Mark Adams, author of the bestselling travel memoir Turn Right at Machu Picchu, discovered something quite surprising while researching his book: Everything we know about the lost city of Atlantis goes back to the philosopher Plato. Intrigued, Adams decided to investigate further, but quickly he discovered the subject of Atlantis is toxic in academia.
“I emailed a leading archaeologist who specializes in finding ancient cities and floated the idea of looking for Atlantis,” Adams says in Episode 204 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “She got back to me and said, ‘I hope you abandon this project for the sake of your reputation as a writer.’”
Adams persevered, traveling the world to speak with Atlantis experts who showed him some of the leading candidates for where Atlantis might have been, a journey he recounts in his book Meet Me in Atlantis. He’s now enough of an expert that he’s often invited to appear on the TV show Ancient Aliens. But that doesn’t mean you’ll see him there—he’s too worried about where his interviews could end up.
“I’m not going on that show if you give me a million dollars,” he says. “A lot of these experts have been unpleasantly surprised by someone calling them at 10 o’clock at night and saying, ‘Did you know that you’re on the Discovery Channel right now on a special called Atlantis: Finally Found?‘”
And while the search for Atlantis remains anathema to scholars, it’s still completely safe to name your equipment after Atlantis.
“Scientists won’t take Atlantis itself very seriously,” Adams says, “but man they sure like naming boats and spaceships and telescopes after Atlantis. It’s got to be one of the most popular—if not the most popular—names for equipment.”
Today we think of Atlantis as an advanced civilization living in a bubble city beneath the sea, which is a far cry from Plato’s story. The more fantastical elements were supplied by supposed psychics like Madame Blavatsky, who claimed that Atlantis fell after they began breeding centaur-like sex slaves through black magic. Adams doesn’t expect Plato’s version to return to prominence any time soon.
“Blavatksy’s version is a lot sexier,” he says. “It would look better on the big screen.”
Listen to our complete interview with Mark Adams in Episode 204 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Mark Adams on Plato’s Atlantis:
“What he describes is a maritime culture, which exists on an island, that has a capital city made of concentric rings of land and water. … The key thing about the Atlantis story, which usually gets buried, is that it’s a war story, it’s a story about the Atlanteans attacking Athens, and when they attack Athens, Athens is triumphant, because Atlantis has become debased, and the gods decide to punish Atlantis, and in the end Atlantis and Athens are both destroyed by earthquakes and floods. … So that part of the story is what has been passed down to us as ‘Atlantis sinking to the bottom of the ocean,’ but what Plato says is that it was destroyed in a day and a night by a natural cataclysm.”
Mark Adams on the Atlantis legend:
“This idea that the Atlanteans were a super race, none of this appears in Plato. He says they had some big boats, but none of this stuff about metallurgy and mining and advanced wisdom appears in the original story. It’s really Donnelly who starts the ball rolling, and people like Madame Blavatsky, she gets involved—the theosophist. And she’s the one who says it was an ancient race a million years ago, and they had nuclear-powered airships and magic crystals. It’s really that era that invents the Atlantis that we know now. Which is the reason why, if you talk to a philosophy professor or an ancient history professor, nobody in academia takes Atlantis seriously.”
Mark Adams on the Pythagoreans:
“A lot of people who go looking for Atlantis just assume that these numbers that [Plato] gives are like GPS coordinates, but Plato was deeply influenced by the Pythagoreans. Over the entryway to the Academy, his university in Athens, he had the words ‘None but geometers may enter here.’ So he was using a deeply Pythagorean curriculum. The Pythagoreans believed that numbers were not just figures, not just amounts, they thought numbers were living things, that numbers were male or female, that numbers had vibrations, that numbers symbolized things. … But once again we’re getting into that weird area where experts are not comfortable discussing these kinds of things.”
Mark Adams on The Republic:
“Plato believed that democracy, because a lot of people were stupid, was not such a good form of government, that what we needed instead—and this is another thing that comes up in The Republic—was a philosopher king, a guy who studies math for 20 years and gains philosophical wisdom, and by the age of 50 is ready to rule. … Plato saw one of the great tragedies of his lifetime to be the Peloponnesian War, in which the Athenians suffered huge losses sending fleets off to attack places like Syracuse, because there were votes in the center of town to support such things. So Plato thought that democracy was one of the worst forms of government.”