The Harmful Pseudoarchaeology of Mythological Atlantis

cropped cover to Lost City Explorers #1, Aftershock Comics

Having made its recent debut, Lost City Explorers is a brand new comic series by Aftershock Comics. In this series, siblings Helen and Homer Coates find themselves reeling from the sudden death of their archaeologist father, Dr. Tom Coates, who they believe has died in an underground work accident. That is until they find out from a former colleague of his that he didn’t die in an accident, as they were told, but rather disappeared after opening up a doorway into a city hidden beneath New York City. After searching their father’s basement office, Helen and Homer find out that the hidden city their father was searching for just might be the city of Atlantis. Together, and with help from partners and friends June, Maddi, and Edwin, the siblings set off to find out the truth behind their father’s disappearance and find out if Atlantis really exists. Atlantis has a long history of mystery, adventure, and exploration behind it, and it’s exciting to imagine this legendary city sitting underneath New York City! But Atlantis has another history, a darker history, that readers might not know about. And it’s this history of racism and colonialism that we really need to be aware of. Now that Atlantis is back in the forefront of comics thanks to Aquaman and the rumored forthcoming appearance of Namor in the MCU, it’s time to talk about it, and how the popularization of a historical Atlantis was motivated by racist ideologies of the 19th century.

This article is not an indictment of the comic itself, its creators, or even the inclusion of Atlantis. Rather, its purpose is to challenge the unquestioning acceptance of a particular kind of historical Atlantis, which has implications far beyond the imaginative. The overall storyline is a fun, adventurous read. If you’re interested in comics full of adventure, myth, and exploration than you’ll like Lost City Explorers. The characters are diverse and enjoyable, and the illustrations simple but effective. There was just enough detail in each page to give you the sense of a cityscape, office building, subway, cavern, etc. without going overboard into details that could distract you from what was happening. And where you needed extra artistic detail (e.g. anything related to Tom Coates’s work and Atlantis, such as the walls in Coates’s office in issues #1 and #2 with detailed drawings of maps and artifacts), it was there.

Page from Lost City Explorers #1, Aftershock Comics

For the most part, I liked that the extra details were seemingly used in a way to connect the storyline to reality and encourage readers to become their own researchers. For example, many of the detailed images of maps and artifacts we see on the walls of Coates’s office have actually been used by explorers, historians, and authors engaged in the search for Atlantis. Other details, however, served as stark reminder of the colonialist uses of Atlantis, such as the depiction of a human skull wearing a First Nations headdress in issue #5, which made it difficult for me to truly get lost in the storyline.

This is why we really need to talk about Atlantis itself. It is, after all, the core of the series. And it’s a bit problematic. As an archaeologist who spends a lot of my time examining pseudoarchaeology, the myth of Atlantis is a story I’m quite familiar with. Most people are, thanks to things like Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire, DC’s Aquaman, and the popular television show Stargate: Atlantis, in addition to other documentaries and books produced about the city. But there’s one important fact about Atlantis’s history which is conveniently left out of the books and documentaries — Atlantis was never a real city. And because of growing concerns around the increase in misappropriations of the past by nationalistic and supremacist movements in particular, this is a fact archaeologists are paying more attention to and trying to make better known.

Atlantis comes from the writings of Greek philosopher Plato. Sometime between 380 and 360 B.C., Plato wrote The Republic, Timaeus, and Critias. All of these books feature fictional, allegorical conversations in which Plato, Greek philosopher Socrates, and a few other characters discuss the state of justice as a thought experiment. A “what if” conversation. What if Athens is the perfect society, the pinnacle of justice? What if there existed a city that was the exact opposite of Athens, what would it be like? That’s where Atlantis comes in, invented by Plato as the antithesis to Athens. Atlantis is described as having been technologically advanced, orderly, and law-abiding in its early days when it belonged to the god Poseidon. But over time as the city began to grow it became corrupt and unruly. Wanting to expand their empire, the Atlanteans began to spread out and conquered parts of Libya, Egypt, and Europe. But the mighty Athenians lead a resistance against the disorderly Atlanteans, beating them and liberating the occupied lands. After the Gods decided that Atlanteans had lost their way, they sent three powerful earthquakes to Atlantis and the city sank and disappeared into the ocean.

So if the city of Atlantis was always a fictional story, what changed? Why today do we think Atlantis was a real place? It’s a transformation spanning several centuries, beginning with Europeans finding out about the Americas and culminating in Ignatius Donnelly’s Atlantis: The Antediluvian World.

Image by Stephanie Halmhofer

When Donnelly published Atlantis: The Antediluvian World in 1882, Atlantis was truly transformed from myth into reality. Inspired by the works of archaeologists, historians, and scholars before him, Donnelly was convinced Atlantis was real and he was determined to add some science to the argument to convince everyone that it was real. The purpose of Atlantis: The Antediluvian World was not to reveal Donnelly had found the ruins of Atlantis, because he hadn’t. Instead it was more of a “Hear me out for a moment” kind of book. Donnelly made 13 claims about Atlantis, all revolving around his core theory that human civilization had originated in Atlantis (in fact, this was literally #3 on his list). But his idea of “civilization” only included select nations around the world (#4 on the list). He described how his evidence from fields including geology, botany, history, linguistics, and archaeology could link these nations to Atlantis. If these theories could be proven true, Donnelly said, then the mystery behind the origins of human civilization would be solved. As an added bonus, the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis would also be be proven true (“antediluvian” means “the time before the biblical flood”). And since not a lot was known about human origins at this point in time, it was an easy argument to buy. Atlantis: The Antediluvian World quickly became hugely popular and built the foundation for the Atlantis theories we see today.

Donnelly had laid the groundwork on how and where to find the proof that Atlantis had not only existed, but that it was the origin of human civilization. He called on others to take up the challenge to find the physical proof of his claims, and many did. Unfortunately, Atlantis became intertwined with human evolution and the idea of superior (those descended from Atlanteans) versus inferior (those not descended from Atlanteans) nations. In 1888 Helena Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society, published The Secret Doctrine, which was inspired by Donnelly’s arguments with an added splash of esotericism and spiritualism. In The Secret Doctrine, Blavatsky discussed her theories of evolution and what she called the “root races”, in which Atlantis was considered the fourth root race. She believed Atlanteans were the ancestors to the fifth and most superior race – the Aryans.

The Secret Doctrine had been drafted with help from Edward Fawcett, whose brother Percy Fawcett disappeared in 1925 while searching the Amazon for the city of Z, which he believed was a colony of Atlantis. In the early 1930’s, Edgar Cayce claimed to have been able to psychically connect to what Theosophists called the Akashic Records, which allowed him to see detailed images of Atlantis and Atlanteans. Atlantis also played a large role in 1930’s Nazi Germany when Heinrich Himmler and Herman Wirth founded the Institute for the Study of Atlantis. The institute’s purpose was to find proof Atlantis had once existed to prove the superiority of the Aryan race, because Himmler believed Blavatsky’s claims about Atlantis. Today, Atlantis and the idea of hyperdiffusion is still continually brought up in both discussions looking for explanations of the achievements of people in the past and discussions of nationalistic superiority.

Comics and graphic novels impact society. They can reflect current trends, interests, and issues in society and also draw interest to trends, interests, and issues in society in an almost cyclical relationship. As interest in a topic rises, it appears more often in comics. In turn, that increased appearance of a topic in comics will draw the attention of those who might not know much about it. Comics can also become positive learning tools and foster critical thinking skills of their readers. This becomes especially important as comics and graphic novels today are concerned with accuracy, whether through accurately portraying a historical event or the cultural and societal experiences of their characters. That’s why, after knowing about the racist and colonialist history of the myth of the city of Atlantis, it became difficult for me to appreciate the way Atlantis was presented in Lost City Explorers.

From Brasseur de Bourbourg and Le Plongeon to Donnelly and Blavatsky and the modern theories of today, we see direct reference to and inspiration from these pseudoarchaeological arguments throughout Lost City Explorers. Most notably in Coates’s journal entries at the back of each issue, describing “evidence” for the existence of Atlantis in a style very similar to Donnelly’s Antediluvian World. The problem is that these theories were built off the idea of one group of people being superior to another. Early Atlantis proponents like de Sigüenza y Góngora, Brasseur de Bourbourg, and Le Plongeon all laid the groundwork for Donnelly by claiming that there was no way the Indigenous peoples of Mexico could be responsible for their own incredible architecture and mythologies. They erased and rewrote the histories of Mexico to incorporate Atlantis, because Atlantis was easier to believe than the fact that Indigenous peoples were responsible for their own histories.

Donnelly expanded these ideas even further in his book, the ideas of which become part of the storyline in Lost City Explorers. In fact, we see direct reference to this idea of cultural erasure through a statement from Coates’s colleague Dr. Leigh Whipple in the very first issue, who tells Helen and Maddi that there was an ancient civilization on Manhattan “even before Native Americans settled here.” Now that the Lenape and Wappinger Nations histories have been erased, readers are able to use the information in the journal entries to understand a new history, one that is designed to lead them to believe Atlantis is underneath Manhattan.

Just like Donnelly, the five journal entries are drawing together various lines of evidence and trying to find some connection between them to convince the readers that Atlantis was real. For example, entry one suggests the idea of shared traits by arguing that cultures all around the world have similar stories regarding earthquakes and floods (the idea of shared memory is #5 on Donelly’s list). Other lost cities are mentioned, like Brasseur de Bourbourg’s Mu, and Lemuria, which was described by Blavatsky in The Secret Doctrine as being the third root race and ancestral to Atlantis. The entry also includes mention that Egyptian fables and First Nations myths share too many details to be coincidence (Donnelly’s #7 states that Egyptian and Peruvian mythology represent the original religion of Atlantis), and shared beliefs revolving around floods (Donnelly’s #13) are mentioned repeatedly throughout the five journal entries.. The entries attempt to tie these all to Plato’s description of Atlantis, stating we must take his accounts at face value and that the use of science will help fill in the blanks to prove these accounts true (#2 on Donelly’s list).

Page from Lost City Explorers #1, Aftershock Comics

And we do see lots of talk of real-life science in the entries being used to support the storyline. Gluons and electro-magnetic radiation (mentioned in journal entry one) are real fields of scientific study. Dr. Masaru Emoto (mentioned in journal entry five) was a real researcher who actually conducted research, which has now been discredited, into the effect of vibrations on water molecules and who claimed water could react to human consciousness. As I mentioned earlier, many of the maps shown in Coates’s office at the end of issue #1 and beginning of issue #2 were developed and used by real historians and explorers looking for Atlantis. Honestly, I think it’s really cool that Lost City Explorers strives for accuracy in their pages. But that’s also what frustrates me. The comic writers put in a lot of effort to include actual science and theories about Atlantis. But in Lost City Explorers it doesn’t matter that these theories are all pseudoscientific and pseudohistorical, what matters is that they’re being presented to the readers as legitimate. And the writers add legitimacy to them by presenting them alongside legitimate scientific fields of study, like gluons and electro-magnetic radiation. If readers spend even a little bit of time of Google, it becomes easy to believe Lost City Explorers is based on truth. In fact, in 2018 57% of Americans believed ancient, highly advanced civilizations like Atlantis once existed. And because these theories now appear to be legitimate, it becomes easier to ignore the cultural erasure, colonialism, and racism they have contributed to.

My disappointment in Lost City Explorers is in the way the line between fiction and non-fiction is being blurred and opening the door of misinformation for their readers. I find myself thinking a lot about how comics in North America have a history of reflecting the world around them. Wonder Woman in the 1940’s and 50’s reflected the women’s rights movements of the time, as did Captain Marvel in the 1970’s. The introduction of the X-Men in 1963 reflected the Civil Rights Movement. Like many other comics, Lost City Explorers is simply reflecting the world we live in. We live in an incredibly diverse society, and in response we see wonderfully diverse characters in this series. But we also live in a society which finds itself still under the shadow of colonialism, where history continues to be challenged, erased, and retold. We see that reflected in the 57% of Americans who believe in the existence of civilizations like Atlantis, and in response we see a comic series about Atlantis built off the very theories which give us that 57%.

Now that Lost City Explorers is being adapted for television, we’ll see even more of that 57% being reached by these stories. Comics aren’t static; they’re changing and readapting themselves all the time. My hope is that creators spend some time learning a bit more about Atlantis as they move along, and re-adapt their stories to be more conscientious of the ways in which Atlantis has been used through history. Because detaching Atlantis from this history perpetuates the harms it has caused. Talk to archaeologists and historians, as there are many of us who would genuinely love to talk about Atlantis. Because there’s no reason comic creators can’t use Atlantis in both an entertaining and conscientious way. For example, why not put Atlantis in its own universe? It doesn’t need to be used as a justification for the awesomeness of people. Atlantis sounds like an awesome city in and of itself, so why not give it its own world to exist within? Like Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

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Stephanie Halmhofer

Stephanie Halmhofer

I'm an archaeologist in Canada! I'm currently working on my PhD, focused on how cults use archaeology and pseudoarchaeology to build and support their mythical and mystical origins, and if pop culture has any influence over that. I'm also a big pop culture nerd - I love movies, books, video games, and comics, especially those involving archaeology, cults, the occult, sci-fi, fantasy, and adventure. She/her.