, with presumably some distortions and exag-
gerations, or as fiction necessarily based in some measure (like all
else of its kind) on living or antiquated facts. Certainly no one
will go the length of accepting it as wholly true as it stands. But,
even eliminating all reference to the god Poseidon and his plen-
tiful demigod progeny, we are left with divers essential features

1 Benjamin Jowett: The Dialogues of Plato, Translated into English with
Analyses and Introductions, 3rd edit., 5 vols., London and New York, 1892;
reference in Vol. 3, P- 534-
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« Reply #20 on: July 19, 2009, 02:23:51 am »


which credulity can hardly swallow. Atlantis is too obviously an
earlier and equally colossal Persia, western instead of eastern,
overrunning the Mediterranean until checked by the intrepid
stand of the great Athenian republic. The supreme authentic
glory of Athens was the overthrow of Xerxes and his generals.
Had this been otherwise we must believe that we should not
have heard of the baffled invasion by Atlantis. Again, we are
asked to accept Athens, contrary to all other information, as a
dominant military state more than 9,500 years before Christ,
when presumably its people, if existent, were exceedingly primi-
tive and unformidable. Moreover, the sudden submergence of so
vast a region as the imagined Atlantis would be an event without
parallel in human annals, besides being pretty certain to leave
marks on the rest of the world which could be recognized even

The hypothesis of fiction seems reasonably well established.
We must remember that Plato did not habitually confine himself
to bare facts. His favorite method of exposition was by reporting
alleged dialogues between Socrates and various persons dia-
logues which no one could have remembered accurately in their
entirety. It is recognized that in arrangement, characters, and
utterance he has contrived to convey his own theories and con-
ceptions as well as those of his revered teacher and leader, so that
it is often impossible to say whether we should credit certain views
or statements mainly to Plato or to Socrates. Possessed by his
meditations, he would even present as an instructive example
and incitement a fancied picture of an elaborate system of social
and political organization, chiefly the product of his own brain.
He did this in the "Republic" and apparently had planned a
larger partly parallel work of the kind in the triology of which
the "Timaeus" and the fragmentary "Critias" are the first part
and the unfinished second. A writer (Lewis Campbell) in the
Encyclopaedia Britannica, article "Plato," states the case very
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« Reply #21 on: July 19, 2009, 02:24:13 am »

What should have followed this [the Timaeus], but is only commenced
in the fragment of the Critias, would have been the story, not of a fall,


but of the triumph of reason in humanity. . . Not only the Timaeus,
but the unfinished whole of which it forms the introduction, is professedly
an imaginative creation. For the legend of prehistoric Athens and of
Atlantis, whereof Critias was to relate what belonged to internal policy
and Hermocrates the conduct of the war, would have been no other than a
prose poem, a "mythological lie," composed in the spirit of the Republic,
and in the form of a fictitious narrative. 1

Jowett takes substantially the same view in his introduction to
the "Critias," indicating surprise at the innocent, literal, matter-
of-fact way in which the former existence and destruction of
great Atlantis have generally been accepted as sober declarations
of fact and accounted for in divers fashions accordingly. Nor is
this estimate of the Atlantis tale as primarily a romance of en-
lightenment and uplifting a merely modern theory. Plutarch, in a
passage quoted by Schuller, lays more stress on Plato's tendency
to adorn the subject, treating Atlantis as a delightful spot in some
fair field unoccupied, than on ennobling imagination, and avers
the described magnificence to be "such as no other story, fable, or
poem ever had." 3 But this, whether wholly adequate or no,
surely emphasizes the recognition of romance. Plutarch adds a
word of regret that Plato began the "delightful" story late in life
and died before the work was completed. The precise motive of
the fiction is only of minor importance to our present inquiry.
It seems hardly possible that the development of the composition
in the remaining two parts of the trilogy could have given it a
more authentic historical cast. As the matter stands Atlantis is
rather succinctly reported in the "Timaeus," more fully and with
mythological and architectural adornments in the later "Critias"
till it breaks off in the middle of a sentence; but the two accounts
are consistent. It seems a clear case of evolution suddenly ar-
rested but allowing us fairly to infer the character of the whole
from the parts that remain.

If there were any corroboration of the tale, it would count on
the historical side; but it seems to be agreed that Greek literature

1 Encyclopaedia Britannica, nth edit.. Vol. 21, p. 823.
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« Reply #22 on: July 19, 2009, 02:24:43 am »

' Atlantis, the "Lost" Continent: A Review of Termier's Evidence, Geogr. Rev.,
Vol. 3, 1917, pp. 61-66; reference on p. 62


and art before Plato do not supply this in any unequivocal and
reliable form. Certain hints or contributory items will be dealt
with below, but they do not affect the character of the story as a
whole nor tend to establish the reality of its main features.

We do not need to ascribe to Plato all the fancy and invention
in the story. The romancing may have been done in part by the
priests of Sais or by Solon or by Dropides or by Critias; or pos-
sibly all these may have contributed successive strata of fancy,
crowned by Plato. Practically we have to treat the tale as
beginning with him. Its circumstantiality and air of realism
have sometimes been taken as credentials of accuracy; but they
are not beyond the ordinary skill of a man of letters, and Plato
was much more than equal to the task.
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« Reply #23 on: July 19, 2009, 02:25:30 am »


The Atlantis narrative has been so often translated and copied,
at least as to its more significant parts, that one hesitates to
quote again; but there are certain items to which attention
should be drawn, and brief extracts are the best means of ef-
fecting this. The following passages are from the Smithsonian
translation of Termier's remarkable paper on Atlantis repro-
duced by that institution. It differs verbally from the transla-
tion by Dr. Jowett but not in the broader features. Of the two
quotations the first is from the "Critias." It is briefer than
the other, though forming part of a more elaborate and extended
account of the island. Taking his appointed part in the dialogue,
Critias says:

According to the Egyptian tradition a common war arose 9,000 years
ago between the nations on this side of the Pillars of Hercules and the
nations coming from beyond. On one side it was Athens; on the other the
Kings of Atlantis. We have already said that this island was larger than
Asia and Africa, but that it became submerged following an earthquake
and that its place is no longer met with except as a sand bar which stops
navigators and renders the sea impassable. 4

Pierre Termier: Atlantis (transl. from Bull. I'Inst. Ocfanogr. No. 256, Monaco) ,
Ann. Rept. Smithsonian Instn. for 1915, Washington, D. C., pp. 219-234; reference
on p. 222.
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« Reply #24 on: July 19, 2009, 02:46:44 am »


Termier quotes also from the "Timaeus" dialogue (Critias is
repeating the statement of the Egyptian priests) :

The records inform us of the destruction by Athens of a singularly
powerful army, an army which came from the Atlantic Ocean and which
had the effrontery to invade Europe and Asia; for this sea was then navi-
gable, and beyond the strait which you call the Pillars of Hercules there
was an island larger than Libya and even Asia. From this island one could
easily pass to other islands, and from them to the entire continent which
surrounds the interior sea ... In the Island Atlantis reigned kings of
amazing power. They had under their dominion the entire island, as
well as several other islands and some parts of the continent. , Besides, on
the hither side of the strait, they were still reigning over Libya as far as
Egypt and over Europe as far as the Tyrrhenian. All this power was once
upon a time united in order by a single blow to subjugate our country,
your own, and all the peoples living on the hither side of the strait. It
was then that the strength and courage of Athens blazed forth. By the
valor of her soldiers and their superiority in the military art, Athens was
supreme among the Hellenes; but, the latter having been forced to aban-
don her, alone she braved the frightful danger, stopped the invasion, piled
victory upon victory, preserved from slavery nations still free, and
restored to complete independence all those who, like ourselves, live on
this side of the Pillars of Hercules. Later, with great earthquakes and
inundations, in a single day and one fatal night, all who had been warriors
against you were swallowed up. The Island of Atlantis disappeared
beneath the sea. Since that time the sea in these quarters has become
unnavigable; vessels can not pass there because of the sands which extend
over the site of the buried isle. 6

We have said that all fiction has some root in reality. Even a
myth is commonly an attempted explanation of some mysterious
natural phenomenon or distorted narrative of obscure, nearly
forgotten happenings. Intentional fiction, try as it may, cannot
keep quite clear of facts. We turn, then, to those salient features
of the above excerpts which may in a measure stand for real past
events or puzzling conditions supposed to continue. Beside the
prehistoric grandeur and triumph of Athens, already dealt with,
these are to be noted: the Atlantean invasion of the Mediter-
ranean; the vastness of the outer island which sent forth these

Ibid., pp. 220-221.
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« Reply #25 on: July 19, 2009, 02:47:16 am »


armies; its submergence; and the alleged continued obstruction
to navigation in that quarter.


There seem to have been some rumors afloat of very early
hostilities between dwellers on the shores of the Mediterranean
and those beyond the Pillars of Hercules. That geographical
name bears witness to the supposed exertion of Greek dominant
power at the very gateway of the Atlantic, and the legend con-
necting this demigod with Cadiz carries his activities a little
farther out on the veritable ocean front. The rationalizing Dio-
dorus, writing in the first century before Christ but dealing freely
with traditions from a very much earlier time, presents Hercules
as a great military commander, who, having set up his memorial
pillars, proceeded to overrun and conquer Iberia (the present
Spain and Portugal), passing thence to Liguria and thence to
Italy after the manner of Hannibal, much nearer to Diodorus
and even better known. 6 It is evident that the earlier part of this
campaign must include warfare beyond the Pillars on at least the
Lusitanian Atlantic front. Furthermore, we are introduced to
the western Amazons, who had their center of power on the
Island Hesperia between Mount Atlas and the ocean and invaded
both the inland mountaineers and their seaboard neighbors, the
Gorgons also feminine, if no great beauties. 7 The poor Gorgons
were subjugated but long afterward developed power again under
Queen Medusa, only to be disastrously overcome by the great
Greek general, Perseus. Both the Gorgons and the western
Amazons seem to have had their abodes on the shores of the
Atlantic Ocean south of the Strait of Gibraltar, along the front of
what we now call Morocco and the region south of it. We cannot
say how much of these tales belongs to Diodorus; but he cer-
tainly did not invent the whole of them and is not likely to have

The Historical Library of Diodorus the Sicilian in 15 Books, to which are
added the fragments of Diodorus, and those published by H. Valesius, I. Rhodo-
mannus, and F. Ursinus, transl. by G. Booth, Esq., 2 vols., London, 1814; reference
in Vol. i, Bk. 4, Ch. i, p. 234.

' Ibid.. Vol. i, Bk. 3, Ch. 4, p. 195.
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« Reply #26 on: July 19, 2009, 02:48:03 am »


contrived their most distinctive features. The myth of Perseus,
like that of Theseus and the Minotaur, meant something dimly
and distantly historic. We think we partly understand the latter
after the excavations in Crete. Similarly, the flights and feats of
Perseus, as given in mythology, may be another way of saying
that he made swift voyages far afield and descended on his
enemies with deadly execution.

These tales as we have them from Diodorus do not represent
the Atlantic coast dwellers as invading the Mediterranean; but
some such incursions would naturally follow, by way of retalia-
tion, the strenuous proceedings attributed to eastern-Mediter-
ranean commanders, if, indeed, they did not precede and provoke
them. We need not picture a host of Atlantides pouring through
between the Pillars; but piratical descents of outer seafaring
people were probable enough and might be on a rather large
scale subject, of course, to exaggeration by rumor. Nor would
any of the threatened people be likely to distinguish closely be-
tween forces from a mainland coast and those from some out-
lying island. The enemy might well embody both elements.
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« Reply #27 on: July 19, 2009, 02:48:25 am »


The location of Atlantis, according to Plato, is fairly clear.
It was in the ocean, "then navigable," beyond the Pillars of
Hercules; also beyond certain other islands, which served it as
stepping-stones to the continental mass surrounding the Mediter-
ranean. This effectually disposes of all pretensions in behalf of
Crete or any other island or region of the inner sea. Atlantis must
also have lain pretty far out in the ocean, to allow space for the in-
tervening islands, which may well have been, at least in part, the
Canary Islands or other surviving members of the eastern Atlan-
tic archipelagoes; still it could not have been too distant to pro-
hibit the transfer of large forces when means of transportation
were slow and scant. This rules out America, apart from the fact
that America (like Crete) still exists, whereas Atlantis foundered,
and the further fact that America is continental, while Atlantis is
described as merely a large island. Besides, what evidence is there
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« Reply #28 on: July 19, 2009, 02:50:46 am »


that America could send forth armies or navies for the invasion
of Europe? Neither the Incas nor the Aztecs nor the Mayas were
capable of such aggressions, and we know of nothing greater
in this part of the world before the very modern development of
the white man's power.

As to the size of Atlantis, it is not quite clear whether we are
to compare it with Mediterranean Africa and Asia Minor indi-
vidually or collectively. Probably Plato merely meant to indi-
cate a great area without any exact conception of its extent.
If we think of an island as large as France and Spain we shall
probably not miss the mark very widely. The site of the mid-
Atlantic Sargasso Sea would be about the location indicated.
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« Reply #29 on: July 19, 2009, 02:51:11 am »


Now, was there any such great island and populous magnificent
kingdom in mid -Atlantic or anywhere in the Atlantic Ocean about
11,400 years ago? If not absolutely impossible, it seems at least
very unlikely. Through the mouth of Critias Plato tells how the
people of Atlantis employed themselves in constructing their
temples and palaces, harbors and docks, a great palace which
they continued to ornament through many generations, canals
and bridges, walls and towns, numerous statues of gold, fountains
both cold and hot, baths, and a great multitude of houses. 8

Such advance in civilization, such elaboration of organization,
such splendor and power would certainly have overflowed abun-
dantly on the islands intervening between Atlantis and the con-
tinental shore. It is not written that these all shared the same
fate; and in point of fact the Azores, Madeira and her consorts,
the Canary Islands, and the Cape Verde group are still in evi-
dence. Some of them must have been within fairly easy reach of
Atlantis if Atlantis existed. There is no indication that they
have been newly created or have come up from below since that
time. Even allowing for great exaggeration and assuming only a
large and efficient population in a vast insular territory without

8 Jowett, op. cit., Vol. 3, pp. S36-S3Q.
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