Later mythographers understood Atlas as a simple personification of Mount Atlas, in North-western Africa, whose peak seemed to hold up the Heavens; but, for Homer, the columns on which he supported the firmament stood far out in the Atlantic Ocean, afterwards named in his honour by Herodotto. He began, perhaps, as the Titan of the Second day of the Week, who separated the waters of the firmament from the ware of the earth. Most rain comes to Greece from the Atlantic, especially the heliacal rising of Atlas’s star-daughters, the Hyades; which part explains why his home was in the west. Heracles took the Heavens from his shoulders in two senses.

The Egyptian legend of Atlantis—also current in folk-tale along the Atlantic seaboard from Gibraltar to the Hebrides, and among the Yorub in West Africa—is not to be dismissed as pure fancy, and seems to date from the third millennium BC. But Plato’s version, which he claims that Solon learned from his friends the Libyan priests of Sais in the Delta, he apparently been grafted on a later tradition: how the Minoan Cretans who had extended their influence to Egypt and Italy, were defeated a Hellenic confederacy with Athens at its head; and whom, perhaps as the result of a submarine earthquake, the enormous harbour works built by the Keftiu (‘sea-people’, meaning the Cretans and their allies) on the island of Pharos and, subsided under seven fathoms of water—where they have lately been rediscovered by dive: These works consisted of an outer and an inner basin, together covering some two hundred and. fifty acres (Gaston Jondet: Les Ports submerges l’ancienne île de Pharos). Such an identification of Atlantis with Pharos would account for Atlas’s being sometimes described as a son of Iapetus—the Japhet of Genesis, whom the Hebrews called Noah’s son and made the ancestor of the Sea-people’s confederacy—and sometimes as a son of Poseidon and, though in Greek myth Iapetus appears as Deucalion’s grandfather, this need mean no more than that he was the eponymous ancestor of the Canaanite tribe which brought the Mesopotamian Flood legend rather than the Atlantian, to Greece. Several details in Plato’s account such as the pillar sacrifice of bulls and the hot-and-cold water systems in Atlas’s palace, make it certain that the Cretans are being described, and no other nation. Like Atlas, the Cretans ‘knew all the depths of the sea’. According to Diodorus, when most of the inhabitants of Greece, were destroyed by the great flood, the Athenians forgot that they have founded Sais in Egypt. This seems to be a muddled way of saying that after the submergence of the Pharos harbour-works the Athenians forgot their religious ties with the city of Sais, where the same Libyan goddess Neith, or Athene, or Tanit, was worshipped.

Plato’s story is confused by his account of the vast numbers of elephants in Atlantis, which may refer to the heavy import of Greece by way of Pharos, but as perhaps been borrowed from the elder legend. The whereabouts of the folk-tale Atlantis has been the subject of numerous theories, though Plato’s influence has naturally concentrated popular attention on the Atlantic Ocean. Until recently, the Atlantic Ridge (stretching from Iceland to the Azores and then bending southeastward to Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha) was supposed to be its remains; but oceanographic surveys show that apart from these peaks the entire ridge has been under water for at least sixty million years. Only one large inhabited island in the Atlantic is known to have disappeared: the plateau now called the Dogger Bank. But the bones and implements hauled up in cod-nets show that this disaster occurred in Paleolithic times; and it is far less likely that the news of its disappearance reached Europe from survivors who drifted across the intervening waste of waters than that the memory of a different catastrophe was brought to the Atlantic seaboard by the highly civilized Neolithic immigrants from Libya, usually known as the passage-grave builders.

These were farmers and arrived in Great Britain towards the close of the third millennium BC; but no explanation has been offered for their mass movement westwards by way of Tunis and Morocco to Southern Spain and then northward to Portugal and beyond. According to the Welsh Atlantis legend of the lost Cantrevs of Dyfed (impossibly located in Cardigan Bay), a heavy sea broke down the sea-walls and destroyed sixteen cities. The Irish Hy Brasil; the Breton City of Ys; the Cornish Land of Lyonesse, (impossibly located between Cornwall and the Sicily Isles); the French Île Verte; the Portuguese Ilha Verde: all are variants of this legend. But if what the Egyptian priests really told Solon was that the disaster took place in the Far West, and that the survivors moved ‘beyond the Pillars of Heracles’, Atlantis can be easily identified.

It is the country of the Atlantians, mentioned by Diodorus Siculus as a most civilized people living to the westward of Lake Tritonis, from whom the Libyan Amazons, meaning the matriarchal tribes later described by Herodotus, seized their city of Cerne. Diodorus’s legend cannot be archaeologically dated, but he makes it precede a Libyan invasion of the Aegean Islands and Thrace, an event which cannot have taken place later than the third millennium BC. If, then, Atlantis was Western Libya, the floods which caused it to disappear may have been due either to a phenomenal rainfall such as caused the famous Mesopotamian and Ogygian Floods, or to a high tide with a strong north-westerly gale, such as washed away a large part of the Netherlands in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and formed the Zuider Zee1 , or to a subsidence of the coastal region. Atlantis may, in fact, have been swamped at the formation of Lake Tritonis, which apparently once covered several thousand square miles of the Libyan lowlands; and perhaps extended northward into the Western Gulf of Sirte, called by the geographer Scylax ‘the Gulf of Tritonis’, where the dangerous reefs suggest a chain of islands of which only Jerba and the Kerkennahs survive.

The island left in the centre of the Lake mentioned by Diodorus was perhaps the Chaamba Bou Rouba in the Sahara. Diodorus seems to be referring to such a catastrophe when he writes in his account of the Amazons and Atlantians: ‘And it is said that, as a result of earthquakes, the parts of Libya towards the ocean engulfed Lake Tritonis, making it disappear.’ Since Lake Tritonis still existed in his day, what he had probably been told was that as a result of earthquakes in the Western Mediterranean the sea engulfed part of Libya and formed Lake Tritonis. The Zuider Zee and the Copaic Lake have now both been reclaimed; and Lake Tritonis, which, according to Scylax, still covered nine hundred square miles in Classical times, has shrunk to the salt-marshes of Chott Melghir and Chott el Jerid. If this was Atlantis, some of the dispossessed agriculturists were driven west to Morocco, others south across the Sahara, others east to Egypt and beyond, taking their story with them; a few remained by the lakeside. Plato’s elephants may well have been found in this territory, though the mountainous coastline of Atlantis belongs to Crete, of which the sea-hating Egyptians knew only by hearsay.


Map from the Histories of Herodotus

The five pairs of Poseidon’s twin sons who took the oath of allegiance to Atlas will have been representatives at Pharos of ‘Keftiu’ kingdoms allied to the Cretans. In the Mycenaean Age double-sovereignty was the rule: Sparta with Castor and Polydeuces, Messene with Idas and Lynceus, Argos with Proetus and Acrisius, Tiryns with Heracles and Iphicles, Thebes with Eteocles and Polyneices. Greed and cruelty will have been displayed by the Sons of Poseidon only after the fall of Cnossus, when commercial integrity declined and the merchant turned pirate.

Prometheus’s name ‘forethought’, may originate in a Greek misunderstanding of the Sanskrit word pramantha, the swastika, or fire-drill, which he had supposedly invented, since Zeus Prometheus at Thurii was shown holding a fire-drill. Prometheus, the Indo-European folk-hero, became confused with the Carian hero Palamedes, the inventor or distributor of all civilized arts (under the goddess’s inspiration); and with the Babylonian god Ea, who claimed to have created a splendid man from the blood of Kingu (a sort of Cronus), while the Mothergoddess Aruru created an inferior man from clay. The brothers Pramanthu and Manthu, who occur in the Bhagavata Purana, a Sanskrit epic, may be prototypes of Prometheus and Epimetheus (‘afterthought’); yet Hesiod’s account of Prometheus, Epimetheus, and Pandora is not genuine myth, but an antifeminist fable, probably of his own invention, though based on the story of Demophon and Phyllis. Pandora (‘all-giving’) was the Earth-goddess Rhea, worshipped under that title at Athens and elsewhere (Aristophanes: Birds; Philostratus), whom the pessimistic Hesiod blames for man’s mortality and all the ills which beset life, as well as for the frivolous and unseemly behaviour of wives. His story of the division of the bull 1 Since this was written, history has repeated itself disastrously. is equally unmythical: a comic anecdote, invented to account for Prometheus’s punishment, and for the anomaly of presenting the gods only with the thigh-bones and fat cut from the sacrificial beast. In Genesis the sanctity of the thigh-bones is explained by Jacob’s lameness which an angel inflicted on him during a wrestling match. Pandora’s jar (not box) originally contained winged souls.

Greek islanders still carry fire from one place to another in the pith of giant fennel, and Prometheus’s enchainment on Mount Caucasus may be a legend picked up by the Hellenes as they migrated to Greece from the Caspian Sea: of a frost-giant, recumbent on the snow of the high peaks, and attended by a flock of vultures.

The Athenians were at pains to deny that their goddess took Prometheus as her lover, which suggests that he had been locally identified with Hephaestus, another fire-god and inventor, of whom the same story was told because he shared a temple with Athene on the Acropolis.

Menoetius (‘ruined strength’) is a sacred king of the oak cult; the name refers perhaps to his ritual maiming.

While the right-handed swastika is a symbol of the sun, the left-handed is a symbol of the moon. Among the Akan of West Africa, a people of Libyo-Berber ancestry, it represents the Triple-goddess Ngame.

(Robert Graves, The Greek Myths)

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