The Theosophical Forum – July 1939

ATLANTIS — ROMANCE OR REALITY? — C. J. Ryan

It seems that popular interest in the possibility of discovering lands once inhabited by civilized man but now lying beneath the deep seas, has not diminished. Even the scientific journals mention it now and then, though without much enthusiasm. A writer in Science News Letter recently queried whether "Telegraph Ridge," the undersea mountain range in the middle of the Atlantic, could be remains of the lost Atlantis of Plato or merely the submerged backbone of an acknowledged geological continent 300,000,000 years old. He left the problem unsolved.

Mr. James Bramwell's Lost Atlantis (1) is the latest book on this thorny subject and he has made a praiseworthy effort to approach it without prejudice. Up to the time of writing, he is not a believer, though he cannot help being fascinated by the romance of the glittering vision which rises when the word Atlantis is mentioned. He feels that the significance of the legend for us lies in its appeal as "a classic example of spiritual adventure, an imaginative interpretation of facts in the light of some higher reality, the nature of which depends on subjective experience." It is "an escape from the dust and rattle of machine-governed existence" for those who have lost faith in so-called progress. "It may, however, be of great importance if its actuality is ever established," which he greatly doubts. After examining a quantity of geological and other scientific evidence he concludes that our present knowledge is not sufficient to settle the question. He finds very little in favor of the Atlantean hypothesis as presented by the average exponent in modern books and popular magazines, but the teachings of H. P. Blavatsky's Theosophy is not discussed.

Although he cannot be called a supporter of Atlantis, in the small compass of 288 pages he has condensed a mass of information and argument of great importance for those who would know exactly how the problem appears to the skeptical historian and the scientist. These facts and controversial points should be familiar to Theosophical students who wish to write or speak on Atlantis and to be prepared to meet critical and informed inquirers.

The Introduction describes the efforts to establish Societies for Atlantean research, and their difficulties. The various more or less cranky books and theories that have been offered in recent years are considered, and also the references to Atlantis by Plato, Homer, Diodorus, Theopompus and other classical writers, and the suggested Cretan associations.

Then comes a long discussion on the scientific search for Atlantis, in which are critically analysed the arguments and evidences offered by Mr. Lewis Spence whom the author recognises as the most responsible and able pleader for Atlantis of our day; as we have always maintained, while not admitting all his points. Mr. Bramwell then touches on the Celtic legends of St. Brendan's Isle, etc.; and Lyonesse; and some of the geological evidence for comparatively recent submersions of land under the North Atlantic. The latter point deserves special attention from students who seek something tangible in favor of a "scientific" Atlantis. Mr. Bramwell admits that it is so important that further discoveries may compel a complete reconsideration of the whole subject.

Modern exploration has shown that extensive areas of land lying under comparatively shallow water extend for a great distance from the shores of the Atlantic (and elsewhere). The abysmal depths are much further out. The probability that these slightly submerged regions were once above the waters has been made almost a certainty by the discovery of numerous wide valleys and immense gorges or canyons, thousands of feet deep spreading out from the shores. The submarine extension of the Hudson River has been measured 130 miles south-east of Sandy Hook. Submarine activities, such as currents, earth-movements, etc., fail to explain them. It is widely held by geologists that they were eroded by ordinary rivers when the continental "shelves" were dryland. How long ago was this? Quite recently, late Tertiary fossils were dredged up from the cliffs of the Georges Bank Canyons showing that the Tertiary continental shelf had been cut through by rivers since the Tertiary period, and therefore great tracts of the Atlantic area were dry land in the Quaternary. Geological dates are very vague and subject to modification, but Mr. Bramwell suggests the moderate date of 500,000 years ago in this connexion. Anyway, it would be well within the human period, even if that figure were doubled or more.

Whether this tremendous change of level was brought about by the sinking of the continental shelves in many parts of the world or by a tremendous lowering and then raising of the sea itself, amounting possibly to 8,000 feet, is the scientific problem awaiting solution. The chief objection to such a world-wide uprising of the sea is that it would be a catastrophe of incredible magnitude! But would it not explain the world-wide traditions of Deluges and destruction of whole civilizations?

The interest in Atlantis is shown by the fact that the bibliography of publications up to 1926 includes 1700 items. But few are in English, a reason given by Mr. Bramwell for writing his comprehensive volume, which indeed needs no excuse. Ignatius Donnelly's popular book on Atlantis, a pioneer which attracted much attention to the subject nearly sixty years ago, though rather out-of-date and no longer an authority, is given adequate attention, but as Mr. Lewis Spence's scholarly contribution to the literature in favor of Atlantis demands serious consideration, more than thirty pages are devoted to it. In regard to other writers, whose zeal has exceeded their discretion, to put it mildly, Mr. Bramwell's analysis is devastating though not discourteous, though in regard to one outstanding example of pure folly he rightly remarks that such productions — widely read by the uninformed — have caused thoughtful critics to express "the notion that everybody who is interested in the subject must be tainted with lunacy or charlatanism."

One unhappy case is that of a relative of the celebrated Schliemann, discoverer of Troy, who published a sensational story in1912 of alleged Atlantean discoveries at Troy, by Schliemann held secret under oath! Being associated with an honored name it attracted scientific attention, but it turned out to be merely the fabric of a dream which one authority calls "an essay in mystification." Mr. Lewis Spence effectually disposed of it, and Mr. Bramwell says it is a "curious gem of Atlantean aberration." We mention this because an ill-informed writer in an otherwise well-edited Theosophical magazine recently quoted it as strong confirmation of Atlantis. "Save me from my friends!"

The last chapters of Lost Atlantis treat of Atlantis in occult and other literature and poetry, including the writings of Cosmas Indicopleustes, sixth century Byzantine geographer, Jean Bailly, French astronomer, William Blake, John Masefield and others; an interesting study.

Mr. Bramwell describes eight of the main hypotheses of recent years offered in solution of the Atlantean problem. Atlantis has been located in America, in three different parts of Africa, the Indian Ocean (where sunken lands have actually been found), submerged territory between Ireland and Brittany, "Tartessos" or Tarshish in Spain, and an island in the Atlantic. He reasonably singles out the latter for fullest consideration.

In deference to prevailing views about the comparatively recent development of man from barbarism, and to Plato's date of the final destruction of his Atlantis, nearly all the theories assume that the great continent in the Atlantic flourished only a comparatively few thousand years ago. But if we place the great Atlantis (or a fancied "Mu" in the Pacific) more recently than hundreds of thousands, nay perhaps millions, of years ago, we run into insurmountable practical difficulties, and it is largely for this reason that the critics make light of Atlantis. For instance, if, as many proponents of Atlantis assume, the great continent acted as a land bridge between the Old and the New Worlds within five, ten or twenty thousand years, or even rather more, no explanation covers the well-known objections that the cultivated plants and domestic animals (excepting the dog, which probably came from Asia via Bering Strait) are entirely different on the two sides of the ocean, that the wheel was unknown in America, etc. If, however, the breaking of the land bridge finally took place, as H. P. Blavatsky indicates, almost a million years ago, it is easily seen that these difficulties are not insurmountable. Though certain islands remained above water, apparently in remote places, after the general submergence, they also perished a very long time ago.

Great areas of land did not plunge into the ocean in a few years or even a few millenniums, nor did a new continent immediately pop up in another ocean to replace it, as some seem to imagine from a literal reading of semi-allegorical stories like Noah's Deluge and others. Theosophy agrees with geology that the major progressive changes are gradual, although minor cataclysms no doubt occur at critical times. There is good reason to believe that the great land-masses of the world have kept their places for many millions of years, yet enormous changes have undoubtedly taken place which would justify the traditions of submerged territories. The earth is not uniformly dense, and according to the new theories developed by Dr. Joly and improved by other geologists the great continental areas are actually "floating," as it were, on denser material. By the cumulative action of radio-activity the underlying mass becomes at times hotter and lighter by expansion, and the upper strata sink until the balance is restored. After very long periods of time the basic material cools again and the balance is again restored by the rising of the upper and lighter parts. The process is repeated at long intervals producing alternating cyclic changes in the geographical contours. Other factors, volcanic, seismic, and perhaps axial would still further modify the areas of land and water, until the map of the earth would no longer be recognisable.

The author rightly says that for Theosophists and Occult Students in general the former existence of a very ancient race of men, culturally advanced in certain localities such as "Atlantis" (a very wide-embracing term), is essential to the understanding of the major cycles of human incarnation. When science lifts the veil of mysterious Nature a little higher and has become dissatisfied with mechanistic interpretations of life, the reason for an "Atlantean" stage will become plain. The terrestrial evolution of form and intelligence is only the external sign of the activity and involution of spirit and step after step, each a little different from the last, has to be taken to fulfil the needed cyclic experiences of the soul. Objection is made that a truly civilized humanity living at a time when Darwinians believe only apes or ape-men existed does not agree with Plato's picturesque story of his relatively modern Atlantis of about 9500 b. c. Quite so, but H. P. Blavatsky tells us the reason why Plato put the case in that disguise. The true story of the ancient civilization was part of the Mystery Teachings and Plato being an Initiate could not reveal the whole truth. By skilfully combining fact and fiction and by deliberately confusing the Atlantis of Tertiary or post-Tertiary age with a small island (Poseidonis) known to the Egyptians which sank about the date mentioned by Plato he was able to give all that was permitted at that time.

We notice a short quotation from H. P. Blavatsky in this book but the author shows no evidence of having studied her illuminating remarks about lost continents, and unfortunately spends many pages criticizing writings, claimed to be derived from "astral clairvoyance," by Scott-Elliott and other pseudo-theosophical authors, most of which are fantastic and, as Mr. Bramwell says, "could have been concocted without any recourse to psychic powers, by commonsense induction, flagrant disregard of historical data and a fertile imagination stimulated by fairly wide reading." (2)

In contrast to the flamboyant misconstructions of some of these enthusiasts the sober and restrained treatment of the subject by H. P. Blavatsky is conspicuous. The broad outline is described, but in regard to detail little is given except hints and suggestive quotations from archaic records which serve to point the way for future research.

From the nature of the case it is not easy to find tangible evidence, though oceanographic research has lately become a promising field, owing to the new instrumental methods in use. How little evidence of our civilization will remain after a million years even if no great geological changes take place! Until lately we knew nothing of Troy, Crete, Pompeii, Mayan and Pre-Incan America, the archaic civilization of the cities on the Indus river, and others; yet these are, comparatively speaking, but of yesterday.

Tradition, in the shape of world-wide myths and allegories, is the most likely method by which knowledge of a Lost World would survive. When properly interpreted these indicate a specific Atlantean culture which takes its place in the magnificent scheme of human evolution with its major and minor cycles of rise and fall, but always advancing on the whole.

The story of Noah's Deluge is the most familiar tradition of a world-wide destruction following wrong living, but it is only one of many similar flood stories from Mediterranean lands, the Near East, India, China, America, Ireland and other places. H. P. Blavatsky pays special attention to these ancient legends and gives many reasons in demonstration of the remarkable way the folk-memory has preserved the knowledge of Atlantis in so many distant localities. Mr. Bramwell remarks that Theosophists and other occult students "care nothing for scientific discussions" but trust entirely to astral investigation and evidence. We beg to differ, and can refer him to his own quotation from H. P. Blavatsky where she says that certain thoughtful students "have their secret records in which are preserved the fruits of the long line of recluses whose successors they are." (p. 193) Those records are preserved in temple crypts and subterranean libraries and are tangible enough. It is claimed that the "long line" reaches back to Atlantean times. H. P. Blavatsky says that if the Alexandrian Library had not been dispersed we should have ample documentary evidence for the Atlantean tradition.

The contradictory nature of the astral reports published by various alleged clairvoyants — some of which Mr. Bramwell reprints and discredits — about Atlantis does not inspire confidence. The case is different in regard to the true Adepts who were behind H. P. Blavatsky. Having been trained by severe self-discipline under the direction of qualified Teachers they can penetrate to high spiritual planes where mistakes in vision are impossible, yet they are careful to preserve the tangible records brought down from past ages.

We believe that the author of this interesting volume would find it profitable to study the illuminating teachings of The Secret Doctrine on human evolution and the Atlantean Cycle with the same fairmindedness that he shows in the analysis of the material discussed in his book. He might find, that "the Lost Atlantis may yet be recovered from the depths of the ocean which engulfed it."

FOOTNOTES:

1. Lost Atlantis, by James Bramwell, published by Cobden Sanderson, London.288 pp., 7/6. (return to text)

2. Information indicating the dubious foundation of certain widely circulated "clairvoyant researches" into Atlantis may be found in Professor Ernest Wood's Is This Theosophy? wherein a supporter of the Atlantean theory gives reasons for distrusting their authenticity. (return to text)


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