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Myths and legends


The Earthly Paradise, a painting by Hieronymus Bosch The Earthly Paradise, a painting by Hieronymus Bosch According to the ancient Greeks, Atlantis was an island that once lay in the Atlantic Ocean. It was once a paradise, but then sank into the sea, never to resurface. Since ancient times, many people, believing Atlantis once actually existed, have tried to discover exactly where it was located. Others have explored the origin of the legend, to see whether it had any connection with real events. Some historians in the past mistakenly thought that the Native Americans might be descendants of the people of Atlantis, who fled their doomed land as it sunk beneath the ocean. Scholars in the 19th century looked for scientific evidence to support the existence of Atlantis. But studies of the Atlantic Ocean floor have revealed no sunken islands nor continents. Atlantis must have been no more than a mythical land.

An old map featuring AtlantisAn old map featuring Atlantis

An aquarium at the Paradise Island Hotel, BahamasAn aquarium at the Paradise Island Hotel, Bahamas

A paradise island

The Greek philosopher Plato (about 428–347 BC), described a great island as large as North Africa and the Near East combined lying in the Atlantic Ocean. The island belonged to Poseidon (Neptune), who fell in love with a young woman called Cleito. Poseidon built a city and a palace for her on a mountain in Atlantis. The couple had 10 children (five pairs of male twins), and Poseidon later divided the island among them, giving each a part of it to rule. Atlantis was a paradise: plants and animals were plentiful, with streams of both hot and cold water. It had many wonderful palaces and temples. The people of Atlantis lived in an golden age.

But the people of Atlantis became greedy for more. They decided to conquer the lands around the Mediterranean. Angered by their behaviour, Zeus, the chief of the gods, unleashed a great earthquake that made Atlantis sink into the sea over the course of a single day.

In 1596 Abraham Ortelius, the Flemish cartographer, became probably the first person to declare (correctly) that continents were once joined together before drifting to their present positions. He said that Atlantis did not sink, but was “torn away from Europe and Africa by earthquakes and flood”. He came to this conclusion by matching up the shape of the coastline either side of the Atlantic Ocean.

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