The Search for the Lost Continent by Pat Linse, p.297. In: Shermer, M.;Linse,Pat (2002) The Skeptic encyclopedia of pseudoscience. With friendly permission by Skeptics Society

Have you heard the story of the lost continent of Atlantis? Its people were beautiful, tall, athletic, and rich beyond compare. The buildings of its cities had walls covered with gleaming gold and roofs set with sparkling many-colored gems. Its streets were flower-lined canals crowded with ships flying silken banners that shimmered in the sun. But all was lost in a single horrible day of earthquakes and gigantic waves when the entire continent sank beneath the dark waves of the Atlantic ocean. Thousands of books and over a half million internet web pages have described every aspect of Atlantean life. We can read about how they dressed, what they ate, what their art looked, and what their music sounded like. We can read about their amazing technology now lost to modern humankind. The Atlantis story as it is told today offers a compelling explanation for the rise of civilization This wildly imaginative version is pieced together from bits of a dozen different Websites: 
The citizens of Atlantis had blue blood which gave them skin of a beautiful violet color and they often stood over 8 feet tall. They possessed advanced crystal technology that generated unlimited free energy. Crystals of different colors allowed them to completely control the weather and cure every disease. Their life span was over 800 years long. Some say that they came from planets beyond our own galaxy. They bred shorter inferior humans—us—as slaves to attend to their every need. But because their life was so easy they were bored. They set apart large areas of their continent as national parks where the humans were allowed to live. In these areas they staged violent storms, earthquakes and volcanos for their amusement, caring little about the unfortunate effects these disasters had on their slaves. Then one day their technology spun wildly out of control and the entire continent was destroyed and sank beneath the sea without a trace. But slaves who had formerly escaped from the continent and settled elsewhere in the world remembered the culture of their masters and tried to recreate it where ever they lived. They became the founders of the ancient civilizations that we today know as the Aztecs, the Mayans, the Incas, the Sumerians, the ancient Egyptians, and the ancient Chinese.
But no evidence of Atlantis has ever been found. Every mention of Atlantis can be traced back to a single source—the Greek philosopher Plato who first mentioned Atlantis over 2,500 years ago. Plato wrote a few pages describing the layout of the capital city and countryside and little else. The detailed information that fills the books and Websites is based on speculation, imagination, guesses, and even psychic channeling. No one paid much attention to Atlantis for a couple hundred years after Plato. Plato’s own student, the famed philosopher Aristotle, was quoted as saying that Plato made up the story to make a point. Christian writers in the Middle Ages ignored Atlantis, considering it a pagan folk tale. But about 2,000 years later, when Europe was shocked by the discovery of the American continents, a great excitement about Atlantis was kindled, and the possibility that it was more than a story was taken seriously. Both professional and amateur scientists alike began to search for traces of the lost continent. A second surge of interest in Atlantis came in the 1800s when stories about Atlantis began to be combined with quests for spiritual knowledge. Today the lessons of the story of the destruction of the corrupt pleasure-loving Atlanteans is more compelling than ever, because for the first time in history we actually have the technology to destroy civilization either through ecological disaster or nuclear war.


Plato was a philosopher who lived 2,500 years ago in ancient Greece. Since he is the single source for the story, anyone searching for Atlantis has to start by looking carefully at what Plato wrote, and understand the context in which he wrote it. But Plato was not writing history or geography when he mentioned Atlantis. He was writing about what the citizens in an ideal society should be like. He used Atlantis as an example of what can happen when a society becomes morally corrupt. Some people suppose that Plato wanted his readers to believe that Atlantis was real, and others argue that the story is just a way to make the moral lesson he was teaching more exciting and compelling. Plato began his career writing plays. When he became a philosopher he invented a new form of writing that was like a short play, called a “dialogue.” In a dialogue, several people who had different viewpoints argued about philosophical questions like “What is the best way to live an honorable life?” At the time, the study of “philosophy” (which means love of wisdom) also included questions about how the universe worked, so the characters in dialogues might also ask questions like “How were the stars created?” or “What happens to an object when it burns?” Plato felt that presenting several viewpoints was a way to promote a healthy mind and soul. He thought the process of thinking was as important as the conclusion that you might reach, and that exercising your mind was like going to the gym to exercise your body. But the dialogue served as more than a way to make philosophical discussion dramatic. Plato lived in a conquered city where writing about how society should be organized was politically dangerous. Putting his opinions in the mouths of different characters gave him a measure of safety since no one could prove which character was expressing his view.

The Heroic Trinity

Plato was part of a group of three ancient Greek philosophers known as the Heroic Trinity. The first of the hero philosophers was Plato’s teacher Socrates, Plato himself was the second, and Plato’s student Aristotle was the third. Together they laid much of the foundation of modern Western thought. Socrates was an amazing character. Because he was disheveled and barefoot, a Greek playwright once joked that he was a disgrace to shoemakers. Yet his powerful personality, quick wit, and keen insights into human nature continue to inspire respect even today. Socrates tried to teach people to improve their thinking by challenging their views. This eventually created enemies and he was tried and sentenced to death by a vote of a committee of 30 citizens. Plato recorded the brilliant (but unsuccessful) speeches Socrates made in his own defense at his trial. Aristotle was the first to analyze and classify things in a scientific manner. His influence dominated scientific thought so completely for 2,000 years that it eventually hindered scientific progress because people were reluctant to accept new discoveries when they contradicted Aristotle.


Plato says the Atlantis story is about “the greatest action a people ever did.” From all the excitement Atlantis has generated it would be reasonable to expect that these marvelous people would be the Atlanteans. But they are not. The story is actually about the “great and wonderful deeds” done by the people of Athens long ago! Plato wanted to inspire his fellow Athenians to value moral strength and become more like their noble ancestors because superior morality allowed the soldiers of a single city—Athens—to defeat an entire continent. From a dramatic standpoint, the more powerful and dangerous the Atlanteans were said to be, the more important Plato’s moral instruction would seem. The two dialogues that mention Atlantis are named after their main speakers.

The Timaeus Dialogue

Socrates begins the dialogue by reminding Timaeus and Critias that he had asked them the day before to come up with examples of how an ideal society might act fighting in a great war. Critias says he knows a story that “by some mysterious coincidence” fits Socrates’ idea exactly. He heard it when he was 10 from an aged poet. He has spent the night searching his memory, so that he could tell the whole story in detail. Critias begins: “Listen Socrates to a tale which, though strange is certainly true, having been attested to by Solon.” (Solon was a famous Greek leader and historian.) Solon visited Egypt where priests told him that the Greek Athenians knew nothing of their ancient history. They didn't even know about the greatest deed the Athenians ever performed—how the soldiers of Athens singlehandedly defeated a mighty empire located just outside the “Pillars of Hercules.” The priests declared, “Solon, your country shone forth, in the excellence of her virtue and strength, among all human kind…when the rest fell off from her, being compelled to stand alone, after having undergone the very extremity of danger she defeated and triumphed over the invaders, and preserved from slavery those who were not yet subjugated, and generously liberated all the rest of us who dwell within the Pillars. But afterward there were violent earthquakes and in a single day and night all sank into the earth and the Island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared into the depths of the sea.” Then Timaeus speaks for most of the rest of the dialogue about how the universe was formed, and other matters not related to Atlantis.

The Critias Dialogue

The next day Socrates encourages Critias to tell his story in greater detail because, he says, details are required if the story is to seem believable. Critias promises to do just that. Critias explains that although the story is from Egypt, the names in it are Greek because Solon carefully translated them. He says he has Solon’s original manuscript, which he has studied since childhood. (Which seems to contradict his earlier account about hearing the story from a poet and trying to recall it from memory. Could this be a hint from Plato that we should take what Critias says with a grain of salt?) Half of Critias’s speech discusses how the gods founded ancient Greece, and how the sea god Poseidon and his family founded Atlantis. At last Critias gets around to describing Atlantis. It was a sunny island, marvelously beautiful, with rich forests for timber and a large level central plain which was overflowing with food crops, fruits, and flowers. The royal city was designed as a series of circular canals, lined with splendid palaces of white, red, and black stone set in fabulous patterns, shimmering with gold and the fiery glow of a valuable red metal called orichalch. In the very center of the circular canals stood a forbidden sanctuary surrounded by a golden fence. Poseidon himself had a huge temple completely covered with silver, with a roof of ivory, decorated with golden sculpture. A giant golden statue of Poseidon driving six winged horses, surrounded by 100 sea nymphs riding on dolphins filled the inner sanctuary up to the roof. Baths and pools fed by hot and cold springs were surrounded by gardens with every kind of beautiful and fruitful tree imaginable. A racecourse was built on the ground between two of the circular canals. And all of that was just the royal palace…! The rich climate allowed the Atlanteans to raise a gigantic armed force. The area around the royal city provided 60,000 military officers, 10,000 chariots, 240,000 cavalry, 120,000 hoplites, 600,000 archers, slingers, stone and javelin throwers, and 24,000 ships. And this was from only 1 of the 10 divisions of the country! Critias then goes back to discussing the political organization of the god-kings. He describes a bloody religious ritual where they catch and sacrifice a bull. He tells how Zeus, the king of all gods, becomes annoyed because the formerly noble Atlanteans have been corrupted by their great wealth. Zeus decided to punish them so he called all the other gods together in his house,“and when he had gathered them there he said…” The dialogue ends there, right in the middle of a sentence!


Many people who search for a real Atlantis argue that Plato couldn’t have made up the Atlantis story because it contains too many realistic details. But Plato lived both an exciting and dangerous life. He grew up during “The Golden Age of Athens”—one of the most amazing times in history when the arts flourished in a way that has barely been equaled since. Plato was highly educated and likely read manuscripts like “On Marvelous Things Heard” which told a story about a lush island that had been discovered, like Atlantis, “outside the Pillars of Hercules.” As Plato grew out of his teens the Golden Age came to an end when his city suffered a bitter military defeat. Plato sailed several times to the island of Sicily and lived in Syracuse, a city of fabulous architecture with splendid temples, a multi-level fort, and a covered boat canal. He knew about the circular harbor at Carthage that was controlled from a central island. He advised rulers and spent time in prison when one relationship turned bad. He watched a strange plague kill one out of three people in Athens.

Fighting Philosophers

Some modern authors misrepresent Plato’s Atlantis as a peaceful paradise of spiritual people who had discovered the secret of eliminating war. But Plato said Atlantis was a gigantic military power that attacked without reason. It is not surprising that soldiers were the heroes of Plato's story. Both Plato and his teacher Socrates were elite hoplites—upper class soldiers. The short squat Socrates was famous for his stamina and skill in battle. Plato probably grew up hearing about the recent Greek victory over the Persians. During his lifetime Athens won a war against the Carthaginians, lost an army in Sicily, and lost a war against a rival city Sparta. Plato wrote about Atlantis when he was over 70, at the end of a rich life that would have given him plenty of material to draw upon. The Atlantis story was probably a combination of legends and bits of history woven together—whatever it took to create a memorable lesson.


Plato often used myths and legends to illustrate a point. He expected his a udience to recognize a parable (a story made up as a moral or religious lesson) when they heard it. Almost every parable he told starts with a statement that it is true. He himself explained that “We may liken the false to the true for the purpose of moral instruction.” In Plato’s most famous dialogue “The Republic,” he suggested that on rare occasions it might be okay to tell what he called a “noble lie” to the lower classes for the purpose of creating a stable social order. Lower classes would be told that the gods created the present social order, making the rulers of gold, the military classes of silver, and the common working class from bronze. Plato was not a man who believed in total democracy for everyone. He himself was upper class and he also might have been suspicious of democracy because his dear friend and teacher Socrates was condemned to death by a democratically elected committee of citizens. (To his credit he felt that people of merit could rise above the class they were born into.)


Plato would be shocked to find his villains transformed into heroes. And he would be surprised to hear that Atlanteans are now said to possess superior wisdom, after he took pains to point out that they were destroyed because they made unwise choices. The idea of a Golden Age is so appealing that it has overshadowed Plato’s original lesson. A Golden Age and hidden wisdom is attractive because it is always located in the past or future, a very convenient arrangement for people who are dissatisfied with the present, but don’t know what to do to improve it. Plato’s life’s passion was to discover the best way to organize society with the means available in the here and now, so he would likely disapprove of belief systems which place solutions out of reach in some mystical time.



Around 3,500 years ago a massive volcanic explosion blew away the center of Santorini Island in the Aegean Sea near Greece, leaving a water-filled crater about 6 miles wide. In the 1960s on the islands that make up the crater’s rim, archaeologists dug up the ruins of a luxurious city out of a layer of volcanic ash. Could the disaster at Santorini have been the source of the Atlantis myth? The Santorini blast was one of the largest volcanic explosions known. The earthquakes, destructive waves, extensive ash fall, darkened skies, crop failure and resulting starvation must have been terrifying. It is possible that some memory of this event survived a thousand years of retelling until Plato’s time.

Similarities of Santorini to Atlantis:

  • Land disappeared in an earthquake and was replaced by sea.
  • The disaster destroyed an enemy of Athens. Atlanteans had attacked Athens; and Greek myths told of war between Minoans, the people who had settled Santorini, and the Greeks.
  • Both Minoans and Atlanteans were sea going traders.
  • The Minoan island of Crete in particular had a sophisticated culture with large palaces, just like Atlantis.
  • Both civilizations used rituals involving bulls in their religion.
At first the list of matches between Santorini and Atlantis is impressive. But some of these matches happen simply because Plato is describing a civilization like the one he lived in—dockyards, harbors, canals, chariots, hoplite warriors, shepherds with flocks, and temples for familiar gods.

Differences between Santorini and Atlantis:
  • The size is wrong. Atlantis was a continent, not a tiny island.
  • The location is wrong. Atlantis was in the Atlantic Ocean, not the Aegean Sea.
  • The date is wrong. Plato dated the Atlantis disaster thousands of years earlier than the Santorini explosion.
  • The Minoans did not disappear after the Santorini disaster. Egyptian records show normal trade continued with the Minoans long after the Santorini explosion.
Plato did not have to depend on 1000-year-old memories for the idea that a city could disappear beneath the sea. In his own time two cities near Athens were destroyed by giant waves, sinking coastal land, and earthquakes. As a soldier he surely had heard that a year before he was born, an earthquake and gigantic waves destroyed ships and a military outpost that the city of Athens built on the small island of Atalantë. This area continues to experience a sinking coastline, the last sudden sinking happening during a 1894 earthquake. When Plato was 55, an earthquake destroyed the city of Helice, only 40 miles from Athens. Parts of the coastline sunk enough to submerge the trees that grew there. It was said that the waves that smashed into Helice swept the city so clean that people who arrived to bury the dead could find no one left to bury. The key to how well a claim that someone has found Atlantis holds up is what do they do with the details that DON’T MATCH the theory. The writers who have investigated the possibility that Santorini could be Atlantis have often taken such negative evidence carefully into account.
For example, the impossible numbers relating to the date, size of the army, and land measurements in Plato’s story all seem to be about ten times too large. Solon might have created this error if he confused the Egyptian or ancient Greek symbol for a hundred with the symbol for a thousand. If the numbers are all reduced by 1/10 they make more sense. Some have gone too far trying to make everything Plato said match something at Santorini. For example it has been claimed that Atlantis’s ringed harbor was located in the now submerged center of the island, but there is no archaeological evidence of harbor ruins in Santorini’s crater. If Atlantis was inspired by Santorini, it is reasonable to assume that some legends might be mixed in with the facts, or that several events have been combined into one. Not every detail will have an explanation.


  • Plato’s description was so exaggerated and spectacular that it was likely imaginary.
  • There are no archeological ruins of cities anywhere on earth from the time that Plato claims Atlantis existed. Even if Plato was off by a zero, say 900 years rather than 9,000, there still are no corresponding ruins anywhere, especially in Greece and particularly in the Athens area itself. The earliest sophisticated civilizations were established 5000 to 6000 years ago.
  • Egypt was supposedly conquered by Atlantis, but the Egyptians never wrote anything about it. The historian Herodotus actually met the same priests that Solon supposedly spoke with, and he never mentioned hearing about Atlantis.
  • Plato says the Atlanteans built a ditch that was 100 feet deep, 600 feet wide and an unbelievable 11,000 miles long. Nothing even a fraction as large has been found.
  • There are no known forces that could destroy so large a land mass. True, parts of continents rise and fall, but the process takes millions of years. A comet or asteroid could destroy a large area, but no evidence has ever been found of all the other civilizations that Plato said traded with Atlantis.


Some legendary cities have turned out to be real, so Atlantis could be real. The ancient Greek city of Troy is mentioned in almost every book about Atlantis because it is a mythical city that turned out to be real. This raises the author’s hopes that Atlantis too might be found. Ubar, a wealthy incense trading post, was said to be lost beneath the desert sands of Saudi Arabia. The Koran, the holy book of the Muslims, said the people of Ubar were destroyed because they became corrupted by power and wealth. The city was said to have been swallowed up by the ground. With the help of Space Shuttle radar, ruins matching the story of Ubar were found—an incense trading city that had collapsed into a giant sinkhole. While no one can say for sure if the ruins actually were Ubar (no inscription with the actual name of Ubar was found), there is a good chance the site inspired at least some parts of the Ubar stories. But just because some legendary cities have a basis in fact doesn’t mean all legendary cities are real. Troy and Ubar both were mentioned in many different ancient writings. These stories did not seem to be copied from one another, which suggests that they preserved bits of real memories. All mentions of Atlantis, by contrast, can be traced back to just one source—Plato.


Many people have found places on earth that seem to match descriptions of Atlantis, so Atlantis must have been real. Plato was very clear about where Atlantis was located. He said it was a large island as big as Libya and Asia combined (ancient names for north Africa and the middle east), in the Atlantic Ocean opposite the “Pillars of Hercules” (the Strait of Gibraltar). But no trace of a sunken city has ever been found under the Atlantic outside of the Strait of Gibraltar. Strangely enough Plato goes on to state—as if his story explains a well-known fact—that ships can no longer sail in the Atlantic Ocean because the sunken continent is too near the surface. Historians explain Plato’s lack of knowledge about the real nature of the Atlantic Ocean by pointing out that the Greeks of Plato’s time knew almost nothing about the Atlantic because they were kept away from the area by a powerful seagoing enemy, the Carthaginians. Plato’s mistake can be seen as another piece of evidence that his description of Atlantis was merely a fable. But those who search for a real Atlantis point out that the term “Pillars of Hercules” might not mean a specific place. It was often used in a broad sense to stand for the limits of the known world. This allows them to locate Atlantis almost anywhere on the planet—and some have even placed it on Mars, the Moon and, of course, in “outer space”! Next to Atlantis, the second most famous lost continent is Lemur, or Mu for short, said to have been located in the Pacific Ocean. The large number of locations for the lost continents is the result of how easy it is for authors to find “evidence” that matches a detail or two mentioned by Plato. A pile of rocks, a word in a local language that starts with “A-T” or a local legend that suggests a golden age, plus a little imagination, and a lost continent is declared found. By far the most popular location for Atlantis is in the North Atlantic Ocean. But after that almost anything goes.


The antiquity of Plato’s Atlantis story has given legitimacy to the stories of a golden age and perfect societies that it has spawned. Atlantis has been the inspiration for social movements and religions. The name of the Greek god Atlas, after which the lost continent of Atlantis was named, lives on. The Atlas mountains of Morocco in northern Africa and the Atlantic ocean are named after Atlas. In Plato’s story he was one of 5 sets of twin sons born to Poseidon, the sea god who founded Atlantis. Poseidon divided Atlantis into 10 kingdoms, one for each son, and made Atlas chief king. (In other Greek stories Atlas was instead the son of the Titans [giants], and Poseidon was his son-in-law.) Different stories explain how Atlas got his famous task of holding the heavens and the earth apart. In one he is tricked into it, in another it is a punishment. A book of maps came to be called an “atlas” because of the custom of illustrating an opening page with a picture of Atlas holding up the earth, or holding up a sphere representing the heavens. In the 1500s many maps labeled at least one of the newly discovered American continents “Atlantis.” As late as 1769 maps were made that showed the Americas divided into 10 sections—one section for each of Poseidon’s 10 sons as described in Plato’s dialogue. If things had gone a little differently and the name had stuck, Americans might be called Atlanteans.

The Mystical Search for Atlantis

The myth of Atlantis has become a template for people searching for answers to life's mysteries. Ignatius Donnelly wrote a popular book in 1882 that inspired an entire movement: the search for a mystical Atlantis. He was a dreamer and an idealist. In 1857 he tried to found a utopian society in Minnesota, but it failed. He was elected to Congress and spent much of his time in Washington D.C. at the Library of Congress researching his theory that Atlantis was the original Garden of Eden. He thought the gods of the Greeks and many other peoples were confused memories of the real kings and queens of Atlantis. He said those who escaped the Atlantis disaster preserved memories of it which later became the story of Noah’s flood. Donnelly was responsible for popularizing the “golden age” myth—the idea that Atlantis was a superior civilization that was the source of all other civilizations. Donnelly boasted that he presented his case like a lawyer—he collected evidence that supported his arguments and ignored evidence that didn’t. This was a serious mistake because you can prove almost anything that way. Hundreds of Atlantis authors who followed Donnally’s example did just that and “proved” hundreds of contradictory theories, and “found” Atlantis almost everywhere. Donnally’s highly influential book Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (“antediluvian” means “before the flood,” [of the Bible]), has been reprinted over fifty times, and can still be purchased today. In 1888 a colorful character, Madam Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, topped all other Atlantis authors by claiming her six volume work titled The Secret Doctrine was originally dictated in ancient Atlantis itself. Madam Blavatsky and her followers didn’t believe that human beings evolved from lower primates. She claimed creatures became increasingly more human by evolving through five stages that she called the five “root races.” Her ideas reflected the strong racial prejudice of her day which considered non-Europeans inferior. The first root race was a purely spiritual creature. Next came a slightly more solid jellyfish-like race. Stage three was an ape-like egg-laying “Lemurian” from a lost continent in the Pacific. They had animal-like snouts, and two eyes on the sides of their heads, and one eye in back. They lived during the time of the dinosaurs. Being stupid they mated with animals, producing the great apes. (Oops! Blavatsky didn’t know there were no apes during the time of the dinosaurs!) However, enlightened beings from Venus civilized the Lemurians, and by 70 million years ago they had become quite human. Root race four included Atlanteans, and the dark-skinned human racial groups. Jewish people were half way between root race four and the last stage—root race number five. This most advanced group was of course Blavatsky’s own group—European whites or Aryans.
Blavatsky and her followers are often considered the founders of the modern occult, spiritualist and New Age movements which combined western romanticism with eastern religious ideas. The blatantly racist root race theories resurface in many modern New Age beliefs that suggest dark skinned people such as the Egyptians or Aztecs were too stupid to build their own civilizations and needed the help of space aliens or lighter skinned people. Edgar Cayce was a famous psychic who predicted that Atlantis would rise from the ocean, and most of the western United States would slide into the sea in 1968. His failed predictions did not inhibit other authors from making new predictions in the 1970s that the wicked state of California would snap off and plunge into the Pacific Ocean. “Colonel” James Churchward thought Atlantis was only a colony of the Great Continent of Mu which floated over most of the area that is now the Pacific Ocean. He said Mu sank when the “gas pockets” that held up the continent exploded, leaving only the tops of its highest mountains above the water. These islands are known today as Hawaii, Samoa, Tahiti, and Easter Island. When Mu sank, massive worldwide earthquakes caused all civilization to collapse into savagery.