Wellor a story first told 2,300 years ago, the myth of Atlantis has demonstrated remarkable resilience over the millennia. Originally outlined by Plato, the story of the rise of a great, ancient civilization followed by its cataclysmic destruction has since generated countless interpretations.
Many versions have been intriguing and entertaining – but none as controversial as her most recent appearance in the Netflix series An ancient apocalypse.
Presented by author Graham Hancock, the program claims that a once-sophisticated culture has been destroyed by floods caused by a giant comet that crashed into Earth, a disaster that is said to have inspired the legend of Atlantis.
According to Hancock, the survivors of the disaster spread across the world—which was then inhabited by simple hunter-gatherers—bringing them science, technology, agriculture, and monumental architecture. It is said that we owe everything to these almost godlike personalities.
For good measure, Hancock – who has promoted these ideas in his books for decades – argues that archaeologists have deliberately glossed over this catastrophic vision of the spread of civilization, and blames mainstream academia for their “extremely defensive, arrogant and patronizing” attitudes.
These stark claims helped the series reach the top of watch lists on both sides of the Atlantic, to the chagrin of archaeologists, who in turn condemned An ancient apocalypse on the grounds that it provides little evidence to support its grandiose claims and promotes conspiracy theories dressed up as science.
Flint Dibble, an archaeologist at Cardiff University, described Hancock’s main thesis as “wrong thinking”. Archaeologists don’t hate him as he claims. “It’s just that we strongly believe he’s wrong,” Dibble said in an article in the The conversation last week.
The confrontation is intriguing and raises many questions, the most basic of which is the simple question: Why has the story of Atlantis—compared to other ancient myths—maintained its popularity for so long? What is the main appeal of the tale?
For answers, we need only look to the works of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, H.P. Lovecraft, Conan Doyle, Brecht, and a host of science fiction writers who all found myth irresistible inspiration.
As for the supposed location of this lost civilization, they range from the Sahara to Antarctica and countless places in between.
Nor was Hancock the first to suggest that the destruction of a once great civilization led to the flourishing of culture elsewhere. In 1882, the independent American congressman and popular writer Ignatius Donnelly published Atlantis: The Antediluvian World which claims that a very complex, sophisticated culture was destroyed by a flood 10,000 years ago and claims that its survivors spread around the world, teaching the rest of humanity the secrets of agriculture and architecture. Sounds familiar.
Then there were the Nazis. Many swore by the idea that a white Nordic superior race – people of the “purest blood” – came from Atlantis. As a result, Himmler created part of the SS Annenerbe – or Bureau of Ancestral Heritage – in 1935 to find out where the people of Atlantis ended up after the flood destroyed their homeland.
And this partly explains why the myth of an ancient, extinct civilization is so useful. It’s a basic story of rise and fall that can be pieced together and used for any cause. Plato meant his story to be an allegory. Atlantis was destroyed by the gods, who were angered by the arrogance of its inhabitants and destroyed it. In other words, don’t get too big for your boots.
But Hancock – who describes himself as a journalist, presumably to avoid being called a pseudoscientist – takes the story to a controversial new level by suggesting that the survivors of such a flood were the initiators of the great deeds of other civilizations, from Egypt to Mexico to Turkey to Indonesia. As Dibble states, such claims reinforce ideas of white supremacy. “They deprive indigenous peoples of their rich heritage and instead attribute credit to aliens or white people.” In short, the series promotes ideas of “race science” that are outdated and long since debunked.
As for the likely site of the original Atlantis, the big bucks go to the destruction of the Greek island of Santorini and its impact on Crete, and blame it on volcanic eruptions – not errant comets, as Hancock claimed.
Furthermore, while An ancient apocalypse suggests that the destruction took place 12,000 years ago, most proponents of the alternative view believe it happened around 1630 BC when the island of Santorini erupted in one of the most violent volcanic events in human history .
Fourteen cubic miles of rock were thrown into the atmosphere, causing massive tsunamis and hail of ash that would have wiped out the Minoan civilization then flourishing on Crete.
It was this cataclysm that was remembered more than 1,000 years later in Plato’s time. He attributed it to a civilization he named Atlantis, not knowing how his brief description of a lost culture would resonate so strongly – and often controversially – down the ages.