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A True Story of Genius, Madness, and an Extraordinary Quest for a Lost World

by David King

Pub Date: June 14th, 2005
ISBN: 1-4000-4752-8
Publisher: Harmony

Here’s one thing Donovan and Ignatius Donnelly didn’t know: The Atlanteans ate lutefisk.

Atlantis has been a puzzle since Plato wrote obliquely of it 2,500 years ago, and the notion of a highly evolved civilization that one day disappeared under the waves continues to exert its hold. King (European History/Univ. of Kentucky) uncovers one of the Lost Continent’s most unlikely champions in this portrait of the Swedish scholar Olof Rudbeck, who grew up in a time and place that seems to have encouraged certain eccentricities. After all, Sweden’s Queen Christina had recently “converted to Catholicism, renounced the Swedish throne, and moved to Rome, where she allegedly rode into town dressed as an Amazon warrior.” Rudbeck, for his part, attracted attention by wading into a pile of cow in an Uppsala marketplace, where he discovered the lymphatic system and “correctly explained its functions in the body.” Appointed rector of Uppsala University in 1661, Rudbeck fell afoul of inquisitors intent on proving him a Cartesian heretic, but Rudbeck had weirder ambitions; on the shakiest of linguistic grounds, and working with a body of legend, folklore, and sagas, he set out to prove that the nearby countryside was the land of the Hyperboreans, that his hometown was once the capital of a vanished civilization, and that it was “absolutely urgent to rekindle the wisdom of Atlantis.” He brushed aside learned objections to his theories—yes, Atlantis was supposed to be an island, but Sweden was a peninsula, and that was close enough—and, indeed, brushed aside some of his official responsibilities while compiling a 2,500-page opus called the Atlantica and hunting funds to publish it. He finally secured them from Sweden’s king, but to not much avail, for historians even then were insisting on stronger evidence than mere conjecture, and “Rudbeck’s name was becoming synonymous, at least in some circles, with wild theorizing.” The result: the published volumes, too, all but disappeared.

An engaging work of scholarly detection honoring a wacky hero who, it turns out, was right about a few things.