Hercules at the Limits of Reason: The Sinking of Atlantis

A strange vision of doom. A gloomy sky. A tremor that splits the ground. A strong hand reaching out to grab her and pull her up from the yawning abyss. This was the premonition that Cassandra experienced for many nights until finally she met Hercules. It was then that she knew that her homeland was doomed.

Hercules: The Legendary Journeys was one of my favorite shows growing up. It and its spinoff, Xena: Warrior Princess, which I also enjoyed immensely, were iconic to an entire generation of children, even though they weren’t exactly “kid’s shows.” There were a lot of adult situations and plot points that kids wouldn’t be able to understand. Coming back on the series many years later, first to observe it for the Outskirts Battledome, and now just to fully enjoy it, I notice things I obviously couldn’t as a spellbound kid in the 90’s.

One particularly relevant episode came in the third season, titled “Atlantis.” Hercules: The Legendary Journeys’ interpretation of the Atlantis legend had particularly modern themes, at least in regards to this election and human nature in general.

The story begins when Hercules finds himself shipwrecked on a remote island. He’s in the countryside of the island of Atlantis, and here he meets Cassandra, who is a self-imposed exile from the main city of Atlantis. She doesn’t fit in with the Atlantean population, which considers her strange and uncouth for her claims of having prophetic visions, so she chooses to stay out of the city. Hercules, having grown up in that awkward position of being not quite man, but not quite god, can relate. Nevertheless, he tells Cassandra that if she really believes her fellow countrymen are in danger, she needs to go to the city and let them know. Very reluctantly, she agrees, and the two head out the next morning.

Atlantis is far different from the world that Hercules knows. For one, to his big surprise, it’s far more technologically advanced. He’s immediately accosted by a salesman trying to sell him a microwave oven, but upon seeing Cassandra, the salesman backs off because he doesn’t want to have anything to do with her. Perplexed, Hercules asks what’s going on with these devices he sees, and Cassandra remarks to him that the lifestyle of the Atlanteans is powered by crystals.

Atlantis Hercules Masculine Epic Legendary Journeys Microwave

These crystals powered an industrial revolution on Atlantis. Freed of having to partake in cumbersome, backbreaking labor by the substitute of crystal-powered technology serving as the energy source to do work, the Atlanteans live a life of massive wealth and luxury. The technology of the Atlanteans includes crystal-powered flying machines and even ray guns. Isolated by the sea and not having to fear invasion, peace and prosperity abound, and the Atlanteans know it.

Hercules and Cassandra meet with the Atlantean king, Pantheus, who immediately ridicules the vision as defying all logic and reason. He also isn’t impressed with Hercules’ half-god heritage, as the Atlanteans do not believe in the gods. They have no religion. Technology and progress, guided by reason, Pantheus declares, is all that Atlantis needs. Hercules and Cassandra are ordered to leave the city, which they do. Yet, they’re attacked that very night and eventually brought back to the king. Pantheus subdues Hercules with a crystal stun gun, imprisoning him, but not before revealing that it was he who sunk his ship. He then mocks his reputation with a public ritual. These public rituals and demonstrations are in fact one of the best ways to solidify your authority with the crowd, but Pantheus’ knowledge of persuasion seems to stop there.

Case in point, he attempts to get Cassandra to rell him how she thinks Atlantis will be destroyed, but she doesn’t know. Not accepting this for an answer, he brings out a device to torture it out of her.

Meanwhile, doing what heroes do, Hercules escapes from his confinement and runs out along the beach, discovering that the crew of his ship has been enslaved. There he finds the dark truth: the Atlantean crystal economy is based on slave labor, which works the mines to extract the crystals while the Atlanteans live in luxury. Hercules takes out the guards and frees the slaves, telling them to get to his ship, and that he’ll join them later. After an attack by a couple of ray-gun equipped flying machines, Hercules defeats them and confronts Pantheus one last time.

Atlantis Crystals Hercules Legendary Journeys

And now the culprit behind Cassandra’s visions presents itself. The mass mining of crystals was undermining the geological foundation of Atlantis, and the island is just at that moment beginning to sink. Through a complicated process that does Pantheus and the completely unprepared citizens in, Hercules and Cassandra board a flying machine and escape just before the island sinks beneath the waves, landing on his ship.

What Happened?

The Atlanteans, which King Pantheus represented so well, believed in a world of never-ending progress guided by “reason.” Indeed, the prosperity of Atlantis lasted for so long that it appeared that nothing else was possible. The warnings of Cassandra and Hercules represented not so much a threat to the Atlantean way of life, but a social nuisance that posed an unwelcome disruption of the status quo. For these reasons, Cassandra lived in a self-imposed, extra-legal exile by the popular will. As she believed in myths, the gods, and her visions, she was an undesirable.

The Atlanteans were so convinced of their superiority over others that they enslaved, and the superiority of their belief in progress guided by reason over the gods and myths that they considered crude and barbaric (as well as those who believed in them), that they began to believe their own hype. They believed that the golden age of Atlantis, powered by its crystal industry, would be eternal. To secure this eternity, Pantheus and the social order of Atlantis ensured that anyone who questioned the official orthodoxy such was dealt with in the appropriate fashion, which could include social ostracism, imprisonment, or even torture.

And so we arrive at the conclusion Alexander the Great reached in The Virtues of War:

Rationality is superstition by another name.

The belief in progress guided by logic and reason, and the technological revolution associated with it, was just as much a myth as the religions that the Atlanteans considered themselves “better than.” At the end of the day, it wasn’t the vaunted rationalism that saw Atlantis was in trouble, but the visions of the mystic Cassandra. It wasn’t the technology of the crystals that saved anyone, but the muscle of Hercules.

Hercules Cassandra Atlantis Legendary Journeys

In the end, the belief of the Atlanteans and King Pantheus was just as much a religion as those they despised. They saw what they wanted to see in their technological progress and gizmos and gadgets, but they didn’t see that their own industry was undermining their future (literally), and stripping their social order of anything but a crystal-powered marketplace. In the end, their own avaraice and arrogance destroyed them down to the last man – all except for Cassandra, who escaped with Hercules.

So convinced were the Atlanteans of their superiority, the logical appeals of Hercules and Cassandra would always fall on deaf ears, and a demonstration that her countrymen were wrong was unlikely, as she didn’t know that the crystal mining was corroding the foundations of the island. It was even more unlikely that King Pantheus and other higher-ups would care about the people “beneath them” – slaves and the religious like Cassandra.

As Quintus Curtius remarks, fortune has a way of returning us to the mean, and the Fates laugh at the hubris of man who thinks he can endlessly defy them, based on whatever ideology and rationalizations he has in its favor.

The Atlanteans sank (and failed to listen to those who would save them) because they didn’t realize that human behavior is inherently irrational and actively attempted to defy it. Read Stumped so you won’t sink in your life.