Monday, January 26, 2009

On Undersea Realms

A reader of this blog has suggested that the hydraulic system of Luzon that I have written about might link up well with the Greek tales of Atlantis with its system of dikes and canals.

I have avoided Atlantis because it comes to us only from a single source. Plato heard the story of Atlantis from Critias the Younger, who heard it from his grandfather Critias the Elder who heard it from Solon, who heard it from an Egyptian priest. So it was passed four times orally before being committed to writing. All other Greek writers depend on Plato's account, thus there is only one primary source for the legend. That's rather strange given the amount of cultural interaction between Egypt and Greece. Furthermore the story told by the Egyptian priest to Solon reportedly took place 9000 years earlier!

Still it certainly is possible that Atlantis was inspired by some Egyptian records. Probably the best suggestion connects the story with the Egyptian "Isle of Flame" known as Ta-Neserser.
There are a few general similarities between the two accounts and some think that the story may conflate the tradition with other material adding in original stories to convey a political message.

Like Atlantis, the Isle of Flame was noted for its dikes and canals used both for irrigation and navigation. The geography of Atlantis given by Plato is rather stylized. For example, he describes a kingdom located on a perfectly rectangular plain, a river delta, surrounded on three sides by mountains -- something that does not occur in nature. The vastness of the canal system is also certainly a product of the imagination.
Plato describes three concentric canals surrounding the royal capital of Atlantis, the outermost ring spanning nearly 2000 kilometers. These rings were cut by transverse canals forming a grid-like system and small islands, and a canal from the outermost ring led to the open ocean.

On the Island of Flame, canals intersected the watery paradise creating islands or fields, i.e., the Sekhet-Aaru "Fields of Reeds" (Elysian Fields). The plan here is also often given in the form of a rectangle with the canals more linear than circular.

The Elysian Fields of the Egyptians.

Located across the Sunrise Sea to the East (Atlantis presumably is in the West) in the Sea of Two Knives, the Isle of Flame rises and sinks into the ocean in cataclysmic cycles that last millions of years.

Atlantis also represents probably an allegory of a civilization that declines and finally is destroyed in the end also by a cataclysm of fire and water.

Both the Isle of Flame and Atlantis are also linked with sacred peaks. In Atlantis the central mountain is holy to Poseidon, while on the Isle of Flame we find the Primeval Hill.

A ship is often shown on the peak of the Primordial Hill in depictions of the Elysian Fields.

There appears to be a connection between the Island of Flame and the eastern island source of the spices traded at the emporium of Punt. This island is sometimes also called "Punt," but is different than the kingdom located in southeastern Africa that likely later became known to the Greeks as Rhapta. Christopher J. Eyre notes: "There is a direct comparison here with the island in the Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor: a place which stands at the edge of the cosmos; where the god survives after cataclysmic fire from the sky; where food and spirit (k3) are found to perfection; where the sailor burns his offerings, and is threatened with destruction by fire; but where he receives assurance of post-cataclysmic order, and a renewal of his life, restoration to the created world following his passage through this place of danger."

Another ancient land noted for its dikes and also a destination for long-distance trade was the island of Dilmun, located somewhere to the east of Sumer, and noted as a land of marshes.

Pure are the cities -- and you are the ones to whom they are allotted. Pure is Dilmun land. Pure is Sumer -- and you are the ones to whom it is allotted. Pure is Dilmun land. Pure is Dilmun land. Virginal is Dilmun land. Virginal is Dilmun land. Pristine is Dilmun land...In Dilmun the raven was not yet cawing, the partridge not cackling. The lion did not slay, the wolf was not carrying off lambs, the dog had not been taught to make kids curl up, the pig had not learned that grain was to be eaten...When he [Enki] was filling with water a second time, he filled the dykes with water, he filled the canals with water, he filled the fallows with water. The gardener in his joy rose from the dust and embraced him: "Who are you who ...... the garden?"

-- Enki and Ninhursag

Indeed Sumerian myth states that humans were created to relieve the gods of the work associated with building dikes and canals.

The ancient Persians and Indians also knew of a land of dikes known as Haetumant "rich in dikes" to the Persians. The same river or region has been identified with the Haraxvaiti of the Persians and the Sarasvati of India, both names meaning "full of ponds."

Haetumant and Sarasvati are generally located by scholars somewhere in the region from Afghanistan to and including the Punjab of India.

However, I have noted that there was a medieval or late ancient Iranian tradition that the Ardvi Sura Anahita, the earlier name for the Haraxvaiti, was located much further east along with other sacred locations like Kangdez and the region of the White Haoma Tree. Indeed these areas were placed in the Sea of China at the very extremity of the known world. In the Indian Rgveda text, the Sarasvati is located in a region known as Sapta Sindhu "Seven Rivers," which in classical works is placed on Sakadvipa island east of India in the Milky Ocean.

Because the related Iranian and Indian manuscripts are not that old, it is difficult to determine the earliest dates for these beliefs. However, as we have noted earlier in this blog by the beginning of the common era even the Greeks knew of this far eastern region as demonstrated in the geography of Marinus of Tyre. Hebrew texts like the Old Testament and Enoch push knowledge of these eastern lands, where cinnamon and aloeswood originate, back at least a few centuries if not several. And, of course, if we date the trade of these spices to ancient Egypt such knowledge may go back at least to the Middle Kingdom period.

Another noteworthy item in reference to the sinking and rising Isle of Flame (and the sinking Atlantis) is the many accounts of undersea kingdoms in ancient writings and myths. The island source of spices in Punt, again sometimes called Punt itself, was said to move around in the ocean and to sometimes disappear -- possibly an allusion to the cataclysmic Isle of Flame.

Chinese legend has the three floating islands of paradise including Penglai, which are often also said to disappear sometimes submerging beneath the waves. Indeed, the Dragon King of the East, who is said to live under the sea, is also said to reside on Penglai. In Japanese folklore, Penglai (Horaisan) is equated with Tokoyonokuni, which again is often placed under the ocean as in the tale of Urashima.

In Dilmun, Gilgamesh dived to the bottom of the sea at a location known as the "mouth of the waters" to an underwater domain known as the Apsu to retrieve the plant of immortality. Iranian myth places this plant -- known as the White Haoma Tree -- in the "middle" of the ocean although not necessarily underwater. Southeast Asian myth tells of the undersea Pauh Janggi, Campanganghi and similar trees at the "navel of the ocean."

These Atlantean kingdoms may owe their origin to traditions of actual sea flooding, volcanic eruptions, etc. in historical contexts and/or to the watery nature of estuarine kingdoms and settlements.

View Larger Map
Notice that the dike and canal region around the northern part of Manila Bay has a similar shading as the shallow waters of Olongapo Bay (left side). This is partly because the area consists of reclaimed mangrove and freshwater marshland, but also because much of the area would be underwater during high tide, and some areas even during low tide, if not for the presence of the dikes.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Eyre, Christopher J. Cannibal Hymn: a cultural and literary study, Liverpool University Press, 2002, pp. 82-3.

Lee, Sir Henry Desmond Pritchard. Timaeus and Critias. by Plato, Penguin Books, 1971.

Nunes dos Santos, Arysio. Atlantis The Lost Continent Finally Found, Atlantis Publications, 2005