Page images
PDF
EPUB

The Prince of Monaco conducted a scientific expedition into these waters in 1905, and in 1911 the United States Hydrographic Service sent a party of scientists for a three months' study of them; but adequate knowledge is still wanting.

There is a Sargasso question: How does the weed get into the sea? The old theory was that it is a true oceanic plant. To those who held to the belief in a sunken continent the grassy domain was a sort of canopy suspended over it, the flying banners of the lost Atlantis. There is still good scientific opinion of which the French are the leaders, that the weed grows in the area where it is found, reproducing itself by fissure, the parent stem throwing off branches which multiply in turn. The bulk of scientific opinion outside of France is that these meadows of the sea are the spoil of the neighboring islands and continents. The gulfweed which covers them, it is held, has been torn from the shores of northern Brazil, of the West Indies, and of North America as far as Cape Cod, and has drifted into this vortexa journey that may take almost half a year. The French contend that even without these admitted contributions from Amer. ica there would still be a weedy sea about the Tropic of the Crab.

From time to time commercial enterprise has canvassed the possibilities of a Sargasso adventure. It may be that a profitable fishery will yet be established there with the Azores for its base, and that the kelp will be converted into potash for fertilizer or for gunpowder. Thus would the arts of war and peace draw support from the sea, that, if legend speaks truly, sleeps over the continent which spread them through the antediluvian world.

Chapter XX. Atlantis

UNDER the Sargasso Sea, if a few accomplished thinkers, a somewhat larger number of speculative scientists, and a host of dreamers are right, lies the lost Atlantis. This legend of a continent beyond the Pillars of Hercules, which reached a high level of civilization, extended its rule along both shores of the Mediterranean, sent its armies to battle with Egypt and Athens, and “in a day and a fatal night” sank beneath the sea eleven thousand years ago, is the most haunting and poignant thing that has come down from antiquity.

The story derives from Plato, who attributes it to his relative, Solon, who had it from a priest of Egypt. It is told briefly and completely in the Timæus and with much greater detail in the Critias; unfortunately, the latter portion of this work is wanting and the narrative ends abruptly, before recounting the cataclysm outlined in the earlier work. Both are built upon the conversation between Solon and the Egyptian priest. Discoursing on the ignorance of the Greeks concerning their own history, the priest said that they knew nothing of a thing which was preserved in the sacred books of the temple at Sais—that, nine thousand years before, the Athenians had repelled an invading force which threatened the conquest of Europe and Asia. This force had come in through the Straits of Gibraltar from the Atlantic Sea, "which was at that time navigable.”

Beyond the Straits, according to the Timæus, lay the island of Atlantis, greater than Libya and Asia (Minor) together. Other islands surrounded it, and farther west was a continent. Between Atlantis and this continent rolled an ocean so great that, compared with it, the land-locked Mediterranean was merely a harbor. A powerful dynasty of kings arose on the island, subjugated the surrounding archipelagoes and a part of the unnamed continent beyond, and in the Old World swayed Libya up to Egypt and the northern shore of the Mediterranean as far as Tuscany. They undertook to complete their conquest of the Mediterranean coasts, but the Athenians, though deserted by their allies, beat off their ships. While the fleet from beyond the Straits was still in the Inland Sea, it would seem, the island of Atlantis was sunk, and the earthquakes that submerged it and the monstrous waves that followed spread ruin all along the Mediterranean shores.

Here is the passage in which Plato records the concluding words of the priest of Solon: “But after (the battle) there occurred violent earthquakes and floods, and in a single day and night of rain all your warlike men in a body sunk into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared and was sunk beneath the sea. And that is the reason why the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is such a quantity of shallow mud in the way; and this was caused by the subsidence of the island. ... There are remaining in small islets only the bones of the wasted body, as they may be called, all the richer and softer parts of the soil having fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the country being left.”

The longer account in the Critias describes the civilization of Atlantis. It begins, as all chronicles used to do, with the affairs of the gods, and their amorous interest in the daughters of men (Gen. vi: 2). The sea god Poseidon fell in love with Cleito, a mortal island maiden, and she bore him five sets of twins. The ten sons became kings, each ruler of a tenth part of Atlantis, but all subject to the eldest son, Atlas. The capital of the island became his abode, as it had been his mother's before him. Poseidon himself had laid out the palace compound, making alternate zones of sea and land; "there were two of land and three of water which he turned as with a lathe out of the center of the island.”

At this point in the account, the divine figures disappear and it becomes seemingly a straight historical narrative. Its picture of the capital is more exact in its topographical, architectural, and engineering detail than many that have come down to us of the older capitals of Asia, or than any biblical picture of Jerusalem. The laws, religion, and arts of the people are all adequately noticed.

There was a barrier of lofty mountains around the shores of the island, their flanks sloping precipitously to the sea. In the upland valleys were rich and populous villages. The middle of the island was a great and fertile plain surrounded by a ditch one hundred feet deep. Abundant rivers coursed the plain and the moisture of the rainy season was supplemented in the summer by a system of aqueducts. In the center of the plain was a magnificent city.

Assuming that this is no dream geography, it is necessary to determine the size of Atlantis, and in doing so to reconcile a conflict of statements in Plato's story. He speaks of it as a large island, though small as compared with a land domain west of it, which may be most truly called a continent”; yet he says Atlantis was larger than Libya and Asia combined. The tale becomes incredible if Libya receives its common Greek extension as the whole of Africa, and if Asia is taken in the larger sense; for such an island there would not be room in the Atlantic. The passage is brought into harmony with the context if other ancient definitions are followed, so that Libya is made to mean the district immediately west of Egypt and Asia to mean Asia Minor. This would give the legendary Atlantis a territory of perhaps three hundred thousand square miles, or about twice that of the state of California.

There are precise figures for the great central plain and they harmonize with such an estimate of the island area. The plain was three hundred and forty miles long by two hundred and thirty wide-in other words, exactly the size of the state of Washington, but with its greater dimension from south to north. The topography of the whole island suggests that of California, although its shape was more compact. Its central plain lay within its mountain barriers as the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys lie between the Sierras and the Coast Range. And in its mineral riches, its mild climate, its system of irrigation, and in the products of its fields, orchards, and vineyards it was very like the Pacific coast state.

“Whatever fragrant things there are in the earth,” says Plato, "whether roots or herbage or woods, grew and thrived in that land." He mentions melons—"fruits with a hard rind”-chestnuts, and “the pleasant kinds of dessert which console us after dinner when we are full and tired of eating,” which may mean, among other things, grapes and oranges; and all these “the sacred island lying beneath the sun brought forth fair and wondrous in infinite abundance.” In this picture there is but one unfamiliar figure. Herds of elephants roved there, where California can show only the fossil remains of the mastodon.

In the account of the capital city it is illuminating to recur to the Pacific state, for the metropolis of Atlantis lay in the midst of a mountain-girdled plain, and yet, like Sacramento, had access to the sea, in this case by a ship canal perhaps connecting with a river. If one can imagine the buildings and grounds of the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915 with the wharves and commerce of San Francisco removed to Sacramento, one may glimpse the legendary metropolis. In the center of the city, on an artificial island, were temples and palaces like those of the exposition, but of a barbaric splendor. Greatest of these was the temple to Poseidon, a structure about as large as one of the palaces surrounding the Court of the Universe at the exposition, and doubtless of no greater height, for this was a region of earthquake, and within the temple was one statue that reached quite to the roof. Its walls were silvered, with gilded pinnacles, and under the ivory roof the interior blazed with gold and silver and “orichalcum”-copper, or an alloy of it, and esteemed next to gold.

The wall that encircled this inner island or citadel "flashed with the red light of orichalcum.” There was a broad canal around it, and then an encircling zone of land, about which was a wall sheeted with tin. Around this was still another canal en- . circled by another land zone, and here was a wall coated with brass, beside which ran a racecourse two hundred yards wide where horses contended. Encircling this again was the outermost canal. Beyond it lay the city.

The buildings of the outer city, as well as those of its sacred citadel, were of stones in three colors—white, black and redwhich, with all the minerals useful to man, were taken from the bosom of the island. There were hot and cold springs, with baths and with pools for horses and cattle; the surplus water was conveyed by aqueducts to the grove of Poseidon. Around the harbor front were docks, triremes, and naval stores. Back of them the plain was densely crowded with habitations. The

« PreviousContinue »