Monday, October 29, 2007

Swedish? Well, of course

Meet Olof Rudbeck, the man who announced that he had discovered Atlantis in Sweden. He then excavated what he thought was its capital, and opened a museum to house its artifacts. He also claimed to have discovered the Kingdom of Hades (near the Arctic Circle) – and then sent a “scientific expedition” to explore this shadowy Underworld. By the end of his thirty year quest, which soon became one of the more unusual in modern history, Rudbeck believed that almost every major figure of ancient Greek and Norse mythology had either visited Sweden, or had actually been Swedish.

Before this search became a lifelong obsession, Olof Rudbeck (1630-1702) had been the first Swede to make a major scientific contribution. He discovered and explained the lymphatic system – as a nineteen-year old. He was working largely on his own (his supervisor was too busy in the alchemy lab). Later, when Rudbeck became a professor, he built an anatomy theater for dissections, and founded a botanical garden, which developed into one of the larger ones on the continent. He discovered two comets, using instruments he built himself. Among many other things, Rudbeck started an early postal service in Sweden, operated fencing and dancing school, and harnessed the town river to power several machines in his factory. One of his favorite things to do was to make fireworks, and he would long enjoy lighting up the night sky with his home-made rockets.

All of this extraordinary talent was brought to his search for the fabled lost civilization, and the “discoveries” poured in at an alarming rate. By 1702, Rudbeck had compiled some 2,500 pages of evidence for his theories – I read every word of the four tomes of Old Swedish and Latin (including his surviving correspondence). Rudbeck's theories are perhaps the most rigorously-argued and wildly speculative theories of ancient history ever to be accepted, for a time, among many contemporaries. Rudbeck was admired at the court of Louis XIV, proposed as a member of the Royal Society in London, and celebrated in cafes, salons and academies across the continent. Avid readers were Leibniz, Montesquieu, and Isaac Newton. Rudbeck's Atlantica is, among other things, a veritable curiosity cabinet of the seventeenth century (From my book Finding Atlantis: A True Story of Genius, Madness, and an Extraordinary Quest for a Lost World).