The Legend of Atlantis: Between Ancient Ruins and a Philosopher’s Tale
Atlantis is many things to many people. To some, it is a fictional island and city that a philosopher with a vivid imagination invented to illustrate a moral point, and nothing more. To others, it is merely a Bronze Age civilization that existed no more than a thousand years before the time of classical Greece whose grandeur and power were exaggerated beyond all proportions. But there are a few who maintain the belief, so ridiculed by most scholars, that Atlantis was not only everything Plato said it was—a spectacularly advanced civilization that existed before the dawn of recorded history as we know it, but more besides, namely, that it was the ancestral mother culture of all known civilizations whose legacy, though forgotten to history, has been preserved in the myths and stories of cultures all across the world and in the mysterious monuments found all around the globe.
The Birth of Nininger City
Plato, who is regarded by Atlantis researchers and skeptics alike as the sole authoritative source on this ancient city, never stated outright that Atlantis was the origin of all civilization. This bold and sweeping claim was made, over two millennia later, by the most unlikely of individuals, separated from the Mediterranean World whence the legend originated by a vast ocean of distance and time, namely by Ignatius Donnelly. An eccentric and idealistic man given to harebrained schemes, Donnelly founded a city named Nininger City which quickly became a ghost town following an economic downturn that swept the country.
Having learned the lesson that it was much more difficult to create a new community than to join an existing one, he entered politics and found considerably greater success: he served as the lieutenant governor of his adopted state of Minnesota on the eve of the Civil War, and also aligned himself with the Radical Republican faction in the war and shortly thereafter. Disillusioned by the increasing corruption of the Republican Party, he later switched parties and then retired from politics altogether, choosing to devote his still considerable energies to writing a book about yet another subject that had captured the attention of his restless mind, namely the lost civilization of Atlantis.
Enjoying the privilege of unlimited access to the archives of the Library of Congress, Donnelly developed a novel thesis of breathtaking scope. He argued that the apparent similarities between cultures that were separated by vast oceans, and hence were isolated from each other throughout all of recorded history, could be explained by the influence of a worldwide civilization that had existed in remote antiquity and had spread its influence throughout the world before it met its demise. Donnelly's book, titled Atlantis: The Antediluvian World , found a receptive audience and became one of the best-selling books of its time.
The Antediluvian World and Pyramid Civilizations
In Chapter 5 of Part IV of Atlantis: The Antediluvian World , titled The Pyramid, The Cross, and The Garden of Eden , Donnelly argues for the existence of Atlantis as follows:
"How did the human mind hit upon this singular edifice--the pyramid? By what process of development did it reach it? Why should these extraordinary structures crop out on the banks of the Nile, and amid the forests and plains of America? And why, in both countries, should they stand with their sides square to the four cardinal points of the compass? ... Is it possible to suppose all these extraordinary coincidences to be the result of accident? We might just as well say that the similarities between the American and English forms of government were not the relationship or descent, but that men placed in similar circumstances had spontaneously and necessarily reached the same results."
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The perceptive reader who is well-acquainted with Plato's account of Atlantis may have noticed that Donnelly's argument, strictly speaking, does not support the existence of Atlantis per se , but only the existence of some pyramid-building civilization that bequeathed its legacy to the Egyptians, the Maya and Aztec, and the other known pyramid-building civilizations across the world, as Plato never actually mentions pyramids in his dialogues concerning Atlantis!
Plato's Atlantis described in Timaeus and Critias. ( Public Domain )
If, on the contrary, Plato had said that Atlantis built pyramids, it would be difficult to deny that Plato's account of Atlantis was a veritable fact, for to maintain that Plato's account was fictional would mean that Plato, by pure chance, happened to invent a story about a prehistoric pyramid building civilization—precisely the civilization whose existence is pointed to by evidence only available in modern times—at a time when there was no evidence to suggest that such a civilization should have existed. Such a coincidence would have been so unlikely that it would have sufficed to demonstrate the veracity of Plato's account of Atlantis beyond reasonable doubt. This raises the question: Is there some structure, motif, or symbol that Plato does mention in his account of Atlantis that is also found in known civilizations, both in the Old World and the New, that Donnelly did not mention? In fact, there is.