In 2001, the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology made a remarkable discovery. A legendary Egyptian port city at the mouth of the river Nile near Alexandria, which existence was mentioned by Ancient Greeks and later on by Herodotus, was believed to have disappeared around the 2nd century BCE.
Thonis-Heracleion, the city’s Egyptian- and Greek name combined, sank beneath the sea when a severe flood liquefied the hard clay and caused buildings to collaps into the water. At 10 meters depth and 2,5 kilometers off the coast, remains were found of vessels, tempels and trade artifacts, bringing to light daily life in the Egyptian city, where Greeks were allowed to settle and built their own sanctuaries during the late Pharaonic period. The discovery and excavation of Thonis-Heracleion in 2001 proved that it was in fact a real place and not simply a legend.
Myth and metaphor
Stories of sunken cities have fascinated us for millennia; the most tantalizing of all: Atlantis. We are drawn to the idea of other worlds, a mythical city lost to the waves, an advanced ancient civilization, a utopia we could have evolved from. ‘Atlantis’ can also be seen as a metaphor, bridging human experience to more sublime notions; the feeling of catharsis by a terrifying disaster of a scale beyond comprehension, which is at the same time purifying. And from this root, stories of a Flood appear in variants – the Great Flood of Mesopotamian mythology, the Christian story of The Flood and Noah’s Ark in the Old Testament. Here the metaphor is connected with a sense of rebirth or redemption.
Fiction and facts
‘The Island of Atlas’ is a fictional island Plato describes in his works ‘Timaeus’ and ‘Critias’ in the 4th century BCE. For composing his philosophy on the ideal state he needed an opposing element; a naval power that besieged ‘Ancient Athens’. The location of Atlantis was indicated by Plato to be “beyond the Pillars of Hercules”, in our present time known as the Strait of Gibraltar. While philologists and classicists agree on the story’s fictional character, there is still debate on what served as its inspiration.
Most likely, the source for the Atlantis myth is the catastrophic volcanic eruption of 1450 BCE that devastated Minoan settlements on the Aegean island of Thera – also called Santorini. Nearby islands and the coast of Crete were destroyed by related earthquakes and tsunami’s. The sunken crater of Thera remains and significant Minoan remains have been found that were buried under the ash layers. Plato could have drawn from the Minoan civilization for his imaginery description of Atlantis city. As for the antagonist Plato needed for literary reasons, the threat of attacks from sea-faring nations, the Sea Peoples could have stand model; scattered Aegean tribes during the Bronze Age, the raiders and pirates of the Mediterranean.
In summary, Atlantis is a story Plato came up with to support his philosophy of the ideal state. But for his imagination he took some elements and details from historical events. Why the metaphor of a catastrophe and a sunken city under the waves still appeals to us, could be because has to do with our archetypal inclination towards the sublime.
Impact on literature
The allegorical aspect of Atlantis was taken up in utopian works of several Renaissance writers, such as Francis Bacon’s ‘New Atlantis’ and Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’. But also it gave rise to all kinds of pseudoscientific speculations on the historical value of Plato’s myth. The nineteenth-century brought some interesting misinterpretations, most famously by Ignatius Donnely, in his ‘Atlantis: The Antediluvian World.’ Consequently, Atlantis has become a metaphor for any and all supposed advanced prehistoric lost civilizations and continues to inspire contemporary fiction and SF Hollywood productions.
Paintings on this website
All the above is relevant for a series of oil on canvas paintings on the Atlantis theme, which you can find in the category ‘Classical Themes’ in the Menu on this website. I started to paint them in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, and continued into 2021. I have been fascinated by the images of underwater archeology and the online reports on the excavations of Thonis-Heracleion. In April 2021, I visited the Amsterdam Scheepvaart museum for a photo-exhibition of Kadir van Lohuizen’s ‘Rising Waters’, an urgent call to humanity to realize what is happening to sea levels as result of the climate change. This further set the tone for additional paintings on a Flood. In some artworks, I submerged temples on the Parthenon, such as the Ereichteion with Karyatiden. If there are personal motifs in making these paintings I won’t deny it, but more objectively I think I am sharing a concern for the state of the arts, and the survival of our cultural values.
Amsterdam, 22 februari 2022