In one cataclysmic night, the gods sent a battalion of fire and earthquakes so intense that the Utopian kingdom of Atlantis sank deep into the ocean, never to be found again.
So tells Plato’s infamous myth, which has captivated audiences for more than 2,300 years. Many people have subsequently floated theories about exactly where Atlantis was: in the Mediterranean, off the coast of Spain, even under Antarctica. A popular idea is that the Atlantis myth is associated with the fate of Thera, now the Greek island of Santorini, which was partly destroyed by a volcanic eruption about 3,600 years ago. But many, if not most, scientists think we will never tie Atlantis to a real location.
“I don’t think there’s any question that the story of Atlantis is a myth,” says Patrick Nunn, a geologist at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia.
But Atlantis is not the only legend of a sunken city. Similar tales are told around the world, and it now seems that some of them are true.
Plato was living in a volcanically and tectonically active part of the world where massive earthquakes and tsunamis were not usual.
“He observed what was going on and he used details from these observations to make his narrative about Atlantis sound more credible,” says Nunn. “But, I think, there’s no way that we could consider Atlantis as a particular place.”
Despite Nunn’s scepticism about this ill-fated kingdom, he is one of a growing band of geologists who have begun to take an interest in similar myths in the belief that some really can shed light on ancient geological events.
In 1966, the scientist Dorothy Vitaliano coined a name for the discipline: geomythology. It is, she said, the science of “seeking to find the real geological event underlying a myth or legend to which it has given rise”.
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