“We find anything that has been lost, forgotten or hidden, with pin-point accuracy,” whether on land or in the sea, the high-tech company Merlin Burrows boasts. The U.K.-based firm employs historians, archaeologists, security and salvage experts and others who, with the aid of satellites, locate sunken ships, buried treasure and ancient sites. One of the latter, according to the company, is the most famous “lost” city in the world – more acclaimed than Shambhala, more coveted than El Dorado and more mysterious than Shangri-La – and which, prosaically enough, lies off the coast of Spain, the company says.
The genesis of Atlantis was, in fact, not far from there, in Athens. It first appears in two of Plato’s dialogues, “Timaeus” and “Critias.” Plato says he learned about the existence of the gigantic island – “larger than Libya and Asia together,” he declares in the former – from Solon, who drafted the Athenian constitution. He, in turn, heard about the island from an Egyptian priest, who told him about an extraordinarily developed civilization that flourished some 9,000 years earlier.
However, it’s possible that the event from which sprang the roots of the Atlantis legend occurred far closer to Plato’s time. In the 15th century B.C.E., the volcano on the Aegean island of Thera erupted, in one of the most devastating events of its kind in the past 10,000 years. The eruption unleashed a huge tsunami, darkened the skies and plunged the central part of the island into the sea, leaving behind what’s known today as the Santorini Archipelago. Does that violent catastrophe provide the solution to the mystery of the decline of the Minoan culture? Was it engraved in the collective memory of the peoples of the region, engendering, more than a millennium later, the tales of Atlantis and its destruction?
According to Plato, Atlantis’ empire encompassed all the peoples of the Middle East; only the Athenians rebelled against its vast power successfully, aided by Zeus. The king of the gods, enraged at the arrogance and greed of the Atlantans, and at their disdain for the practice of accepted sacrificial rites, set in motion an earthquake that laid waste the island and sent it plunging into the depths of the sea.
During the catastrophe that ensued, two parts of Atlantis were miraculously preserved, Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi write in “The Dictionary of Imaginary Places.” One of the lost pieces is said to be in the maritime depths; the other in the Sahara Desert. In both venues, the Atlantans continue to develop their esoteric customs, which include, in one case, plating prisoners with metal, and in another, a technology of thought projection. Still, not much survives from these descriptions in the latest manifestation of Atlantis on the big screen.
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“Aquaman,” the new film from DC Entertainment, starring Jason Momoa (better known as Khal Drogo in “Game of Thrones”), tries to use a trident to reverse the strident failure of so many of the studio’s movies, which sank to the depths. Its hero, the son of a human lighthouse keeper and the princess of underwater Atlantis, returns to claim the throne from which he was dispossessed for being a half-breed – and also to rescue his impressive computerized CGI-imagined city and the entire world from Orm, Aquaman’s half-brother, who intends to set loose the fury of the seven seas against the land.
Even though most scholars maintain that Atlantis never existed physically, but rather, only in allegorical form, the image of the tremendous civilization that descends, doomed, into the depths has proved to have stubbornly alluring power over the creative human imagination, even though it’s depicted by Plato as a warning, not an ideal.
“Atlantis is not a place to be emulated or honored at all,” writes Kenneth Feder, a fierce critic of pseudo-archaeology, in his book “Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology: From Atlantis to the Walalm Olum. “Atlantis is not the perfect society.” On the contrary, he adds: “Atlantis is the embodiment of a materially wealthy, technologically advanced and militarily powerful nation that has become corrupted by its wealth, sophistication, and might.”
Some have accepted Atlantis as an allegory and used it for their own ends, among them philosopher Francis Bacon, who titled his 1624 utopia “New Atlantis.” Others believed in its concrete existence, among them archaeologists, explorers and a former U.S. congressman, Ignatius Donnelly of Minnesota. In 1882, Donnelly pulled Atlantis out of the turbulent cultural waters in which it had been submerged for generations and posited it not merely as a lost island but as the cradle of humanity. The earthquake that destroyed it, he maintained, was the Big Bang of civilization, which hurled its population and its culture across the world – from which then emerged the Greek gods, the forebears of the Aztecs, the founders of the cities of Mesopotamia, the wellspring of progress.
Donnelly’s book “Atlantis: The Antediluvian World” heralded a new Atlantis renaissance, in which Helena Blavatsky, a co-founder of the Theosophical Society at the end of the 19th century, also played a part. Blavatsky claimed to have received her ancient wisdom from various long-deceased mentors through spiritualist mediums, from whom she learned about the existence of mankind’s seven “root races,” the fourth of which originated in Atlantis. Like Donnelly, she too believed that the wisdom of Atlantis was spread across the globe when the island was destroyed. The descendants of the Atlantans still carried in their blood the qualities of their forebears, she believed: They were the members of the Aryan race.
The 1901 translation of Blavatsky’s book “The Secret Doctrine” exerted considerable influence on pan-Germanic thinkers, who were incessantly occupied with finding corroboration for their theories about the primal source of their race. The Austrian Guido von List founded a neo-pagan movement that sought to restore worship of the Nordic god Wotan among the Aryans. He espoused the existence of “Ariosophy,” referring to wisdom of the Aryans. For the former monk Jorg Lanz von Liebenfels, the scholar of religions Tomer Persico writes in his Hebrew-language article “The Esoteric Sources of Nazism,” the Aryans were no less and no more than sons of gods who were “capable of using electromagnetic radiation to communicate telepathically and to see from afar.”
Some of the followers of the German occultist Rudolf von Sebottendorf believed that the Aryans were the remnants of the race of ice giants who inhabited the mythical land of Hyperborea. Von Sebottendorf (a pseudonym for Adam Alfred Rudolf Glauer, who died in 1945) was a founder of the Thule Society, which drew its name from “ultima Thule,” or “most distant north,” a land mentioned in Virgil’s “Aeneid.” According to the Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw, the Thule Society’s membership list “reads like a Who’s Who of early Nazi sympathizers and leading figures in Munich.” Among them was Alfred Rosenberg, who became the movement’s ideologue and who wrote in his book “The Myth of the Twentieth Century,” that “the old legends about Atlantis may appear in a new light. It seems far from impossible that… a flourishing continent once rose above the waters, and upon it a creative race produced a far reaching culture and sent its children out into the world as seafarers and warriors.”
Another prominent member of the Thule Society was Heinrich Himmler, who would become head of the S.S. and the Gestapo, as well as the Reich’s interior minister and one of the chief architects of the “Final Solution.” Himmler, together with Wolfram Sievers and others, established the Ancestral Heritage Research and Teaching Society, called Ahnenerbe (“ancestral heritage”) for short. Himmler, as Heather Pringle writes in her book “The Master Plan: Himmler’s Scholars and the Holocaust,” “conceived of this research organization as an elite think tank, a place brimming with brilliant young mavericks and brainy upstarts – up-and-comers who would give traditional science a thorough cleansing.”
The Ahnenerbe sought to transform race theory into a science that would supplant the “Jewish” sciences and provide academic validation for the ancient origins of the Aryans and their supremacy. To that end, the institute organized expeditions of archaeologists, musicologists, philologists and anthropologists to the four corners of the world – from Iran to Tibet to Finland – in a search for evidence. One group, which visited Bolivia, was headed by Edmund Kiss, an amateur archaeologist and later a senior SS officer, who declared that the pyramids of Tiwanaku had been built by Aryans who arrived in the region following the destruction of their native land: Atlantis.
The Ahnenerbe delegations fired the imagination of the creators of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the creators of the “Hellboy” comic books, the writers who introduced the Hydra into the Marvel Comics universe, the designers of the computer game Wolfenstein 3D and many others. Some researchers were also captivated by the connection between, on the one hand, the most efficient machine of war and human annihilation in history, and primal and mythical forces.
The problem with these representations, according to Eric Kurlander, author of “Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich,” is that they make it less likely that we will detect similar threats in the future. “By creating a caricature of Nazi occultism that is outside of all reality, we can’t learn any lessons that might help us anticipate the same kind of problems today,” Kurlander said in an interview to vice.com, at the time of his book’s publication, in 2017. He added, “in times of crisis, supernatural and faith-based thinking masquerading as ‘scientific’ solutions to real problems helps facilitate the worst kind of political and social outcomes.”
Israeli writer Alon Altaras, in his 2018 Hebrew-language novel “The Submarine Nomads,” describes how the Nazis’ identification with Atlantis enables neo-Nazi groups to exploit the subject for their own purposes. But according to historian Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, the real danger lies with “crypto-historians” who take pleasure in the most exotic elements of the Nazis’ preoccupation with the occult and provide a too-convenient answer for the question of the roots of evil. In his book “The Occult Roots of Nazism,” he maintains that the perception of Hitler and his followers as having been driven by dark and hidden forces stems from a wish to see them as merely “an uncanny interlude in modern history,” in which there was a “monstrous pagan relapse in the Christian community of Europe.”
Not everyone in the Nazi Party hierarchy believed in Atlantis, astrology, ice giants or primeval gods. It’s unlikely that Hitler himself was a believer, and attempts to promote such narratives often encountered resistance within the party. However, the desire to ground race theory and occultism by means of scientific methods, to weld the supernatural to the unnatural and thereby forge a new superman, was not limited to a platonic craving for the sublime and with esoteric journeys to jungles and deserts, which today stir more ridicule than fear. Documents submitted in the Nuremberg Trials speak about the bodies of Jews that were slated to be added to the Ahnanerbe’s anthropological collection of skeletons in Strasbourg, and cite a telex sent by Wolfram Sievers asking his superiors what should be done with them in light of the Allies’ advance. (“The collection can be stripped of the flesh and thereby rendered unidentifiable,” he stated. “This, however, would mean that at least part of the whole work had been done for nothing… since it would be impossible to make plaster casts afterward. The skeleton collection as such is inconspicuous.”)
The medical “experiments” performed by the think tank’s staff to ground their theories were not a marginal effort of the war, but one of the most appalling methods for justifying it. The subordination both of magic to the service of science, and mythology to the authority of ideology, played a part in what historian Uriel Tal, in his 2004 book of essays, “Religion, Politics and Ideology in the Third Reich,” calls “political theology,” which rests on the “total revaluation of all values; the apocalyptic condition according to which catastrophe must precede redemption; the struggle between the forces of light and those of darkness.”
But the Nazis did not heed Plato’s ancient warning. The 1,000-year Reich they wished to forge sank, like a mythical island, in the face of the heirs of the ancient democracy of Athens, and their military and technological might was no match for the wrath of the gods embodied by the Allies.
Even as the latter pounded the Nazis at sea, in the air and on land, another force sought to strike them on paper: Aquaman. On a mission from his co-creator, Mort Weisinger, the son of Jewish immigrants from Austria, the superhero made his debut in 1941, rescuing refugees from a German submarine attack, in More Fun Comics #73.
He wasn’t the only superhero to be mobilized for battle by a Jewish artist, of course. Fighting shoulder to shoulder with Aquaman were the super-types who were brought to life by those whom the Nazis classified as subhuman: Superman (created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster), Captain America (by Jacob Kurtzberg, aka Jack Kirby; Hymie, aka Joe, Simon, and Stanley Martin Lieber, aka Stan Lee) and others. The conquest of Atlantis by Nazi occultists resounds with another warning in addition to the one embedded in hubris: the danger of subjugating myth to justify ethos, of coercing the imagination. If we ever forget that, our fate, too, will be to sink like a stone in mighty waters.
The first column in this series was published at the end of 2011; the last one, appearing at the beginning of 2019, encapsulates in large measure my aim in the past seven years: to trace the winding, elusive, stubborn path of those immortal, winged beings – ideas. To follow the cultural evolution that transforms goddesses into witches and aliens into gods, that endows Satan with horns and mermaids with a tail. Through it I tried to track down dormant genes of stories and the heredity of plots, to place under a microscope made of words the narratives encoded in the DNA of human civilization, and to chart their paths.
I was never alone on this quest. This last column is an opportunity to thank its most important partners – its readers – and all those daring and innovative explorers of the realms of the imagination, who responded and shared and corrected and added and enriched. It was my honor and pleasure to be one of you. That’s all, for now. Onwards and upwards.