‘What’s in a name ?’

It is a well known fact that Tolkien had a lifetime passion for creating stories or even entire mythologies starting from words or expressions with obscure etymologies. Therefore when trying to ‘explain’ the history and meanings of the word Atalantë (‘Downfallen’ in Quenya), he drew upon the rich Greek literary and mythological traditions which had fascinated him from his youth. Plato’s explanation for this etymological oblivion process is given by his character Critias in the homonym dialogue. It could have well served as a sound reason for Tolkien to justify his lifetime undertaking of providing tales for almost forgotten words: ‘The names they were willing enough to give to their children; but the virtues and the laws of their predecessors, they knew only by obscure traditions; and as they themselves and their children lacked for many generations the necessaries of life, they directed their attention to the supply of their wants, and of them they conversed, to the neglect of events that had happened in times long past; for mythology and the enquiry into antiquity are first introduced into cities when they begin to have leisure, and when they see that the necessaries of life have already been provided, but not before. And this is the reason why the names of the ancients have been preserved to us and not their actions.‘

Yet more powerful than philological interest proved to be a vision that had haunted Tolkien all his life, particularly in his youth. In Letters #257, he explains what he used to call his ‘Atlantis-haunting’: ‘This legend or myth or dim memory of some ancient history has always troubled me. In sleep I had the dreadful dream of the ineluctable Wave, either coming out of the quiet sea, or coming in towering over the green inlands. It still occurs occasionally, though now exorcised by writing about it. It always ends by surrender, and I awake gasping out of deep water. I used to draw it or write bad poems about it. When C.S. Lewis and I tossed up, and he was to write on space-travel and I on time-travel, I began an abortive book of time-travel of which the end was to be the presence of my hero in the drowning of Atlantis. This was to be called Númenor, the Land in the West….’

The abandoned time-travel story bore the title “The Fall of Númenor”, and it was published in its earliest version by Christopher Tolkien in The Lost Road and Other Writings, the fifth volume in The History of Middle-earth series. Yet the central element of Tolkien’s dream – The Wave – did not appear in Plato’s story, probably because his Atlantis tale remained unfinished.

The well of classical knowledge

The mysterious Atlantis reveals itself only in two works of Plato’s: his dialogues Critias and Timaeus (written around 360 BCE). In Timaeus, the philosopher Critias gives a brief description of the location of that ‘great and wonderful empire’: ‘This power came forth out of the Atlantic Ocean, for in those days the Atlantic was navigable; and there was an island situated in front of the straits which are by you called the Pillars of Heracles; the island was larger than Libya and Asia put together, and was the way to other islands, and from these you might pass to the whole of the opposite continent which surrounded the true ocean; for this sea which is within the Straits of Heracles is only a harbour, having a narrow entrance, but that other is a real sea, and the surrounding land may be most truly called a boundless continent’. Moreover, Critias continues his account by offering a glimpse of an ancient war between mythical Athens and Atlantis, said to have taken place around 9300 BCE. Atlantis was then ‘a mighty power which unprovoked made an expedition against the whole of Europe and Asia’. Of the Mediterranean world only Athens remained free, and they fiercely fought and eventually defeated the Atlantean empire, thus preserving their freedom and liberating the rest of the peoples who dwelled ‘within the pillars’. But after this great victory, violent earthquakes and floods occurred, due to which Atlantis was drowned and Athens and many other cities destroyed: ‘in a single day and night of misfortune all…warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea’.

In the incomplete dialogue Critias, Plato gives more details of Atlantis, describing its history, landscape, as well as its social and political arrangement.

Genesis of a myth

Atlantis and Númenor share a miraculous birth, as well as a divinely-protected fate. In the former case, legend tells of the mighty God of the Waters, Poseidon, having obtained the isle of Atlantis in the days of old, when the whole earth had been divided among the gods by allotment. Athens’ traditional patron gods – Hephaestus and Athene – had also obtained their city in a similar manner. Likewise, fair Númenor is said to have been raised out of the depths of Belegaer the Great Sea by the Maia Ossë. It was established by Aulë and enriched by Yavanna, and the Eldar brought flowers and fountains from Tol Eressëa to their new land.

However, the reasons for their appearance were different. In Greek mythology, Poseidon became enamoured of a mortal woman – Cleito – the daughter of Evenor and Leucippe, who dwelled in a mountain near the centre of the island of Atlantis. Poseidon begat children by Cleito, and to secure his love he enclosed the mountain where she lived with rings of various sizes, two of land and three of water, ‘each having its circumference equidistant every way from the centre’, so that no man could get to the island, for seafaring had yet to be developed.

In Númenor’s case, the people of the three houses of the Edain were granted permission to dwell on that fair island, as a reward for the help provided during the War of Wrath. Instructed by Eönwë, the herald of Manwë, and guided by the light of the star of Eärendil, many of them sailed to their new abode, also called Andor, ‘Land of Gift’, where they were given much wisdom and longer lifespans than the rest of Men.

Natural features

Probably the most striking landscape similarity between Atlantis and Númenor resides in the great mountains that rose near the centres of the two islands. They both had great divine significance, yet it was celebrated in different manners. Whereas the central Atlantean mountain was a plateau upon which their most ancient (and chief) city was built, the central Númenórean mountain was the Meneltarma, Pillar of the Heavens, which had a level top, and was a hallowed place, having no buildings on it and being entirely dedicated to the worship of Ilúvatar. Armenelos, the chief city of Númenor, lay at the feet of the Meneltarma. In Atlantis, the centre of the citadel hid a holy temple dedicated to Cleito and Poseidon, and was surrounded by an enclosure of gold. Festivals were held in both hallowed places, with yearly fruit offerings in Atlantis and the Three Prayers of the King of Númenor – Erukyermë, Erulaitalë and Eruhantalë.

The central regions of both islands had a fertile plain, with few trees, perfect for pasturage. In Atlantis it is said to have been ‘the fairest of all plains and very fertile’, while Númenor’s central region – Mittalmar – ‘was a region of pastures…grasslands and low downs‘, and in the south-west could be found Emerië, ‘the chief region of the Shepherds’.

Both islands were almost entirely encircled by lofty mountains, descending towards the sea, so that their coastlands consisted mainly of sheer cliffs. Only the promontories of Hyarnustar and Hyarrostar had long shores, where ‘sea and land came gently together’. In Atlantis, ‘the surrounding mountains were celebrated for their number and size and beauty, far beyond any which still exist, having in them also many wealthy villages of country folk, and rivers, and lakes, and meadows supplying food enough for every animal, wild or tame, and much wood of various sorts, abundant for each and every kind of work.’

Natural wealth was a feature shared by the two islands – they had abundant resources, including mines, farms, vineyards and forests. Besides the pastures of Emerië and, to a greater extent, of all the Mittalmar, there were also many grain-cultivated lands, particularly in the inner regions of the Orrostar, near the borders of Arandor, for they were protected from the cold winds by the northern highlands. The ‘warm and fertile’ eastern parts of the Hyarnustar were covered with great vineyards. There were also many forests, especially in the southern part of Andustar, covered by ‘great woods, of birch and beech upon the upper ground, and in the lower vales of oaks and elms’. The great plantations in the Hyarrostar furnished timber for ship-building. Alike, in Atlantis ‘there was an abundance of wood for carpenter’s work, and sufficient maintenance for tame and wild animals.

The diversity of fauna and flora was amazing in both Númenor and Atlantis. As Plato tells us, ‘whatever fragrant things there now are in the earth, whether roots, or herbage, or woods, or essences which distil from fruit and flower, grew and thrived in that land…all these that sacred island which then beheld the light of the sun, brought forth fair and wondrous and in infinite abundance. With such blessings the earth freely furnished them…’

Númenor was equally home to many trees and plants unique in Arda. The ‘greatest delight’ of its inhabitants was in the evergreen and fragrant trees received as gifts from the Eldar of Eressëa: oiolairë, lairelossë, nessamelda, vardarianna, taniquelassë and yavannamirë. They were most abundant around Eldalondë the Green, Númenor’s most beautiful haven. ‘Flower, leaf and rind of those trees exude sweet scents, and all that country was full of blended fragrance; therefore it was called Nísimaldar, the Fragrant Trees’. The mighty golden malinornë grew only in that region, and in Hyarrostar grew laurinquë, famous for his ‘long-hanging clusters of yellow flowers’, a reminder of Laurelin.

Númenóreans had a great love for horses, and treated them kindly. The fauna of Númenor also included a considerable number of birds, especially of those dwelling near the sea, from whose clamour the mariners could tell they were approaching the shores. Alike, the inlands had many kinds of birds, such as the small, sweet-singing kirinki, or the mighty eagles that guarded the summit of the Meneltarma.

The Atlanteans shared this passion for horses, and their land also had various and unique species of animals, including elephants, which they were probably most proud of: ‘there were a great number of elephants in the island; for as there was provision for all other sorts of animals, both for those which live in lakes and marshes and rivers, and also for those which live in mountains and on plains, so there was for the animal which is the largest and most voracious of all.’

The Atlanteans enjoyed two harvests per year: ’Twice in the year they gathered the fruits of the earth – in winter having the benefit of the rains of heaven, and in summer the water which the land supplied by introducing streams from the canals.’ Alike, the Númenóreans had mild weather, ‘ever apt to the needs and liking of Men: rain in due season and ever in measure; and sunshine, now warmer, now cooler, and winds from the sea. And when the wind was in the west, it seemed to many that it was filled with a fragrance, fleeting, but sweet, heart-stirring, as of flowers that bloom for ever in undying meads and have no names on mortal shores.’

Both lands were rich in stone and various metals, extracted in many mines throughout the islands. Among these mineral resources Plato mentions a mysterious reddish metal, called orichalcum: ‘In the first place, they dug out of the earth whatever was to be found there, solid as well as fusile, and that which is now only a name and was then something more than a name, orichalcum, was dug out of the earth in many parts of the island, being more precious in those days than anything except gold.’ Númenóreans did not find gold or silver in their island, but Tolkien offers (in The Line of Elros and the Disaster of the Gladden Fields) two allusions that they may have found mithril. Although orichalcum and mithril have rather different aspects, an analogy can be made as far as value is concerned, for Plato says that only gold was more valuable than orichalcum. Therefore, even if not equivalent in appearance, the two metals were similar in value.

Another natural feature common to Atlantis and Númenor was the arising of natural springs from within the hearts of the two islands. Plato says that Poseidon created two springs for the Atlanteans, one of hot water and one of cold water. The Atlanteans built fountains, gardens, baths, and cisterns which drew water from the two springs ‘in gracious plenty flowing. Of the water which ran off they carried some to the grove of Poseidon, where were growing all manner of trees of wonderful height and beauty, owing to the excellence of the soil, while the remainder was conveyed by aqueducts along the bridges to the outer circles’. The central plain of Atlantis received the streams which came down from the mountains, as well as the canals of the interior, and found a way to the sea. Likewise, Númenor’s greatest river, the Siril, rose from springs at the base of the Meneltarma and flowed south to the sea, and Nunduinë had a similar course, but westwards, flowing into the sea at Eldalondë.

Society and culture

The population of Atlantis was quite large and enjoyed a long life. The Númenóreans resembled them in the latter aspect, yet not in numbers, which ‘increased only slowly in the land, for though daughters and sons were born to them, fairer than their fathers, yet their children were few.’ Both peoples honoured their divine ancestry – the Númenóreans having both elven and maiar blood through the lineage of their first king, Elros, while the Atlanteans considered themselves the descendants of Poseidon. The preservation of such high legacies was important to Atlanteans and Númenóreans alike.

A further similarity appears between Númenor and Greek mythology when considering the story of the Half-elves. The first Sea-king – Elros – was the brother of Elrond Peredhil, and both were the children of Eärendil and Elwing. Due to their mixed ancestry, they were given the choice of being counted with the Elves or with Men. Elrond chose to become Elven, while Elros chose the fate of Men. Likewise, the Dioscures – Castor and Pollux – had both mortal and immortal blood, being the twins of Zeus and of the mortal woman Leda. Thus one of them was mortal, Castor, while his brother, Pollux, remained immortal.

Echoing Egyptian funeral practices, the Númenóreans had a well developed cult of the dead. The Sea-kings built their tombs in a valley at the base of the Meneltarma, a true Númenórean ‘Valley of the Kings’: ‘the fear of death grew ever darker upon them, and they delayed it by all means that they could; and they began to build great houses for their dead, while their wise men laboured unceasingly to discover if they might the secret of recalling life, or at the least of the prolonging of Men’s days. Yet they achieved only the art of preserving incorrupt the dead flesh of Men, and they filled all the land with silent tombs in which the thought of death was enshrined in the darkness.’

Sacrifices appear in both cultures, but they hold different meanings. In Atlantis, one of the bulls of Poseidon was sacrificed at the festivals held every fifth and every sixth year alternately. During these festivals the princes and the ten kings of Atlantis gathered and, after performing a certain ritual which included the sacrifice, gave judgment against offenders. In Númenor sacrifices occurred only in the evil days of Ar-Pharazôn, when a temple was built in Armenelos at Sauron’s bidding, with ‘an altar of fire in the midst of the temple, and in the topmost of the dome there was a louvre, whence there issued a great smoke. And the first fire upon the altar Sauron kindled with the hewn wood of Nimloth…thereafter the fire and smoke went up without ceasing; for the power of Sauron daily increased, and in that temple, with spilling of blood and torment and great wickedness, men made sacrifice to Melkor that he should release them from Death. And most often from among the Faithful they chose their victims’.

The Atlanteans were great builders. As their civilisation developed, they learned the art of ship-building and opened pathways through the canals for ships to pass through to the sea. They also had huge bridges with towers, great houses, guarded by gates at both ends – an image echoed by Tolkien’s Great Bridge of Osgiliath. Moreover, the description of the largest canal of the Atlantean citadel could well apply to Númenor’s greatest haven, Rómenna: ‘beginning from the sea they bored a canal…which they carried through to the outermost zone, making a passage from the sea up to this, which became a harbour, and leaving an opening sufficient to enable the largest vessels to find ingress.’ The Atlanteans also roofed their canals, allowing the ships to sail to sea undercover. The concept of establishing mighty cities on the water also reflects in Osgiliath, Citadel of the Stars, with its Great Bridge spanning the Anduin. The Atlantean art of building walls made of black, white and red stone is similar to the Gondorian habit of constructing fortresses out of black and white stone. The Númenóreans built vast monuments and walls around their citadels in Middle-earth, and the mighty Minas Anor, with its concentrical structure, echoes the five rings enclosing Atlantis.

Númenor and Atlantis had different political arrangements. In the former there was only one ruling king, whereas in Atlantis power was divided between ten royal families descended from five pairs of twins of Poseidon and Cleito. Although the eldest line, said to be founded by Atlas (who also gave his name to the island and the ocean), held the most power, they were all governing the island together. The ten kings had a certain autonomy in the rule of their respective cities, but they were forbidden to act against each other. Moreover, they were required to support each other if any of their cities rebelled.

Yet similarities exist, for both political systems seemed to give great honour and importance to noble families. In Númenor, the king was advised by a council of nobles and chieftains, some of them descended from Elros. Their influence remained great even in the days of Ar-Pharazôn, when Sauron himself was unable to compel the King to harm Amandil, Lord of Andúnië and secret leader of the Elendili.

A return to the sea

The downfall of both of these mighty insular nations came in the manner of a gradual spiritual collapse. Yet the origins of this moral diminishment are rather different.

Plato attributes it to a dilution of their divine bloodline by intermarriage with mortal women. For many generations, the people of Atlantis were virtuous, obedient to the laws and to the gods, gentle, wise and unwarlike. They knew that they could only have the true use of riches by not caring about them: ‘They despised everything but virtue, caring little for their present state of life, and thinking lightly of the possession of gold and other property, which seemed only a burden to them; either were they intoxicated by luxury; nor did wealth deprive them of their self-control; but they were sober, and saw clearly that all these goods are increased by virtue and friendship with one another, whereas by too great regard and respect for them, they are lost and friendship with them.’ But as the mixed marriages became more frequent, their kings became corrupt, and the people increasingly dissatisfied with life: ‘when the divine portion began to fade away, and became diluted too often and too much with the mortal admixture, and the human nature got the upper hand, they then, being unable to bear their fortune, behaved unseemly, and to him who had an eye to see grew visibly debased, for they were losing the fairest of their precious gifts; but to those who had no eye to see the true happiness, they appeared glorious and blessed at the very time when they were full of avarice and unrighteous power.’ Their lust for treasures increased steadily: ‘they had such an amount of wealth as was never before possessed by kings and potentates, and is not likely ever to be again, and they were furnished with everything which they needed, both in the city and country. For because of the greatness of their empire many things were brought to them from foreign countries, and the island itself provided most of what was required by them for the uses of life.’ The greed and opulence of their nobility was probably best reflected in the royal palace, ‘every king surpassing the one who went before him to the utmost of his power, until they made the building a marvel to behold for size and for beauty’. In an attempt to quench their treasure-hunger, the Atlanteans greatly expanded their dominion on other peoples ‘over the country within the pillars as far as Egypt and Tyrrhenia.’

A similar approach was used by the Númenóreans, stretching-out their power especially over the peoples dwelling near the western coastland of Middle-earth: ‘they sailed now with power and armoury to Middle-earth, and they came no longer as bringers of gifts, nor even as rulers, but as fierce men of war. And they hunted the men of Middle-earth and took their goods and enslaved them, and many they slew cruelly upon their altars.’ Both nations suffered from what the ancient Greeks would have called hubris, meaning insolence, lack of restraint and instinct, as well as considering oneself equal to or greater than the gods. In many Greek tragedies, those affected by hubris were punished by the gods. Unfortunately the Critias dialogue ends abruptly just as Zeus, becoming aware of the change in the Atlanteans, decides to take action against them and holds a council of the gods.

Tolkien, however, attributes the decline of the Númenóreans to a growing fear of death accompanied by envy of Elven immortality. Even from the beginning a ban was imposed by the Valar upon the people of Númenor, forbidding them to sail into the west, to the Undying Lands. At first, Númenóreans didn’t understand its purpose, but they obeyed it nonetheless, out of reverence and gratitude towards the Valar for what they had been given. Yet as the years lengthened upon their fair island, Men began to question the Ban, considering it an unjust prohibition that prevented them from reaching the immortality of the Undying Lands. Death became a dreadful threat, yet once it had been regarded as a gift from Ilúvatar. When Ar-Pharazon, the last king of Númenor, set sail with a mighty fleet to Aman, going with war against the Valar, and also breaking the Ban, Manwë called upon Ilúvatar. He answered by changing the face of the world forever. Númenor was drowned into the Great Sea from whence it had once been raised. Aman and Eressëa were taken away from the Circles of the World, and the seas were bent, making it impossible for mortals to reach the Undying Lands.

All that remained of Atlantis was a shoal of mud beyond the Pillars of Hercules (presumably the Straits of Gibraltar), from which arose the popular belief of the local shallowness of the ocean. The sea is believed to be impenetrable in those parts, an impassable barrier of mud to voyagers sailing from hence to any part of the ocean. Similarly, Númenor left nothing behind, save the tradition saying that the summit of the Meneltarma has survived and remained as a small island in the Great Sea, because that hallowed mountain had never been tainted by evil.

Although the reasons for their respective downfalls were different, an analogy can be made in the light of the intermarriages that presumably diminished the virtues and divine nature of the two peoples. Tolkien drew upon this concept when describing the Kin-Strife, a violent conflict between the Gondorian nobles that held to the tradition of the kings marrying only women of Númenórean descent, and the rest of the nobles, that accepted mixed marriages. The great concern of the former was that the Dúnedain would gradually lose their longer lifespans and eventually dwindle to lesser Men. Yet this terrible civil war, that erupted in Gondor around the middle of the Third Age, had, ironically, as a main consequence the further diminishment of the descendants of the Númenóreans in the South-kingdom.

An ancient universal memory?

An interesting fact is that Tolkien’s recurrent dream of the ‘stupendous and ineluctable wave advancing from the Sea or over the land, sometimes dark, sometimes green and sunlit’ also echoes in the character of Faramir – himself haunted by such a dreadful nightmare. When Sauron’s downfall finally comes to pass, the vast mountain of darkness towering over the world reminded him of ‘the land of Westernesse that foundered, and of the great dark wave climbing over the green fields and above the hills, and coming on, darkness unescapable. I often dream of it.’

Tolkien doesn’t tell us much of his own obsession, letting instead his works speak for him. However in Letters #276, he admits that his ‘Atlantis dream’ was the most deeply seated in his imagination of all ‘the mythical or ‘archetypal’ images’. Moreover, a fragment from the Letters #163 reveals a fascinating and strange fact: ‘I have what some might call an Atlantis complex. Possibly inherited, though my parents died too young for me to know such things about them, and too young to transfer such things by words. Inherited from me (I suppose) by one only of my children, [Tolkien’s second son Michael] though I did not know that about my son until recently, and he did not know it about me. I mean the terrible recurrent dream (beginning with memory) of the Great Wave, towering up, and coming in ineluctably over the trees and green fields. (I bequeathed it to Faramir.) I don’t think I have had it since I wrote the ‘Downfall of Númenor’ as the last of the legends of the First and Second Age.’

Article by Nenyia, Handmaiden of Vairë


Critias, Plato, translated by Benjamin Jowett, December, 1998
Timaeus, Plato, translated by Benjamin Jowett, December, 1998
The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, Harper Collins Publishers, 1999
Unfinished Tales, J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, Harper Collins Publishers, 1998
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien, Harper Collins Publishers, 1995

The Magical Mythical Númenor Tour, Michael Martinez
Seeking the Wayward Children of Númenor, Michael Martinez, September 8, 2000
Tolkien’s World, David Day, Octopus Publishing Group Limited, London, 2003
Art by: John and Elizabeth Pritchett (1); Ted Nasmith (4, 9); Barbara Lofthouse (5); Alan Lee (6, 7)

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