A seventeenth-century anatomist with a yellow flower

Atlantis in Sweden

Atlantis in Sweden
A grey stone in an autumn landscape

Reaching for Atlantis

Reaching for Atlantis
Deities carved onto an ancient artifact

The Team

The Team

Atlantis in Sweden

The darkest hour

The printed sheet rose effortlessly into the night sky.

From a rooftop the elderly man watched the page as it danced between the twin spires of Uppsala Cathedral, as elegant as a swallow in flight.

It was the wee hours of a spring morning. A new day was dawning, and the heart of Swedish learning was ablaze.

Panorama of a burning city
The Great Fire of Uppsala (1702). Image from Eenberg, En utförlig Relation (1703), based on a woodcut by Olof Rudbeck in his work Atlantica (RfA-id 202). From Wikimedia Commons.

The blaze had started after dusk on 15 May 1702, on the other side of Fyrisån River. Between roofs ablaze, families were fleeing the fire, belongings in hand.

A dome of eerily lit smoke was rising over the city. Fighting their way through streets filled with clamoring residents, trying to escape the fire with what few belongings they could carry, firemen hastened up from the river, water sloshing in their buckets. The men buried their faces in their elbows as they moved between the walls of fire, eyes squinted against the acrid fumes.

A disembodied voice boomed across the cathedral square. In search of its origin, they finally spotted an elderly man. There he stood, on the roof of the Gustavianum, the university building. Scraps of paper were spiralling around him, reflecting the orange hue from below.

Across the river, where many of the professors had their homes, private collections of books and antiquities and life’s works in manuscript papers had already been lost to the flames.

It was where his own house stood, too.

Historic city map of Uppsala
Map of Uppsala as included in the Atlantica (detail, slightly rotated).
The added circle marks the Gustavianum opposite the cathedral. See RfA-id 169.

It had been in the early hours that the flames crossed the river, making their way towards the cathedral and the Gustavianum with its domed crown. Ten years prior, the university library had been moved into the building on top of which the shouting man stood. Beneath his feet were shelves, filled with centuries of learning.

Supporting himself with one hand on the building he himself had designed, pointing with the other to the cathedral, Olof Rudbeck commanded “Save the books!” again and again. “Save the books!”

The magnificent Mister Rudbeck

The man shouting from the roof was a local celebrity in 1702. For decades, Olof Rudbeck had held the reins of Sweden’s leading university firmly in his hands. Uppsala was the ground on which his family and his career as a professor of anatomy had flourished.

It was here, in the old city with its grave mounds and surrounding wide plain and rivers, that the polymath eventually embarked on a quest that dominated the last three decades of his life – the search for that ancient promise made by the Greeks, Atlantis.

In the first volume of his Atlantica, Rudbeck argued that there was a historic truth underlying the legend told by Plato and others. It spoke eloquently about the cradle of civilization, the origin of the gods, the alphabet, and astronomy – and Rudbeck was certain that this cradle was Scandinavia.

An anatomist leading a scalpel across a large globe, surrounding by an audience
Olof Rudbeck revealing the hidden truth. Detail from the frontispiece engraving by Dionysius Padt-Brugge for the Atlantica's volume of plates. See RfA-id 1.

In the following three volumes (1679–1702) and over thousands of pages, Rudbeck elaborated his conviction – not only was Atlantis real, all of the landmarks of ancient myths and epic endeavours – from the Garden of the Hesperides to the Elysian Fields – were to be found in Sweden.

In hundreds of illustrations, the Atlantica presented a vision of the north as the place promised in Europe’s oldest myths. It was a tailor-made narrative glorifying the Swedish Empire at the peak of its power – an all-comprising truth that Rudbeck underpinned with geographical maps, diagrams, depictions of antiquities and archaeological sites at home and abroad, woodcuts of plants and animals, and panoramas of mountain ranges and coastlines.

Final chimes

Around 1700, a veritable industry was humming at Uppsala around Rudbeck’s ideas. Over the preceding decades, students had discussed and defended his ideas on Sweden’s earliest history in academic dissertations. A massive botanical atlas he and his family had put together was being published. And by 1702, the fourth volume of his Atlantica was nearing completion.

In these months, churchgoers must have seen Rudbeck’s assistants carrying piles of paper into the cathedral. Among them were printed sheets for the Atlantica and his magnum opus on plants, his manuscripts and printer’s copies, and the thousands of woodcuts destined to illustrate their pages.

We do not know why he entrusted all this to a closet not far from the main portal. Yet it was there that it lay – the sum of his life’s work, neatly stacked in a wooden cabinet next to the organ.

When the sun rose on 16 May 1702, swathes of smoke hung over Uppsala, Rudbeck’s Atlantean metropolis. Farmers miles away had seen the cathedral’s towers light up like torches, fanned by the strong winds. Thick smoke was pouring forth from the apertures above the clockwork.

Historic view of a church and a university building
Uppsala Cathedral with its towers (left) and the Gustavianum in the center. Detail from an engraving by Erik Reitz (1695) for Erik Dahlberg's Suecia antiqua et hodierna. Cf. RfA-ids 177 and 184. Courtesy of the Suecia Project / The Royal Library of Sweden, KoB Dahlb. I:62 Ex. I.

The clock was striking nine when Rudbeck looked up to the north tower for the last time. Moments later, the hands raced around the clock-face in a mad circuit. The inner mechanism had melted.

Rudbeck saw the impact before he heard it. On the opposite side of the church square, the north tower had collapsed. Like a metal comet, the falling clockwork struck through the cathedral’s vault, dragging a tail of embers behind. Two hours after the rain of sparks had fallen through the ceiling, the gaping hole was still spitting smoke.

Across the church square, the Gustavianum was still standing – a last bastion in the inferno. Under Rudbeck’s command, the firemen had saved the university’s books.

Nothing of the cathedral’s interior remained. The papers and woodcuts Rudbeck had stored in the wooden cabinet were ash. A few sheets printed for the fourth volume of the Atlantica were all that could be salvaged.

On 16 May 1702, the mosaic of Atlantis in Sweden that Rudbeck had spent decades piecing together fell apart. In one night his family home, his collection of scientific instruments and antiquities, his notes and library, many of his printed works and the plants he had cultivated in the botanic garden were all destroyed.

Weeks later, farmers were still finding shreds of burned paper in forests miles away from the city center. Rudbeck never recovered from the loss. He passed away a few months after the Great Fire.

What remains is a monumental work, Olof Rudbeck’s interpretation of the world around him – of antiquities as well as entire landscapes – as the foundation of ancient myths.

Taking the Atlantica as our guidebook, we delve into this cosmos once again – revisiting the stories that once turned a world of matter into one of meaning.

Welcome to Reaching for Atlantis!

Further reading and references

Introductions to Olof Rudbeck and his Atlantica in English language include David King, Finding Atlantis: A True Story of Genius, Madness and an Extraordinary Quest for a Lost World, New York, 2005, and Gunnar Eriksson, The Atlantic Vision: Olaus Rudbeck and Baroque Science, Canton (Mass.), 1994.

For a more detailed introduction in Swedish see Gunnar Eriksson, Rudbeck 1630-1702: Liv, Lärdom, Dröm i Barockens Sverige, Stockholm, 2002.

For the most exhaustive study on Rudbeck and the long-lasting impact of his ideas on European scholarship see the authoritative work by Bernd Roling, Odin's Imperium: der Rudbeckianismus als Paradigma an den skandinavischen Universitäten (1680–1860), 2 vols, Leiden, 2020.

Various aspects of the same period are also illustrated in the contributions to Bernd Roling and Bernhard Schirg, Boreas Rising: Antiquarianism and National Narratives in 17th- and 18th-Century Scandinavia, Berlin, 2019, and Bernd Roling, Bernhard Schirg, Stefan Bauhaus, Apotheosis of the North: the Swedish Appropriation of Classical Antiquity around the Baltic Sea and Beyond (1650 to 1800), Berlin, 2017.

More specific literature regarding entries in our database will be gradually integrated under the slider Research literature.

^ The blaze had started after dusk on 15 May 1702, on the other side of Fyrisån River: This account of the Great Fire builds – with some artistic license – on the narratives by Johan Eenberg, En utförlig Relation Om den Grufweliga Eldswåda och Skada, som sig tildrog med Upsala Stad den 16 Maji åhr 1702, Uppsala, 1703, and by Per Daniel Amadeus Atterbom, Minne af professoren i medicinen vid Upsala universitet Olof Rudbeck den äldre, esp. pp 240f. (modern edition in Per Daniel Amadeus Atterbom,Olof Rudbeck, Stockholm, 2013).

^ Ten years prior, the university library had been moved into the building on top of which the shouting man stood: For the history of the building see Ernst Areen, Uppsala universitetsbiblioteks byggnadshistoria, Uppsala, 1925.

^ A few sheets printed for the fourth volume: Three sets of sheets comprising the initial two hundred pages – about a quarter of the final work – survive.