The ancient city of Lacedaemon – is it the legendary Atlantis?
The name Lacedaemon is derived from the verb, λαγχάνω (lachano), to assign somebody something by lot, and δαίμων (daemon), which means God in ancient Greek. Lacedaemon therefore denotes the divine lot, a piece of the world given to the God Poseidon, according to Plato, who identifies Lacedaemon with Atlantis.
I consider it worthwile to mention a remark by J. Spanuth in his book, ‘ Atlantis: Heimat, Reich and Schicksal der Germanen ’, (Tuebingen 1965), that Atlantis is “the oldest, most disputed, most hazardous and clearly most thankless, but still the most rewarding and most intriguing matter that Antiquity has bequeathed to us”.
There is a vast bibliography about Atlantis, but the modern scholarship concluded that to locate Atlantis and to prove the validity of its identification, four points of agreement must be met and generally accepted. (See E.Bloedow. ‘ Fire and Flood from Heaven: Was Atlantis at Troy ?’ La Parola del Passato 48, 1993, pp.109-160.
- Atlantis was an island.
- It lay beyond the “Pillars of Hercules”.
- It was larger than Asia and Libya together.
- Its destruction (sinking) produced a barrier of impassable mud.
These four prerequisites are completely fulfilled in the case of Lacedaemon.
The name, features, and location of Lacedaemon have been hotly debated from Antiquity to modern times. Lacedaemon was mentioned for the first time in the second Book of Iliad, in the so-called Catalogue of the Ships, verse 581, as the first city of the Kingdom of Menelaos in Lakonia – “Οι δ’ είχον κοίλην Λακεδαίμονα κητώεσσαν” (‘E de ichon kili Lacedaemon kitoesan’). Κοίλη (‘kili’) and κητώεσσα (‘kitoesan’) are the two traditional epithets steadily connected with Lacedaemon. ‘Κili’ means hollow, everybody agrees on that, but the epithet ‘kitoesan’ has been variously interpreted. It might refer either to its geological formation and identity – that it is full of ravines and subterranean caustic splits – or to its island nature, in this case abounded with κήτη (‘kiti’), sea monsters or big fish (dolphins, turtles, whales, seals etc.).
The Iliad by Homer. Credit: BigStockPhoto
Taking for granted that in northern Lakonia there once existed a huge lake from the Pleiocene period, measuring 35 square kilometres, the epithet ‘kitoesan’ may well fit the geology of the site of Lacedaemon. The lake is now dry and contains big deposits of lignite layers, similar to those in the adjacent plain of Megalopolis. The date of dessication or draining of the lake in the area of mount Taygetos is of paramount importance for the history of Lacedaemon, its identity, and identification with Atlantis.
Plato, in Timaeus and Critias, describes Atlantis as an island in what he calls a ‘Pontos’, a word meaning Sea or Sea-lake (Timaius 24E Critias 113-114 B). The other geological and geographical coordinate of the area is the Πέλαγος (‘Pelagos’), erroneously interpreted by Atlantologists as ‘Ocean’. Pelagos in Greek signifies a large and extensive area, such as the Aegean Pelagos or the Ionian Pelagos. Pontos was the huge lake of Lacedaemon, Pelagos was the large and navigable river Eurotas.
The inhabitants of Atlantis, known by various names, like Hyperboreans, Phaeakes, Phoinikes, Atlantes, Minyans etc, were thought to live in a remote area, safe in their natural environment, reluctant to be visited by other people. There they lived a whole millenium, eternally young, and they were beloved to the Gods. Tyndareos, the father of Helen and the divine Twins Kastor and Polydeukes lived where Lakonia ended, very close to Arcadia - “εν τοις εσχάτοις της Λακεδαιμονίας” (‘En tis eshatis tis Lacedaemonias’).
We have reasons to suppose that the area of the lake was covered by small islands, some natural, others artificial, founded upon wooden tree trunks, taken from the densely forested mount Taygetos, an activity described by Plato in reference with the works of the Atlantians in the main island in the Pontos. The work and the plan may be paralleled with the miraculous achievements of the Venetians in the large Lagoon in the Adriatic. This “Civitas Serenissima” was built entirely upon wooden trunks and was composed of numerous islands, constructed densely to each other.
The city of Venice was built on wooden foundations.
Plato himself speaks of other islands, besides Atlantis, in the same Pontos. Atlantis lay at the eastern fringes of the sea, near the exit of the river, beyond the Pillars of Hercules and was surrounded by islands, which were approached from Atlantis both by sea and land (Timaeus: “εξ ης επιβατόν επί τας άλλας νήσους τοις τότε εγένετο πορευομένοις”). Plato seems to know well not only the geophysical conditions of the area of Lacedaemon, he also knew the geography of the island group and most probably the names of the islands, at least of some of them.
Taking that into consideration, we may come to the solution of the most difficult of the Platonic references to Atlantis, which is described by Plato as being larger than Asia and Libya together. What was known as ‘Asia’ and ‘Libya’ at the time were small islands in the lake of Lacedaemon, and we know that Asia and Libya were Laconian toponymics (see my book LACEDAEMON, volume II, p. 399 ff).
Accordingly, we fix one of the four points of agreement posed by Atlantologists. Plato’s trustworthines is strengthened by the reference in ‘The Odyssey’ that Ithaca, the original homeland of Odysseus, lay in a similar landscape. It is described as “χθαμαλή εν αλί, πανυπερτάτη προς ζόφον”, i.e. hollow and the most remote to North-West, though many other islands that were close to each other, lay to the East and South (“νήσοι πολλαί, μάλα σχεδόν αλλήλησιν”, Odyssey, book 9, 22-3).
Arethusa fountain old view, Ithaca island, Greece. Created by Provost, published on L'Illustration. Credit: BigStockPhoto
Odysseus, the Argonaut, was at home in Lacedaemon, where he acquired the famous composite-bow of Iphitos and it was not a mere coincidence that his descendant Telemachos came to Lacedaemon many years or centuries thereafter to visit Menelaos and Helen in order to be informed about his farther’s return to Ithaca.
Part Two – The Location of Atlantis and the Pillars of Hercules
Featured image: Artist’s depiction of Atlantis. Credit: BigStockPhoto