One of the areas I work on a lot is Ancient Greek philosophy, and you won’t be surprised to hear that there aren’t a huge amount of books out there to introduce children to the wonderful worlds of people like the Presocratics or Plato. So when the 5yo recently asked ‘Is Atlantis real?’, I jumped at the opportunity for some Platonic myths! I was extremely excited to find Christina Balit, who wrote the fab Escape from Pompeii, had also written a book all about the Atlantis myth – based on the story in Plato. Hurrah! Atlantis: The Legend of a Lost City was a little tricky to track down but we got lucky with an impeccably-timed eBay auction. Can you believe nobody else bid on it!?
The story follows the Atlantis myth from the very beginning, starting all the way back with Chaos itself. We quickly learn that Zeus overthrows the Titans and the world is divided between him and his two brothers: Zeus gets the heavens, Hades gets the Underworld, and Poseidon gets the sea. This is how we learn more about Atlantis – at this point, just a tiny little island floating in Poseidon’s great sea.
The little island is home to a man called Evenor, his wife Leucippe, and their daughter Cleito. We are told they have very little but they enjoy a happy life – which puzzles Poseidon. How could they be so happy when they have nearly nothing? Poseidon spends so much time watching them to try and work out the answer that he falls in love with Cleito, and the two are married. Everyone rejoices and Poseidon decides to rebuild the little island so it is fit for a divine King and his Queen. The illustrations are so vibrant for the marriage celebrations: just look at the beautifully captured movement and songs of the mermaids and sea creatures —
As part of the story we also get a description of the changes Poseidon makes to the island, which closely follows Plato’s own description in the version he gives in his dialogue Timaeus –
Not the most reader-friendly description, right!? Luckily, Balit provides a much clearer account and a fantastic illustration – bursting with vibrant greens and full of animals (okay, okay, Plato might not have added the zebras and giraffes – but he does mention elephants!) I’ll definitely be using this to highlight the geography instead of the usual dull line drawings when I read Timaeus with my own students.
The island flourishes and people build great gardens and all sorts of ancient buildings – baths, aqueducts, even a racecourse. There’s plenty to spot in the busy city scenes, and we enjoyed investigating them together to see what we can find. Poseidon and Cleito have ten sons, and name the new island after their oldest, Atlas. Atlas becomes High King and things continue to go well on Atlantis – so well, that Poseidon returns to the sea, content with his creation.
We loved the style of the city and people in these illustrations, especially how Balit blends patterns and colours from the Minoans, a very ancient (and real!) thalassocracy – a power which ruled the seas. This is mixed with the imagined quirks of Atlantis itself to create such an engaging mythical environment with plenty of details to investigate – especially when the unthinkable happens and chaos breaks out in the great city..
Balit tells us that as the generations progress, the divine parts of the soul grow smaller while the mortal parts of the souls grow bigger and stronger. Plato gives the same explanation – the ancient Greeks love a good decline-of-civilisation story (see, for example, Hesiod’s Five Ages of Man), and usually it is greedy thoughtless humans who are to blame for everything going wrong! Greed sweeps through Atlantis, and men start lying, cheating, and fighting because of it. Neglected, the great city falls into ruin – which doesn’t go unnoticed by the gods. Poseidon sends a terrible punishment: Atlantis is sent beneath the waves. There’s lots of potential philosophical talking points here! Some of the questions we puzzled over included:
- What is a good person?
- Is there a difference between things you need and things you want?
- What things do you need to have a good life?
- Did Atlantis deserve its punishment?
You don’t need to get into anything too complicated or start formally introducing philosophical theories – just encouraging children to reflect on these kind of questions can usually bring unexpected results! The Atlantis story here is a neat pattern of action > consequence > punishment, and gives a clear before (happy Leucippe and Evenor with little) and after (misbehaving mortals despite having everything) – so is a nice framework for some simple desire-fulfilment ideas.
In the end, Poor Atlantis is not entirely destroyed but destined to remain under the sea forever, with the inhabitants gradually turning into sea creatures themselves. This was a nice change to make, compared with the Pompeii tale which obviously had to content with much more real death — even if the 5yo had MANY questions for me about how a person turns into a squid or a jellyfish. The wrinkly fingers and toes you get in the bath is a good explanation, right!?