The True Story Of Atlantis, The Fabled Lost City That May Lie On The Floor Of The Atlantic Ocean

Published April 30, 2024
Updated May 1, 2024

In 360 B.C.E., Plato wrote that Atlantis was once a powerful civilization — but the gods sent earthquakes to destroy the island nation when its people became greedy and proud.

Atlantis

Chronicle / Alamy Stock PhotoThe capital of Atlantis as described by Plato.

The legend of Atlantis, a sophisticated island civilization said to have sunk into the ocean’s abyss, has intrigued scholars and enthusiasts for millennia. Originating from Plato’s dialogues, the story of Atlantis has evolved from a philosophical allegory into a subject of serious archaeological and historical investigation — and contention.

Despite its mythical origins, the quest to locate the lost city of Atlantis has spurred numerous theories and expeditions across the globe. From the depths of the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea and beyond, scientists and archaeologists have scoured the Earth using advanced technologies to search for any clues that could shed light on this ancient mystery.

While the evidence is scarce, that hasn’t stopped hoards of people from asserting their belief that the fabled civilization really did exist. But why?

To answer that question, it’s important to understand where the legend of Atlantis came from and how it was passed down throughout the course of history.

Where Did The Story Of Atlantis Originate?

The first mention of Atlantis in ancient texts comes from the Greek philosopher Plato in his dialogues Timaeus and Critias, which he wrote around 360 B.C.E. In these writings, Atlantis serves as an allegory, a cautionary tale about how hubris destroyed Earth’s greatest civilization.

In Timaeus, Plato wrote of Egyptian priests who spoke to an Athenian statesman named Solon. According to Plato, the priests told Solon of a large island that once stood beyond the so-called Pillars of Hercules, or the Gibraltar Strait, some 9,000 years earlier.

Plato

Science History Images / Alamy Stock PhotoPlato, the ancient Greek philosopher who first wrote about Atlantis.

Atlantis, the story goes, was once a sprawling empire led by a powerful confederation of half-god, half-human kings. These kings conquered much of the Mediterranean, but when they attempted to conquer Athens, they were swiftly defeated.

This attempt, Plato said, caused the Atlanteans to fall out of favor with the gods. As punishment for their impiety, their kingdom crumbled, and the island at the center of it was swallowed up by the ocean.

“But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea,” Plato wrote in Timaeus. “For which reason the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is a shoal of mud in the way; and this was caused by the subsidence of the island.”

Atlantis Engraving

Lakeview Images / Alamy Stock PhotoAn engraving of Atlantis from Chatterbox magazine. 1925.

Most historians agree that Plato used the story of the lost city of Atlantis as a cautionary tale, an entirely fabricated allegory illustrating how easily a utopian society could fall from grace.

Given that the philosopher’s writings about Atlantis are the only complete ancient record of the island kingdom’s existence, it’s fair to assume that it was indeed fictional.

So why, then, does the debate about Atlantis’ existence continue to this day?

The Lost City Of Atlantis And The New World

The Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo made a brief mention of Atlantis and Plato in the early first century. Philo didn’t dwell on the subject, only noting that Atlantis was destroyed in his work On the Eternity of the World.

The Lost City Of Atlantis

Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock PhotoAtlantis as shown on Athanasius Kircher’s map in his textbook Mundus Subterraneus, which was published in 1665. South is at the top.

References to Atlantis appeared in some early Christian texts, as well, alongside debate about whether it really existed. Some scholars refuted Atlantis’ existence while others claimed that it had been real — and that pagans were to blame for its downfall.

It wasn’t until much, much later, however, that the fascination with Atlantis truly came into being.

The Atlantean Empire

Public DomainA map of the supposed extent of the Atlantean Empire.

Around the 16th century, scholars began making earnest attempts to actually identify Atlantis. Francisco López de Gómara, for example, put forth the theory that the lost city of Atlantis was, in actuality, referring to America. Francis Bacon and Alexander von Humboldt later reached the same conclusion, with Bacon even writing an unfinished novel entitled New Atlantis.

Others, however, took Plato’s account more literally, believing that Atlantis had once been a small continent of its own in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

In either case, some scholarly interest in Atlantis was reignited as European nations continued to spread their influence ever westward. As they came into contact with Indigenous Americans, particularly the Maya and Aztec populations, some scholars began to suggest that these people had descended from the citizens of Atlantis.

Among these believers were Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg, Edward Herbert Thompson, and Augustus Le Plongeon. Le Plongeon, in particular, liked to embellish this narrative, and he even put forth the idea of another lost continent, Mu (which has also been connected to Lemuria).

Augustus Le Plongeon

Public DomainAugustus Le Plongeon was more renowned for his photography than his archaeological endeavors.

Le Plongeon’s stories came shortly after the archaeologist Johann Ludwig Heinrich Julius Schliemann discovered the location of the city of Troy from Homer’s Iliad, which was previously believed to be purely mythological itself.

Whether Le Plongeon actually believed in Mu or its connection to the lost city of Atlantis and Mesoamerica isn’t entirely clear, but his ideas later found their own followers as well.

Ultimately, the key takeaway from this period is how scholars rediscovered an interest in Atlantis, how their ideas branched away from one another, and how these theories would go on to influence the next generation of researchers who were curious about the legend.

How The Story Of Atlantis Was Popularized

It was fringe scientist and former U.S. Congressman Ignatius Loyola Donnelly who can truly be credited with popularizing the story of Atlantis in the modern era.

In 1882, he published Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, in which he echoed the same ideas that Le Plongeon and Brasseur de Bourbourg had written about a few decades prior. Donnelly — neither a historian nor a scientist — claimed that he could trace the roots of all civilization back to Atlantis, which he believed was a highly advanced culture.

Ignatius Donnelly

Public DomainIgnatius Donnelly, the man credited as the “father of the 19th-century Atlantis revival.”

Donnelly claimed that similarities between the Maya, Aztecs, Egyptians, and ancient Greeks pointed to a shared cultural history beginning with Atlantis. Perhaps the most significant point Donnelly made to popularize his ideas, however, was introducing the notion that the Garden of Eden was located on Atlantis and that the civilization had been destroyed in the Biblical Great Flood.

Donnelly is undoubtedly the reason the myth of Atlantis still exists today, as his pseudo-historical writing was convincing enough for its time. What’s more, connecting these “foreign” ancient civilizations to Christianity bridged a cultural gap between the Old World and the New World.

Six years after Donnelly’s publication, the founder of the Theosophists, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, published the esoteric work The Secret Doctrine: The Synthesis of Science, Religion and Philosophy. This, along with her other writings, would go on to inform Theosophist teachings.

Helena Blavatsky

Public DomainHelena Petrovna Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophists.

Blavatsky claimed that The Secret Doctrine had originally been dictated in Atlantis and that her work was simply a translation. Like Donnelly, Blavatsky referred to the lost city of Atlantis as an advanced ancient society. She said the culture existed more than 1 million years ago before it destroyed itself in an internal war — one fought with psychic and supernatural powers.

Blavatsky also used The Secret Doctrine to share her theories on evolution. According to Blavatsky, humankind did not evolve from primates. Rather, there had been a series of “root races,” of which the Atlanteans were the fourth. The fifth root race — the current one — is the Aryan race, Blavatsky claimed.

In Blavatsky’s teachings, the first root race was known as the Polarian race. They were said to be “ethereal” and reproduced in a fashion similar to amoeba. The second root race, the Hyperborean race, were a golden yellow people who lived in Hyperborea, a tropical climate in the far north of ancient Earth. The Hyperboreans, she said, reproduced by budding.

Then, there were the Lemurians, inhabitants of another rumored lost continent. Blavatsky said the Lemurians coexisted with the dinosaurs, and though they were similar to humans, they were significantly taller and initially reproduced by laying eggs.

Blavatsky’s theories were popular among many occultists, some of whom proved to be rather influential people, but they were also widely adopted by another group: the Nazis.

The Link Between Atlantis, The Nazis, And The Occult

By now, it’s no secret that Adolf Hitler and the Nazis had some interest in the occult. Among these occult beliefs was the notion that the Aryan race had descended from pre-human Nordic gods — the very same Lemurians written about by Blavatsky.

This idea became popular among some of the most influential Nazis, including Hitler. If the Nazis could find evidence of this ancient Lemurian society, then they could likewise prove that the Aryan race was indeed superior. But where could they possibly find the proof they wanted?

The answer was Tibet, apparently.

Nazi Tibet Expedition

Wikimedia CommonsDr. Bruno Beger and Dr. Ernst Schäfer, Ahnenerbe officers, being received by Tibetan dignitaries at Lhasa in 1938.

Historian Eric Kurlander explained this strange situation in a 2017 article entitled “One Foot in Atlantis, One in Tibet.”

“In the view of Helena Blavatsky… Atlantis correlated with the mythic Buddhist lands of Shambhala, ostensibly located near Tibet, where the successors of the ‘third root race’ of the so-called Lemurians resided,” he wrote.

“The idea of a lost but recoverable Aryan civilization with roots in Indo-European prehistory played a ubiquitous role in the Third Reich, finding its way, in varying forms, into Nazi theories on race, space, and religion.”

How I Found The Lost Atlantis

Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock PhotoAn illustration of Atlantis in a London magazine from 1931.

Never mind the fact that Blavatsky, Theosophists, and other Esoteric groups believed the Atlanteans had non-white skin, of course. The idea became an official part of Nazi doctrine and even later found a second life in Esoteric Nazism and other white nationalist beliefs.

But while these racist interpretations of the Atlantean myth may be — thankfully — relegated to the fringe, the idea of Atlantis itself is still widely popular today.

What Do People Say About The Lost City Of Atlantis Today?

Today, the idea of a lost, ancient civilization known as Atlantis is largely contained in the realm of conspiracy theories, with most reputable historians agreeing that Plato’s original story was nothing more than an allegorical warning to his fellow citizens about the dangers of unregulated military expansion, particularly through naval power.

Of course, Atlantis continues to appear in films, television shows, novels, and video games. It is featured heavily in Aquaman, for instance, as well as the cult classic Disney film Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

Atlantis The Lost Empire

Walt Disney PicturesA scene from Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

There are naturally still those who believe Atlantis once existed, and its rumored location has been placed all across the globe, including in the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, mainland Europe, and the Bermuda Triangle, to name a few.

The lost city of Atlantis, real or not, has remained a point of public fascination for a reason. Few stories have impacted the world so much.


After learning about the many facets of Atlantis, read about the enduring mystery behind the lost Roanoke Colony. Or, explore Derinkuyu, the subterranean metropolis beneath Turkey.

author
Austin Harvey
author
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
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Cara Johnson
editor
A writer and editor based in Charleston, South Carolina and an assistant editor at All That's Interesting, Cara Johnson holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Washington & Lee University and an M.A. in English from College of Charleston and has written for various publications in her six-year career.
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Harvey, Austin. "The True Story Of Atlantis, The Fabled Lost City That May Lie On The Floor Of The Atlantic Ocean." AllThatsInteresting.com, April 30, 2024, https://allthatsinteresting.com/atlantis. Accessed May 23, 2024.