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Atlantis & similar tales
ATLANTIS MYTH: CSICOP + Michael Shermer's articles
The making of myth, an anthropologist's aboriginal experience

Plato and the feud with the poets:  Atlantis a tale done in the style of poets.  His own words on Atlantis, plus another tale on the origins of sexual preference. 




      Most people prefer odd stories to a reasoned and reasonable analysis.  Religions are full of odd stories.  There also many outside of religion.  One such is Atlantis; the source, 2 dialogues of Plato.  But Plato is unreliable both by his own admission and because he was taken to imitating the poets.  The feud between poets and philosophers was first recorded in the saying of Empedocles (492-432 BC, from Acragas, Sicily) who accused the poets of telling monstrous lies, a fact repeated by Plato.  Plato, on over 2-dozen occasions in his dialogues, imitated the poets--an example of ironic criticism.  My favorite of those tales is in the Symposium, where Plato has the poet & play write Aristophanes,[i] presenting a mythic explanation for human sexuality--not too different from the tales told by Hesiod on the ages of man.  In the first age of man the a God made man four legged with two heads and two sets of sex organs, but Zeus finding them too powerful had Apollo separate them down the middle.  Depending on their prior sex (male-male, male-female, or female-female), the new two-legged version had the sexual preference determined.  There are several mythic tales found in the Republic, some to which he admits their purpose of making the citizens better.  A combination of purposes exists for Plato's myths.  Atlantis is the most famous of his mythic tales. 

     A good indication of a position being without merit is the dearth of experts who assume that position.  Consider the Atlantis myth.  Its only sources are two dialogues by Plato (below).[ii], and there is no archaelolgical support, not for the date given by Plato, 9,300 years prior.  (Some suggest that the destruction of Theta in the 15th century BC gave rise to the legend). 

     In the Skeptic, Vol. 3, 2002, is a two page article on point.  A television documentary was being done on Atlantis.  The producer approached Ken Feder, of Central Connecticut State, for they wanted to interview a reputable, university anthropologist who was of the opinion that there is some sort of historical and cultural connection between Atlantis and the native civilizations of the ancient New World  (Ken Feder, p. 11).  But there werent any.  Simply put, there is no evidence of a great civilization 11,600 years ago, neither in the New World or the Old World.  

      Telling of the quality of our capitalistic media is the exchange between Feder and the producer:

 The producer seemed interested in my perspective but nevertheless wondered if I might be willing to tone down my skeptical musings just a bit for the camera and adopt more of a fence-sitting position about the lost continent.  Of course I was unwilling to do that and I asked him what seemed to me an obvious question:  "If you are doing a documentary about Atlantis, why no simply ask experts, let them express their opinions, and present those opinions honestly to the audience:  Why search for a university archaeologist with a particular point of view, especially one that none of us seem to have?"  His response at first mystified me. 

"Well," he said, "We are doing this documentary for ABC."  . . . . 

And there you have it:  a television program, packaged to look like a science documentary that was, in reality, a product, most decidedly not a science, but of marketing, what amounted to a infomercial for a cartoon.  [The owner of ABC is Disney, which has just come out with a cartoon movie on Atlantis in the New World.]--Skeptic, supra. 


      The point of all this is that Atlantis is a literary product of Plato, and his Greek audience, who listened to his dialogues being read, knew this.  Unfortunately the typical educated American knows less than the educated Greekthey lack both the rational skills and the concentration to follow a dialogue of Plato.  And their lack of reason is demonstrated by the continued acceptance of mythic tales as factual though we live in the scientific age. 

[i]   Aristophanes had his day (about 40 years before the Symposium was written):  read his play Clouds (Arrowsmith has by far the best translation). 

[ii]   Those who make a religion of myths claim an Egyptian source for Platos tale of Atlantis.  However, the Sea People in Egyptian history, turn out to bebased on the best archaeological evidenceto be Greeks from the islands.  Their attempt to settle the Nile Delta was rebuffed, so they migrated to the Levant region, where they came to be known, centuries later in Hebrew lore as the Philistines.  "A group of Aegean origin, the Philistines were one of the Sea Peoples who ravaged the eastern Mediterranean world subsequent to the collapse of Mycenaean civilization at the end of the Late Bronze Age."  The Oxford Companion to the Bible, Oxford University Press, 1993, p. 591.  This conclusion is based primarily on the poetry found at Ekron (Tel Miqne), Ashdod,  and other sites, which is clearly Mycenaean.  Other evidence is from burial practices, housing, and crafts. 



Critias: Friend Hermocrates, you, who are stationed last and have another in front of you, have not lost heart as yet; the gravity of the situation will soon be revealed to you; meanwhile I accept your exhortations and encouragements. But besides the gods and goddesses whom you have mentioned, I would specially invoke Mnemosyne; for all the important part of my discourse is dependent on her favour, and if I can recollect and recite enough of what was said by the priests and brought hither by Solon, I doubt not that I shall satisfy the requirements of this theatre.

And now, making no more excuses, I will proceed.

Let me begin by observing first of all, that nine thousand was the sum of years which had elapsed since the war which was said to have taken place between those who dwelt outside the Pillars of Heracles and all who dwelt within them; this war I am going to describe. Of the combatants on the one side, the city of Athens was reported to have been the leader and to have fought out the war; the combatants on the other side were commanded by the kings of Atlantis, which, as was saying, was an island greater in extent than Libya and Asia, and when afterwards sunk by an earthquake, became an impassable barrier of mud to voyagers sailing from hence to any part of the ocean.

The progress of the history will unfold the various nations of barbarians and families of Hellenes which then existed, as they successively appear on the scene; but I must describe first of all Athenians of that day, and their enemies who fought with them, and then the respective powers and governments of the two kingdoms. Let us give the precedence to Athens.

In the days of old the gods had the whole earth distributed among them by allotment. There was no quarrelling; for you cannot rightly suppose that the gods did not know what was proper for each of them to have, or, knowing this, that they would seek to procure for themselves by contention that which more properly belonged to others. They all of them by just apportionment obtained what they wanted, and peopled their own districts; and when they had peopled them they tended us, their nurselings and possessions, as shepherds tend their flocks, excepting only that they did not use blows or bodily force, as shepherds do, but governed us like pilots from the stern of the vessel, which is an easy way of guiding animals, holding our souls by the rudder of persuasion according to their own pleasure;-thus did they guide all mortal creatures.

Now different gods had their allotments in different places which they set in order. Hephaestus and Athene, who were brother and sister, and sprang from the same father, having a common nature, and being united also in the love of philosophy and art, both obtained as their common portion this land, which was naturally adapted for wisdom and virtue; and there they implanted brave children of the soil, and put into their minds the order of government; their names are preserved, but their actions have disappeared by reason of the destruction of those who received the tradition, and the lapse of ages.

For when there were any survivors, as I have already said, they were men who dwelt in the mountains; and they were ignorant of the art of writing, and had heard only the names of the chiefs of the land, but very little about their actions. The names they were willing enough to give to their children; but the virtues and the laws of their predecessors, they knew only by obscure traditions; and as they themselves and their children lacked for many generations the necessaries of life, they directed their attention to the supply of their wants, and of them they conversed, to the neglect of events that had happened in times long past; for mythology and the enquiry into antiquity are first introduced into cities when they begin to have leisure, and when they see that the necessaries of life have already been provided, but not before. And this is reason why the names of the ancients have been preserved to us and not their actions.

This I infer because Solon said that the priests in their narrative of that war mentioned most of the names which are recorded prior to the time of Theseus, such as Cecrops, and Erechtheus, and Erichthonius, and Erysichthon, and the names of the women in like manner. Moreover, since military pursuits were then common to men and women, the men of those days in accordance with the custom of the time set up a figure and image of the goddess in full armour, to be a testimony that all animals which associate together, male as well as female, may, if they please, practise in common the virtue which belongs to them without distinction of sex.


From the Symposium, Jawette translation, link: http://plato.evansville.edu/texts/jowett/symposium5.htm


Yes, said Aristophanes, who followed, the hiccough is gone; not, however, until I applied the sneezing; and I wonder whether the harmony of the body has a love of such noises and ticklings, for I no sooner applied the sneezing than I was cured.

Eryximachus said: Beware, friend Aristophanes, although you are going to speak, you are making fun of me; and I shall have [189b] to watch and see whether I cannot have a laugh at your expense, when you might speak in peace.

You are quite right, said Aristophanes, laughing. I will unsay my words; but do you please not to watch me, as I fear that in the speech which I am about to make, instead of others laughing with me, which is to the manner born of our muse and would be all the better, I shall only be laughed at by them.

Do you expect to shoot your bolt and escape, Aristophanes? Well, perhaps if you are very careful and bear in mind that you will be called to account, [189c] I may be induced to let you off.

Aristophanes professed to open another vein of discourse; he had a mind to praise Love in another way, unlike that either of Pausanias or Eryximachus. Mankind, he said, judging by their neglect of him, have never, as I think, at all understood the power of Love. For if they had understood him they would surely have built noble temples and altars, and offered solemn sacrifices in his honour; but this is not done, and most certainly ought to be done: [189d] since of all the gods he is the best friend of men, the helper and the healer of the ills which are the great impediment to the happiness of the race. I will try to describe his power to you, and you shall teach the rest of the world what I am teaching you. In the first place, let me treat of the nature of man and what has happened to it; for the original human nature was not like the present, but different. [189e] The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, having a name corresponding to this double nature, which had once a real existence, but is now lost, and the word "Androgynous" is only preserved as a term of reproach. In the second place, the primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, [190a] set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He could walk upright as men now do, backwards or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he wanted [190b] to run fast. Now the sexes were three, and such as I have described them; because the sun, moon, and earth are three; and the man was originally the child of the sun, the woman of the earth, and the man-woman of the moon, which is made up of sun and earth, and they were all round and moved round and round like their parents. Terrible was their might and strength, and the thoughts of their hearts were great, and they made an attack upon the gods; of them is told the tale of [190c] Otys and Ephialtes who, as Homer says, dared to scale heaven, and would have laid hands upon the gods. Doubt reigned in the celestial councils. Should they kill them and annihilate the race with thunderbolts, as they had done the giants, then there would be an end of the sacrifices and worship which men offered to them; but, on the other hand, the gods could not suffer their insolence to be unrestrained. At last, after a good deal of reflection, Zeus discovered a way. He said: "Methinks I have a plan which will humble their pride and improve their manners; men shall continue to exist, [190d] but I will cut them in two and then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers; this will have the advantage of making them more profitable to us. They shall walk upright on two legs, and if they continue insolent and will not be quiet, I will split them again and they shall hop about on a single leg." He spoke and cut men in two, like a sorb-apple which is halved for pickling, or as you might divide an egg with a hair; [190e] and as he cut them one after another, he bade Apollo give the face and the half of the neck a turn in order that the man might contemplate the section of himself: he would thus learn a lesson of humility. Apollo was also bidden to heal their wounds and compose their forms. So he gave a turn to the face and pulled the skin from the sides all over that which in our language is called the belly, like the purses which draw in, and he made one mouth at the centre, which he fastened in a knot (the same which is called the navel); [191a] he also moulded the breast and took out most of the wrinkles, much as a shoemaker might smooth leather upon a last; he left a few, however, in the region of the belly and navel, as a memorial of the primeval state. After the division the two parts of man, each desiring his other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, [191b] longing to grow into one, they were on the point of dying from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart; and when one of the halves died and the other survived, the survivor sought another mate, man or woman as we call them, -- being the sections of entire men or women, -- and clung to that. They were being destroyed, when Zeus in pity of them invented a new plan: he turned the parts of generation round to the front, for this had not been always their position, and they sowed the seed no longer as hitherto like grasshoppers in the ground, but in one another; [191c] and after the transposition the male generated in the female in order that by the mutual embraces of man and woman they might breed, and the race might continue; or if man came to man they might be satisfied, and rest, and go their ways to the business of life: so ancient is the desire of one another which is implanted [191d] in us, reuniting our original nature, making one of two, and healing the state of man. Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of a man, and he is always looking for his other half. Men who are a section of that double nature which was once called Androgynous are lovers of women; adulterers are generally of this breed, [191e] and also adulterous women who lust after men: the women who are a section of the woman do not care for men, but have female attachments; the female companions are of this sort. But they who are a section of the male follow the male, and while they are young, being slices of the original man, [192a] they hang about men and embrace them, and they are themselves the best of boys and youths, because they have the most manly nature. Some indeed assert that they are shameless, but this is not true; for they do not act thus from any want of shame, but because they are valiant and manly, and have a manly countenance, and they embrace that which is like them. And these when they grow up become our statesmen, [192b] and these only, which is a great proof of the truth of what I am saying. When they reach manhood they are lovers of youth, and are not naturally inclined to marry or beget children, -- if at all, they do so only in obedience to the law; but they are satisfied if they may be allowed to live with one another unwedded; and such a nature is prone to love and ready to return love, always embracing that which is akin to him. And when one of them [192c] meets with his other half, the actual half of himself, whether he be a lover of youth or a lover of another sort, the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and will not be out of the other's sight, as I may say, even for a moment: these are the people who pass their whole lives together; yet they could not explain what they desire of one another. For the intense yearning which each of them has towards the other does not appear to be the desire of lover's intercourse, but of something else which the soul of either evidently desires and cannot tell, [192d] and of which she has only a dark and doubtful presentiment. Suppose Hephaestus, with his instruments, to come to the pair who are lying side by side and to say to them, "What do you people want of one another?" they would be unable to explain. And suppose further, that when he saw their perplexity he said: "Do you desire to be wholly one; always day and night to be [192e] in one another's company? for if this is what you desire, I am ready to melt you into one and let you grow together, so that being two you shall become one, and while you live a common life as if you were a single man, and after your death in the world below still be one departed soul instead of two -- I ask whether this is what you lovingly desire, and whether you are satisfied to attain this?" -- there is not a man of them who when he heard the proposal would deny or would not acknowledge that this meeting and melting into one another, this becoming one instead of two, was the very expression of his ancient need. [193a] And the reason is that human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love. There was a time, I say, when we were one, but now because of the wickedness of mankind God has dispersed us, as the Arcadians were dispersed into villages by the Lacedaemonians. And if we are not obedient to the gods, there is a danger that we shall be split up again and go about in basso-relievo, like the profile figures having only half a nose which are sculptured on monuments, and that we shall be like tallies. Wherefore let us exhort all men to piety, that we may avoid evil, [193b] and obtain the good, of which Love is to us the lord and minister; and let no one oppose him -- he is the enemy of the gods who oppose him. For if we are friends of the God and at peace with him we shall find our own true loves, which rarely happens in this world at present. I am serious, and therefore I must beg Eryximachus not to make fun or to find any allusion [193c] in what I am saying to Pausanias and Agathon, who, as I suspect, are both of the manly nature, and belong to the class which I have been describing. But my words have a wider application -- they include men and women everywhere; and I believe that if our loves were perfectly accomplished, and each one returning to his primeval nature had his original true love, then our race would be happy. And if this would be best of all, the best in the next degree and under present circumstances must be the nearest approach to such a union; [193d] and that will be the attainment of a congenial love. Wherefore, if we would praise him who has given to us the benefit, we must praise the god Love, who is our greatest benefactor, both leading us in this life back to our own nature, and giving us high hopes for the future, for he promises that if we are pious, he will restore us to our original state, and heal us and make us happy and blessed. This, Eryximachus, is my discourse of love, which although different to yours, I must beg you to leave unassailed by the shafts of your ridicule, in order that each may have his turn; each, or rather either, [193e] for Agathon and Socrates are the only ones left.