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How the imaginary island of Atlantis was mapped

Atlantis as imagined by Athanasius Kircher in 1664.
Atlantis as imagined by Athanasius Kircher in 1664.
Print Collector/Getty Images
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

Atlantis is an imaginary island — a lost empire that has stuck around in popular myth for centuries, despite never existing.

So how does it have such a detailed map? Almost every discussion of Atlantis features the map at the top of the page, which dates back to 1664.

Where did this map come from? And why did it stick around for so long? Credit goes to a bizarre Jesuit genius who convinced the world his vision of Atlantis was the right one.

The Atlantis myth really took off after Columbus — and the public was hungry for a map

Kircher's map of the world after the Great Flood. (Print Collector/Getty Images)

Kircher's 1675 map of the world after the Great Flood. The location of Atlantis is marked in the Atlantic Ocean. (Print Collector/Getty Images)

The myth of Atlantis has been around for millennia, but it began as a literary device. Plato talks about Atlantis in his dialogues "Critias" and "Timaeus," but it's understood as an allegory for Greek politics at the time.

But as Emily Tamkin described in Slate, the myth had a resurgence when Columbus reached the Americas. Suddenly, there was a surge of public interest in Europe in undiscovered lands. And people wanted maps to go with them.

Enter Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit scholar who studied a huge range of subjects, from volcanoes to ancient Egypt to flying dragons. Kircher straddled the world between pre- and post-Enlightenment scholars, relying more on ancient texts than on experimentation in his research. (In one book, he made meticulous diagrams that addressed whether the Tower of Babel could have reached the moon.)

In 1664, Kircher decided to create a map of Atlantis. As his biographer John Edward Fletcher explains, the idea behind the map was to validate a (weird) larger theory about the Earth: "In medieval thought, the Earth had a soul and a body," Fletcher writes. "The sea, with its tides, flowed into the body of the Earth and out again, like water in the gills of a fish."

If the Earth had a body, Kircher reasoned, then it needed a skeleton to protect itself, and he figured mountain ranges could serve that purpose. For Earth's skeleton to be complete, certain submerged mountain systems had to be included, and there were spots along many meridians where it made sense to put an island. All that led Kircher to resurrect the myth of Atlantis as proof of his theory.

Kircher's map gave Atlantis "scientific" credibility

From Kircher's Mundus Subterreanus, the underground network of fire and water that he believed formed Earth's interior. (Unviersal Images Group/Getty Images)

From Kircher's Mundus Subterreanus, the underground network of fire and water that he believed formed Earth's interior. (Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

Kircher's map, you may notice, also places the South at the top of the map — it's unclear if this is meant to reference possible ancient Egyptian beliefs about cardinal directions or Kircher's theories about water traveling through the center of the Earth from South to North Pole. Either way, the theory of Atlantis suddenly had the "logical" foundation to make the idea stick.

It's also unclear where the exact shape of Kircher's Atlantis came from. Kircher said it was sourced from Egyptian maps and the writings of Plato, and some other records claim he found the map in archives (though that story can't be verified). Others accuse him of borrowing the map's image from contemporaneous depictions of South America — it does closely match Abraham Ortelius's map of South America (turned upside down).

Why Kircher's map of Atlantis stuck around for so long

Abraham Ortelius's 1564 map of the Earth.

Abraham Ortelius's 1564 map of the Earth. (Wikimedia Commons)

Regardless of the shape's origin, Kircher's map came about during a mapmaking period when the world was constantly being reimagined, and mistakes were often being made (and repeated) for several years.

To take one example, one map incorrectly showed California as an island. That error was then repeated for years as the map was copied over and over again. But this was only a temporary problem: The true shape of California could eventually be verified. The shape of Atlantis obviously never could, so Kircher's map remained the "definitive work" on the subject.

Granted, there were other competing visions of Atlantis: Olaus Rudbeck, for example, believed it was Sweden. Much later, in 1882, a politician named Ignatius Donnelly published a book about the island, Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, that had staying power, and it slightly modified the shape and location of the island. Since then, there have been other models, though the Atlantic Ocean location has usually stayed consistent thanks to convenience and modern interpretations of "historical" records like Plato's. But Kircher's map has been the most consistent map of the island that (probably) never existed.

We can only guess why one map became the iconic depiction of Atlantis, but there are a few reasonable assumptions. It had a veneer of scientific legitimacy, thanks to Kircher's reputation and other work. It came at a time when the world was actively being reimagined. And Kircher's map was one of the earliest ones nestled into an otherwise accurate depiction of the world. And perhaps most important is that once Atlantis's appearance was established it couldn't really be disproven. So the same map stuck around for centuries.

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