The Lost Land of Lemuria: Fabulous Geographies, Catastrophic Histories
University of California Press, 2004
384 pp., 31.95
Once upon a time, there was not a lost continent of Lemuria, which was not the birthplace of humanity, nor an early haven of civilization, nor was it a bridge between the historic cultures of Asia and the Americas. Lemuria was no more a source of human wisdom or knowledge than those other lost lands, Atlantis of the Atlantic, Mu of the Pacific. Yet despite all these negatives, we can scarcely overstate the immense power that these lost continents exercised on the human imagination in the century or so after 1860, when all three were freely invoked by sober scientists, as well as by occultists and New Agers. The fact that these continents have since been—well, lost, or at least discredited, does not mean that they do not belong to cultural or intellectual history, or that Sumathi Ramaswamy has not made a real contribution by recreating the story of Lemuria.
I stress this since Ramaswamy mentions her colleagues' puzzlement as to why she was spending so much time and effort on a chimera. In fact, her Lemurian saga is richly informative, not just on the development of geology and archaeology but also on the intimate relationship between "real" science and the more speculative realm of esoteric study—especially Theosophy, that crucial intellectual force. The Lemurian myth also casts light on the creation of nationalist thought in South Asia, particularly among Tamil intellectuals, who found in the lost continent the history of a now-sunken Tamil empire. Above all, her book addresses powerful cultural themes of loss and redemption. Once long ago, in the dreamtime, there was a mighty empire that reached incredible heights of cultural development, perhaps that achieved technological skills indistinguishable from sorcery, yet which failed and vanished under the waves. But when properly enlightened, degenerate moderns can once more seek the lost mysteries and even, to a degree at least, restore the bygone wonders.
If this scheme sounds familiar, it is of course closely analogous to the Christian idea of the Fall, and Ramaswamy is exactly right to stress the universal quality of ideas of loss and the quest for restoration, often connected to a particular landscape. For Christians, especially those immersed in the Old Testament, the Holy Land was no mere piece of Levantine real estate but rather a spiritual terrain almost as real as the profane soil under one's feet. In 17th-century Scotland, Presbyterians referred to events that affected their whole nation, from Dan to Beersheba. In his prophetic visions, William Blake saw his London as a whole imagined geography:
The fields from Islington to Marybone,
To Primrose Hill and Saint John's Wood:
Were builded over with pillars of gold,
And there Jerusalem's pillars stood.
Blake dreamed of a time when England could realize its potential as Jerusalem, and his vision inspired generations of radicals. As late as 1945, the British Labour Party won a historic national election on the strength of its promise to create New Jerusalem.
Throughout the Christian world, countless other believers have projected onto mundane landscapes an ideal Palestine-of-the-mind. How many radicals and perfectionists have adopted biblical place-names for communes and utopian settlements, for their Jerusalems and Salems, Bethlehems and Tabors? As recently as 1993, U.S. federal forces stormed a controversial Texas manifestation of Mount Carmel.
During the 19th century, Christian belief declined among the urban and industrial masses, while educated élites drifted away from traditional certainties, but nevertheless, newer ideologies were still expressed in very familiar cultural forms. Messianic, millenarian, and apocalyptic ideas flourished in the form of communism and anarchism, which both imagined utopian societies to be established after one last epochal spasm of social crisis and purgative violence. By the end of the century, too, scientists were formulating new sacred geographies, originally on quite rational grounds. In the 1860s and 1870s, archaeologists had showed how intrepid exploration could recover the remains and sometimes the writings of lost civilizations, the Assyrian, Hittite, and most famously, the Trojan. Meanwhile, biologists were studying the diffusion of species from their original home regions, and it was in 1864 that one Philip Lutley Sclater proposed the existence of the land of Lemuria. Why Lemuria? Because some such land mass must explain the peculiar Indian Ocean distribution of lemurs and other eccentric creatures.
In itself, such a hypothesis had no mystical content, but the idea of sunken lands was overwhelmingly tempting for the English-speaking world of the 1870s and 1880s, a hothouse of esoteric and apocalyptic speculation. Appropriately enough, the single year 1875 witnessed a surge in Adventist and apocalyptic thinking (which soon found expression in the Jehovah's Witness movement) and also the creation of the Theosophical Society. As the movement developed, Theosophists offered not just a stunning vision of human history over a timescale of many millions of years, and many cycles of rising and falling races, but claimed to situate this in hard science, locating various races on such "known" lost continents as Atlantis and Lemuria.
Lost continentism reached its height between about 1880 and 1930. In 1882, Ignatius Donnelly stirred new interest in lost worlds by publishing Atlantis: The Antediluvian World. In 1911, Rudolf Steiner's The Submerged Continents of Atlantis and Lemuria was translated into English. By the 1920s, James Churchward was claiming to have discovered secret records from yet another sunken continent: Mu, the "Motherland of Man," which had left its traces in Mayan, Indian, and Egyptian records, in the mysterious remains of Easter Island, and in the rituals of Freemasonry. Like other writers of the time, Churchward explicitly presented his claims in religious terms, seeing the lost continents not just as failed civilizations but as lost paradises. In his view, "The Garden of Eden was not in Asia, but in a now sunken continent in the Pacific Ocean." The underlying mythology was just as pervasively religious, inflected by Christian tradition. In most accounts, the sunken continents had perished through succumbing to illicit temptations, to practicing dark wizardry, or allying with diabolic forces. Inevitably, sin provoked the fall.
At the same time, enthusiasts insisted that these new-old worlds were quite real, material societies, as solid and indisputable as Nineveh or Ur—and for many lay readers, the photographs used to attest the wonders of Lemuria or Mu were just as convincing as those offered for Ur or Troy. This solidity added vastly to their appeal for esoteric believers, since the lost continents appeared to give firm scientific footing for the most extravagant claims to paranormal or mystical powers. While claims about telepathy or levitation might appear to be mystical and metaphysical, and therefore unworthy of 20th-century rationalists, such powers appeared in a different guise when understood as manifestations of the lost scientific arts of Mu or Lemuria, achievements on a scale of which modern scholars could only fantasize. As Churchward argued, Mu had foreshadowed and even excelled all modern science: "We are probably now treading the same road which our forefathers trod over 100,000 years ago."
Throughout, Ramaswamy stresses not just the power of popular belief in the lost continents but the practical relevance of these myths. Her book in fact begins with an epigram of Oscar Wilde: "A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which humanity is always landing." Maps can be powerful political instruments, encapsulating as they do entire ideological programs. Recall the world map drawn up in 1929 by the French Surrealists, which eliminated inconvenient realities such as England and the United States, giving the saved space to other more valued regions, to Ireland, Mexico, and Labrador. In this vision, Easter Island—that supposed remnant of Mu—dwarfs Australia. Quite literally, people die for maps, for visions of states that should or should not exist: try traveling through the Muslim world, as customs officials check if you are carrying maps that depict the state of Israel.
In their day, the lost continents carried just as much ideological baggage as the Old Testament visions had for earlier generations of Christians. They taught believers about perfect worlds that supposedly had once existed, about citadels of lost knowledge where the powers of "science" and the "occult" were seamlessly integrated. When struggling to recapture these lost worlds, white Americans or Indian Tamils were acting very much like other
moderns questing for their idealized homelands, like Rastafarians dreaming of the green fields of Ethiopia,
or Afrocentrists convinced that lost African civilizations were at the root of all human accomplishment.
Ramaswamy's greatest achievement is to take seriously cartographies that according to mundane scholarship were inaccurate or simply mendacious. By so doing, she illuminates a whole intellectual world that in its day influenced millions. In the process, she shows how the dream of such non-continents exercised far greater power than the actual discovery of material new realms. The explorers of Lemuria amply followed the advice given by Jorge Luis Borges, allegedly "From an Apocryphal Gospel": "Seek for the pleasure of seeking, and not for the pleasure of finding." Ramaswamy has written an evocative study of seeking and seekers.
Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University. His new book, Darkening Vision: How America Retreated from the 1960's, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.
Copyright Â© 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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