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Children of Atlantis

“On this island of Atlantis had arisen a powerful and remarkable dynasty of kings, who ruled Europe
as far as western Italy.”

—Plato, The Timaeus

At the center of Atlantis, according to Plato, sprawled the monumental Temple of Poseidon. The ornate building of stone and precious metals contained a colossus of the sea-god standing in his immense chariot drawn by six winged horses. A smaller version of this Atlantean work of art still exists in Rome’s Giulia Museum. Etruscan craftsmen made the likeness from Praeneste some time during the early 6th Century B.C. Yet another contemporary copy is on display in the Tarquinian Museum. Poseidon’s figure is missing from these terra cottas. However, both are known to have originally adorned temples to the sea-god.

But who were the Etruscans? And what were they doing with copies of the most important statue in Atlantis?

The Etruscans were a pre-Roman people who dominated western Italy from about 800 B.C. A previous period, once referred to as “Villanovoan” by archaeologists who assumed it represented a different culture, is now regarded as an earlier Etruscan phase beginning five centuries before. By 750 B.C., the early Classical historian and mythologist, Hesiod, referred in The Agony to “the far-famed Tyrsenoi,” Greek for the Etruscans. He declared them to have been the first civilizers in Italy, prodigious seafarers, who established a powerful thallasocracy that dominated the western Mediterranean until the rise of Carthage. Others remembered how they contested Phoenician sailors for the distant Azore Islands in the mid-Atlantic Ocean, 900 miles from Europe.

Archaeologists know they built magnificent cities with architectural feats like the 350-foot-high tower of Lars Prosena, hung with half-a-dozen enormous, bronze bells. The Etruscans mass-produced high quality bronzes on an unprecedented scale. When Roman forces captured the Etruscan city of Volsinii, in 280 B.C., they confiscated no less than 2,000 bronze statues. In 205 B.C., to supply the invasion fleet of Scipio Africanus, Etruscan Arretium provided 30,000 shields, 50,000 javelins, and 40 fully equipped warships in 15 days. The Etruscans were master irrigationists, as exampled by the Graviscae Drain, a labyrinth of subterranean water courses, pools and lakes created by the mammoth excavation of ingenious drainage canals.

They were high-minded statesmen, who set up the Populi Etruriae, or omnis Etruria, a league of independent city-states whose rulers wielded broad powers, but were subject to a centralized authority. Etruscan cavalry were unmatched for versatility and splendor. One of the New York Museum of Art’s most precious possessions is a full-size, perfectly preserved Etruscan chariot of bronze decorated with sculpted gold and silver appointments. The Etruscans were serious music-lovers, assembling large groups of harpists, lutenists, flautists, drummers, trumpeters, pipers, singers and other performers in what may have been the first musical orchestras or bands in history. Surviving Etruscan tomb art is sophisticated, vivid and dynamic.

The ruins of many Etruscan cities are still visited and studied; thousands of related artifacts are scattered around the world in museums and private collections. Yet, the Etruscans are European archaeology’s greatest enigma. Although numerous specimens of their written language exist, they continue to resist translation, save for yielding an important name now and then, after more than 100 years of scholarly effort.

To add to the confusion, the Etruscans referred to themselves as the Rasna. Investigators were divided over whether the term is in fact a proper name or merely descriptive. In other words, calling the Etruscans Rasna may be like referring to the whole German people of 1900 as “the Kaisers,” even though only the king was Kaiser. A mountain chain still known as the Rassenna stands near the ancient city of Arretium, whose Etruscan residents contributed so heavily to the Roman war effort against Carthage. Etruscan origins are no less enigmatic. Some researchers speculate they were native Italians, but their sudden appearance at the beginning of the 12th century B.C. suggests otherwise. Herodotus’ claim that the Etruscans came from Lydia, in southwestern Asia Minor, is still being debated after 2,500 years. The Egyptians knew them much earlier, when Pharaoh Merenptah included them among his worst enemies, the vaunted Sea Peoples.

They were mentioned again by his successor, Ramses III, when he had to battle the same alliance of invaders. They are listed in the roll call of captured prisoners on the walls of his Victory Temple as the Trs.w, or Twrws.w, the Egyptian language version of the Greek Tyrsenoi. Trs.w’s philological identification with the Etruscans is supported by Ramses himself. He singled them out because they came from the northwest, the direction of Italy, unlike the rest of the Sea Peoples who attacked from the north and northeast. The Trojans were part of the Atlantean confederation that invaded the Nile Delta, and rasnes or rasne—the Etruscans’ name for themselves—refers to “public affairs” in the Trojan tongue.

Of the ten origins for the foundation of Rome recorded by Plutarch in the “Romulus” chapter of his lives, two are identifiably Atlantean. He reported that the Pelasgian Sea Peoples, “wandering over the greater part of the habitable world, and subduing numerous nations, fixed themselves here, and from their own great strength in war, called the city Rome.” Virgil agreed, recalling how “the ancient Pelasgians long ago were the earliest occupants of the Latin land.” He believed Roman ancestors were refugees from Troy, led by prince Aeneas, whose own forefather was “the same Atlas who uplifts the starry heavens.” These origins parallel Ramses III’s report of the Trs.w invaders he dispersed and older Greek references to the civilizing Pelasgians.

Plutarch continues, “Some say again that Roma, from whom the city was so-called, was daughter of Italus and Leucaria.” Italus was the Latin version of Atlas, while Leucaria was a sea-goddess, one of the sirens, an inflection of Leukippe, the first woman of Atlantis. Plato, after all, outlined the limits of Atlantean influence in Europe by extending them to western Italy, and thereby included the Etruscans as part of an oceanic alliance that menaced the Aegean and Egypt. His characterization of these events as the Atlantean War falls like a perfectly matched template over Homer’s Trojan War and Ramses’ invasion of Sea People. Indeed, all three sources portray different aspects of the same confrontation. The Trs.w were Sea People allies, who sailed from the defeat and final destruction of Atlantis back to Italy, where they rose to power as the Etruscans.

The seapower they commanded from Etruria, their accomplishments in city planning, public works projects, irrigation, bronze manufacture and the arts were all drawn on a truly Atlantean scale. Ruins of Etruscan cities at Fiesole, Volterra, Tarquinii and Sutri still exhibit the same kind of concentric walls with watch-towers and interconnecting bridges arching over canals Plato described for Atlantis.

The Etruscans prospered almost a thousand years after the cataclysm that overwhelmed their kinsmen beyond the Pillars of Heracles. Succumbing to the same moral decadence that preceded the destruction of Atlantis, they thoroughly inter-married with the Roman conquerors, so much so that their language, as well as their cultural identity, vanished long before the onset of another catastrophe—the collapse of Classical civilization. The Dark Ages, which followed likewise obscured Atlantean legacies at the other end of the Mediterranean. Part of that legacy still survives in the Spanish city of Cadiz, known even in late Roman times as Gades. Earlier still, the Greeks called it Gadira, after the second king listed in Plato’s account of Atlantis, Gadeiros, “presumably the origin of the present name.”

But Gadeiros was not the only Atlantean city in Iberia. Tartessos once stood in what would now be Huelva, on the River Tinto, or, perhaps on the site of Asta Regia, north of Cadiz, at the source of the Guadalquivir River. Tartessos may have arisen as a direct consequence of survivors arriving in large numbers from the ocean. Strabo, the important Roman historian, reported that a sea people built the city in 1150 B.C., less than fifty years after the final destruction of Atlantis. With its sudden disappearance, a power vacuum developed in Spain, then part of the Atlantean empire. Deprived of its imperial headquarters, the political center shifted away from Gadeiros, resulting in the building of a new Iberian capital.

There is an etymological resemblance between “Tartessos” and “Tyrsenoi,” Greek for “Etruscans,” and Tartessian bronzes are not unlike Etruscan examples from Caere. Earlier still, the Turduli (what the inhabitants of Tartessos called themselves) compares with the Tursha, Egyptian for “Trojans,” listed by Ramses III among the Sea Peoples who attacked his kingdom after the turn of the 13th century B.C. Supporting a Turduli-Tursha relationship is the double of a Tartessos tablet dated to the Late Bronze Age found on the island of Lemnos, some 30 miles off the coast of Troy. Sometimes the ancient Iberians were referred to collectively as the Turdentani. These comparisons demonstrate the heritage they, the Turduli, Etruscans and Trojans shared in their “Sea People” origins, together with their common experience in the Atlantean War.

During the 1920s, American archaeologist, Ellen M. Whishaw, excavated the presumed ruins of Tartessos, at a foreboding place shunned locally as the Cave of the Bats. There she found a dozen human male and female skeletons arranged in an orderly circle around one more, that of a woman, at the very center. Judging from the costly nature of their accompanying grave goods, the remains belonged to a wealthy family whose members had committed mass-suicide by overdosing on opium. Were they royalty from the house of Gadeiros, dying of despair over the tragedy of their Atlantic homeland? Or maybe they were participants in ritual sacrifice, as suggested by their number.

In Pythagorean numerology, the number twelve was associated with cosmic order, such as the Houses of the Zodiac, the number of Olympian deities, the solar Labors of Hercules, months of the year, half the hours of one day, etc. Thirteen was the Numeral of Misfortune, because its presence upset the cosmic order, resulting in chaos. Could the Cave of the Bats’ discovery have been a ceremonial attempt to reestablish the harmony of a world shattered by the Atlantean catastrophe?

Perhaps an answer lies in the polychrome statue of an ornately dressed woman unearthed in 1897 not far from the Mediterranean Sea, in southeastern Spain, near the town of Elche. A masterpiece of terracotta art, it is unlike anything comparable in Roman, Phoenician or Greek portraiture. The Lady of Elche was a product of the Turduli, descendants of the Atlantean colonists who occupied Spain during the Late Bronze Age.

Proof of her identity was found in the form of an otherwise unique bronze candelabrum retrieved from the same excavation. Its only other known counterpart came from the suspected location of Tartessos, near the Huelva River. Also convincing was a singular golden necklace from Tartessos identical to the ornament depicted on the statue. These costly items and her elaborate headgear portray a person of obvious importance. But her noble expression suggests someone more than aristocratic. She may have belonged to the royal house of Gadeiros during neo-Atlantean times in Tartessos. Or perhaps the Lady of Elche was one of those who died in the city’s ring of suicide. Was she the woman at its center? In any case, to look at her statue is to see the face of an Atlantean in Spain.

As Director of the Anglo-Spanish-American School of Archaeology, Dr. Whishaw displayed particular courage by announcing that, in her opinion, “Tartessos derived more or less directly from that of the lost continent of Atlantis.” Her colleagues condemned any serious talk of the sunken city as the worst form of academic heresy, and her research was ignored. But the names of these naysayers have since been forgotten, while the book describing her work is still in publication. She was led to her controversial conclusion by comparisons with Plato’s description of the Atlanteans. Like them, the Turduli were extraordinary sailors, plying the Atlantic to Cornwall in Britain and Lixus or even Mogador down the North African coasts of Morocco.

Their ocean-going ships were usually heavy laden with cargoes of ingots. As Atlantis was the affluent metal broker of the Bronze Age, so the miners of Tartessos were responsible for their city’s wealth. One of their kings, Arganthnios (literally, “Silvery Locks”) allegedly sold so much precious metal to Phoenician merchantmen, they had their ship’s anchor cast in solid silver. The king’s name derives from the Etruscan word for “silver,” arcnti, another link between Tartessos and Etruria. Tartessos was a major tin producer of copper and bronze, jut as the Atlanteans achieved their prosperity through the manufacture of orichalcum, or high-grade copper. Ezekiel said of Tartessos in the Old Testament, “Tarshish was thy merchant by reason of the multitude of all kinds of riches, with silver, iron, tin and gold they traded in thy fairs.”

During their campaigns to wrest the Iberian Peninsula from its inhabitants, the Romans learned Celtic traditions of overseas’ origins. The Gauls believed that their ancestral ruling class came from the “Isle of Glass Towers” formerly located on a splendid island before it disappeared in a natural disaster. A 1st century Greek writer, Timogenes, described a widely held belief among the “barbarians” that Gallic forebears came to Western Europe from a lost island in the Atlantic Ocean. Survivors landed at the mouth of the Douro River, where they built their first town, the harbor-city of Porto. From there they migrated throughout Iberia and France, where they were the first chiefs of the Gauls.

The tale is not without historical foundation. A Celtic settlement on the Douro natives called Porto Galli, “Port of the Gauls,” became the Roman Portus Cale, from which the whole Lusitanian province eventually derived its modern name, Portugal. Its capital, Lisbon, was earliest known as Elasippos, the same name Plato assigns to the seventh king of Atlantis. In Greek myth, the titan, Iberus, after whom the entire Spanish peninsula was known, is the brother of Atlas. None of this would have surprised the Romans, who referred to all Iberians as “the children of Atlantis.”

The preceding is excerpted from Frank Joseph’s latest book, Survivors of Atlantis, ISBN 1-59143-040-2, published by Bear and Company.

Ancient Mysteries

Nov/Dec 2004 – #48