THE ATLANTIC TALE,
AND ITS BEARING ON THE ASIATIC REMINISCENCES OF THE EGYPTIANS,
AND ON PRIMITIVE HISTORY AFTER THE DELUGE.
[Extracted from Bunsen, Egypt's Place in Universal History, vol. 4, pp. 461-9.]
In analyzing Philo's accounts of the theogony and kosmogony of the Phoenicians, we have met with some passages about the origines of mankind. These, however, were always either theogonical ideas in disguise, or else purely local reminiscences.
The case is still worse in regard to our knowledge of the corresponding traditions of the Egyptians themselves. No mention is made in any of them of historical anthropogony, everything connected with this subject occurs among the divine origines. It is barely possible that the Egyptians should have considered themselves as autokhthones, children of the soil, and yet that there should have been no trace of this belief either in what they say on their monuments when speaking of themselves as contrasted with the other races and nations, or in what the Greeks say when treating of the origines of this, to them, so remarkable a people.
But the celebrated passage in the Timaeus says the very reverse, and we take this opportunity of laying it before our readers in full. It has from early times given rise to the most opposite interpretations. Plato's residence in Egypt has been so fully confirmed by astronomy and his own account of the religious and political condition of the country that it is admitted to be historical, while the invention of later writers, that the Hellenic pupil of Sokrates learned his philosophy from the Egyptians, is generally repudiated.
The communication made to Solon by the priests of Sais, in the introduction to the Timaeus, may fairly be considered as only the vehicle for introducing the story. Some ancient sage must be mentioned, and Solon seemed to answer the purpose as well as any other.
But in regard to the substance of the communication, it is assuredly not an invention of the philosopher, which would have been a pitiful piece of deceit, but a straightforward account of what he himself heard at Sais. It might however be mere vainglorious boasting on the part of the priests, as their assertion certainly was that they could show to Solon Athenian names of his "fellow-citizens" who lived 9000 years before that time and 1000 before the Egyptian origines. Let us hear the account itself.
The remarkable passage is as follows (p. 21. e.):
"There is in Egypt," said Solon, "in the Delta where the Nile branches off into two streams, the so-called Saitic nome. Its principal town is Sais, the same of which King Amasis was also a native. The inhabitants consider it to have been founded by a Goddess known to the Egyptians under the name of Neith, and to the Greeks, as they assert, of Athena. They state that the Athenians and themselves were the greatest friends, and that there was some blood-relationship between them. Solon said that he was treated with the greatest respect, but that when he inquired of the best informed among the priests about the ancient times, he found that neither he nor any other Greek, so to speak, knew anything at all about these matters. Once upon a time, when he wished to draw them out into conversation about the ancient histories, he began by talking about the early history of this country, and about Phoroneus, who is called the First, and about Niobe, and after the Flood about Deukalion and Pyrrha, and the manner of their preservation. He then tried to enumerate the genealogies of their descendants, and by endeavouring to bring back to his recollection the number of years that had elapsed since those events, to calculate the chronology. Thereupon one of the oldest of the priests exclaimed: 'Solon, Solon! you Greeks will always be children: an old Greek never existed.' Upon hearing this he replied, 'What do you mean?' 'You are all,' the other continued, 'of modern minds: for you have no faith based upon the tradition of early times, no knowledge of any kind which has grown hoary with age. And the reason of it is this. There have been many and various races of men which have fallen into decay, and there will be many more. The principal causes of these catastrophes are fire and water, some of lesser importance arising from various other circumstances. There is a fable current among you, that Phaethon, the son of Helios, once on a time drove his father's chariot, but that failing to take his father's course he set the world on fire, and perished by lightning. This is told rather in the form of a myth, but the truth is, that the stars which revolve round the earth in the heavens suffer a perturbation, and then, at vast intervals, whatever is on the earth perishes in the great conflagration. "When these portents occur, naturally those who live on the mountains and on lofty dry spots perish in greater numbers than those who dwell about the rivers and seas. We, for instance, are preserved by the Nile, who is our preserver generally, on these occasions also, for he helps us out of our trouble. If, on the other hand, the Gods mean to ravage and destroy the earth by water, the herdsmen and shepherds who live on the mountains probably are saved, while those who live in cities are carried away by the stream into the sea. But with our country the case is different; the water does not overflow our fields, but on the contrary everything is so arranged that it rises from below. It is in this way and for these reasons, as they say, that the oldest traditions are preserved among us. The truth, however, is, that in all countries where there is not a great excess of rain or intense heat to interfere with it, there is a race of men sometimes more, sometimes less numerous. Now what-ever happens among you, or among us, or in any other place that we know anything about, anything beautiful or great, or important in any other way, all is recorded in our temples from the earliest times, and so has been preserved. But scarcely had writing and the other necessities of civilised states been invented among you and elsewhere, when there came down from heaven at certain intervals a Flood, like a pestilence, sparing only the ignorant and uneducated, so that you had to start afresh from the beginning, as though you were a young people, and knew nothing as to what had occurred here or in your own country in ancient times. The genealogies of your country, Solon, at all events, which you have just gone over are very like children's stories.
For in the first place you only record a single flood, whereas there have been a great many; and then you do not seem to know that your country was inhabited by the fairest and noblest race of men, from whom you and the whole of your present inhabitants are descended, but a very small remnant of them having survived. You have forgotten all this, because the few survivors out of the great numbers who perished left no written records behind them. For, Solon, before that great catastrophe took place the present Athenian State was very glorious in war, and very celebrated also for the excellence of its laws. There it was that the noblest deeds were performed, and there was the most perfect constitution of all those which now exist of which we have any knowledge.'
"When Solon heard this he was astounded, as he said, and earnestly entreated the priests to tell him everything in detail and in regular order about his old countrymen. Whereupon his informant continued: 'There is no objection to this, Solon, and I will tell it you for your own sake and for the sake of your city, but most especially for the sake of pleasing the Goddess who has taken under her protection your country and this, and has cherished and nurtured it: yours indeed, in the first instance, a thousand years before ours, she having received the germ from the Earth and from Hephaistos, and ours afterwards.
"'Now our sacred books contain a record of our institutions for 8000 years; but, as regards your countrymen 9000 years ago, I will briefly tell you about their laws and the most celebrated of their exploits. The more especial details of all these matters we will go into some other time at our leisure, when we have the records themselves before us. Consider for a moment the laws as compared with those in force here, and you will find many analogies to those which then existed in Greece. In the first place the sacerdotal caste, separated from all the rest. Then the caste of artisans, each of which worked by itself and never mixed with the others. Then the shepherds, the hunters, and the husbandmen. The military caste again you will find distinct, upon whom the only duty imposed by law is that of making war. The art of arming with shields and spears, which was practised by us before the inhabitants of Asia, we as well as they learned from the Goddess, but first of all she taught you. Lastly, as regards knowledge, you see how much importance the law attaches to principles, seeing that everything relating to the order of social life, including divination and the art of medicine for the preservation of health, is by it provided out of these divine things, and all the other sciences which result from them are applied for the benefit of mankind. Now, the whole of these institutions and ordinances the patron Goddess first put in force among you, she having founded your state before this, and previously selected the spot on which you were born; foreseeing that the favourable nature of the climate and seasons would produce the most intelligent men. For, as she loves war as well as wisdom, she selected that spot for the foundation of a state which she knew would produce men most like herself. Under such, laws as these and a yet more excellent form of government you then lived, excelling all other men in virtue, as those should excel who are descended from and fostered by the Gods. There are many great works of yours here recorded, which excite our admiration. But there is one especially which surpasses all the rest in grandeur and glory. The records state that your country once checked the advance of a mighty power, which threatened all Europe and Asia, bursting in upon them from the Atlantic ocean. For at that time the Atlantic was navigable; and beyond the straits which you in your legends call the Pillars of Hercules there was an island larger than Libya and Asia put together. Seafaring men at that time could pass from it to the other islands, and from them to the opposite continent, which extended along that ocean properly so-called. For the sea which is inside the straits of which we have just spoken seems to have a narrow entrance, but the other is properly termed an ocean, and the land abutting on it a continent. Now on this great island in the Atlantic there was a vast and wonderful kingdom, which extended over the whole island and many other islands and parts of the continent. Besides this, it extended on our side over Libya as far as Egypt, and over Europe as far as Tyrrhenia. Now this whole united empire attempted at that time to subjugate your country and ours, and all the regions inside the straits, at one swoop. Then, Solon, the power of your country surpassed all the rest of the world by its bravery and its strength. Outstripping them all in courage and military skill, whether as the leader of the Greeks, or where compelled to act single-handed on being deserted by the others, they were exposed to the greatest dangers, but drove back the aggressors and erected columns to commemorate their victory. They also prevented the other countries which had not been subjugated from being enthralled, and to those inside the Pillars of Hercules they gave entire freedom. But at a later period extraordinary earthquakes and floods took place, and in one fatal day and night the whole of your fighting men there collected together were swept off from the face of the earth, and at the same moment the Atlantic island sunk into the ocean. This is the reason why that sea is now inaccessible and the navigation difficult, owing to the depth of the sand which accumulated when the island disappeared.'"
Now in regard to the purport of this story, this enigma, the solution of which has occupied the attention of the first thinkers and mathematicians, of ingenious scholars and students of history in all times from Cicero to Humboldt, I think our Egyptian researches will enable us to form a somewhat better conclusion as to certain points under discussion, on one side or the other, than has hitherto been possible.
There is nothing improbable in itself in reminiscences and records of great events in Egypt 9000 years B.C., if we consider them as even isolated recollections of a time not strictly chronological. For, as we have seen, the origines of the two kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt go back to the ninth millennium, or at all events there were distinct unions and a common government. There were therefore reminiscences also of great natural and historical events which affected Egypt. That here alluded to must be one of them. It is true that Egypt is not considered exactly as having been subjugated by the Atlantic conqueror, but it is said that Africa (Libya), "as far as Egypt," belonged to his kingdom. Asia is clearly the seat of this advanced empire, and the conflict extended, either by sea, or by way of Spain and Gaul, as far as Etruria.
There never was but one such conqueror, as we established when examining critically the early Hebrew times: Nimrod the Kushite, or Kossian, whose date cannot be later than the beginning of the sixth or the end of the seventh millennium B.C. It would be more natural to identify him with the conquest alluded to by the priests of Sais: for, if he was an Ethiopian, he must have passed through Egypt on his way to Asia and Europe. Now if (as we decidedly think is the original meaning of the Biblical account) he came from the land of the Kossians he was a Turanian; but the Iberians are Turanians, and may have come to Egypt from Spain across the Cyrenaica. Atlantis recalls Atlas, consequently may point to Northern Africa. That the first conqueror in history was a Scythian is reported by Justin, on the authority of Pompeius Trogus, who had access to Asiatic source?
This is what may be said in regard to the historical foundation of the Egyptian story about that conquest. As to the island of Atlantis, which is stated to have disappeared, I look upon it as a pure fiction, the origin of which was the notion of a violent separation between the two continents at Gibraltar, which was taken for granted as an event of early times. This ancient story may very well have grown, at Sais, sooner or later, into the above fabulous form.
Now if the priests of Sais did say anything about a primeval Athens, and made Kekrops contemporary with it, they either imposed upon Solon or Plato, or them both. But the whole, or the greater part, of this story bears upon it so palpably the Platonic stamp, as fore-shadowing the position of Athens in the Persian war, and as the model of an aristocratical reforming constitution to be re-established, that we need only read his Kritias to be satisfied on that head. What is there but lightly touched upon is here embellished almost like a Cyropaedia, and is obviously treated as a philosophical myth.