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Sunday 25 February 2024

The Changing History (and Geography) of Lemuria

A peculiarity of certain fortean topics is the way the details develop and change over time. To pick an example, there's the legend (which, as we'll see, didn't even start out as a legend) of Lemuria. As lost continents go, it's far less well known to the general public than Atlantis, but just as intriguing to those in the know. It's been featured in at least a couple of Ancient Aliens episodes, in "They Came from the Pleiades" (2020) and "The Mystery of Mount Shasta" (2021).

In the first of these, we're informed that Lemuria was a now-sunken continent located in the Pacific, which Hawaiian folklore links to benevolent visitors from the Pleiades star cluster. In the later episode, we're told that survivors from Lemuria may still be living inside Mount Shasta - one of California's best known UFO hotspots. As with most things on the show, these ideas are wonderfully entertaining, and surprisingly credible-sounding if you restrict your knowledge of the subject to what you're being told by Tsoukalos, Pope, Childress et al. But as soon as you do a little independent research, things get a lot murkier (the Pleiades, for example, didn't even exist until the Earth was billions of years old and swarming with Cretaceous-era dinosaurs - so hardly a likely home for ancient astronauts).

My first encounter with Lemuria was probably in the Marvel Comics adaptation of Lin Carter's Thongor stories, though I've subsequently read the original 1965 Wizard of Lemuria novel, pictured above. A much more controversial novel was Richard Shaver's I Remember Lemuria (1945), which purported to be based on fact rather than fiction. My copy (edited by Ancient Aliens regular David Hatcher Childress under the title Lost Continents & the Hollow Earth) is also pictured above, together with a novel I've previously mentioned on this blog, Ron Goulart's Hello Lemuria Hello (1979). Also featured in the picture is the album Lemuria (2004) by symphonic metal band Therion.

In the lyrics of that album's title song, the name Lemuria is used interchangeably with Mu - as indeed it was on Ancient Aliens. But originally Mu and Lemuria were completely separate, and disentangling them involves going quite a way back into history. An excellent source in this context is the final book pictured above, Lost Continents (1954) by L Sprague de Camp. Best known as a fiction author, he turns his hand here to non-fiction - and does his background research far more conscientiously than Ancient Aliens ever bothers to.

The surprising fact, as I mentioned at the start, is that Lemuria didn't start out as a legend, whether in Hawaii, California or anywhere else. It began as a short-lived scientific hypothesis, developed in the latter half of the 19th century, to explain similarities between Mesozoic fossils found on the Indian subcontinent and in south-east Africa. The idea was that there used to be a land-bridge joining these two regions, stretching right across the Indian Ocean. Now mostly sunken, all that remained would have been the island of Madagascar - famous for its lemurs, from which the land-bridge got the name Lemuria.

You'll notice a couple of significant features here - first, that we're talking about a time millions of years before humans existed, and secondly that we're nowhere near the Pacific Ocean. What's more, we don't even need this hypothesis any more, because we know that, back in Mesozoic times, India was attached to southern Africa instead of being in its current position.

But instead of going away, the idea of Lemuria adapted and evolved. And it did so in a way that was peculiar to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In those days, the notion that sensitive individuals could pick up valid information by psychic means - by going into a trance and "channelling" messages from spirit entities - was well accepted in certain quarters. And that's how a lot of the key facts about Lemuria came down to us.

One strand to the Lemurian story lies within the realm of Theosophy, whose complex and confusing teachings were largely derived through psychic means. In this context, here's a passage from de Camp's book that clearly foreshadows Ancient Aliens:
Beings from Venus, which had already developed a high civilization ... guided faltering humankind to the point where the Lemurians became capable of individual immortality and reincarnation.
Most Theosophists were content to leave Lemuria in its original setting of the Indian Ocean, but several American writers of the time endeavoured to move it to the more familiar (to them) locale of the Pacific Ocean. An important development in this context came in the form of a book, A Dweller on Two Planets (1894). A cynic might describe this as a work of fiction, but it's actually presented as the channelled autobiography of a spirit entity called Phylos the Tibetan. Here, too, the second planet in question is Venus, but Lemuria is now indisputably located in the Pacific - and the connection with California's Mount Shasta is also made for the first time.

The final step towards the modern "legend" of Lemuria came in the 1920s and 30s, with a series of books by James Churchward concerning a sunken continent called "Mu", which he proposed as a counterpart of Atlantis in the Pacific. Churchward's arguments were based (albeit shakily) on the interpretation of purely physical evidence, in contrast to the earlier mediumistic channellings relating to Lemuria - but the distinction didn't last long. The legend soon crystallized into the form most often encountered today - that Mu and Lemuria are alternative names for a single lost continent, situated in the Pacific Ocean and having strong links both with Mount Shasta in California and with benevolent aliens from outer space.

Since I love showing off my book collection, here are a couple of classics to round the post off - James Churchward's The Children of Mu (1931) and Ignatius Donnelly's Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882):



Kid said...

Maybe I'm too cynical, AM, but the more I read of such things and the 'facts' surrounding them, the more convinced I am that the people who subscribe to such theories and write books about them know very little indeed. However, there's an audience out there who are only too willing to spend cash and make the authors very rich. (Well, that's the plan - whether it happens in every instance is open to question.)

Andrew May said...

Sadly I think you're exactly right there, Kid. If someone was genuinely interested in understanding a subject like this, they'd at least do the minimum of research that I did for this post before writing about it or discussing it on TV. As you say, the reason they don't (or keep quite about it if they do) is because they know their audience, who want something that's exciting and easy to grasp without having to think too hard about it.

Colin Jones said...

Sometimes Atlantis is described as a lost continent and sometimes it's more like an island with a city on it.

In the 19th century works of art from West Africa started appearing in Europe but European scholars couldn't accept that Africans were capable of making such objects so they decided that Atlanteans must be responsible. Apparently refugees from Atlantis came ashore in West Africa and made the objects turning up in Europe!

Andrew May said...

Thanks Colin - that's a great anecdote that I'd never heard before! As for your first point - yes, Atlantis has "evolved" over the years in the same way as Lemuria. Plato clearly imagined it as a fairly small island dominated by a single city, with the idea of a "lost continent" only coming along much later.

Colin Jones said...

Your memory must be failing you, Andrew, as I'd already mentioned that particular nugget of Atlantis trivia on your blog a few years ago but I'll forgive you for not remembering :)

Atlantis has also been blamed for the disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle - apparently an incredibly powerful machine in Atlantis was never switched off and is dragging ships and planes beneath the sea.

I didn't know Marvel had adapted any Thongor of Lemuria stories but I did know that Marvel had originally considered adapting Thongor rather than Conan The Barbarian.

Andrew May said...

Oh dear, Colin - I know my memory is getting worse and worse, but it's particularly alarming in cases like this where I was sure I'd never heard that anecdote before. My mother developed Alzheimer's, and I'm worried that I'll end up the same way. But she didn't get really bad till well into her 70s, and I'm only 66, so hopefully I've got a few years left!

As for Atlantis and the Bermuda Triangle (just to show that my memory does work sometimes) I briefly touched on that connection in a blog post called "Going Down … Beneath the Bermuda Triangle" in October 2015. The following year I also mentioned it in my book Pseudoscience and Science Fiction: "Undeterred by such considerations, Berlitz put forward several outlandish theories for the disappearances, ranging from space warps and alien abductions to still-functioning high-tech gadgetry on the sunken continent of Atlantis."

Thongor appeared briefly as the lead feature in Creatures on the Loose circa 1973. I think Lin Carter originally created the character because he wanted to write Conan stories, and as soon as he was offered the chance to do just that (with Sprague de Camp) he abandoned Thongor.

Colin Jones said...

Andrew, now I feel terribly guilty for making you worried about losing your memory when I only intended a bit of leg pulling but I too forget things I've read or seen - just ask Kid Robson. There have been numerous occasions when he's posted something or other and I respond with a comment saying "I didn't know that before" and he replies by saying "You should do CJ, it's been on my blog before". My mother was afraid she'd get cancer because both her parents had had cancer (and her father had died of it) but she lived to be 77 and never got cancer so we don't necessarily follow our parents.

I've never read any Thongor stories but I assumed they were merely a Conan rip-off and that certainly seems to be the case judging by the cover of 'Wizard Of Lemuria' so it's interesting to hear that Lin Carter abandoned Thongor as soon as he could write Conan stories. By the way, Conan goes out of copyright in the United States in 2028 and I've read that fantasy/sword & sorcery authors are counting down the days until they can start churning out Conan stories when Conan enters the public domain.

Andrew May said...

Never mind, Colin - you should never feel guilty about teasing me for increasing frailty of mind, as I used to do it mercilessly to my mother and other elderly relatives. It's just karma in action!

Thongor isn't exactly a Conan rip-off - it has quite a bit of retro-futuristic technology, a little like Edgar Rice Burroughs' "John Carter of Mars" stories if you've ever read any of those. So Thongor is more like a cross between John Carter and Conan, with the added twist of being set in the (pseudo-) legendary land of Lemuria.