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Atlantis is a legendary "lost" island subcontinent often idealized as an advanced, utopian society holding wisdom that could bring world peace. The idea of Atlantis has captivated dreamers, occultists and New Agers for generations. Unlike many legends whose origins have been lost in the mists of time, we know exactly when and where the story of Atlantis first appeared. The story was first told in two of Plato's dialogues, the "Timaeus" and the "Critias," written about 330 B.C. Though today Atlantis is often thought of as a peaceful utopia, the Atlantis that Plato described in his fable was very different. In his book "Frauds, Myths and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology" (McGraw-Hill, 2013) professor of archaeology Ken Feder summarizes the story: "A technologically sophisticated but morally bankrupt evil empire — Atlantis — attempts world domination by force. The only thing standing in its way is a relatively small group of spiritually pure, morally principled and incorruptible people — the ancient Athenians. Overcoming overwhelming odds ... the Athenians are able to defeat their far more powerful adversary simply through the force of their spirit. Sound familiar? Plato's Atlantean dialogues are essentially an ancient Greek version of 'Star Wars.'"
As propaganda, the Atlantis legend is more about the heroic Athens than a sunken civilization; if Atlantis really existed today and was found, its residents would probably try to kill and enslave us all. It's clear that Plato made up Atlantis as a plot device for his stories because there are no other records of it anywhere else in the world. There are many extant Greek texts; surely someone else would have also mentioned, at least in passing, such a remarkable place. There is simply no evidence from any source that the legends about Atlantis existed before Plato wrote about it.
Atlantis resurfaces For most of the past two millennia, no one thought much about Atlantis; it was just what it appeared to be: a fictional place mentioned in a fable by the ancient Greek philosopher. The idea that Atlantis was an actual lost historical location is a very recent idea, first proposed by a writer named Ignatius Donnelly in 1881. He believed that most of the important accomplishments of the ancient world — such as metallurgy, agriculture, religion and language — must have come from Atlantis. In essence, he argued that ancient cultures weren't sophisticated enough to develop these things on their own, so they must have spread from some unknown advanced civilization. (It is similar to the widely discredited "ancient astronauts" idea, that Egyptians were not smart enough to build pyramids, and thus extraterrestrials must have helped them.) Later writers elaborated on Donnelly's theories, adding their own opinions and speculations. These included mystic Madame Blavatsky (in her 1888 book, "The Secret Doctrine") and famous psychic Edgar Cayce in the 1920s and 1930s. Cayce, who put a fundamentalist Christian spin on the Atlantis story, gave psychic readings for thousands of people — many of whom, he claimed, had past lives in Atlantis. Unfortunately, none of the information was verifiable, and Cayce wrongly predicted that the continent would be discovered in 1969. Charles Berlitz, author of many popular books on the paranormal and unexplained phenomena, researched Atlantis and wrote a 1969 book titled "The Mystery of Atlantis." Berlitz, whose family created the famous language-learning courses, not only became convinced that Atlantis was real but also that it was the source of the Bermuda Triangle mystery, a subject he explored in his 1974 best-seller "The Bermuda Triangle." Berlitz's wild ideas about the Bermuda Triangle — and, by extension, Atlantis — were definitively debunked the following year by researcher Larry Kusche, author of "The Bermuda Triangle Mystery — Solved." Thousands of books, magazines and websites are devoted to Atlantis, and it remains a popular topic in New Age circles.