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A Visit to Lemuria

Donate The true history of a mythical place.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Ancient Mysteries, History & Pseudohistory, Urban Legends

Skeptoid Podcast #939
June 4, 2024
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A Visit to Lemuria

Lemuria is — in some mythologies — said to be an ancient advanced civilization that sank beneath the sea, similar to the stories of Atlantis. This is a familiar tale to anyone interested in alternative histories, and it's also well known to many who practice New Age spiritualism; an interesting intersection to say the least. The Lemurian beings were tall, beautiful, spiritual intuitives, which appeal to New Agers who also seek those qualities; and of course the Lemurians' mystical continent appeals to alternative historians. Today we're going to learn the surprising truths behind how Lemuria came to be a part of our mythology, and what it means to whom.

The original notion of a place called Lemuria comes from the world of legitimate zoology — as its name suggests, having the animal name lemur as its root. Two centuries ago, zoologists had long been puzzled why there were so many animal species on the island of Madagascar not found in Africa, which is right next to it, but that are found in India, which is an ocean away. Seeking an explanation for this in the 19th century, some zoologists began hypothesizing that there must have been some continent in between Madagascar and India that linked them, forming a land bridge, and which later sank into the sea. One of these was the eminent zoologist and biogeographer Philip Sclater of the Royal Society (and just about every other scientific body in England). In an 1864 issue of The Quarterly Journal of Science, he published a paper called "The Mammals of Madagascar" and suggested:

…In Madagascar and the Mascarene Islands we have existing relics of this great continent, for which... I should propose the name Lemuria!

To scientists in these relatively early days of modern natural sciences, the notion of a land bridge connecting Africa and India and (in some models) Australia seemed to solve other problems too. For example, some anthropologists used it to explain the distribution of early humans and fossils.

Unfortunately, the hypothesis of Lemuria didn't last more than a few decades, because in the early 20th century continental drift and plate tectonics soon demonstrated the actual mechanism behind the similarity of animal species on Madagascar and India — while simultaneously disproving the possibility that Lemuria ever could have existed, as Madagascar and India had been directly connected with one another with no space for a sunken continent between them.

Correction: An earlier version of this misstated Sclater's hypothesis to include lemurs being in India. There are no lemurs in India, only in Madagascar and the Comoro Islands. —BD

But those few decades between Sclater's proposal of Lemuria and the geophysicist Alfred Wegener's disproof of it formed a crucial window through which tendrils of mysticism and esotericism grew forth. Some authors heard that science supported the possibility of a sunken continent, and they latched onto it, considering it to be scientific evidence that their strange alternative history — of whatever flavor — was true. Let's have a look at some of these.

But first, one more piece of background. Independently of all this, there was a French archaeologist (think of Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark) with an intense interest in the Maya, named Charles-Etienne Brasseur de Bourbourg. Brasseur had "translated" some Mayan writings, according to his own notions of the language that found no support among mainstream Mesoamerican experts. His translations told him of a sunken civilization in the Pacific Ocean identified by two characters he interpreted as M-U, leading him to conclude there had been an advanced civilization called Mu which sank into the ocean.

So now back to the short-lived idea of Lemuria. One of the first of the esotericists to latch onto this was Helena Blavatsky, a Russian occultist and a co-founder of the Theosophical Society. In her 1888 book The Secret Doctrine, Blavatsky wrote that Lemuria was the third of seven "root races" of humanity. Lemurians were the first fully physical beings, tall and androgynous and with a third eye. Their society was advanced and highly spiritual, and also psychic. Next, the fourth root, were the people of Atlantis. The fifth root were the Aryans, the current stage of human evolution, in Blavatsky's view.

If it seems concerning to you that Blavatsky wrote of Aryans, your concern is justified, She also posited that Australian Aboriginals were the result of Lemurians having cross-bred with animals. Many authors who have written about the tall, blonde, beautiful, and wise Lemurians have danced very closely with white supremacy. This is confined more to the alternate history authors like Blavatsky, and not found so much among the New Age authors.

In 1896, author W. Scott-Elliot wrote The Story of Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria which described both as ancient (but separate) advanced civilizations that were lost to the sea (how advanced could they have been if they couldn't figure out how to make boats and escape). Scott-Elliot mentioned Mu as another civilization, but somewhat vaguely, leaving some readers with the impression that Lemuria and Mu were one and the same. James Churchward's The Lost Continent of Mu (1926) was similar but in the reverse, focusing mainly on Mu, but leaving some readers with the impression that it was the same as Lemuria.

From that point on, nearly all the authors who followed conflated Sclater's Lemuria with Brasseur's Mu. By 1988, the book Lost Cities of Ancient Lemuria & the Pacific by David Hatcher Childress straight-up called them the same place. From the publisher's summary:

Was there once a continent in the Pacific called Lemuria or Pacifica by ecologists, and Mu or Pan by the mystics? There is now ample mythological, geological and archaeological evidence to 'prove' that an advanced and ancient civilisation once lived in the central Pacific.

But really, any discussion on what authors were saying what about Lemuria and Atlantis and Mu quickly becomes bogged down in confusion. 35 years before Childress's book, author L. Sprague de Camp — who was both a science fiction author and a nonfiction historian of the genre — had compiled the best book on the topic. Lost Continents: The Atlantis Theme in History, Science, and Literature dug deep on how everyone's misinterpretations of Plato, Sclater, and Brasseur had led to what was best described as a single mythology in which there is no clear delineation between Atlantis, Lemuria, and Mu. It's certainly the most comprehensive and scholarly single book on the subject, and to anyone with any serious interest in the subjects of Atlantis, Lemuria, or Mu, it should be at the top of your reading list. In fact you could do a lot worse than having it constitute the entirety of your reading list.

But perhaps among the more influential of these tendrils that grew from the brief window of Lemuria existing as an actual scientific hypothesis was also the most meek and unassuming. In the 1880s, a teenage boy named Frederick Spencer Oliver (no relation to the novelist Frederick Scott Oliver) lived in the Northern California town of Yreka north of the majestic volcano Mount Shasta. The young Oliver had a great interest in Theosophy, no easy feat in Yreka in the 19th century where library books had to be ordered for delivery by coach from San Francisco. Theosophy is a sort of mishmash of Christianity and mysticism — think of it as a way to dabble in the occult without completely abandoning your Christian upbringing and upsetting your pastor. In what turned out to be a monumental achievement for such a young man in such an isolated town, Oliver wrote a novel titled A Dweller on Two Planets: or, A Dividing of the Way over the course of several years. In the preface, the young Oliver (writing in the voice of a narrator) explained that the actual author was Phylos the Thibetan, an incorporeal being who spent a whole year transmitting his story mentally to the boy, to the surprise and fortuitous enthusiasm of his parents. (The book is actually quite something. It's not a great novel and is a tough read, but Oliver's world building is more than impressive.)

Oliver died young, unfortunately, and a few years afterward his parents had the book published. It immediately found success, at least locally, and you can find it today in every single bookstore within a few hours of Mount Shasta. The reason is that among the adventures Phylos recounts is spending time on the mountain — or, more accurately, inside the mountain. He found Mount Shasta to be filled with a vast underground city named Telos: City of Light, beautifully constructed with magnificent architecture and advanced technologies, and populated with beings from various ancient and advanced civilizations, including both Lemuria and Atlantis. The tall, graceful, radiant Lemurians had vast esoteric knowledge and wisdom, and would transmit it to only the worthiest of seekers, such as Phylos.

Little did the young Oliver know it, but his subterranean cities inside Mount Shasta and the wisdom of the Lemurians became foundational to whole genres of New Age culture. A teenaged author combined ideas drawn from fiction and wove them into a narrative that became one of the single most influential New Age works. In his introduction to a 2002 reprinting, religious text expert John Bruno Hare wrote:

A Dweller on Two Planets would be a tour de force for a teenager from rural California in the post-Gold Rush period. Although as a literary work it is weak in many ways, the details of the narrative reveal a well-read and highly intelligent, if inexperienced, author… The real brilliance of this book is as a work of speculative fiction, particularly in the depiction of the high technology of Atlantis, and the afterlife. The book goes into great detail about antigravity, mass transit, the employment of 'dark-side' energy… and devices such as voice-operated typewriters. The cigar-shaped, highly maneuverable Atlantean flying machines… have an eerie resemblance to 20th Century UFO reports. The personalized heavens, almost like virtual realities, are unforgettable and very compelling… This book is the source of the idea that there is a hidden sanctuary of ascended Lemurian masters under Mount Shasta.

The thing that strikes me most about Oliver's massive contribution to the mythology of Lemuria is that he wrote and intended it as fiction; and yet, his book's giant footprint on New Age culture demonstrates that it is being generally regarded as a factual account of Phylos as a real transcendent being, and that Oliver's book was a true psychically transmitted record of Phylos' journey. This is not a case of cognitive dissonance; because it's not all that unreasonable to read A Dweller on Two Planets with the interpretation that its first-person narrative makes it a true account. It's a bit like interpreting Gulliver's Travels as a true story because its first-person narrator Lemuel Gulliver says it's what happened to him.

And so, for whatever impact Lemuria has today — on New Age practitioners, Internet conspiracy theorists, Ancient Atlantis theorists, or alternative wooists of any persuasion — I credit two people who made outsized contributions. First, the young Frederick Spencer Oliver who single handedly invented Lemuria's relationship with Mount Shasta and its accompanying entire branch of modern esotericism; and second, L. Sprague de Camp, whose scholarly research unraveled the wonderful cultural currents that guided so many authors, inspired so many believers, and set the type of such a rich body of literature. A lot of scientific skeptics look at the whole Lemuria thing and dismiss it as pseudohistory and conspiracy mongering; and while I agree that's certainly true, it misses the larger point of our human capacity to build fictional worlds and to create. Atlantis was a tiny speck in all that Plato and Socrates created. Sclater's effort to solve a mystery of the natural world was an honest and creative one. All the many authors who riffed on Lemuria during that brief window of opportunity were — at least most of them — impassioned efforts by thinking people to fill gaps in our knowledge (or at least gaps in their own knowledge).

One can look at Lemuria and say people can be such idiots, or one can look at the same thing and say people are awesome. I choose to go with the latter, but I do it with two provisos: One, I understand what's fact and what's fiction, and I look at the fiction as a lesson on how to do better. And two, I take the overt racism of authors like Blavatsky and flush it down the toilet.


By Brian Dunning

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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "A Visit to Lemuria." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 4 Jun 2024. Web. 20 Jun 2024. <https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4939>

 

References & Further Reading

Blavatsky, H.P. The Secret Doctrine. Norfolk, VA: Theosophy Trust Books, 2015.

Childress, D.H. Lost Cities of Ancient Lemuria & the Pacific. Stelle, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press, 1988.

Churchward, J. The Lost Continent of Mu. New York: I. Washburn, 1938.

De Camp, L.S. Lost Continents: The Atlantis Theme in History, Science, and Literature. New York: Gnome Press, 1954.

Oliver, F. A Dweller on Two Planets: or, A Dividing of the Way. Los Angeles: Baumgardt Publishing Company, 1905.

Scott-Elliot, W. The Story of Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria. London: Theosophical Publishing House, 1972.

 

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