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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 8088 times)
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« Reply #30 on: July 19, 2009, 02:52:12 am »


the ascribed superfluity of magnificence, such a people would
surely have left some kind of lasting memorial or relic beyond
their own borders. Nothing of the kind has ever been found
either in these islands of the eastern Atlantic archipelagoes or
elsewhere in that part of the earth.

The advocates of a real Atlantis try to pile up proofs of a great
land mass existing at some time in the Atlantic Ocean, a logical
proceeding so far as it goes but one that falls short of its mark, for
the land may have ascended and descended again ages before the
reputed Atlantis period. It is of no avail to demonstrate its
presence in the Miocene, Pliocene, or Pleistocene epoch, or, in-
deed, at any time prior to the development of a well organized
civilization among men, or, as Plato apparently reasons, between
11,000 and 12,000 years ago. Also what is wanted is evidence of
the great island Atlantis, not of the former seaward extension of
some existing continent nor of any land bridge spanning the
ocean. It is true that such conditions might serve as distant pre-
liminaries for the production of Atlantis Island by the breaking
down and submergence of the intervening land; but this only
multiplies the cataclysms to be demonstrated and can have no
real relevance in the absence of proof of the island itself. The
geologic and geographic phenomena of pre-human ages are be-
side the question. The tale to be investigated is of a flourishing
insular growth of artificial human society on a large scale, not so
very many thousands of years ago, evidently removed from all
tradition of engulfment and hence dreading it not at all but
sending forth its conquering armies until the final defeat and
annihilating cataclysm.
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« Reply #31 on: July 19, 2009, 02:52:27 am »


Nevertheless, inquiries as to an ancient Atlantic continental
mass have an interest. We may cite a few of the recent outgiv-
ings. Termier tells us of an east-and-west arrangement of ele-
vated lands across the Atlantic in earlier ages, as opposed to the


present north-and-south system of islands and raised folds. By
the former there was

a very ancient continental bond between northern Europe and North
America and . . . another continental bond, also very ancient, between
the massive Africa and South America. . . Thus the region of the
Atlantic, until an era of ruin which began we know not when, but the end
of which was the Tertiary, was occupied by a continental mass, bounded
on the south by a chain of mountains, and which was all submerged long
before the collapse of those volcanic lands of which the Azores seem to be
the last vestiges. In place of the South Atlantic Ocean there was, likewise,
for many thousands of centuries a great continent now very deeply en-
gulfed beneath the sea. 9
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« Reply #32 on: July 19, 2009, 02:52:51 am »

Later he refers to

collapses ... at the close of the Miocene, in the folded Mediterra-
nean zone and in the two continental areas, continuing up to the final
annihilation of the two continents . . . then, in the bottom of the
immense maritime domain resulting from these subsidences, the appear-
ance of a new design whose general direction is north and south. . .
The extreme mobility of the Atlantic region . . . the certainty of the
occurrence of immense depressions when islands and even continents
have disappeared; the certainty that some of these depressions date as
from yesterday, are of Quaternary age, and that consequently they might
have been seen by man; the certainty that some of them have been sud-
den, or at least very rapid. See how much there is to encourage those who
still hold out for Plato's narrative. Geologically speaking, the Platonian
history of Atlantis is highly probable. 10
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« Reply #33 on: July 19, 2009, 02:53:10 am »


Professor Schuchert, reviewing the paper of Termier above
quoted, agrees in part and partly disagrees. He says:

The Azores are true volcanic and oceanic islands, and it is almost cer-
tain that they never had land connections with the continents on either
side of the Atlantic Ocean. If there is any truth in Plato's thrilling
account, we must look for Atlantis off the western coast of Africa, and here
we find that five of the Cape Verde Islands and three of the Canaries have
rocks that are unmistakably like those common to the continents. Tak-
ing into consideration also the living plants and animals of these islands,

Termier, pp. 228-229.
10 Ibid., pp. 230, 231.

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« Reply #34 on: July 19, 2009, 02:53:50 am »


many of which are of European-Mediterranean affinities of late Tertiary
time, we see that the evidence appears to indicate clearly that the Cape
Verde and Canary Islands are fragments of a greater Africa. . .
What evidence there may be to show that this fracturing and breaking
down of western Africa took place as suddenly as related by Plato or that
it occurred about 10,000 years ago is as yet unknown to geologists. 11

Termier puts in evidence as biological corroboration the re-
searches of Louis Germain, especially in the mollusca, which
have convinced him of the continental origin of this fauna in the
four archipelagoes, the Azores, Madeira, the Canaries, and Cape
Verde. He also notes a few species still living in the Azores and
the Canaries, though extinct in Europe, but found as fossils in
Pliocene rocks of Portugal. He deduces from this a connection
between the islands and the Iberian Peninsula down to some
period during the Pliocene. 13

Dr. Scharff has devoted some space and assiduous effort to
similar considerations. He reviews the insular flora and fauna,
pointing out that some of the forms common to the islands, or
some of them, and a now distant continent could hardly have
reached there over sea. He comes to the following conclusion: "I
believe they [the islands] were still connected, in early Pleistocene
times, with the continents of Europe and Africa, at a time when
man had already made his appearance in western Europe, and
was able to reach the islands by land." 13

He also points out that the Azores Islands were first known and
named for their hawks, which feed largely on small mammalia,
that presumably would have come thither overland, and also
points out that some of the islands were named in Italian on old
maps Rabbit Island, Goat Island, etc., before the Portuguese re-
discovery in the fifteenth century. 14 Those names (on several
fifteenth-century maps St. Mary's is Louo, Lovo, or Luovo
"Wolf Island," cf. Portuguese lobo) are certainly interesting,

11 Geogr. Rev., Vol. 3, 1917, p. 65.

"Termier, pp. 231 and 232.
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« Reply #35 on: July 19, 2009, 02:54:17 am »

" R. F. Scharff: Some Remarks on the Atlantis Problem, Proc. Royal Irish A cad..
Vol. 24, Section B, 1903, pp. 268-302; reference on p. 297.

14 Idem: European Animals: Their Geological History and Geographical Distri-
bution, London and New York, 1907, pp. 102 and 104.


but they may have been given for some supposed resemblance
of outline or other fancy. There is this in favor of Dr. Scharff 's
supposition : the name Corvo in its original form Corvis Marinis
(Island of the Sea Crows) appears to have been prompted by the
abundance of birds of a particular species possibly cormorants,
possibly black skimmers and not by any typical bird form
of the island itself. Also Pico, now named for its peak, was called
the Isle of the Doves, and wild doves or pigeons are said to abound
still on its mountain side. But, if we assume by analogy that Li
Conigi (Rabbit Island) and Capraria (Goat Island) were so
named by reason of the pre-Portuguese wild rabbits and goats,
these may be the donations of earlier visitants or settlers Italian,
Carthaginians, or what not. We cannot well believe that wolves
were voluntarily brought by man to Lovo (Lobo), now St.
Mary's; but here there may have been some mistake, as of dogs
run wild or some play of imitative fancy, as before indicated. In
any case these archaic island names are a long way from being
convincing evidence of former land connection with any conti-
nent, still less of the former existence of Atlantis.

More recently Navarro, in an argument mainly geological, has
also called attention to the continental character of some species
of the fauna and flora of the eastern Atlantic islands, with the
same implications as his predecessors. 16 But there seems to be
little real addition to the evidence of this nature; and no one has
made it more apposite to the existence of Atlantis Island 12,000
or so years ago.
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« Reply #36 on: July 19, 2009, 02:55:00 am »


The great final catastrophe of Atlantis would surely write its
record on the rocks both of the sea bed and the continental land
masses. As to the ocean bottom it would be the natural repository
for vitreous and other rocky products of volcanic and seismic ac-
tion occurring above it. Termier relates what he considers very
significant indications at a point 500 miles north of the Azores at

15 L. F. Navarro: Nuevas consideraciones sobre el problema de la Atlantis,
Madrid, 1917, pp. 6 and 15 (extract from Rev. Real Acad. de Ciencias Exactas, Fisicas
y Naiurales de Madrid, Vol. 15, 1917, pp. 537-552).


a depth of 1 ,700 fathoms, where the grappling irons of a cable-
mending ship dragged for several days over a mountainous sur-
face of peaks and pinnacles, bringing up "little mineral splinters"
evidently "detached from a bare rock, an actual outcropping
sharp-edged and angular." These fragments were all of a non-
crystalline vitreous lava called tachylyte, which "could solidify
into this condition only under atmospheric pressure." He infers
that the territory in question was covered with lava flows while
it was still above water and subsequently descended to its present
depth; also from the general condition of the rock surface that
the caving in followed very closely on the emission of the lavas
and that this collapse was sudden. He thinks, therefore, "that
the entire region north of the Azores and perhaps the very region
of the Azores, of which they may be only the visible ruins, was
very recently submerged, probably during the epoch which the
geologists call the present." He believes also that like results
would follow a "detailed dredging to the south and the southwest
of these islands." 16

It will be observed that the whole of this very tempting edifice
is built on the declared impossibility of tachylyte forming on the
sea bottom under heavy water pressure. But Professor Schuchert
insists that: "It is not pressure so much as it is a quick loss of
temperature that brings about the vitreous structure in lava.
In other words, vitreous lava apparently can be formed as well
in the ocean depths as on the lands. What the cable layers got
was probably the superficial glassy crust of probable subter-
ranean lava flows." 17 If that be so, there is, of course, no need to
infer a descent of territory into the depths in that region of the
mid-Atlantic. This tachylyte matter seems enveloped in uncer-

On the other hand, it is well known that volcanic outbursts
and earthquakes have been rather frequent and alarming even
in modern times among the islands of the eastern Atlantic archi-
pelagoes, especially the Canaries and the lowest and middle

18 Termier, pp. 226 and 227.

" Ceogr. Rev., Vol. 3, iQi?, p. 66.
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« Reply #37 on: July 19, 2009, 02:55:22 am »


groups of the Azores. In some instances the nearest mainland
also has suffered, as notably on "Lisbon-earthquake day," and the
various occasions of disturbances cited by Navarro. Also, there
is the memorable instance of a small island that was thrust up-
ward from the depths before the eyes of a British naval ship's
crew and remained in sight for several days. Changes of a dis-
tinctly non-volcanic character have also occurred, as when an
appreciable slice of cliff wall broke away from Flores and sank,
raising a great wave which did damage, with loss of life on Corvo,
some nine miles away. Moreover, Corvo was once considerably
larger than it is now in comparison with this neighbor, Flores (or
Li Conigi), if we may trust to the general testimony of fourteenth-
century and fifteenth-century maps. But all these shiftings and
transformations for a long time past have been local and usually
rather narrowly restricted. It does not follow that no depressions
or elevations of greater extent have suddenly occurred in times
before men regularly made permanent records; yet it must be
owned that the belief in any very large sunken Atlantis derives
no direct support from what we actually know of volcanic and
seismic action in that region in historic centuries.
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« Reply #38 on: July 19, 2009, 02:55:35 am »



There remain to be considered a small array of undersurface
insular items which seem germane to our inquiry. Sir John Mur-
ray tells us that:

Another reirarkable feature of the North Atlantic is the series of sub-
merged cones or oceanic shoals made known off the northwest coast of
Africa between the Canary Islands and the Spanish peninsula, of which
we may mention: the "Coral Patch" in lat. 34 57' N., long. 11 57' W. t
covered by 302 fathoms; the "Dacia Bank" in lat. 31 9' N., long. 13 34'
W., covered by 47 fathoms; the "Seine Bank" in lat. 33 47' N., long. 14
i' W., covered by 81 fathoms; the "Concepcion Bank" in lat. 30 N. and
long. 13 W., covered by 88 fathoms; the "Josephine Bank" in lat. 37
N., long. 14 W., covered by 82 fathoms; the "Gettysburg Bank" in lat.
36 N., long. 12 W., covered by 34 fathoms. 18

" Sir John Murray: The Ocean: A General Account of the Science of the Sea
(Home University Library of Modern Knowledge, No. 76), New York, 1913, P- 33-

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« Reply #39 on: July 19, 2009, 02:56:34 am »


All of these subaqueous mountain-top lands or hidden elevated
plateaus are conspicuously nearer the ocean surface than the real
depths of the sea so much nearer that they inevitably raise the
suspicion of having been above that surface within the knowledge
and memory of man. It is notorious that coasts rise and fall all
over the world in what may be called the normal non-spasmodic
action of the strata, and sometimes the movement in one direc-
tion upward or downward seems to have persisted through
many centuries. If we assume that Gettysburg Bank has been
continuously descending at the not extravagant rate of two feet
in a century, then it was a considerable island above water about
the period dealt with by the priests of Sais. Apparently the rising
of Labrador and Newfoundland since the last recession and dis-
persion of the great ice sheet has been even more. Here the ele-
ments of exact comparison in time and conditions are lacking;
nevertheless, the reported uplift of more than 500 feet in one
quarter and nearly 700 in another is impressive as showing what
the old earth may do in steady endeavor. It must be borne in
mind, too, that a sudden acceleration of the descent of Gettys-
burg Bank and its consorts may well have occurred at any stage
in so feverishly seismic an area. All considered, it seems far from
impossible that some of these banks may have been visible and
even habitable at some time when men had attained a moderate
degree of civilization. But they would not be of any vast extent.
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« Reply #40 on: July 19, 2009, 02:57:51 am »


Westropp has made an interesting and important disclosure of
the legends of submerged lands with villages, churches, etc., all
around the coasts of Ireland. In some instances they are believed
to be magically visible again above the surface in certain condi-
tions; in others the spires and walls of a fine city may at times, it is
thought, be still seen through clear water. Nearly, if not quite,
every one of them coincides with a shoal or bank of no great
depth, the upjutting teeth of rocks, or a barren fragmentary islet
vestiges perhaps of something more conspicuous, extended, and
alluring. Westropp says: "When we examine the sea bed, we see
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« Reply #41 on: July 19, 2009, 02:58:32 am »


that it is not impossible (save Brasil and the land between Teelin
and the Stags of Broadhaven) that islands may have existed
within traditional memory at all the alleged sites." 19 In some
cases considerable inroads of the ocean are perfectly well known
to have occurred within relatively recent historic centuries. The
same on a large scale is certainly true of Holland witness
Haarlem Lake and the Zuyder Zee. Other countries, perhaps
most countries, might be called as witnesses.

In these considerations of known facts and legends still re-
peated we are dealing mostly with events of periods not exces-
sively remote, but the same laws must have been at work and the
same phenomena occurring in earlier millenniums.

If there were men to observe, the legend would follow the
subsidence; and Phoenician or other voyagers would naturally
bear it back to the Eastern Mediterranean, to Plato or the
sources from which Plato derived it.

In any such case the submergence would most likely be exag-
gerated and made a great catastrophe, but there were special
reasons why the exaggeration should be enormous in this par-
ticular story. It is the office of a myth or legend to explain. We
see that in Plato's time the Atlantic Ocean was believed, in part
at least, to be no longer navigable, and with some modifications
this idea persisted far down into the Middle Ages, involving at
least a conviction of abnormal obstacles hardly to be overcome.
The account of Critias is: "Since that time the sea in those quar-
ters has become unnavigable; vessels cannot pass there because
of the sands which extend over the site of the buried isle." This
item differs from the other features of the narration put into his
mouth by Plato, in that it related to a present and continuing
condition and in a way challenged investigation which would
have to be at a distant and ill-known region but was not really
impracticable. It must be evident that Plato would not have
written thus unless he relied on the established general repute of
that part of the ocean for difficulty of navigation.

19 T. J. Westropp: Brasil and the Legendary Islands of the North Atlantic:
Their History and Fable, Proc. Royal Irish Acad., Vol. 30, Section C, 1912-13, pp.
223-260; reference on p. 249.
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« Reply #42 on: July 19, 2009, 02:59:33 am »



We get further light on this matter of obstruction from the
Periplus of Scylax of Caryanda, the greater part of which must
have been written before the time of Alexander the Great. Prob-
ably we may put down the passage as approximately of Plato's
own period. He begins on the European coast at the Strait of
Gibraltar, makes the circuit of the Mediterranean, and ends at
Cerne, an island of the African Atlantic coast, "which island, it is
stated, is twelve days' coasting beyond the Pillars of Hercules,
where the parts are no longer navigable because of shoals, of
mud, and of seaweed." 20 "The seaweed has the width of a palm
and is sharp towards the points, so as to prick." 21

Similarly, when Himilco, parting from Hanno, sailed north-
ward on the Atlantic about 500 B. C., he found weeds, shallows,
calms, and dangers, according to the poet Avienus, who pro-
fesses to repeat his account long afterward and is quoted by
Nansen, with doubts inclining to acceptance. It reads:

No breeze drives the ship forward, so dead is the sluggish wind of this
idle sea. He [Himilco] also adds that there is much seaweed among the
waves, and that it often holds the ship back like bushes. Nevertheless,
he says that the sea has no great depth, and that the surface of the
earth is barely covered by a little water. The monsters of the sea move
continually hither and thither, and the wild beasts swim among the
sluggish and slowly creeping ships. 22
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« Reply #43 on: July 19, 2009, 02:59:57 am »

Avienus also has the following:

Farther to the west from these Pillars there is boundless sea. Himilco
relates that . . . none has sailed ships over these waters, because pro-
pelling winds are lacking . . . likewise because darkness screens the
light of day with a sort of clothing, and because a fog always conceals the

10 E. L. Stevenson: Portolan Charts, Publs. Hispanic Soc. of Amcr. No. 82. New
York, 1911, pp. 5-6.

21 A. E. Nordenskiold: Periplus: An Essay on the Early History of Charts and
Sailing-Directions, transl. by F. A. Bather, Stockholm, 1897. P- 8.

"Fridtjof Nansen: In Northern Mists: Arctic Exploration in Early Times,
transl. by A. G. Chater, 2 vols., New York, 1911; reference in Vol. i, p. 38.

n Ibid., pp. 40-41.



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« Reply #44 on: July 19, 2009, 03:00:18 am »


Aristotle, as cited by Nansen, tells us in his "Meteorologica"
that the sea beyond the Pillars of Hercules was muddy and shal-
low and little stirred by the winds. 24 In early life Aristotle was a
pupil of Plato, and, though he afterward developed a widely
different method and outlook, it is likely that their information as
to this matter was in common, being supplied perhaps by Phoe-
nician and other seamen.

In the passage quoted from Scylax and the first excerpt from
Avienus the courses referred to are apparently too near the main-
land shore to approach that prodigious accumulation of eddy-
borne weeds in dead water which has long given to a great space
of mid-Atlantic the name of the Sargasso Sea. But they show that
huge seaweeds were very early associated with obstruction to
navigation in seafaring minds and popular fancy. Perhaps they
may also have suggested shallows as affording beds of nourish-
ment for so enormous an output of vegetation. It would not
readily occur to the early seagoing observers that the greatest of
these entangling creations floated in masses quite free, though we
now know this to be the case. In any event, it is evident that
some imperfect knowledge of conditions far west of the Pillars of
Hercules had made its way to Greece. Somewhere in that ocean
of obscurity and mystery there was a vast dead and stagnant
sea, presumably shallow, a sea to be shunned. Gigantic entrap-
ping weeds and wallowing sea monsters freely distributed were
recognized, too, as among the standing terrors of the Atlantic.


It would be idle and wearying to follow such utterances through
the rather numerous centuries that have elapsed since those early
times. When the Magrurin or deluded explorers of Lisbon, at
some undefined time between the early eighth century and the
middle of the twelfth attempted, according to Edrisi, to cross the
great westward Sea of Darkness they encountered an impassable
tract of ocean and had to change their course, apparently reach-

** Nansen, In Northern Mists, p. 41.
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