Atlantis: From Utopian Allegory to Underwater Fantasy Kingdom
Updated: Dec 23, 2020
“…there occurred violent earthquakes and floods;
and in a single day and night of misfortune…
the island of Atlantis disappeared in the depths of the sea.”
The world over has been wondering why Hollywood keeps churning out the same stories. We seem to be trapped in the endless cycle of reboots. But let’s face it, Joseph Campbell had it right when he created his treatise on the “monomyth.” The point is, all stories are recycled over and over, and appear behind many facades. In my biased opinion, Atlantis is the most fascinating reboot of all. Just like all stories, it is transformed almost every time it is told. We all know the game of telephone. It’s when you start a statement and pass it to someone else, and they pass it on until eventually it changes as everyone uses their own words to communicate the statement. I think you catch my drift.
The basic premise of this myth lies in its precautionary tale. It is the story of paradise destroyed under the weight of man’s arrogance. Make sure and check out my previous post about Atlantis’s journey through time. In the beginning, Atlantis was an infallible Utopia that crumbled under the weight of its own hubris. Plato depicted a warlike naval power that explored and conquered far beyond its reaches. But the gods became angered at their arrogance and punished them, sending a massive flood to swallow them into the ocean. It’s been compared to the flood myths, Noah of the Bible being one of them, but that’s a huge tangent.
It has been argued whether Plato recorded fact or fiction. His account was a dialogue between his teacher, the philosopher Socrates, and an Athenian statesman named Solon who had discussed the myth with Egyptian priests. Some say he created the first science fiction, meant to illustrate the warnings of human advancement. Others say the account was true. There was a statesman named Solon who had been to Egypt. He had conversed with scholars from the Library of Alexandria, which was, at the time, somewhat like the internet, a cache of all human knowledge. But Murphy’s Law set in and the library was destroyed, along with all our history, and all our accumulated knowledge. D’oh! So, from then on, anyone’s guess was as good as… well, yours or mine.
Utopian fiction came from the writings of Plato, and as such, throughout the ages, Atlantis appeared to illustrate the potential of humanity, and how our darkness taints it. “Throughout the ages the Utopias reflect the anxieties and discontents amidst which they were produced. They are, so to speak, shadows of light thrown by darknesses. The more disturbed men's minds are, the more Utopias multiply.” This quote by H.G. Wells shows what I have set out to accomplish by resurrecting the art of Atlantean Utopian Fiction. A Utopia creates a model that asks the question, “what if?” and then fills in the other half of the sentence with an aspect of society that could be missing or added to make it ideal.
My question is: what if Atlantis was real? And what if it was more advanced than we could possibly imagine? And what exactly was the arrogance that made it fall? Yes, I have boldly steered the myth back toward its origin, swimming against the current of its modern identity which has kept it anchored beneath the ocean.
Popular fiction has transformed Atlanteans into an evolved race of fish people who live underwater in the ancient ruins of its above-water past. Don’t get me wrong, I love what it has become. However, is a straight up fantasy more valuable than the moral allegory?
The new release of Aquaman is breathtaking, and part of its value, besides being great entertainment, is that it has brought Atlantis to the forefront of pop culture. Whereas before, Atlantis has been swimming in the waters of our collective subconscious, now it is everywhere. I would dare to postulate that Atlantis will be its own genre soon enough, just like zombies or vampires. But how did this vision of a populated underwater city come into being?
It was Jules Verne who brought Atlantis into the new science fiction genre of the late 1800s. From there it evolved. While Verne depicted it as underwater ruins, this vision of a lost civilization captured the rising modern mind, and Atlantis began to tumble through various incarnations.
The next fiction book to become world famous was entitled Atlantis. Written by Gerhart Hauptmann, it was released in 1912. The author subsequently received the Nobel prize for literature that same year. It was essentially the story of the Titanic. Oddly, the actual tragedy of the Titanic happened that same year. This was said to be a coincidence. In 1913 a Danish silent film of the same title was released based on the book. Like the Titanic of our time directed by James Cameron, it was the most expensive production ever made. It was criticized because it used the Titanic tragedy as entertainment, but after that, the name of Atlantis was associated with the Titanic for a number of decades. I believe the reasoning for this lies in the foundation of the myth itself. Hauptmann’s book was named Atlantis for philosophical reasons. The title was based on a dream sequence in the book which was the only reference to it.
But there is a real correlation between Atlantis and the Titanic. That being, the arrogance of man thinking he is greater than nature. When they built the Titanic, they said she was unsinkable. It was that very arrogance which actually caused her to sink. The same is true of Atlantis. When man reached the pinnacle of existence, it was their overblown confidence in the pinnacle that would be his downfall.
L’Atlantide by Pierre Benoit was published in 1920. This transformed Atlantis into a civilization hidden in the Sahara Desert. Several films were made based on this book, the first in 1921. This same story was rebooted in America in 1932 under the title Queen of Atlantis. Both were shot in the Sahara and made a huge wave among cinema fans of the times.
The Sahara Desert is of perennial importance to the Atlantis myth, which is why I believe they put it in Aquaman. Kudos to the screenwriter if that’s the case. It’s important to do ones’ research. But this subject is worthy of its own post. I started a small discussion about it here where I just brush the surface of the African Atlantis theory. The other interesting theory lies in the Richat Structure in the Sahara being the site of the original mother city.
The next transformation of Atlantis came about in 1936 when Hollywood based Republic Pictures put out a serial called The Undersea Kingdom. This series starred a Flash Gordon knock off called Crash Corrigan. It was released again in 1950, and then cut into a feature length film in 1966 under the title Sharad of Atlantis. While Crash didn’t remain in the collective consciousness, the Undersea Kingdom did. Here Atlantis was depicted as a thriving civilization at the bottom of the ocean, and here it has remained in the public eye ever since.
1941 saw the introduction of Aquaman in the DC comic books. He would carry on the undersea legacy of Atlantis until this very day. In fact, this post is dedicated to the reboot of Aquaman as it is released on the big screen. Starring Jason Momoa, who also starred in Stargate Atlantis, the DC universe has unleashed Atlantis on the world, depicting a powerful undersea kingdom with dazzling technology. The telephone game has transformed Atlantis into a world that exists alongside our own, hidden in the depths of an unconquerable terrain. The liquid inner space of our own planet holds a depth of mystery as to warrant such imaginings. And the moral of the story does carry on one of the most important aspects of the original Atlantis myth: The vast power of the ocean is not to be trifled with or ignored.
The other more famous depictions of Atlantis in modern pop culture have been few. The 1961 Atlantis: The Lost Continent, Disney’s 2001 Atlantis: The Lost Empire. The 2004- 2009 TV series Stargate Atlantis, and now the 2018 release of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey video game features an Atlantean quest. Each have had their own pocket of fans, but none but Aquaman have remained widely spoken of.
The 1961 Atlantis was a science fiction made by director George Pal who also did War of the Worlds and The Time Machine. Though the movie is widely made fun of and could easily appear on Mystery Science Theater 3000 just because of its silly costumes, it has an Edgar Cayce type of story. It’s complete with crystals and submarines, half man half animal creations, and ray guns that would eventually destroy Atlantis while the hero rescues the princess, of course.
The Disney version of Atlantis brought it to the hollow earth, and also included crystal technology. It captured the heart of an entire generation with its quirky characters and stunning animation. The mechanical leviathan of Jules Verne, and his book Journey to the Center of the Earth were paid homage, as well as the works of Ignatius Donnelley, Cayce, and the spiritualist movement of the latter half of the 1800s that resurrected Atlantis as a mystical land of advanced technology.
Despite the wandering nature of the myth, there is always a throughline. It is always a warning to be careful with great power. As the saying goes, not all who wander are lost. The time will come for Atlantis to rise to the surface once again, like the scene at the start of Stargate Atlantis when the city rises to the surface. It is symbolic of bringing the denial of our own dysfunction from the depths of self-inflicted repression.
What better way to remember Atlantis than to travel back through time and experience what it may have been like to live there? Check out my book for a journey into the legend. The word has been spreading, and its time has come.
Mara Powers is author of the Shadows of Atlantis saga. An Atlantis researcher for almost 3 decades, she incorporates all her knowledge into an epic fantasy saga set in the final age of Atlantis. www.shadowsofatlantis.com