Editor of The Zen Gateway website and practitioner of Zen Buddhism.
The myth of Atlantis, the city that sank beneath the waves, is a tale of pride before a fall. A civilisation that grew so strong that the gods feared them and destroyed the city overnight sending it to the bottom of the ocean that still bears its name.
The only written sources for this story are Plato’s accounts in the Timaeus and Critias. According to him the story was a secret kept by the Egyptians and told by a mysterious priest called Solon to the Greek philosopher. According to the priest this event happened 9,000 years prior to Plato’s hearing of it in the 5th century B.C.E.
Scholars think that the story of Atlantis was most probably a literary device used by Plato to make a point rather than something he believed as historical fact. As such Atlantis has continued in this way to be re-interpreted by writers ever since to make many different points. What is undeniable is that the story of the sunken city is one that features in folklore around the world and even though there may never have actually been an historical Atlantis, there are most certainly historical events where land has become submerged through natural events.
Such stories have been re-told since before Noah’s flood in the Hebrew Bible, itself a story that has Mesopotamian precedents.
“It is no wonder that in oral tradition Dunwich (Suffolk), has joined the ranks of legendary sunken cities. It is said that the bells of its drowned churches are still heard ringing under the waves as a storm-warning. Camilla, Lady Gurdon, in 1893 reported the same tradition of undersea bells as current in her time at Aldburgh and Felixstowe and the same story was told of Shipden church bells off Cromer, Norfolk.” 
Like the Dunwich church bells, Atlantis continued to impact upon the human psyche through the ages. It acquired increasingly fantastical traits and became ever more idealised over time. It was the inspiration for Thomas More’s Utopia and became the source of highly advanced technological and spiritual innovations as the story was re-told by Theosophists and occultists of the 19th & 20th century. Even ‘alternate’ historians such as ancient alien theorist Erich von Daniken sees in this story the hand of extra-terrestrials in its story.
For the visionary poet William Blake, Atlantis became the place of revolution in his poem America. This poem, a cry against Empire, after the American War of Independence, quite literally places Atlantis between Britain and America. It becomes the echoing symbol of the fall and redemption of both a country and the human soul.
On those vast shady hills between America & Albion's shore,
Now barr'd out by the Atlantic sea, call'd Atlantean hills Because from their bright summits you may pass to the Golden WorId,
An ancient palace, archetype of mighty Emperies,
Rears its immortal pinnacles, built in the forest of God By Ariston the king of beauty for his stolen bride.
America by William Blake (10: 5-10)
To Blake, who had become disillusioned by The Great Terror of the French Revolution and the mercantilism which replaced the British Empire in America, the fact that the Atlanteans had fallen away from their divine communion with the god Poseidon and become greedy empire builders was the point of choosing this particular symbol. This fallen state is now ripe for renewal in the mind of the visionary poet and he chooses Atlantis as its symbol.
There is an overlap here with the Buddha’s teaching in the Lotus Sutra of the inherent Buddha-nature or original ‘seed’ of Enlightenment , featuring in the parable of the man who has a priceless jewel sewn into his robe.This is seen as an allegory for leaving the path to Nirvana and entering instead the Path to Buddhahood .
“It tells of an impoverished man who goes to visit a close wealthy friend. Being treated to wine, he becomes drunk and falls asleep. The wealthy friend must go out on business, but before leaving, he sews a priceless jewel into the lining of his sleeping friend’s robe. When the poor man awakens, he has no idea that he has been given the jewel. He then sets out on a journey. To provide himself with food and clothing, he searches with all his energy, encountering great hardship. Being always in want, he is content with whatever little he can obtain. Later he happens to meet his old friend, who is shocked at his poverty and shows him the jewel in the robe. The man realizes for the first time that he possesses a priceless jewel and is overjoyed. The five hundred arhats explain that, just as this man was ignorant of the treasure he possessed, so the Buddha’s disciples were unaware that the Buddha had caused them to plant the seeds of an unsurpassed aspiration and were instead satisfied with provisional teachings and a small portion of nirvana.” 
The drunken state of the impoverished man is like the Atlanteans who have forgotten their divine aspiration and sunk into vice and suffering as a result. The re-surfacing of the jewel is brought about by the Buddha who is to lead him to the realisation of the inherent Buddha-nature. Thus he forgoes the vehicle leading only to his own salvation, and by turning outward to help others is himself redeemed.
 The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s Legends by Westwood & Simpson, pub Penguin 2006
This article is from the series:
Other articles in this series:
A Crooked Heart Misses the Target
Buddhism & Folklore - The Naive Heart
Spiritual Medicine Begins as Poison
The Blindness of the Calculating Self
The Stoppered Vessel
The Round Table of King Arthur
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