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Ever since Plato made up the story of Atlantis in the fourth century BC, it has fascinated and puzzled its readers. Is it, as Plato claims, a ‘true story’, and if so in what sense: a historically accurate account or ‘true’ in some allegorical or mythical sense? In recent years, classical scholars have tended to assume that the story is, essentially, a political allegory, which uses primeval Athens and Atlantis to symbolise the ideal city and its opposite. It is ‘true’ only in the sense that it conveys a philosophically ‘true’ message.

However, far more popular, especially among non-specialists in ancient philosophy, is the idea that the story is ‘true’ in a factual or historical sense, and that Atlantis is somewhere waiting to be found. Plato, quite plainly, said that the island of Atlantis sunk in the Atlantic Ocean, and this is one place that people have looked for it – without any success. But different writers have claimed to ‘find’ Atlantis all over the world (including parts of the world quite unknown to Plato), latching on to one or other feature of Plato’s account, but never explaining the story in its entirety. These attempts, in my judgement, are quite unconvincing and are a testimony to the power and vividness of Plato’s story – and to the human capacity for self-deception.

Alan Alford’s book, on the other hand, has the considerable merit that, while offering a widely accessible account of the Atlantis story, it strongly rejects the popular view that the story has a historical basis. The book takes as its starting point a fact often ignored in non-specialist treatments of Atlantis: that Plato is the original and only primary source for the story, and that we must begin by locating the story within Plato’s philosophical and conceptual world-view. Alford, like recent Platonic scholarship, takes the story to be, in part at least, political allegory, based on Plato’s critical view of Athens’ emergence as a rich and powerful maritime empire in the fifth century BC.

But the main focus of Alford’s book lies in exploring the status of the Atlantis story as a myth. Although he accepts that the story is shaped by certain distinctively Platonic concerns, he also stresses that it reflects the larger background of Greek myth, which Plato drew on and reworked for his own purposes. Also, in a move that is quite new in studies of Atlantis, Alford relates the story to the yet larger background of Near Eastern myth, particularly that of Mesopotamia. As he points out, some of the most important scholarly work on antiquity in the last twenty years has centred on bringing out the pervasive influence of earlier Near Eastern culture on archaic and classical Greece. Alford argues that, if we take account of the Near Eastern themes underlying Greek myths, we can make much better sense of Plato’s version of Greek myth in the Atlantis story.

In particular, Alford claims that a specific myth-pattern plays a key role in shaping the Atlantis story. In two previous books, 'The Phoenix Solution' (1998) and 'When The Gods Came Down' (2000), he explored the role in Near Eastern myth of the motif of the ‘exploded planet’. In essence, the hypothesis is that a whole range of myth-types are best explained by the idea that a living planet exploded and that this had dramatic and massive effects on the Earth. This idea was itself a response to human observation, over thousands of years, of cosmic disturbances such as comets and meteors in the sky and meteorites plunging to Earth. Alford claims that the influence of this particular myth-pattern can be found not only in Near Eastern and Greek myth but also in the early Greek scientific cosmologies that rationalised, and aimed to replace, this body of myth.

Alford also argues that the ‘exploded planet’ idea underlies crucial features of the Atlantis story – features often ignored or played down by historicising treatments. The most obvious of these is the cataclysmic convulsion in the Earth’s surface in which the island of Atlantis was sunk under the Atlantic Ocean. But he sees this pattern as underlying, more indirectly, other points in the story including the quasi-cosmic ‘eruption’ of Atlantis into the rest of the known world. More generally, Alford uses this myth-pattern to explain a whole series of salient linkages in the Atlantis story: between Heaven and the Underworld, between the Underworld and the far West, and between ‘earth-born’ or divine origins and the fall of the sky. He also explains in this way the puzzling combination of Plato’s claims to factual ‘truth’ and his vagueness and apparent inaccuracy of detail as regards chronology and topography. The story is ‘true’, he says, in that it expresses a profound ancient myth-type, which was seen as having immense significance for the understanding of the past. But this ‘truth’ attaches to a mythic pattern of thinking about time, space and human affairs, and not to history or geography in the ordinary sense.

How convincing are Alford’s claims? To test his hypothesis fully, one would need not simply expertise in ancient philosophy and the Atlantis story, which I could claim to have, but also in Greek and Near Eastern myth, on which I make no such claim. The ‘exploded planet’ is also, I take it, a new and innovative hypothesis, which, like all new hypotheses, will take time and careful scrutiny to assess. What I can say is that Alford presents his case in a clear, effective and systematic way, which will enable readers from a wide range of backgrounds to follow his argument, to see what it is based on, and to form their own conclusions about its validity. I am not sure whether or not the ‘exploded planet’ hypothesis has the great explanatory power that Alford attributes to it. But I am very glad to have encountered such a lucid and wide-ranging statement of this hypothesis, and to see it applied so suggestively to the Atlantis story.

Also, quite apart from this hypothesis, there are a number of features of this book that I warmly welcome. One is the refreshing scepticism, in a work aimed at a wide readership, about attempts to ‘find’ Atlantis in a literal sense. Another is the way that the book points the reader firmly back to the Platonic sources and ideas, to the Greek myths that Plato certainly knew, and to the Near Eastern myth-patterns that may underlie these myths. Above all, I applaud the lucidity of Alford’s argument and the transparency with which his claims are based on either quoted or fully documented sources. Whether 'The Atlantis Secret' does, or does not, finally ‘decode’ the riddle of Atlantis, as it aims to, it certainly provides some fascinating new insights and an admirably clear point of access to this perennially powerful story.

CHRISTOPHER GILL, Exeter, September 2001.

* Christopher Gill is Professor of Ancient Thought and Head of the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Exeter in England, and is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading experts on Plato and the Atlantis story. His published work includes: 'Plato: The Atlantis Story' (Duckworth, 1980), an essay in 'Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World', edited by C. Gill and T.P. Wiseman (University of Exeter Press, 1993), 'Form and Argument in Late Plato', edited by C. Gill and M.M. McCabe (Oxford University Press, 1996) and 'Plato: The Symposium', a new translation with introduction and notes (Penguin Classics, 1999). In addition, he is the editor of an internet journal entitled Plato (http://www.ex.ac.uk/plato/).


Nearly twenty-four hundred years ago, the Athenian philosopher Plato penned one of the most controversial and tantalising stories ever written. Once upon a time, he said, there had existed a magnificent seafaring civilisation which had attempted to take over the world, but had perished when its island sank into the sea – the result of an unbearable cataclysm of earthquakes and floods. This civilisation had been called Atlantis, and it had heralded from the Atlantic Ocean, taking its name from the god Atlas who presided over the depths of the sea. Its main island had sunk some nine thousand years before the time of Solon, circa 9600 BC by our modern-day system of reckoning.

The puzzle of Atlantis is this. On the one hand, Plato was adamant that the island had sunk in the Atlantic Ocean, and equally adamant that the story was absolutely true. And yet, on the other hand, modern scientists have mapped the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, using echo sounders, ‘Geosat’ radar and multibeam sonar, and found no trace whatsoever of any sunken island. The result is a deadlock on how to decipher the story. Some argue that it is a myth, of uncertain meaning. Others argue that it is a moral and political fable. And others, still, continue to argue that it is pure history, and that Plato simply got his geographical facts wrong.

Is the Atlantis story a myth? In the modern language, the word ‘myth’ is synonymous with a fiction or a lie. In the ancient Greek, language, however, a ‘myth’ (muthos) meant simply an ‘utterance’ or a ‘traditional tale’, and the tales of the gods and heroes were generally held to be true stories. It is no insult to Plato, then, to suggest that his story of Atlantis was a myth, and there are good reasons for thinking that it was. Firstly, the subject matter touches on traditional themes, such as the myth of the golden age, the myths of the wars of the gods, and the myths of fabulous islands lying at ‘the ends of the Earth’. Secondly, he compared his story explicitly to the poems of Homer and Hesiod (in which the tales of the gods and heroes were recited). And thirdly, he declared that his story was ‘true’. Nevertheless, the concept of ‘true myths’ belongs to the past, and modern scholars have generally dismissed Plato’s story as a fiction and a fairy tale, in accordance with the modern (but not the ancient) definition of ‘myth’. As a result, the theory of Atlantis-as-myth has had a bad press, and has not found favour with a populace who are generally sympathetic towards the idea of a true story.

This brings us to the more popular theory that the Atlantis story is pure history. Here, the negative evidence from the Atlantic Ocean floor has been brushed aside by the convenient assumption that the geography of the story was garbled at some point. Accordingly, the historicists – a colourful association of academics, psychics, pseudo-mystics, amateur archaeologists, catastrophists, and new age truth-seekers – have searched worldwide for the source of the tale. Atlantis is in the Caribbean Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Ionian Sea, the Aegean Sea, the Red Sea, the Black Sea, the English Channel, the North Sea, and even the Arctic Ocean. The list goes on. Moreover, not satisfied with bending Plato’s geography, Atlantis-hunters have bent an even more fundamental point – his claim that the island sank. Bizarrely, Atlantis has become Crete, Cuba, the Americas, even Antarctica. Plato’s account of sunken Atlantis seems to count for nothing.

What’s more, even if we suspend disbelief concerning the location of Atlantis and the tale of its sinking, none of the aforementioned islands or continents comes even close to matching what Plato described. What we are looking for is an island of circular shape, larger than Libya and Asia Minor combined (!), fringed by mountains, with a rectangular plain and a six-ringed, circular city within. But what we get is the mountains alone, or the plain alone – and always of the wrong dimensions – with the other features conveniently ignored. And all the time, the suggested island or continent stands proudly out of the sea – not sunk, and often not in the Atlantic Ocean – in stark contradiction to what Plato actually wrote.

The historicists are accustomed to such discrepancies, having long ago been forced, by necessity, to reject the legitimacy of Plato’s account. To an outsider, however, the situation appears ridiculous, to say the least, for Plato is the sole authority on the ancient story of Atlantis, and to ignore what he said is to invent a new myth of one’s own. When viewed thus, the mystery of Atlantis cannot be solved until someone has explained all of Plato’s words – an apparently impossible task.

In this book, however, I am going to present a theory that will explain every detail of Plato’s story. It will allow that Atlantis sank in the Atlantic Ocean, as Plato alleged. It will allow that the island was ‘larger than Libya and Asia Minor combined’. It will explain all of the island’s features – its circular shape, its ring of mountains, its rectangular plain, and its six-ringed, circular city. It will explain the significance of the date of the cataclysm, ‘nine thousand years ago’. It will explain all the other manifold features of Atlantis that were recounted in Plato’s story. And, most remarkable of all, it will vindicate Plato’s claim that the story was ‘true’, in a most unexpected way.

An impossible task? Yes, if one continues with the historicist strategy of sticking pins in a map. But the approach that I am about to adopt is going to take us off the map entirely.

My approach in this book is to go back to basics, and examine the Atlantis story in its full and proper context. What kind of person was its author, Plato? Where did he get his ideas from? What was going on in the minds of the Greeks? Why did they believe in a golden age? Why did they believe in fabulous islands lying at ‘the ends of the Earth’? Why did they worship a race of invisible gods, the Olympians? Who, or what, were these gods? How did their myths and cults begin? Did the Greek culture emerge in splendid isolation, as the ‘old school’ scholars would have us believe, or did it absorb the ideas of earlier civilisations? These, surely, are the right questions to be asked and answered if we ever wish to solve the mystery of Atlantis, and yet, to the best of my knowledge, a study of this ilk has never been undertaken before, not even in academia. Why not? Simply because of the sheer magnitude of the task.

Take Plato. Scholars acknowledge that he was a mystic, but they are perplexed by the peculiar form of his mysticism. A key concept, for example, is the so-called Theory of Forms (or Ideas), in which all things on Earth are regarded as eroded copies of their original archetypes in Heaven. When Plato writes that the home of the archetypes is an eternal and invisible sphere, which is simultaneously ‘the true Heaven’ and ‘the true Earth’, scholars are truly baffled. They cannot comprehend what Plato is talking about. And yet this Theory of Forms is not only pivotal to Platonic philosophy but also provides the crucial backdrop to the telling of the Atlantis story.

The Greek myths, too, present a problem. It is all well and good that scholars should identify parallels and precedents for mythical themes in the Atlantis story – as cited earlier – but what do all these myths actually mean? Here, scholars have given up the chase, relying on the conclusions of earlier authorities rather than reconsidering the myths for themselves. And what do these earlier authorities say? Amazingly, they admit that the myths are incomprehensible; no theory has ever explained them and, almost certainly, no theory ever will.

From these two points, it can be seen why the mystery of Atlantis has never been studied adequately in its full and proper context, not even by academics. To succeed in such a task would require revolutionary breakthroughs in the studies of Platonic mysticism and the Greek myths. Only by achieving this doubly impossible task might it be possible to get inside Plato’s mind and reconsider the import of his Atlantis story.

This book, then, is an attempt to sail beyond the Pillars of Knowledge, which have been set up in stone by the frustrated pioneers of academic orthodoxy. But far from sailing at random into the deep blue yonder, I have at my disposal a kind of route map in the form of two controversial but common-sense theories, whose far-reaching conclusions have yet to be fully apprehended in the world of academia.

The first of these two theories is the ‘exploded planet cult’ theory of ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian religions, which I set out in my books 'The Phoenix Solution' (1998) and 'When The Gods Came Down' (2000). In a nutshell, the theory runs as follows. Over thousands of years, ancient man witnessed an extraordinary array of cosmic activity: comets and meteors lighting up the skies, fireballs exploding in the atmosphere, and meteorites plunging to the ground. Inevitably, man, in awe of these events, tried to rationalise their cause, at the same time as pondering on his role in the Universe. In time, an astonishing theory emerged. Long ago, the ancient sages decided, a living planet had exploded and, in the process, conveyed the seeds and waters of life to the Earth. All forms of life had thereupon emerged from the Earth, including man himself. In the meantime, the exploded planet had pulled together its aethereal substance and transformed itself into an invisible body known as God or Heaven – an immortal and intelligent soul-being. It was man’s duty to worship this invisible creator-God either directly, by mystical intuition, or indirectly, by means of visible symbols (e.g. meteorites, or the dying-and-rising Sun disc). In time, however, the masses began to worship the symbols per se, and the knowledge of the true God went underground, into the mystery schools. There, the ancient scribes encoded the exploded planet myth in manifold forms – the myths of the gods coming down from the sky, the myths of the Deluge and the creation of man, the myths of wars between the gods of Heaven and Earth, and the myths of the sacred marriage of the god and the goddess. All of these myths, and many others besides, concealed a ‘Secret of secrets’ that was accepted, unquestioningly, as a true account of the origins of the cosmos and man.

If the ‘exploded planet cult’ theory is the linchpin of this study, then the theory that follows becomes the grease to the axle. This second bold theory comes from mainstream academia, where heavyweight scholars such as Walter Burkert, Martin West and Charles Penglase have argued persuasively for Greek borrowings from the religion and myths of the ancient Near East. In 'The Orientalising Revolutio'n (1984), 'The East Face of Helicon' (1997), and 'Greek Myths and Mesopotamia' (1994), these three scholars, respectively, have put forward a cast-iron case for Eastern influence during the 8th-7th centuries BC – the very time when Homer and Hesiod were laying the poetic foundations for the Olympian religion. The conclusion, in Martin West’s words, is that ‘Greece is part of Asia; Greek literature is a Near Eastern literature.’
Until now, this mainstream breakthrough in comparative religion has found limited application, for, if truth be told, the literature of the Near East is as much of a puzzle to scholars as the literature of the Greeks. Now, however, in the light of my recent deciphering of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian myths, the full import of these parallels may be felt. For the first time ever, it becomes possible to understand the Greek myths by literally standing under them. For the first time ever, we can get inside Plato’s mind and reconsider the story of Atlantis from an ancient, rather than a modern, perspective.

The result is nothing short of a sensation. In this book, I present not only a complete decoding of the lost continent of Atlantis, but also a complete decoding of ancient Greek religion in its entirety. I am able to decode the myths of the Olympian gods and their associated mystery cults; I am able to decode the myth of the golden age and the fall of man; I am able to decode the scientific cosmogonies of Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, Anaxagoras, Empedocles and Philolaos; I am able to decode the ‘soul religion’ of Orpheus, Pythagoras, Parmenides, Socrates and Plato; and I am able to decode Plato’s Theory of Forms, his account of the creation by the Demiourgos, and his story of Atlantis. Behind all of these ideas there lies a single secret of stunning simplicity – the age-old myth of the exploded planet.

So, what exactly is my theory of Atlantis? How can this sunken island possibly be connected to an exploded planet cosmogony? The answer is not immediately obvious, and I will not spoil the reader’s enjoyment by giving the game away at this point. In fact, the reader might like to have a go at solving the puzzle himself, once he has completed chapters one to fourteen of this book. But let me just say this. Plato was no historian or geographer as many Atlantologists would have us believe. Rather, as noted earlier, he was a mystic. Therefore, when Plato described Atlantis as an island, he was speaking metaphorically; and when he described Atlantis going to war, he was speaking allegorically. Furthermore, when he declared that his story was ‘true’, he was speaking mystically. To Plato, truth lay in Heaven, in the invisible and eternal world of God and the gods. Alas! To search for Atlantis here on Earth, in the form of a lost civilisation, is the very antithesis of Plato’s philosophy. The great man would have been grieved to witness such folly. Atlantis was no ordinary island; its people were no ordinary people; its treasure was no ordinary treasure. On the contrary, the loss of Atlantis was meant to signify a totally profound event – a ‘Cataclysm of all cataclysms’ that disrupted the Universe at the beginning of time (equivalent to the modern concept of the Big Bang). Innocence lost, the first time.

Inevitably, this book must conclude by posing the ultimate question: is the Atlantis myth a true story? To the sceptic, the exploded planet myth is outmoded, since it found its relevance in a now discarded theory of the geocentric Universe (as opposed to the heliocentric Universe). Even if a planet did explode and seed life on Earth – an intriguing question in itself – it would now appear to be a sideshow in the much larger cosmological picture. It was Plato’s genius, however, to focus not on astronomy but on metaphysics, and to couch his ideas in the language of eternity. Thus his ideas have withstood the test of time, and are as relevant today as they ever were; it is only required that they be re-expressed in the modern language of astronomy and astrophysics (as I indeed do in the postscript to this book). In summary, then, Plato’s story of Atlantis prompts us to contemplate the greatest truths imaginable – the beginning of Time, the role of cataclysms in the flux of the Universe, and the fate of man’s soul in the ‘other world’. For it is that ‘other world’, in the aether, which truly deserves to be called Atlantis.

Will 'The Atlantis Secret' turn out to be a true secret? Time, perhaps, will tell.

But first the tale of Time must be told.

ALAN F. ALFORD, Walsall, England, September 2001.

Copyright Alan Alford and  Eridu Books
Presented with permission of the author

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