- geology

- geologic tours

- references


- Some notes on the written sources and their interpretation -

Young girl collecting crocus (wall painting from Akrotiri, Santorini)

Many believe that Santorini once was Atlantis. But why ?

Atlantis - the story about a prosperous land that disappeared without trace, sunk  into the sea by the anger of gods - has been one of the oldest myths of mankind. Atlantis stands for one of mankind's oldest dreams and myths, the one of the lost paradise. In similar versions it occurs in many civilizations. The classical Atlantis story, however, the one where the name Atlantis is used, is the one told by the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato in two of his dialogues, Kritias and Timaeus. In Plato's version it is not a objective report of events, but rather a moral tale that uses the story of - true or invented - events in the background. As a consequence, when it comes to interpreting the story as a report, it is not ambiguous. One of the most debated questions has always been the location of the place Plato might have referred to.
Now, Atlantis has been assigned to almost every  possible place on earth (even Antarctica...) which proofs that there are virtually no limits for the human fantasy. Everyone favors 'his' Atlantis. Very few people, however, seem to know the actual sources of the legend and discern physically and geologically possible facts from pure fiction. It is obvious that fiction sometimes can be more stimulating and fascinating than perhaps reality.
As can be imagined, the discussion about Atlantis is extremely vivid and far from ending.  It has brought forth innumerable books, films, web-pages, articles, but most of them of highly speculative or esoteric character. Some people even believe that the inhabitants of Atlantis were extraterraneans...Whatever and wherever Atlantis was, if such a place really once existed, we probably will never know for sure. However, there are a number of clues to be found in Plato's story that make many people believe that the destructive Minoan eruption on Santorini is the most likely candidate for being the historic fact behind the story.

The legend and the written sources

The antique sources from the ancient world that seem to be connected with the Atlantis myth are mostly from Egypt and Crete (listed in Luce, 1969). A serious investigation of the myth should rely on them, but they are few and not always very clear. The texts where the Name Atlantis itself occurs came to us by Plato (427-347 BC). He tells us in his dialogues Kritias and Timaios in great detail the story of a high-standing, flourishing civilization with divine origins that lived on an island or a small continent outside the columns of Hercules (mostly interpreted as the Straits of Gibraltar). The race of the Atlantians was strong and healthy, had all the virtues and lived in peace as long the portion of their divine nature still was strong. But with time it faded and was more and more diluted. "When the human nature got the upper hand" (Plato, Critias 121b), they became sinful and invaded by crimes. As a consequence, they were bound to loose their paradise. Towards the outer world, they started to fight wars and subjected other races to their cruel power. Only the Athenians, by virtue of their own military and moral power, were able to stop and defeat Atlantis from subduing the world. By then, the Gods' anger against Atlantis was so strong, that they destroyed it in a single day and night, by earthquakes, and sunk it into the sea, leaving only a mass of mud behind.
As to the support the authenticy of his account, Plato - through the words of Kritias - sustains that he used an old Egyptian report that he had obtained from his grandfather, who had got it from a friend who in turn got it from the Great Solon who lived around 640-560 BC. Solon was told the story during one of his travels by Egyptian priests at Sais, but also got a copy of it with written in old Egyptian, that he later translated.

To come back to the story, the most relevant passages are cited as follows:

Extracts from Plato's dialogues Kritias and Timaios:

(Plato: Kritias, 108e) "Let me begin by observing first of all, that nine thousand was the sum of years which had elapsed since the war which was said to have taken place between those who dwelt outside the Pillars of Heracles and all who dwelt within them; this war I am going to describe. Of the combatants on the one side, the city of Athens was reported to have been the leader and to have fought out the war; the combatants on the other side were commanded by the kings of Atlantis, which, as was saying, was an island greater in extent than Libya and Asia, and when afterwards sunk by an earthquake, became an impassable barrier of mud to voyagers sailing from hence to any part of the ocean."

(113e ff) "And Poseidon, receiving for his lot the island of Atlantis, begat children by a mortal woman, and settled them in a part of the island, which I will describe. Looking towards the sea, but in the centre of the whole island, there was a plain which is said to have been the fairest of all plains and very fertile. Near the plain again, and also in the centre of the island at a distance of about fifty stadia, there was a mountain not very high on any side.
In this mountain there dwelt one of the earth born primeval men
of that country, whose name was Evenor, and he had a wife named Leucippe, and they had an only daughter who was called Cleito. The maiden had already reached womanhood, when her father and mother died; Poseidon fell in love with her and had intercourse with her, and breaking the ground, inclosed the hill in which she dwelt all round, making alternate zones of sea and land larger and smaller, encircling one another; there were two of land and three of water, which he turned as with a lathe, each having its circumference equidistant every way from the centre, so that no man could get to the island, for ships and voyages were not as yet. He himself, being a god, found no difficulty in making special arrangements for the centre island, bringing up two springs of water from beneath the earth, one of warm water and the other of cold, and making every variety of food to spring up abundantly from the soil. He also begat and brought up five pairs of twin male children; and dividing the island of Atlantis into ten portions, he gave to the first-born of the eldest pair his mother's dwelling and the surrounding allotment, which was the largest and best, and made him king over the rest; the others he made princes, and gave them rule over many men, and a large territory. And he named them all; the eldest, who was the first king, he named Atlas, and after him the whole island and the ocean were called Atlantic."

(translated by Benjamin Jowett, MIT archives, online-version)

(Plato: Timaios, 25a-d) "Many great and wonderful deeds are recorded of your state in our histories. But one of them exceeds all the rest in greatness and valour. For these histories tell of a mighty power which unprovoked made an expedition against the whole of Europe and Asia, and to which your city put an end. This power came forth out of the Atlantic Ocean, for in those days the Atlantic was navigable; and there was an island situated in front of the straits which are by you called the Pillars of Heracles; the island was larger than Libya and Asia put together, and was the way to other islands, and from these you might pass to the whole of the opposite continent which surrounded the true ocean; for this sea which is within the Straits of Heracles is only a harbour, having a narrow entrance, but that other is a real sea, and the surrounding land may be most truly called a boundless continent. Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others, and over parts of the continent, and, furthermore, the men of Atlantis had subjected the parts of Libya within the columns of Heracles as far as Egypt, and of Europe as far as Tyrrhenia. This vast power, gathered into one, endeavoured to subdue at a blow our country and yours and the whole of the region within the straits; and then, Solon, your country shone forth, in the excellence of her virtue and strength, among all mankind. She was pre-eminent in courage and military skill, and was the leader of the Hellenes. And 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 afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea. For which reason the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is a shoal of mud in the way; and this was caused by the subsidence of the island."

(translated by Benjamin Jowett, MIT archives, online-version)

Look here for entries (text passages by Plato, Loeb edition translation, and Plutarch and other entries) referring to Atlantis from the Perseus Project classical resources database !

The reception of Plato's Atlantis through history
Even though Plato himself sustains the thruth of his story, already short time after he had published it, Atlantis was interpreted by some as an educational legend invented by Solon and /or Plato in order to glorify the virtue of the Athenians and to illustrate their philosophical ideas. Aristotle (384-322 BC), as inferred from two passages in Strabo (Geographica II, 102 and XIII, 598) was among the first major critics. On the other hand, there were also sustainors of Platon's theory, as Plutarch (Solon 32.1-2), Proclus (410-485 AD, 76.1-10), Strabo (67 BC- 23 AD, Geographica II.3.6-7),  Posidonius (135-51 BC), Ammianus Marcellinus (330-400 AD) who tell that the legend was regarded a historic fact in Alexandria (from Friedrich, 1994). One thing is very clear: invented or not, the major purpose of Platon's dialogues was not to tell a historic story or a fascinating science fiction, but to educate people and glorify Athens and its virtues. In this, the decadence of Atlantis from its divine origins and its prosperity to decadence and total destruction acts as both as a counterpoint to Athens and as a warning. It is also important to note, that the connection between gods, humans and nature is always present and naturally embedded in Plato's and the Ancient world. So to say, there are several levels within Plato's story: the Ancient world where gods and humans are connected and natural phenomena, especially if exceptionally powerful, are acts of gods, the educational and moral aspects of the tale, and finally, the story in terms of actual or fictional events. Today, we tend to see only this last aspect, but for Plato it was surely the least important one. This makes it even more difficult to judge whether Plato was telling pure fiction, pure reality or a mixture of both. Most likely, the latter is true. The story is rich in details, some of which seem invented and some appear surprisingly real. It is very improbable, in fact, that he based his story on nothing, and it is also unlikely, that he had such a detailed report (the translation of the old Egyptian report). Even if he had, it is natural to assume, that he modified it according to the purposes of his tale, which as has been said, certainly were not the telling of facts.
So, it is fair to assume, that there is a historic core of Plato's legend. Until this point, most people agree. But then...

The name
Most people think that the name 'Atlantis' is derived from the Atlantic Ocean (and therefore put it automatically somewhere into the Atlantic Ocean), but this reflects just our modern geographic view-point. Both the ocean's and the island's name are derived from the mythical giant Atlas, who held the sky upon his shoulders. Later, as Greek geographical knowledge grew, it gave also name to the high Moroccean mountain range. To locate Atlantis by using its name is not possible. 

Could Santorini have been Atlantis?
Many serious investigators think that the source of the legend is actually the Minoan eruption of Santorini.
Why? There are some fairly convincing arguments:

1. Plato tells about a circular island with concentric structures. Santorini today does have an impressive concentric geographic setting and had it also before the Minoan eruption. This has come out as a result of detailed geologic studies during the past 20 years, see the chapter of the reconstruction of the ring-shaped pre-Minoan island with a central shield. Furthermore Heiken and McCoy (1990) indicated that the famous picture in the West House from the Akrotiri excavations most likely represents a relatively naturalistic portrait of Thera. It shows an inhabited and flowering island landscape and the departing Therean fleet, and actually some concentric water-land ring structures are visible, too.

2. Plato writes that Atlantis was situated in the ocean, beyond the "Pillars of Hercules". The "Pillars of Hercules" were at Platon's time the Straigts of Gibraltar and this would put Atlantis into the Atlantic Ocean. Further, Plato tells that Atlantis was bigger than Libya and Asia together. If one believes Plato literally, Atlantis was then outside of the Mediterranean region. But it is also possible that Solon or Plato either were misinterpreting their old sources or that Plato put it willingly far beyond the Greek-influenced world..
- The first possibility could be explained by the fact that the original text was much older and the Pillars of Hercules had not necessarily always been associated with the Straigts of Gibraltar; it could very well have meant a place within the Aegean Sea. The association of pillars could even be an allusion to the giant eruption cloud from the Minoan eruption (almost 40 km high) that undoubtedly was visible in the whole Eastern Mediterranean and virtually reached the sky. How could such a sight be forgotten? Then, there is the connection to the mythical titan Atlas who held the sky upon the shoulders. The idea is temptating.
- Putting Atlantis and its civilisation far away from the ancient world would also suit Plato's intention of providing a antitheses to the Greek society and its values that he defends. This is clearly Plato's major purpose in his account. - The same is true for Plato's words, "bigger than Libya and Asia together". Also it has been interpreted that Plato or someone before him in the chain of the oral or written tradition of the report accidentially changed the very similar Greek words for "bigger than" ("meson") and "between" ("mezon"). If this was the case, Atlantis could be identical with Santorin (Luce, 1969). Besides, it is geologically not possible that a large continent could disappear in a dramatic event, i.e. in a very short time span. There is nowhere on earth such evidence.

3. Galanopoulos and Bacon (1969) argue that the date for the destruction of Atlantis Plato gives as 9000 years before his time should be read as 900 years and that there was an erroneous translation by Solon from the old Egyptian number system. Plato lived ca. 300 BC and Solon's journey to Egypt had taken place about 300 years earlier. Adding the figures, the Atlantis event should have taken place around 1500 BC, in good agreement to the recent datings of the Minoa eruption 1640BC. It is also imaginable, that 900 years looked not far enough in time for Platon (or Solon etc.). Putting it far into the past adds weight to the historic self-conception of the Athenians. Also, as far as Archeologists know (and they know a lot about the past of Athens...), there is no trace of a highly advanced Athenian culture at around 9000BC. From our knowledge's point of view, 9000 years must be wrong, or invented. Almost certainly.

4. The exiting archaeological findings on Thera (near Akrotiri) clearly demonstrate that before the Minoan eruption there was a developed, rich, and probably oligarchic marine community whose flourishing economy was provided by intensive trade, shipping, and probably vine, too, - like at present (Doumas, 1983). We do not know what happened to these people. So far, no human body has been found killed by the eruption. It seems that they had been warned in time to evacuate the island. That means even if Platos completely invented the story, it is still true. Something like he describes has happened on Santorini 1640BC.
An event of that size must have had enormous impressions on the people living at that time. It is difficult to imagine that the eruption, which was much bigger than the 79 AD Vesuvius eruption, was completely forgotten in history. But strangely, no unambiguous sources seem to refer directly to the event. On the other hand, there are several ancient myths and hints that could allude to it including the plagues reported in the bible, but the most evident one, the one that fits best to the event is Plato's Atlantis legend.

5. Probably, there were no close eyewitnesses of the eruption that could survive and give a direct report. What the ancient people experienced, must have been terrifying. If one compares the Minoan with the much smaller 79AD Vesuvius and the 1883 Krakatau eruptions one gets an idea of the circumstances of the eruption. The 30-40 km high eruption cloud was seen from hundreds of km and the thundering noise from the explosions must have been heard in almost the whole known world. Ash and pumice was falling throughout the Easter Mediterranean and lasted for several days or weeks (see Figure). East of Santorini, the sky could have been completely dark for hours or days. Probably, tsunamis were generated (like in the Krakatau eruption) and likely devastated the coasts of Crete and other surrounding islands. On a global scale, even the climate might have changed for some years, causing colder weather and failed crops.
It is a matter of speculation how long it took until the first curious visitors arrived again by ship and visited Thera. Considering the possible destructive effects of the eruption and the fact that the sea due to rafting pumice must have been innavigatable for months (as was the case for the much  smaller historic 726AD eruption of Palea Kameni), at least some time (years, decades ?) could have passed before a human being first saw the changed island. Was among these people somebody who knew the island before the eruption?  Would he or she have recognised it? Probably not. When Vesuvius erupted in 1631, some villages were completely buried beneath ash, and people could not find their houses and fields any more. Santorini erupted 3000 years earlier and 100 times stronger.
Thera itself would have presented to these people a picture of complete destruction and profound change and there would have been visible no trace at all of what existed before, everything being covered with white and unstable masses of ash subject to frequent landslides and other forms of erosion. Furthermore, the shape of the island was largely changed. Some steep slopes had been smoothed and new coastal plains created by the ash flows, the isolated rock of Monolithos, previously a small island, had been integrated. Most striking of all, parts of the former ring-shaped island had subsided and disappeared during caldera collapse. Probably it was not a very pleasant and inviting sight. That explains that no traces of resettlement occur on the island for many hundreds years after the eruption.
Probably the first people who repopulated the island centuries later were the Phoenicians. A new part of history began then; antique legends refer to Thera, then also called 'Callisti' (gr. = the most beautiful one) as a present by the God Triton to the the Argonauts, as for example reported by Pindar (4th Pyth. Ode, Verse 10).

6. Some details of Platon's story are clearly describing volcanic phenomena. Such are the colours Platos describes of being typical of the rocks of Atlantis: black (lava), white (pumice and ash) and red (lava). These are the colours of Santorini. The warm and cold springs are typical of volcanic places and still found on Santorini today. Most obvious, the way the gods, i.e. nature for us, destroyed Atlantis: by earthquake, fire and lightning. Lightning is always accomanying huge eruption columns and probably the most impressive sign of a terrible event if observed from far. From close rage, nobody could have survived. Another hint is the mentioned mud that remained at the site of Atlantis. It is enough to translate mud with the enormous masses of pumice and ash from the eruption that floated on the sea.

Is Atlantis identical with Santorini? Maybe that is the wrong question. Probably at no time there was a place whose name was written ''Atlantis'' on some map...But the theory that the volcanic desaster of Santorini is the source behind Plato's story of Atlantis is quite supported, in my opinion more than any other theory. Details will remain unclear. For example, some people associate Crete with Atlantis rather than Santorini. This is not opposite to the Santorini theory. Santorini and Crete shared a culture, that dissappeared on Crete about 100 years later than the eruption. Likely, the impacts of the eruption were enormous for the whole region and might have weakened the power of the Minoans on Crete, so that they could not survive for more than 100 years longer. Also, Crete would fit better to some aspects of Atlantis as described by Plato. Actually it is not very clear from Plato's writings, whether the descibed Metropolis and the larger mainlad of Atlantis are the same geographic place. So, maybe, the mainland was Crete and the Metropolis with its concentric structure of land and sea could have been Santorini. But going further this point, we are stepping into fiction ourselves.


- Friedrich, W.L. (1994) Feuer im Meer. Spektrum Akademischer Verlag, Heidelberg, Berlin Oxford, 256 p.

- Galanopoulos, A:G: and Bacon, E. (1969) "Atlantis. The Truth behind the Legend." Nelson, London

- Luce, J.V. (1969) "The End of Atlantis - New Light on an Old Legend." Thames and Hudson, London, 224 p.