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Imagining Atlantis by Richard Ellis

Imagining Atlantis

by Richard Ellis

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1392135,769 (3.23)2
Ever since Plato created the legend of the lost island of Atlantis, it has maintained a uniquely strong grip on the human imagination. For two and a half millennia, the story of the city and its catastrophic downfall has inspired people - from Francis Bacon to Jules Verne to Jacques Cousteau - to speculate on the island's origins, nature, and location, and sometimes even to search for its physical remains. It has endured as a part of the mythology of many different cultures, yet there is no indisputable evidence, let alone proof, that Atlantis ever existed. What, then, accounts for its seemingly inexhaustible appeal?Richard Ellis plunges into this rich topic, investigating the roots of the legend and following its various manifestations into the present. He begins with the story's origins. Did it arise from a common prehistorical myth? Was it a historical remnant of a lost city of pre-Columbians or ancient Egyptians? Was Atlantis an extraterrestrial colony? Ellis sifts through the "scientific" evidence marshaled to "prove" these theories, and describes the mystical and spiritual significance that has accrued to them over the centuries. He goes on to explore the possibility that the fable of Atlantis was inspired by a conflation of the high culture of Minoan Crete with the destruction wrought on the Aegean world by the cataclysmic eruption, around 1500 B.C., of the volcanic island of Thera (or Santorini).… (more)
  1. 00
    The Atlantis Syndrome by Paul Jordan (AndreasJ)
    AndreasJ: A more wide-ranging critique of "atlantology", that also goes into considerable detail about the mainstream account of prehistory that atlantologists reject.
  2. 00
    Lost Continents: The Atlantis Theme by L. Sprague de Camp (AndreasJ)
    AndreasJ: There's significant overlap, of course, but de Camp's book doesn't focus on the Minoan hypothesis the way Ellis's does, but pays more attention to other aspects of the Atlantis tradition.

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Ellis's books deals with many aspects of the Atlantis phenomenon - Plato's motives in telling the story, more-or-less reasonable attempts to identify a real Atlantis, its use in modern fiction and mysticism - but concentrates on the idea that the story represents a distorted memory of the end of Minoan Crete and/or the catastrophic eruption of Thera (Santorini), which may or may not have been a factor in the former. Ellis himself, it should be noted, doesn't believe in this idea, but thinks that Plato wanted to spin a story with a moral, not report ancient history or retell a legend.

This could have been a great book, but it's marred by two significant problems. First, there are too many repetitions, the same events and ideas being recounted repeatedly, from slightly different points of view. One might think this the result of editing together a number of originally separate essays or articles, but according to what Ellis says in the forword about the book's origin that doesn't seem to apply. Whatever the reason, it's annoying and sloppy.

Second, and worse, Ellis is also careless about facts, the book being littered by little errors, some just sloppy, like claiming that 1500 BC is about twenty-five centuries ago, some seemingly from careless reading of sources, like mixing up AD and BC dates. Sometimes he doesn't seem to have quite understood his sources, like in a brief discussion of language where he implies that Greek was succeeded by "Cretan" - does he confuse the temporal order of Greek and the undeciphered language of the Linear A inscriptions, or did he misunderstand the replacement of Mycenaean Greek of the Linear B inscriptions by the Doric dialects of classical Crete to involve a non-Greek incoming "Cretan" language? Most of the errors I noticed concerns issues outside Ellis's own speciality of marine biology, but at one point he confuses the Sirenia and the Sirenidae; presumably he knows better than that, but again, was careless, and evidently the publisher didn't have a competent fact checker either.
1 vote AndreasJ | Jun 27, 2013 |
It is a very interesting topic, and a well researched book, but the chapters seem like they must be previously published elsewhere and thrown together here without much careful editing, there are instances where one chapter repeats a big chunk of another. But I liked it in general ( )
  jstaylor | Feb 6, 2008 |
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Richard Ellis is obsessed with all things Atlantic, and he's written a number of books on the Atlantic Ocean's inhabitants and legends. Of all the stories to be found in this big sea, the lost civilization of Atlantis has been the hallucinogenic focus of passionate scholarship--why is that? Ellis writes, "Whether its source was extraterrestrial, prehistorical, or imaginary, Atlantis, unique among the Western world's myths, has become a part of our mythohistory."

In Imagining Atlantis, Ellis turns his eye to the oceanic legend that has captured the imagination of countless people, forming the basis for archaeological expeditions, historical analyses, mystical revelations, and even extraterrestrial influence. The book's first chapter, entitled "What Plato Said," relates the story in Plato's dialogues Timaeus and Critias that started the enduring hunt for a land lost beneath the sea: "There was an island opposite the strait which you call ... the Pillars of Heracles, an island larger than Libya and Asia combined," wrote Plato. He went on to describe in ostentatious detail the civilization of Atlantis, its buildings, commerce and people--and how it was "swallowed up by the sea and vanished."

Ellis traces the conclusions of the most persistent theories of the 2,000 or so scholarly works "proving" that what Plato meant was, variously, the island of Santorini, Palestine, the Peloponnesian town of Helice, the Americas, or something more bizarre. Ellis's treatment of the multitudes of Atlantean researchers is thorough, respectful, and interested, no matter which of Desmond Lee's Atlantis response categories they fall into: crazy, geological, or historical. He follows the theories of scientists, archaeologists, mystics, and science fiction authors to their conclusions with equanimity. After outlining these theories, suggestions, and delusions, Ellis leads the reader ineffably toward the firm conclusion that Plato invented Atlantis. Plato himself would probably be either alarmed or amused that his fiction has been the subject of so much inquiry and emotion. Perhaps the philosopher--looking around for real places to write about--found that he needed a utopia to show what a civilization could be.
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