Down below, before my very eyes, lay the ruins of a submerged city, swallowed by the sea. Its roofs were sunken, its temples demolished, its arches in pieces, its columns on the ground, but its proportions were clearly outlined, reminding me of the stately architecture of Tuscany. Farther on there were the remains of a gigantic aqueduct; here were the encrusted remains of an Acropolis, with the floating forms of a Parthenon; the remains of a quay, also the vestiges of an ancient port on the shore of a vanished sea, which had given shelter to merchant ships and craft of war’ farther still, the outlines of crumbled walls and long lines of wide, deserted streets, an ancient Pompeii, buried beneath the sea. All this was what Captain Nemo had brought me to see!
Where was I? Where could this be? I had to know, regardless fo consequences! I felt a sudden impulse to speak, to tear off the helmet I was wearing! But Captain Nemo stopped me with a gesture. He came to me, picked up a piece of chalky rock, walked to a block of black basalt, and scribbled one single word:
—Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne
There have been many Atlantises; it is one of those mythic places that has left echoes throughout history and human imagination.
The name first appeared in a work by Plato entitled Timaios, in which Plato’s old teacher Socrates and some friends are discussing the creation of the world and the nature of man and other fun stuff. One of the friends, Kritias, recounts a story handed down in his family from the great Athenian statesman Solon, who in turn picked it up from Egyptian priests, about a great civilization called Atlantis which existed nine thousand years earlier, (about 9600 B.C.) and was a rival to the Athenian empire of that era. The Atlanteans were decadent and greedy and attempted to conquer the Good and Noble Athenians, but were thwarted by a series of violent earthquakes and floods which obliterated Atlantis and knocked Athens back to the Bronze Age.
In Plato’s sequel, Kritias, he elaborates on the story, describing Atlantis in greater detail. It was a great island located beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the Strait of Gibraltar) ruled by a confederation of ten kings who were the descendants of Poseidon. The capital city was built on a circular plan with concentric canals ringing the central temple to Poseidon and Kleito, the mortal mother of the Atlantean dynasties. The Atlanteans mined a substance called orichalcum, which Kritias names but does not describe.
For many generations the Atlantean kings ruled justly and peacefully, but eventually they got greedy and Zeus, king of the gods, decided to put them in their place.
And that’s where the story ends. Plato never finished Kritias, nor the planned conclusion to his Atlantis trilogy, Hermokrates. Plato’s contemporaries and later scholars regarded his story as a fable. As his own pupil, Aristotle put it: “He who invented it, also destroyed it.”
As the centuries went on, however, some scholars began to take the story more seriously. The Neoplatonists of the Roman Era claimed to have found Egyptian monuments with Atlantean inscriptions, although no one else ever found them. A 6th Century monk named Kosmas, in his work Christian Topography, declared that Atlantis was a garbled account of the story of the biblical Deluge. (He also went into great detail about how the Greeks were wrong about the earth being round).
Atlantisology became an "official science" with the work of Ignatius L. Donnelly, former Lieutenant-Governor of Minnesota and professional crank, whose 1882 book Atlantis: The Antediluvian World became the bible of modern Atlantism. Donnelly held that Atlantis was the original homeland of all civilization, from the Egyptians to the Mayans, and that legends of Lost Golden Ages, from the Garden of Eden on, are all a "universal memory of a great land where early mankind dwelt for ages in peace and happiness.”
The occultists laid claim to Atlantis with Madame Helena P. Blavatsky, whose book The Secret Doctrine incorporated Atlantis along with Lemuria and a half dozen other vanished continents into an elaborate history of pre-historic humanity. In the 1930s and ‘40s, mystic healer and prophet Edgar Cayce predicted that Atlantis would rise again by the end of the decade of the ‘60s and this event would be followed by more catastrophes that would engulf New York, Japan and California.
In the late 1960s Atlantis did rise …in a metaphoric fashion. A group of scientists suggested that the story of Atlantis may have been inspired by the actual Minoan Empire, which like Plato’s Atlantis was a rival to Athens and used bulls in their worship. Minoan power was effectively destroyed by the explosion of the island of Santorini in the Aegean Sea around 1400 BC, which would have sent tsunamis all around the Aegean. Archeologists have found ruins on the island of Thera, which is one of the remaining bits of the Santorini crater.
In popular culture, the Atlanteans possessed superior technology based on magic, psionics, super-science and/or alien tech. In some tellings, the Atlanteans were able to survive their continent’s sinking, either by building domes over their cities, genetically altering themselves into mer-folk, or both.
The most important part of the Atlantis legend is its destruction. This comes about in many possible ways. Sometimes it is caused by natural disasters, such as earthquakes, tidal waves, massive volcanoes, and in some versions, meteor strikes. But usually the story follows the theme of hubris bringing about the Atlanteans’ own destruction, through atomic holocaust or powerful magic run amuck or Elder Gods awakened to bring chaos. Or maybe the gods just got cheesed off enough to send the natural disasters.
Of course, everyone has their own version of the tale, and sometimes even the destruction is subverted. In the Continuum RPG, Atlantis wasn't destroyed, it merely went away. In that setting, Atlantis is a huge time-travelling city / spaceship / battle station, which patrols pre-history and ensures that mankind and all we know of history come to be. When it disappears from 9588 BC into the even more distant past, the ignorant levellers who see it go aren't sure exactly what to make of it, and assume it must have been destroyed by the gods.
Game and Story Use
- A heroic fantasy campaign could be set during the time when Atlantis was still in existence. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Numenor was modeled after Atlantis and Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories were set shortly after Atlantis’ destruction.
- The party could be time-travelers from the future visiting Atlantis who must escape, possibly with some treasure or with an NPC friend, before the whole continent goes ‘foom!’
- Artifacts from ancient Atlantis uncovered in the modern era always make good plot devices. The party could be seeking the source of the Atlantean’s power.
- Even if Atlantis is mythical in your campaign, a plot could involve a search for the missing second half of Kritias.
- Just because the artifact you picked up in Cairo isn’t really Atlantean doesn’t mean that the cultists who think it is aren’t dangerous.
- The party is accompanying a scientist who has built an advanced submarine for the purpose of finding Atlantis. Little does he realize that the Atlanteans are still alive and don’t want to be found!
- In a near-future campaign, an underwater arcology could be modeled after Atlantis; perhaps inhabited by water-breathing Transhumans.
- Since the Atlanteans were supposed to be psychic, a sensitive character may experience past-life memories of Atlantis in dreams, or telepathic messages from 10,000 years ago, which have a startling relevance in the modern age.
- Maybe the Atlanteans were space aliens all along!
- What happens when Atlantis does rise again?
- Probably the mother of all tsunamis all along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, for starters.
- If they have all sorts of powerful technology or magic, they might significantly alter the global balance of power. And since they are not tied into the global economy either, this might trigger a new Cold War - or possibly a hot one.
- For added fun, have Atlantis rise during the middle of the "real" Cold War.