So, in the original story of the island kingdom of Atlantis (which was recounted in 500 C. E. by Plato’s uncle Solon), the five sets of twin sons of the god Poseidon intermarried with mortals, forgot their godly powers, and started acting like foolish, selfish humans. In anger and extreme disappointment, Zeus (the god over all Greek gods) destroyed Atlantis and wiped all traces of the island and its civilization from our world.
Spoiler: Atlantis was not a physical island in the actual world. I don’t say that it’s not a real place, because as the existence of thousands of books, stories, myths, poems, plays, ships, games, and movies about Atlantis has shown us, Atlantis has maintained a powerful hold on human imagination for centuries. It still does today. Atlantis is therefore not unreal. Atlantis is real in its own way; it has a reality that is mythical in nature.
Accessing the Mythical Imagination
Some people have the idea that myth = false. In their minds, a myth is not true, so therefore, we can ignore it. But that idea displays a stunning lack of imagination.
One of my favorite mythologists, Michael Meade, has said that enduring myths (such as creation myths and morality tales) are actually more true about human nature than regular stories are, because they’ve been through so many minds and so many retellings that all of the local or non-universal threads have been clipped off. After a certain number of decades (or centuries, in the case of the Atlantis mythology), what you end up with is an enduring story that speaks poetically to deep aspects of the human condition. Conventional stories simply can’t touch the soul in the way enduring myths do.
In my work with emotions and empathy, I make a distinction between the words imaginary, which means something that doesn’t exist, and imaginal, which means something that exists in the poetic, artistic, and mythic imagination. Of course, these two categories of imaginal and imaginary overlap, but there are important distinctions.
For instance, the Easter Bunny is imaginary. He doesn’t exist in the real world – instead, he is continually re-created by parents and advertisers. He’s not a particularly powerful imaginary character, like Santa Claus is, but even so, the Easter Bunny can evoke imagining in the children who hunt each year for the hidden treats and treasures he provides. And while the Easter Bunny may leap into the realm of the imaginal and the mythic in the minds of some children, he more rightly belongs in the imaginary category.
When I speak of the imaginal, I am referring to poetry, song, literature, cinema, dreams, and enduring myths like Atlantis. When something is written and imagined skillfully, it can enter into the minds of others and spark wonderful feats of allegorical storytelling, myth-making, and robust imagining. For instance, these lines by Robert Frost:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.
will have very little meaning if you do not engage your imaginal intelligence. Without your imaginal abilities, these lines describe some roads and a person walking down one. Snore!
But when you can engage your imaginal and mythic capabilities, you may find more meaning in these lines – about individuality, courage, and self-awareness – than others do in entire stacks of books. The mythic imagination is a powerful and poetic thing.
To read the Atlantis myth properly, you have to engage your imaginal intelligence. The tale of Atlantis is certainly a rich and detailed creation myth — full of grand, romantic notions about purity and impurity — and it’s a teaching story about the limits of power, godhood, mortality, and political responsibility. But it’s not just those things. Atlantis has engaged the human imagination for centuries because it’s also a myth about Utopia*, which is an idealized and perfect culture.
*This word was coined in the book Utopia by Sir Thomas Moore in 1516,1 and it refers to an imaginary and idealized island society with perfect social, legal, and political systems. Tellingly and beautifully, the word literally means nowhere.
Welcome to Utopia!
Utopianists (those who study the phenomenon of utopian thought) note that dreams of Utopia – such as Nirvana, Mecca, Shangri-La, the Garden of Eden, Lemuria, and Atlantis – exist in nearly every human culture. The work of utopianists is not to locate these legendary Utopias in the actual world, but to understand how Utopias speak to the longings and ideals of individuals and entire cultures.
In the book Utopias and Utopian Thought,2 editor F. E. Manuel compiled a group of scholarly essays on the social phenomena of Utopias (these essays first appeared in Daedalus: The Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences). These essays – written by scholars in political science, history, economy, sociology, philosophy, biology, and English – explore the lineage of utopian thought in history and literature, and in real-life examples of utopian communities such as Oneida and Findhorn. In these essays, the literal existence of Atlantis is not a subject; rather, the focus is on the continual historical re-imagining of the Atlantis myth — and the effect this utopian myth has had on cultures since Plato’s time.
These re-imaginings, as it turns out, are a central feature of utopian myths. But I didn’t know that at first. When I embarked upon my study of Atlantis, I was shocked to find that the New Age story I had grown up with had no connection whatsoever to Plato’s original story. I felt that I had been lied to, swindled, bamboozled … yet in studying further, I realized that the location, the origin, the situations, the failings, and the triumphs of the Atlanteans has changed regularly from telling to telling — which is why it’s such a great myth. Utopian myths — if they’re going to be successful and enduring — must morph and change as human understanding and the capacity for imagining does.
The best description of Utopia was written by George Haight in his introduction to the 1942 reprint of Francis Bacon’s utopian essays, Essays and New Atlantis3 (originally published in 1625). Haight writes that Bacon’s New Atlantis is about:
“… one of the famous utopias, those accounts of an ideal world in which authors reveal what is wrong in their own” (p. xvi).
Haight’s description of Utopia explains perfectly how the facts of Atlantis could change so startlingly from culture to culture, throughout history, and even within subcultures that existed at the same point in history. For instance, the Atlantis story has been co-opted by various metaphysical authors and leaders,4 some of whom asserted that Atlantis was the birthplace of civilization, the seat of the Aryan and Semitic races – and the progenitor of the Aztecs, the Egyptians, the Maya, the Hindus, the Greeks, and the Norsemen. In Donovan’s famous song, Atlantis was the source of every god, king, and legend in the antediluvian world.
Atlantis has been everything to everyone; its mythology is so rich, so perfectly formed, and so all-encompassing that it handily became the go-to Utopia for pretty much everyone who heard about it.
But Atlantis wasn’t just the go-to Utopia for ancient peoples: During the Nazi regime, Atlantis and its supposed connection to the pure Aryan master race was co-opted by leading Nazi theoretician (and Hitler mentor) Alfred Rosenberg – and by Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Nazi SS.5 In his 2002 book, Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries,6 Kenneth Feder writes that “Himmler even went so far as to order German scientists to look all over the globe for the descendants of the Atlanteans, measuring and gauging people, searching for similarities with Germans that might indicate a common descent from the Atlanteans” (p. 199).
Okay, but what about the cloning, crystal-laser having, part-extraterrestrial Atlanteans?
Okay, okay! Atlantis is probably the richest area of utopian study imaginable, such that a true understanding of it could take a lifetime or two. However, my purpose was to track down the Atlantis story I grew up with — the one about which total strangers in the New Age can share astonishingly similar past-life memories with each other. After poring through nearly fifty books in search of my very specific New Age stories of the clairvoyant, clone-making, crystal and laser-based culture of Atlantis, I finally found the source. Hello, Edgar Cayce!
The central authority for the tales of the crystal and laser-based energy systems of Atlantis, the clairvoyant Atlanteans’ connection to extraterrestrial or otherworldly entities, and the morality tale of the fall of Atlantis due to overarching technological (and metaphysical) hubris, was none other than the famous American faith healer and clairvoyant, Edgar Cayce (1877-1945).
In a 1968 book,7 Cayce’s sons (Edgar Evans and Hugh Lynn) compiled and cataloged all of the Atlantean material Cayce had uttered during more than 2500 clairvoyant health readings he gave between 1923 and his death in 1945 (Cayce performed thousands more readings than this; the 2500 figure refers to readings where he specifically mentioned Atlantis).
In this compilation, all of the references to Atlantis come from Cayce’s recounting of the alleged past lives of his patients – and the supposed connection between his patients’ previous incarnations in Atlantis and the health problems they were experiencing at the time of their readings.
Cayce would often add fascinating information about the deadly mistakes that led to the decline of Atlantis, which included genetic engineering, cloning, and gene-splicing that created Frankenstein species. Cayce often connected present-day health troubles to karmic leftovers from the dreadful things his patients did when they lived on Atlantis.
Aha! So my Atlantean pelvis alien story — where I traced chronic and seemingly unaddressable back pain to a previous incarnation in Atlantis — wasn’t quite so bizarre after all; it was an artifact of my membership in the New Age subculture.
But wait! I read voraciously as a child, and still do, but this Atlantis story is something I began thinking and writing about when I was eleven or twelve … and I hadn’t read any Cayce yet. In fact, when I did finally read Cayce in my later teens, the similarities between my memories and his stories made me say: “Aha! So it’s all true!” I had confirmation!
Okay, what I actually had was a confirmation bias, but still.
After doing all this research, I understood how the myth of Atlantis got into the New Age, but now the question was this: If I hadn’t read any Cayce before I remembered my past life in Atlantis, how did mythology of Atlantis get into me?
Next post: The Reality of Atlantis, part 3 (of 3)
1. Neufeldt, V. (Ed.)(1997). Utopia. In the Webster’s New World Collegiate Dictionary (Third Edition, p. 1470). New York: MacMillan.
2. Manuel, F.E. (Ed.)(1967). Utopias and Utopian Thought. Boston: Beacon Press.
3. Bacon, F. (1942). Essays and New Atlantis. George Haight, ed. New York: Walter J. Black. (Original work published in 1625).
4. Washington, P. (1996). Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon: A History of the Mystics, Mediums, and Misfits Who Brought Spiritualism to America. New York: Schocken.
5. Cavendish, R. (1982). Atlantis. In R. Cavendish (Ed.), Legends of the World. (pp. 262-267). New York: Schocken.
6. Feder, K.L. (1998). Lost: One Continent – Reward. In Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology. (pp 177-203). New York: McGraw-Hill.
7. Cayce, E.E. & Cayce, H.L. (1968). Edgar Cayce on Atlantis. New York: Hawthorn.
Donnelly, I. (1949). Atlantis: The Antediluvian World. New York: Gramercy. (Original work published in 1882).
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Heffner, A.G. (2002). Atlantis: the Myth. Encyclopedia Mythica. Accessed March 4, 2004 from Encyclopedia Mythica Online: http://www.pantheon.org/articles/a/atlantis.html.
Keyes, B. (ed.). Plato’s The Dialogues of Critias. Accessed June 13, 2011 from The Mysterious and Unexplained. http://www.activemind.com/Mysterious/Topics/Atlantis/critias_page4.html
Keyes, B. (ed.). Plato’s Timaeus. Accessed June 13, 2011 from The Mysterious and Unexplained. http://www.activemind.com/Mysterious/Topics/Atlantis/timaeus_page2.html
Lissner. I. (1962). Atlantis, Fact or Fiction? In The Silent Past: Mysterious and Forgotten Cultures of the World. (pp. 156-164). New York: Putnam.
Mavor, J.W. (1969). Voyage to Atlantis. New York: Putnam.
Morse, J.L. (1959). Atlantis. In the Funk & Wagnalls Standard Reference Encyclopedia (Volume 3, p. 767). New York: Standard Reference Works Publishing Company.