On Atlantis and Columbus
Before ever there was an Atlantic to be crossed, there was an Atlantis to be conquered. Though we Americans are the beneficiaries of the combined accomplishment of the two feats, we tend not to focus on both as we should. Unfortunately, our attention is somewhat uncoupled on this matter and we can’t adequately realign it to fit our present needs. Of these two remarkable events by which the west was won and modernity defined, the second is given short shrift. Indeed, our attention lays upon the former to the near-exclusion of the latter. My argument, ever for the advancement of the unacknowledged and the underdog over whom we continually gaze, is that each is of immense import.
First, however, we review that feat with which we’re all most familiar. Familiarity, though, at least in my application of it, might be too neutral a term—one incapable of capturing in seven syllables the endless invectives by which this particular event has come to be surrounded. More than merely familiar, it’s the feat—especially at this truculent moment at the mid-point of October—by which we’re most contentiously aroused. Perhaps what’s said to be true of acquaintances can also be applied to conversations and to topics; familiarity becomes the breeding ground for contempt. We step into this fetid atmosphere and engage, if only in passing, with the topic of Columbus Day and the man by whom the beleaguered holiday was inspired.
A discussion of the advent of European settlers to the American continent is one always productive of tension. This wasn’t always the case, but certainly it is so today. Nothing, at least for this single week of the year, is quite as polarizing as that expedition which occurred in 1492—that annus mirabilis after which the world began to open and turn. Although I’m not naturally a man inclined to such discord nor disputation over fifteenth-century faits accompli, I find in this gap of opinion between which we all float nothing unworthy of a civil discussion. So long as we explore our past with proper circumspection and restraint (that is, in a way somewhat contrary to the approach by which those early Europeans came upon these shores), a plunge into this hemisphere’s history is bound to cause some dissent. But the descent is of great and abiding value, and we must take it when we can.
The Atlantic Ocean was crossed in the year 1492 (a statement of history with whose veracity we won’t dare to contend) but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t also crossed much earlier. American by birth and temperament but Hibernian by ancestral inheritance, I like to think that the Irish monastics of the fifth-century, as opposed to the Spanish hidalgos of the fifteenth, were the first to have made the tempestuous passage from the Old World to the New. Filled with the winds of missionary zeal and inspired by a literal belief in the truly “catholic” nature of the presence and practice of Christ, these Irish monks set sail to make converts of pagans all over the world.
Most “Columbus-like” of these inchoate Celtic explorers was the legendary churchman and seaman, St. Brendan (lamentably, most church fathers of our day express their semen in different, far more deleterious ways). As the French writer and antiquarian Ernest Renan noted in his encomium on the children of Erin, St. Brendan’s was a spirit of unnatural devotion and extraordinary daring. He was, as proved by the multiple maritime endeavors of which he was in command, as pious as he was ambitious; as faithful as he’s now fabled. He led on regular pilgrimages around the Scottish archipelagos and the foreboding Irish seas an ardently-religious armada of Hibernian monks. These robed Irish eremites, crammed in their woven leather ships and imbued with the Lord’s holy ghost, found in their pursuits of heaven and new lands no obstacles by which their saintly efforts might be stalled.
This, of course, came at a time when Atlantic navigation was in its infant stage.
Nevertheless, St. Brendan succeeded in begetting a noble pursuit in whose seaborne wake many explorers and Christians later followed. The footprints of his tireless piety, revealed in the form of monasteries of which he was the unquestioned founder, were left on nearly every shore upon which he alighted. And, if the dissemination of a message is the sole criterion by which a missionary is to be judged, St. Brendan must be placed alongside that famous Syrian-Jewish apostate—that Damascene epileptic whom we’ve canonized as St. Paul.
What are we to make of this? Shorn of our ancestral bias and our inherent love of that emerald land, can we conclude with any degree of confidence that St. Brendan did in fact reach the American continent before anyone else? Suggestively, the master Renan, in his Poetry of the Celtic Races, offers a response that leans enticingly toward the affirmative.
“Did they”, he asks with wonted eloquence, “not have a glimpse too of that great land, the vague memory of which seems to pursue them, and which Columbus was to discover, following the traces of their dreams?” Perhaps I need not be so explicit, but that great land of which he speaks was, and doubtless still is, America. The Frenchman’s sympathy for the United States, first lit during our Revolution, is present in him.
While the historicity of St. Brendan’s American landing is uncertain, that of Leif Erikson is not. Son of the rubicund Erik the Red, Leif Erikson (get it—Erik-son?) was an Icelandic explorer living in the eleventh-century after Christ. Indubitably, and to the great merit of that humble, frigid island about which little has been spoken since, Iceland gets the award for having been the first European state to send to that terra incognita across the Atlantic one of its own helmet-clad Viking sons. We thank her, with the collective gratitude of centuries yet to come and those since passed, for that ageless endeavor of which she was an initial and exuberant sponsor.
Landing at what was to be named “Vinland” (presumably for the fertility of its soil and the possible production of the grapes for that most Bacchic and Nordic of drinks), Erikson was awe-struck at what he found. The land was surprisingly vast, the climate invitingly familiar. The fisheries were temptingly rife, and the air—once filtered through the pliant whiskers of his gallant Norse beard—was virginal, vibrant, and pure. It was another, far more capacious world than that from which he came. Unlike that small, rather constrictive Icelandic island on which he was raised, that land beyond whose furthest boundaries most dared not reach, upon descrying the landscape of his newly-minted Vinland, the horizons and the land seemed interminable. No thought of its actual breadth could then be fathomed, nor would it be for many centuries to come.
Importantly, Leif Erikson wasn’t eager to pursue the idea of just how far inland he might ultimately trek. The coast and the convenience of the trade winds were more conducive to the extension of his own life and his crew’s loyalty. Indeed, the former was reliant on the latter. Minnesotans, confounding their football with their founder, tend to believe that Erikson, weary of these coastlines and insensate to the concerns of his crewmen and the northern chills, went so far westward as to arrive at their state. It was then, upon reaching Minnesota, that he stopped, turned around, and headed back east. This part of the story is unlikely, but that doesn’t mean the state should discharge from its sporting heritage that virile Viking logo and the weight of its team name. We grant its hearty citizens, inured both to reason and to season, to winter and to facts, this apocryphal belief—if only they leave to me my St. Brendan.
Colonization, especially in the Middle Ages, appears to have been a wearisome and logistically daunting task. What’s certain is that it proved not to be one in which Leif Erikson wanted for the rest of his life to be engaged. Thus, he left no lasting impression upon the continent for who’s founding he’s mostly responsible. That task, for better or worse, would be left to the Spaniards by whom he was succeeded—nearly five-hundred years hence.
At the risk of a provocation to anger, I’ll skip over the discoveries of Columbus at this point. I fear you won’t impugn me of harboring anti-Italian sentiment (or worse) for having done so. I freely acknowledge the superiority of the Genoese merchant to the Hibernian monk. On previous occasions, on prior days on which Columbus’s memory is, if not celebrated or excoriated, then at least observed, I’ve spoken at length about his importance. I’ve declared freely, and quite reverentially, the way of feel about his outstanding achievement and its meaning for the world.
All deference having been thus paid, for the remainder of this piece, I’d like to change directions from the vast Atlantic to mythological Atlantis—from that which is to that which perhaps never was. I’ll return to the first line with which this century-spanning and patience-straining article began.
Outliving all memory and evading every scrap of our archaeological record, Europe’s battle against Atlantis, we’re told on the best of authority, occurred some nine thousand years ago. Yes—St. Brendan was ancient, but this struggle is inconceivably old. This, at least, was the preferred, if not universally accepted, chronology by which Plato remembered the tectonic event. Technically, I suppose, it wasn’t actually Plato who described for us this first “world war” waged between the empires of Atlantis and Athens, but Critias—a man to whose learned verbosity and oratorical prowess an entire dialogue was dedicated. Really, though, his eponymous inclusion into the Platonic folio might better be called a monologue, for it’s he and he alone who handles the entirety of the speaking.
Critias, like Plato, was a proud and brilliant Athenian. Though not quite the crème de la crème, he was a sufficiently remarkable citizen to acquire inclusion in the pages of the great Plato’s thoughts. The two shared much in common. Both of aristocratic stock and haughty lineage that, at a point not very distant in their shared past, a convergence was known to have transpired, Critias and Plato shared in living during an age of fearsome intractability and tumult. The most precariously unsteady of those days were those leading toward the end of the fifth-century B.C.—a true fin de siècle that went out with a bang.
The Athenians had failed in their expedition to the impregnable island of Sicily. The Peace of Nicias was infringed and neglected, the man for whom it was named was killed, the roguish Alcibiades was ostracized and later traitorously avenged, and the combined forces of the Sparta’s army and Persia’s wealth proceeded to crush those democratically-enthused, now decimated children of Athena.
Critias, at this point, was set to become the leader of the short-lived but long-despised “Thirty Tyrants”—the oligarchs by whom the Athenians, so accustomed to their liberty and their vote, were to be ruled for one whole calendar year. Slightly before this self-propelled accession to his tyrannical throne, however, Critias provided Plato with a disquisition about the state of Atlantis. It was, as most of the Greek world knew, the sole landmass of the Atlantic beyond which nothing of commensurate firmness stood. It was the final terra firma, the last step before the abyss, upon which a wayward sailor might land.
Upon one’s exit through the Pillars of Heracles, punctuated on either side by the rocks of Gibraltar or Jebel Musa, there was long thought to be nothing else. Ne Plus Ultra, “go no more beyond”, was the supposed inscription that draped atop these proud promontories. Ever since the earthquake that sunk the island of Atlantis, this was deemed forbiddingly true. Outside of the Mediterranean world, the literal “middle of earth” at whose center civilization’s heart did beat, there was to be found no sanctuary.
But Critias explains that this wasn’t always the case. There was a time when the Atlanteans, an auspicious people of maritime fate raised in the hand of Poseidon, were considered to be the most sophisticated and dominant in the world. As too often is the case with burgeoning powers to whom divine sanction is given—be it in revelation or in wishful thought—the Atlanteans entered and demolished the Mediterranean world. Nary a people could put up a fight and there wasn’t one army by which their eastward march was thwarted. The Iberians were subdued, the Carthaginians were conquered, and the Etrurians of Italy were fought to the very brink.
All that remained for the preservation of the world as it was then known were the Greeks. The Egyptians were also, as of yet, unscathed, but the might of that ancient people’s military has always been dubious. It was the unique task of the Greeks, specifically the intrepid Athenians, to push back against these Atlantic interlopers.
With somewhat unforthcoming detail (Critias spends more time describing the structure of Atlantean society), he tells us how they did. Those sons of Atlantis were repelled from the Mediterranean and sent back to their land. Upon their arrival, despondent and bereft of the imperium of which they were so nearly in possession, their troubles compiled. Through the duration of their conquest, their rapacity for land was astounding. So too was the impiety with which they treated their dear creator. The punishment they were to receive for having affected so unholy a demeanor was one, we recognize, for which the ever-irascible Poseidon was infamous. He kissed their island with an earthquake, and it fell upon itself into the depths of his sea.
Thus, on this Columbus Day, we take time to acknowledge not only those various crossings of the Atlantic Ocean—performed by the likes of St. Brendan, Leif Erikson, and Christopher Columbus—but of the nation after whom that body of water is named. Open up to Critias on this Columbus Day celebration, and probe the depths of Plato as did Atlantis the sea.