Jan 19 2011 1:54pm

SFF and the Classical Past, Part 1—Atlantis

Ajax and Achilles dicing before battle. Attic black figure amphora, 6th century BCE.

Few of us realise how deep the roots of the classical past actually reach.

The written history of the Greeks doesn’t go back as far as that of say, Egypt. In fact, Herodotos, in the fifth century BC, thought that the Egyptians were the bees’ knees when it came to any number of things, the antiquity of their records among them. But the writings and art of the ancient Greeks—and their cultural emulators, inheritors, and adaptors, the Romans—have exercised an influence over European culture and imagination which is to all practical purposes unparalleled. Before the twentieth century, literature, art and architecture were saturated with classical allusions, and the so-called “classical education” was de rigueur. Even today, whether or not we realise it, we’re surrounded by classical references.

So perhaps it’s no surprise to find that from Robert E. Howard to the Stargate, SG:A and BS:G television series, elements from Greek and Roman history and mythology have often appeared in science fiction and fantasy. Sometimes it’s been used purposefully, sometimes absentmindedly—and sometimes without anyone even realising that this particular interesting thing had classical roots to begin with.

I’m here to spend a little time talking about those classical elements. Since I’ve already mentioned Stargate, let’s start with the one of most obvious ones: the myth of Atlantis.

In the Atlantic Ocean, the story goes, long ago there was an island outside the Pillars of Hercules, which we today call the Straits of Gibraltar. It was a large island, large as Asia Minor and Libyan Africa combined, and it was ruled by a great dynasty which had conquered much of mainland Europe and Africa. When the Atlanteans reached Greece, Athens stood against them, first as a leader among allies, and later alone. But after coming to the edge of utter disaster, the Athenians recovered and triumphed over the Atlanteans, liberating all the peoples east of the Straits.

Later on, in the course of a single day terrible earthquakes and floods happened, killing the whole body of the fighting men of Athens, and causing Atlantis to sink beneath the seas.

This story is told in the Timaeus of Plato—as a prelude to a discussion of the creation and purpose of the cosmos—and taken up again in his unfinished Critias. The interlocutor, Critias, claims to have heard the tale from his grandfather, who had it from the famous sixth-century lawgiver Solon, who had it from Egyptian priests at Saïs, who’d told him their records went  back nine thousand years to this time. Many notable modern scholars of Plato have suggested that he invented the idea of Atlantis, and the Atlanteans’ struggle with prehistoric Athens, to serve as an allegory for the events of his day, for the Athens of prehistory strongly resembles the imaginary “perfect city” of Plato’s Republic, and the Atlantis of prehistory can be conceived to resemble the Sparta of the fifth century. There’s certainly no evidence that this little tale predates Plato, at any rate, and his successors in antiquity didn’t seem to think he was recounting an elderly myth—but we’re not here to talk about its antecedents.

Its descendents are more than enough for going on with.

Let’s pass lightly over the centuries separating Plato (d. 348/7 BCE) and the modern period until Atlantis first pops up in the genre. (Very lightly, since my knowledge of late antique, medieval and Renaissance adaptations of the myth is scanty. Readers who know more are invited to contribute in comments!)

In Jules Verne’s 1869 novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the narrator Professor Arronax spends Chapter Nine sightseeing (in a diving apparatus) on part of the submerged continent:

“Further on, some remains of a gigantic aqueduct; here the high base of an Acropolis, with the floating outline of a Parthenon; there traces of a quay...” [1992:168]

Really, Atlantis has no business in the narrative except to heighten the sense of wonder of the vast, lost, unknowable depths of the ocean—and leaving aside the offended sensibilities of the modern archaeologist, it does that very well.

From the grandfather of science fiction, we pass (skipping over Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Maracot Deep) to Robert E. Howard’s Kull of Atlantis stories. These use an even further distant imaginary past (one in which Atlantean civilisation has not yet arisen) as their backdrop, and their context—like that of his later creation Conan, descendent of Atlanteans—is a mixture of classical, medieval, and orientalising elements.

In Tolkien’s Númenor, Atlantean echoes abound, and David Gemmell’s Jon Shannow series of novels make use of the Atlantis story. These, and many others, have adapted Atlantis to their own purposes. But the reimagining that looms largest in popular consciousness is Stargate: Atlantis.

Atlantis has been a byword for lost grandeur for centuries. And Stargate in its first television incarnation is, of course, a byword for mythological reimagining. (Ancient gods were pyramid-building evil aliens! Except for the ancient gods who were good aliens! Archaeology and physics are exciting sciences! ...Well, that’s something they did get right.) Stargate’s Atlanteans—the “Ancients”—weren’t merely superior civilised soldiers who had great wealth and maintained a strong military grasp on their territory: these Atlanteans were technologically—to say nothing of metaphysically—advanced superhumans. (A friend of mine pointed out that while the original Stargate series mostly portrayed the Atlanteans as annoyingly superior ascended beings, SG:A, when it dwelt on them, gave a far higher emphasis to their ass-kicking abilities.)

The idea of Atlantis is a fundamentally versatile one, capable of being used as an allegory for warring city-states, as an image of forgotten splendour, or a cautionary tale of decline. But it’s not unique in its versatility, as I hope to show in my next post: classical myth, both in antiquity and in SFF, is very flexible.

Sometimes in more senses than one.

Liz Bourke is reading for a research degree in Classics at Trinity College, Dublin. A longtime SFF fan, she also reviews for

Sean Arthur
1. wsean
"But the reimagining that looms largest in popular consciousness is Stargate: Atlantis."

Goodness. Is it? I'm a nerd, and I don't know the first thing about that show. I can't imagine it has that large an impact in the popular consciousness.

Surely the most impactful reimagining is Edgar Cayce? High tech super advanced ancient civilization, tragically destroyed by their own hubris. Refugees fleeing the disaster, thus ensuring the Atlantean bloodlines continued. All the usual stuff.
Liz Bourke
2. hawkwing-lb
Sadly, I must expose my ignorance. I had to google to figure out who Edgar Cayce is. (And learned in the process that he understood himself to not be talking about fiction, which is rather outside my remit.)

SG:A is quite popular, I think it's safe to say.
Liz Bourke
3. hawkwing-lb
And today is also my day to forget to sign my comments.

- Liz Bourke
Tex Anne
4. TexAnne
SG:A looms second-largest in my imagination. The biggest influence on my ideas of Atlantis is The Story of the Amulet, with of course H.R. Millar's brilliant pictures. So as a result Atlantis has domes of electrum, not Tiffany windows on steroids.
Sean Arthur
5. wsean
Good point, on him not thinking it was fictional. Or at least claiming not to be talking about something fictional. ;)

I'll have to take your word on Stargate. And maybe I'm only exposing my own cultural ignorance.
David Levinson
6. DemetriosX
Atlantis (and its close cousins Mu and Lemuria) was very popular not just with Edgar Cayce, but also the entire Theosophical movement (Madame Blavatsky), turn of the century spiritualists, and occultists. Why not? It was a great source of "lost wisdom". It was such a part of the cultural dialog that the weird writers of the early to mid 20th century - Lovecraft, Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and many others - tossed it into their mix.

That's basically how it got into the DNA of SF. Even as late as the 1950s it could still crop up seriously. Lester del Rey's Attack from Atlantis is a good example. By the 60s, it had been coopted by the proto-Newagers and so fell somewhat out of favor. You'd still see it used ironically or as a call-back to the literature of the 30s, but rarely seriously.

And I, too, will confess my ignorance of all things Stargate.
Cori Hull
7. yarnandtea
Hmm, I wonder if your friend maybe got it flipped about the Stargate portrayal of the Ancients? Usually SG1 tended to look to the Ancients (or original inhabitants of Atlantis) as fonts of knowledge and advanced technology and hoped to meet and learn from them (which is why they mounted the expedition to Atlantis in the first place). On SGA though once they were actually living in the city and meeting the occasional ascended Ancient (or a few who were still around because of a glitch with their spaceships) they really stopped revering them so much and started to realize how fallible they were. The whole premise of SGA was kind of, oh, hey, look we get to clean up the Ancients' mess, since they created this horrible race of beings who is eating all of the humans in the galaxy and then ran away.

Just saying. Sorry. Huge Stargate nerd. I'll go back in my corner now.

(Also, I would guess she is calling it the largest-looming because it is the most recent, and only example that I can think of, television series based entirely around the discovery and occupation of the lost city.)
Ginger Tansey
8. Ginger
I am not as familiar with SG:A (no longer watch much television), but as a huge fan of Robert E. Howard, yes, Atlantis was the sexiest of sexy legends, looming out of the mists of time.

I look forward to the next post! History is fun.
Pamela Adams
9. PamAdams
Heck, even Heinlein did a 'descendants of Atlantis' story- Lost Legacy.
10. Pendard
As long as we're throwing out references to Atlantis in sci-fi, classic Doctor Who showed the destruction of Atlantis in "The Time Monster," and mixed in the story of the Minotaur.
11. Wathira
The thing that made me originally notice the story of Atlantis was the Disney movie Atlantis: The Lost Empire. I loved that movie and think it would be a really good idea if Disney did a live action version. The visual effects were amazing and would look awesome in 3-D, just for the record ;). There is a parallel with Atlantis and Numenor in The Silmarillion, and the similarity comes up in one of the special features in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Extended Edition. Although I do not know of any references before the nineteenth century, there were probably definitely at least a few. Even opera teemed with classical themes and they were more common back then, maybe more so than when Verne wrote 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
12. goodfellow_puck
Heh, I have to say I'm amused that an article about the vast, sometimes hidden, influence of the Ancient Greeks, instead of Ancient Egyptians, focuses on Stargate. You know, a series first and foremost focused on Ancient Egyptian mythos. I realize it's referencing the Atlantis spin-off, but still not the most clear cut example of Ancient Greeks beating Egyptians in Euro-based pop culture. ;)
Gabriele Campbell
13. G-Campbell
@ Pendard, the Minotaur got in when Evans excavated the Minoan palace of Knossos, and Crete and Santorin joined the list of possible candidates for Atlantis. That palace is full of bull references (statues, frescoes) and may have given rise to the Minotaur myth.

Stephen Lawhead connected the Minoan bull dancers with Atlantis, and Atlantis with the Holy Grail in his Arthur novels. The Fisher King as exile from Atlantis and other fun. It's some time I read those novels and I don't remember if he actually mentions the legend of Lyonesse, the lost realm at the coast of Cornwall, but it would certainly fit.

Atlantis is only the best known of several - usually more local - legends of realms that disappeared in the sea: Lyonesse, Kêr Ys, Vineta, Tartessos, Cantre'r Gwaelod, Llys Helig ....

Vineta is the Atlantis of the Baltic Sea and its possible location as disputed. Which leads to several German towns along the coast having their Vineta festivals every summer. Those that lucked out got Claus Störtebekker festivals instead, featuring our most famous pirate. *grin*
David Levinson
14. DemetriosX
@13: The best argument for the location of Vineta that I've seen puts it near Barth in Meck-Pom. Along with geography and archaeology, both names seem to have something to do with beehives. The North Sea also has the highly factual Rungholt, which sank beneath the waves in 1634 (Trutz, Blanke Hans.)
15. Juliette Harrisson
I always think Atlantis doesn't crop up as often as I expect it to - after a year and a half of blogging on Classics in popular culture, I haven't yet posted on it as far as I remember (I nearly did for World Oceans Day last year, but I need to re-read Stephen Lawhead first). Though that's probably mainly because I've only watched SG-1, and hardly any Atlantis! :)
Liz Bourke
16. hawkwing-lb
@12: The Greeks almost never beat the Egyptians in popular culture. Haven't since the great European 'rediscovery' of the 19th century, at least. (Paris got a nice Egyptian obelisk in 1833, London in 1878, and New York in 1881. I think they probably only stuck with obelisks because the actual pyramids were too hard to move.) But things Egyptian are a little easier to spot.

@7: You might be right. (You're certainly right about why I chose to call SG:A largest-looming: it's recent, and the franchise was reasonably popular.)
17. Kat Allen
@12: I dunno, after Daniel returned there was already a lot of clearing up after the Ancients/ascended beings going on, majorly in the form of stopping Anubis etc. I think I'd describe the Atlantis mission as being more in line with the original aims of the SGA - go forth and bring back cool tech - but as it was the "lost" city they figured they could do that without folk like the Asgard being there to call them primative and keep the good toys out of reach. In SG-1 the gate-builders built gates and had some neat weapons platforms and knowledge repositories no ordinary human could use, oh and a healing device that made people zombies... In Pegasus they had fleets of massive warships, defence satellites, various forms of WMD including the replicators (who they then wiped out from space, just not well enough) and conducted a literal hundred years war against overwhelming numbers of wraith. If the ascended beings were annoying in their hands-off approach to the Milky Way, in Pegasus they even had planetary-scale experiments in manipulating human societies (that Shepherd and McKay mistake for a sims game) . They kicked ass and built an empire, and that they also created their own doom pretty much mirrors what Stargate SG-1 started and SGA took darker -- Shepherd wakes the Wraith and they find out about the new feeding ground and in trying to get rid of the Wraith the team do various minor damages and also set the replicators going again and create Michael... Every action has an equal but opposite reaction :) Even the Asgard end up dooming themselves... the only people who appear to be going through multiple millenia undoomed are the Nox. Which reminds me a tad of classical mythology too.
18. Kat Allen
Nice post - made me think... and want to go check out some old mythologies (as well as watching the new). More please!
Gabriele Campbell
19. G-Campbell
@ Demetrios,
I must admit that no location has truly convinced me. For a town that size there should be remains, esp. since timber conserves well in the Baltic Sea. And no one has heard those bells either. ;) I think it's a legend, probably influenced by a great flood that did indeed destroy some settlements. There may be a layer of legends that connects Vineta and Llys Helig, Kêr Ys and Cantre'r Gwaelod (they have motives in common) and that may have been used to ground vague memories and present fears - because floods are always a danger - in a story.

For my NiP, I plop the thing down near Rügen because that's where I need it. *grin*

I consider Atlantis to be a legend as well. Plato may have been influenced by stories about the collapse of the Minoan culture after that volcano blew up and caused a tsunami to boot. He then invented an Aegypt source because everything Aegypt was cool and exotic already at his time, and places Atlantis outside the Pillars of Heracles which were the boundary of the known world.

@ Hawkwing,
Aegypt held up to the Greek already in Roman times. There are Isis temples in Gaul and at the Rhine, ushebti figures in Celtic graves in Noricum, and even dedication inscriptions to Isis bearing Germanic names.
20. filkferengi
Don't forget Andre Norton's standalone Atlantis novel _Operation Time Search_ and Marion Zimmer Bradley's Atlantis series, _Web of Light_ and _Web of Darkness_.
Clark Myers
21. ClarkEMyers
Rumor says Drake's Isles series is a rif on Atlantis more publishable if you don't call it Atlantis.
22. Tehanu
Patricia Keneally-Morrison's trilogy starting with The Copper Crown is about the descendants of the Atlanteans (via Ireland) having an empire in space.
Liz Bourke
23. hawkwing-lb
Sorry for taking so long to come back and read comments again.

@19: I know. Egypt has been coded as exotic for a very long time. And has also been popular. (And Isis and Sarapis are a very interesting case of what happens when cultures meet - but since I can bore for Ireland on the topic of Isis in Hellenistic Greece, I should probably refrain.)
Ian Gazzotti
24. Atrus
One of my favourite takes on Atlantis is still Fushigi no umi no Nadia / The secret of Blue Water, Gainax's pre-Evangelion greatist hit. The fact that it's also a big riff on Jules Verne and old UFO movies makes it all the better.

Atlantis, its war with Mu, and their various leftovers around the world are also a big part of the italian comic book Martin Mystère (though I think in the US you only got the crappy cartoon adaptation).

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