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The Lost World of Agartha and the History Behind the Myth

The fabled inner-Earth kingdom was first detailed by a French occultist in 1889.

A winding cave
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  • Photo Credit: Daniel Sofinet / Unsplash

The underground city known as Agartha—or by a range of similar but slightly different spellings, such as Agarath or Agharti—has become a popular subject in esoteric lore. And like many lost worlds and similar objects of curiosity, the story of Agartha has been widely misunderstood and repurposed for unintended uses over the years.

While some readers may know that the legend of Agartha was once championed by certain German occultists around World War II, the theory’s roots go as far back as the 19th century. French philosopher and occultist Joseph Alexandre Saint-Yves published a book in 1886 detailing his supposed encounters with “initiates” of this hidden kingdom. The German occultists who followed half a century after were predominantly magpies, pilfering bits and pieces from other traditions in order to concoct the theories they proposed. 

But just what is Agartha, what do we know about it, and how has it entered into—and changed to fit—modern concepts of governance and culture?

What is Agartha?

In his YouTube video on the subject, “Mr. Mythos” defines Agartha about as simply as one could ask for: “An inner earth kingdom linked to every continent of the world by means of an extensive network of tunnels.” He traces the root of the Agarthan myth back to pre-Hindu India, and a legend of an island located in an inland sea north of the Himalayas—an island that was home to a superhuman cadre of individuals who possessed wisdom and knowledge far beyond those of outsiders. Fleeing some undisclosed calamity that might have been the continental drift that shaped the surface of the world into its current form, these individuals moved their island nation underground and became Agartha.

Since its original publication by Saint-Yves, the ideas of Agartha have become highly entwined with Hollow Earth theories of various stripes. In his book on Hollow Earth theory, David Standish calls Agartha “the name Buddhists give to the underground world they believe in,” though it might be more accurate to say that Western occultists have since conflated Agartha and Shambhala, a spiritual kingdom associated with certain Tibetan Buddhist traditions.

Stories of Agartha

As far as we know, Saint-Yves was the first Westerner to write about Agartha, which he did in his 1886 treatise, Mission de l’Inde en Europe. This was written under the influence of several “Eastern Initiates,” including a scholar that Saint-Yves had contracted to teach him Sanskrit, who called himself Prince Hardjij Scharipf. Later, however, Saint-Yves apparently worried that he had “revealed too much,” and attempted to destroy all the copies of his book on Agartha—which would not be re-published until 1910, a year after Saint-Yves’ death.

While Saint-Yves was the first Westerner to write about Agartha, he would not be the last. In 1908, prior to the re-publication of Saint-Yves’ Mission de l’Inde en Europe, American writer Willis George Emerson published The Smoky God, which purported to be a true account of a Norwegian sailor named Olaf Jansen, who passed through an entrance to the Hollow Earth at North Pole and lived among the inhabitants there for two years.

The Smoky God doesn’t actually call the place that the fictitious Jansen visits Agartha or Shambhala, but subsequent writers have assigned that name to the Hollow Earth kingdom described in Emerson’s book, which he conflates with the original Garden of Eden.

Theories of Agartha

After the end of the First World War, German occultists such as those in the Nazi Thule Society began to incorporate a variety of disparate beliefs and traditions into their ideas, among them the stories of Agartha. They were far from the first to do so, however. The members of the Thule Society were drawing heavily from prior occultists, such as Madame Blavatsky and her Theosophical Society, who had drawn on ideas about Shambhala and other Hollow Earth theories in their teachings.

In fact, there are stories – difficult to substantiate, but often repeated – that the Nazi forces took their occult ideas so seriously as to do things like use Hollow Earth theory to try to pinpoint the location of British ships or target V1 missiles during World War II. It is partly through these sorts of latter day occultists that Agartha and Shambhala become associated both with one another and with Hollow Earth theory more broadly. Indeed, at least one well-known and oft-reproduced map purporting to show the inner earth and its various tunnel entrances depicts the entire land as called Agartha, “Land of Advanced Races,” and identifies its capital city as “Shamballah.”

While we are discussing Saint-Yves due to his writings about Agartha, he is perhaps best known today as the creator of the idea of “synarchy,” a style of political philosophy which has come, in the years since he coined it, to often refer to rule by a secret elite or “deep state.” This is partly the result of Saint-Yves’ own writings, as he believed that a synarchist “world government” existed in Agartha—or had at one time.

Agartha Today

Like a great many fringe beliefs, Hollow Earth theory more broadly and ideas about Agartha in particular have taken on a new life in the internet age. In his 2006 book Hollow Earth, David Standish quotes extensively from posts that were then current on a website called SpiritWeb, since defunct. (Is there anything more 2006 than including a long URL in a print book, only to have that URL go to a bunch of unrelated clickbait some 17 years later?)

While that particular article is gone, however, there are plenty of seemingly tell-all references to Agartha and Hollow Earth theory that you can find with a relatively quick Google search, filled with people ascribing all sorts of conspiracy theories to the inner earth kingdom, and detailing any number of supposed entrances to the tunnel systems that purportedly lead to Agartha. These can apparently be found everywhere from a military base in Dulce, New Mexico, to Batesville, Arkansas, to Mato Grosso in Brazil and the Himalayas.

What lies at the end of these tunnels varies with the telling, with stories featuring everything from superhuman deities with green or blue skin to extraterrestrial intelligences, but almost all of them owe at least a little something to the early stories of Agartha recorded by Saint-Yves and his ilk.

Featured photo: Daniel Sofinet / Unsplash