Atlantis in Sweden?

The Man Who Co-Discovered the Lymphatic System Also Had Other Interesting Ideas

Dominated by the gleaming twin towers of its thirteenth-century Gothic cathedral, Sweden’s ancient university town of Uppsala seems to offer everything: the country’s oldest and best university (Uppsala, founded in 1477); the huge red granite tomb of scientist/seer Emmanuel Swedenborg, lying in the vault of the cathedral; long, broad avenues crowded with rows of glittering shops; much more in a similar vein.

For those who feel this tourist-type itinerary doesn’t stretch the imagination enough, Uppsala makes a particularly astonishing claim: In the Old Town, located just north of the New, a little old parish church stands on the site of a former pagan temple—and this pagan temple stood on the site of what was once the principal temple of the capital of Plato’s Atlantis. In other words, Uppsala was once the capital of Atlantis, and Sweden was once the lost continent of Atlantis.

Such, at least, was the contention of the polymath Swedish genius Olaus Rudbeck, who lived, mostly in Uppsala, from 1630 to 1702, and who was (with Thomas Barthelin, working independently) the co-discoverer of the lymphatic system, accomplishing this feat at the age of 22. Rudbeck’s second most enduring achievement was his monumental, four-volume (almost) magnum opus, Atlantica, first published in a bilingual Latin-Swedish edition between the years 1679 and 1702 (the volumes appearing almost a decade apart), and presenting, along with much else—and in prodigious detail—104 reasons why present-day Sweden must have been ancient Atlantis.

Rudbeck was a prodigious figure. A professor of medicine at Uppsala University, he was a great anatomist and botanist, familiar with astronomy, and an able musician, architect, and master builder who was at home in every branch of technology. He built a shipyard and in it three yachts, which he used to run a weekly mail service between Uppsala and Stockholm. He undertook to produce a life-size woodcut of every plant known to science, ending up with 7,000 woodforms, 1,200 reproduced, the rest perishing in the fire that ravaged Uppsala in 1702.

Rudbeck financed, and led into the dangerous and mountainous wilds of Lapland north of the Arctic Circle, the first fully equipped scientific expedition, bringing back numerous specimens of plants and even animals not previously known to science. He was an honorary member of the Royal Society of London, though he never attended a meeting. In 1720, Isaac Newton wrote a letter to a prominent French philosopher begging for a copy of Atlantica, which he very likely received and read since it contained comparative chronologies of the gods of antiquity similar to those of Newton. For good measure, Rudbeck was the great-great-grandfather of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish chemist/industrialist who invented dynamite and used the profits to establish the Nobel Prize.

Still, Gunnar Eriksson writes of Rudbeck in The Atlantic Vision: Olaus Rudbeck and Baroque Science (Science History Publications/USA, 1994) that “From the 1670s onward, most of his time as a researcher must have been occupied by his historical and antiquarian work with the Atlantica... a voluminous and ill-fated account of the history of Sweden… where he proudly expounded its main thesis: that Sweden was one of the first countries inhabited after the Flood, that Sweden must be identified with the Atlantis of Plato, and its inhabitants with the Hyperboreans of many classical authors, as well as with the Scythians, the Trojans, and the Goths, all leading up to the conclusion that Sweden or Fennoscandia was the cradle of many peoples who after vast migrations had shaped world history, and was as well the place of fundamental intellectual achievements: the invention of astronomy, time reckoning, and writing.”

Though famous in its time, Rudbeck’s Atlantica is not often read today (a modern-day Swedish-only edition was issued by Atlantis Publishers in Stockholm in the mid-1950s; the only book-length treatment in English is the excellent work, cited above, of Eriksson). It deserves a lot more attention. While Rudbeck’s central thesis—that Sweden was Atlantis—sounds preposterous, the author went about his exposition with such verve and brilliance, and argued his case with such ingenuity, resourcefulness and erudition, that his book can rightly be regarded as a marvelous limbering-up exercise for all those seriously interested in learning more about what Atlantis was and where it was located.

Insofar as all four volumes are, in the words of Eriksson, “crowded with classical mythology, Edda poetry, and endless breakneck etymologies,” Atlantica offers, in this superabundance of material, multiple clues to the whereabouts of Atlantis pointing in other directions than Sweden—even though the book sometimes seems to embody, says Eriksson, “an obsession verging on madness.” And—who knows? Maybe Rudbeck was right!

Like most natural philosophers of his day, the Swedish savant believed the Bible was factual and that the story of Noah was true in every detail. So Rudbeck framed his great work—this appears in both the first and fourth volumes—with an account of how the descendants of the sons of Noah were dispersed throughout the world beginning 100 years after the Flood (which event seventeenth century chronology placed in 2400 BC). Estimating with very fancy arithmetic that the world’s population in 2300 BC was 10,000 couples, Rudbeck zeroes in on the tribe of Magog (synonymous with Goth), the son of Japhet, one of the three sons of Noah. The author maintains that this tribe journeyed far north to cross the Black Sea, then followed the Russian rivers to the Kimi districts in northern Finland, after which it immigrated to the plain around Uppsala in the middle of what would become Sweden.

Why did the tribe of Magog go so far north? Rudbeck contends that Noah and the first generations of his descendants, in separating out into tribes, were obliged to settle on the shores of seas. This was because, water being the natural element of fish, all the fish had survived the Flood, so the original survivors of the Flood hastened to the coastal areas to be assured of the plentiful supply of prediluvian food that was swimming in the waters offshore. The Greeks and Egyptians settled around the Mediterranean, the Chaldeans by the Persian Gulf, and the Chinese near the Indian Ocean; the Tribe of Magog had struck out far to the north, eventually settling in the coastal areas around the Baltic and the North Sea.

They did not go north because they were weaklings, elbowed away by the other tribes from the nearer seas. Rudbeck is at pains to point out that the Magog family was unusually robust and hardy, and somehow sensed that the very best fish (and, eventually, other wildlife) had survived in the seas surrounding what would become the Scandinavian Peninsula. Exposing an ultra-patriotic vein in Rudbeck (not unusual for European authors of the time), Eriksson writes that the Swedish author “ends his argument with a poetical description of the wonderful northern summers and the fresh and healthy winters, when the snow shelters the plants from the frost. No wonder, then, that Swedish women bear more children than almost all other people.”

Rudbeck next sets out to prove that Sweden had been inhabited from the earliest possible times. He accomplishes this by at first showing that the Swedes, using beyond-the-Arctic Circle astronomical cues, began to reckon time far, far earlier than had originally been supposed. He then demonstrates that the disposition of black humus on the ground and on many ancient monuments in Sweden argues for a far greater antiquity than had been thought. He winds up his major arguments by pointing out that a great many ancient Swedish names, especially place names, have hitherto unsuspected links with their counterparts in Atlantis; e.g., the Greek word nesos means not only “island” but also “peninsula” (as in, for example, Peloponnesus—so why shouldn’t the word nesos in Plato refer to the Scandinavian peninsula?).

Rudbeck then lays out a list of no fewer than 102 circumstances that link Scandinavia, and thus Sweden, to the Atlantis of Plato. In particular, he points to the waterways that according to Plato surrounded Atlantis, and which, since Plato calls them “channels,” seem to refer to artificial constructs. Using a method of interpretation he often uses in the book, Rudbeck argues that Plato is speaking literally, not figuratively, and that he is actually referring to the natural waterways that separate the vast archipelagoes surrounding most of the Swedish (and Scandinavian) coasts. Rudbeck goes on to describe many similarities between Old Uppsala and Atlantis’s capital as described by Plato: both lie in the middle of a large plain and are about the same distance from the north and south ends of the country; and there are correspondences between the positions of the buildings, the channels, and the ports of each. In all Rudbeck finds 44 substantial pieces of evidence to back up his “topographical” argument for the identification of Sweden/Uppsala with Atlantis.

Next, the author weighs in with 58 pieces of “historical” evidence linking Atlantis and Sweden. Chief among them is his reconstruction of the roster of the ancient kings of Atlantis, in whose names he finds an astonishing number of etymological similarities with Nordic and (usually) Swedish gods and goddesses and other mythological figures. Here, Rudbeck identifies the site of the parish church of the old town of Uppsala with the main temple of the capital of Atlantis (its foremost building, according to Plato). Eriksson explains that “when Plato describes the Atlantis temple as rich, Rudbeck confirmed it: fragments of gold and silver had been found close to the walls of the church and even in the mortar, all indicating that a fire had devastated the old building though some stones in the walls remained as part of the church.” Rudbeck offers a great many other etymological reasons, as well, to cement this identification.

The Swedish savant’s assertions often seem to surge against insurmountable objections. As Eriksson sums up: “On three points Plato apparently seemed to contradict the Rudbeckian thesis: 1) that wine was grown in Atlantis; 2) that elephants were to be found there; and 3) that an enormous wave inundated the island, which then sank into the depths.” Rudbeck gets around the first two objections by asserting that Plato was speaking figuratively and not literally and meant “beer” when he said “wine and “large, voracious animal” when he said “elephant” (specifically, Plato meant “wolf,” the Swedish word for “wolf” being ulf; this phonetically suggests “elephant”). The most glaring contradiction between Rudbeck’s thesis and Plato’s account is, of course, the high-and-dry nature of Sweden today, as opposed to Plato’s assertion that ancient Atlantis sank beneath the waves. In this regard, Eriksson needs to be quoted in full:

“Of greater importance was the following passage in Plato, duly cited by Rudbeck: ‘But at a later time there occurred portentous earthquakes and floods, and one grievous day and night befell them, when the whole body of your warriors was swallowed up by the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner was swallowed up by the sea and vanished; wherefore also the ocean at that spot has now become impassable and unsearchable, being blocked up by the shoal mud which the island created as it settled down.’ Rudbeck declared the literal meaning of this passage to be unreasonable, both according to the Holy Bible, which assured us that only one universal flood had visited our earth, and because of the 102 circumstances that were evidence that Atlantis still existed. So Plato must have spoken figuratively, meaning devastating conquests and robberies that troubled the communication between Sweden and Greece.” [And there is more.]

In all of the above, we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg of all Rudbeck had to say about Sweden and Atlantis. Harnessing torrents of learning, the author also argued that the ancient Swedish language influenced all other classical languages and all other classical myths as well. Then there is his scintillating, many-layered explanation of why the legendary Hyperboreans must have been the Swedes of the ancient past. And his series of philological proofs that the scientific discoveries of the modern world were known to the ancients—e.g., Pythagoras as part of the prisca sapientia (“primal wisdom”)—and that they were also known to the Swedes of antiquity. But a discussion of all this must wait for the reader to acquire a copy of Gunnar Eriksson’s excellent The Atlantic Vision—or to learn Swedish, or Latin.

By John Chambers