In 1864, zoologist Philip Sclater published “The Mammals of Madagascar” in the Quarterly Journal of Science. Sclater was puzzled by the fact that remains of lemurs could be found in the fossil record of both India and Madagascar, but not in Africa or the Middle East. His explanation? That India and Madagascar had once been part of a larger landmass.
“The anomalies of the mammal fauna of Madagascar can best be explained,” he argued, by postulating a large continent that had once occupied the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, but which had broken up over time, some of it sinking beneath the sea, to eventually form modern day India, Madagascar, and other islands. Because he was trying to work out the disposition of lemurs, this hypothetical continent became known as Lemuria.
Ultimately, it turned out that Sclater was right, at least up to a point. By the 1960s, the scientific community had widely accepted the idea of plate tectonics, originally put forth by Alfred Wegener in the early part of the 20th century. Today, we know that India and Madagascar really were once part of the same landmass, known as Mauritia and, more broadly, part of the supercontinent Gondwana. Between Sclater’s postulation of Lemuria and our modern knowledge of plate tectonics and continental drift, however, theories had an opportunity to thrive.
The Legends of Lemuria
The modern legends of Lemuria probably began with prominent and influential naturalist Ernst Haeckel, who helped to coin many of the terms still used in biology today. In 1870, Haeckel proposed that Sclater’s concept of Lemuria might have been the place from which all human ancestors originally hailed, explaining the lack of a “missing link” between modern humans and our nearest ancestors in the fossil record. “The probable primeval home,” he wrote in 1870, “is here assumed to be Lemuria, a tropical continent at present lying below the level of the Indian Ocean, the former existence of which in the tertiary period seems very probable from numerous facts in animal and vegetable geography.”
It was this idea, that Lemuria may have been the cradle of human civilization, that led to the concept of the lost continent becoming inextricably tied to occult beliefs. Madame Blavatsky, a key occult figure of the late 19th century, incorporated the idea of Lemuria heavily into her teachings.
In her 1888 work Secret Doctrines, Blavatsky claimed that Lemuria was the home of one of several “Root Races” that eventually gave rise to humanity, and that the remains of the continent existed today as Australia and surrounding islands—already, the gradual drift of legendary Lemuria had begun. Blavatsky also claimed that the ancient Lemurians were giant, 15-foot-tall hermaphrodites with four arms who lived alongside the dinosaurs. So, grain of salt.
While Blavatsky may have popularized the idea among occult circles, one of the people who most thoroughly developed it was inventor James Churchward, though he called his lost continent “Mu.” In 1926, Churchward published The Lost Continent of Mu: Motherland of Man. Earlier in his life, he had traveled extensively, and in the course of those travels had developed a detailed theory about this lost continent, which he proposed “extended from somewhere north of Hawaii to the south as far as the Fijis and Easter Island.”
Like others before him, Churchward believed that this lost continent was the cradle of human civilization, the original location of the Garden of Eden, and that most other ancient civilizations were “decayed remnants” of former Mu colonies. Between 1926 and 1935, he published several more books on the subject, and over the years, Churchward’s ideas about Mu and various other theories about Lemuria have often been used interchangeably or mixed up in esoteric thought.
Lemuria and Mount Shasta
Given the original location of Lemuria, a connection between it and California’s Mount Shasta seems unlikely, yet the two are inextricably linked in many modern occult beliefs. To find out how that happened, we must go back to a book originally finished in 1899 and not published in 1905. Written by Frederick Spencer Oliver, A Dweller on Two Planets alleges that it was dictated to Oliver through automatic writing and other means by a spirit known as Phylos the Thibetan.
The book closely describes an ancient and highly advanced lost civilization, though it is that of Atlantis or “Poseid,” rather than Lemuria. This civilization has everything from antigravity vehicles to submarines, air conditioners, and television. The story also tracks the various reincarnations of Phylos through the ages, incorporating ideas of karma into the narrative. Ultimately, the former residents of Atlantis came to reside in Mount Shasta, hence beginning a long history of associations between that mountain and lost civilizations.
“A Dweller on Two Planets was not very good fiction,” Walter Kafton-Minkel wrote in Subterranean Worlds, “but it did establish all the main elements of the modern Mt. Shasta mythos.” The idea that the Lemurians had come to Mount Shasta, where they lived underground in an incredible metropolis known as Telos, the City of Light, was further popularized by Rosicrucian author Harvey Spencer Lewis, in his 1931 book, Lemuria: The Lost Continent of the Pacific.
In the years since, there have been numerous claimed sightings of these Lemurians coming to the surface of Mount Shasta, wearing white robes. Countless occult and religious groups have also incorporated elements of the accounts of Oliver and Lewis into their teachings, from the Lemurian Fellowship based in Ramona, California, to modern branches of theosophist thought. Guy Warren Ballard helped to promote the idea of Telos, and founded the movement that would become the modern Saint Germain Foundation, which still hosts an annual pageant around Mount Shasta, while the Rainbow Gathering is held there, as well.
Regardless of the specifics of the strain of belief that led them to the mountain, the connection between the supposed ancient continent of Lemuria, the original cradle of human civilization, and California’s Mount Shasta is now seemingly unbreakable, and numerous esoteric and religious organizations hold pilgrimages to the mountain each year. It's probably not at all what Philip Sclater had in mind when he coined the idea to explain lemur fossils more than 150 years ago.
Featured photo: Arpit Rastogi / Unsplash