Taken by the Sea: The Lost Continent of Lemuria

Wednesday , 8, February 2017 11 Comments

Over on Slashdot, this recent comment on Scientists Discover Evidence of a ‘Lost Continent’ Under the Indian Ocean is surprisingly reminiscent of the best pulp stories:

I am from Tamil Nadu the state on the southern peninsula of India. It is very commonly believed by Tamil people there was a lost continent south of the southern tip of India. They call it Lemuria, believing it extended all the way to Madagaskar, the land of the Lemurs.

Ancient Tamil literature mentions many places and things that were “taken by the Sea”. The city of South Madurai where the First Tamil Sangam (Institute) was established. The river Pahtruli, the first ever grammar book of Tamil called Agasthiam, the five great epics associated with the First Sangam were all taken by the sea. The oldest extant Tamil book is a grammar book, called Tholkappiam (literally Old Literature) is believed to be derivative of the lost book Agasthiam.

Since Homo sapiens broke out of Africa just 75,000 – 100,000 years ago it is commonly believed by the scientists that these events did not take place in geological time. The most common explanation was that, these were the folk memories of the ending of the last ice-age, 9000 years ago. Sea levels rose, inexorably and the coastal communities moved slowly to the higher ground, each generation remembering that they used to live where the sea was. The places mentioned in the fragments of Tamil literature must have been in the continental shelf just south of Cape Comarin.

In the Tsunami of 2004, people claim seeing a temple in the sea bed when the seas retreated before the onslaught of the tsunami off the coast of Mahabalipuram. The local legend claims the present shore temple is the seventh in the series, as the previous six were “taken by the Sea”.

This sort of interplay between legend, literature, history, science, and rumor could be found in the stories of A. Merrit, H. P. Lovecraft, Manly Wade Wellman, Gardner Fox, Lin Carter, and many others.

But then something odd happened. All of those writers were first class elements of what made it possible for role-playing games to become the incredible innovation that they were during the seventies. But in the following decade, tabletop gaming properties such as DragonLance and Forgotten Realms would end up displacing the older sort of stories. Stories and characters that the first wave of role-players could take for granted that nearly everyone at the table would be familiar with.

And the new stories? For the most part, they ceased to have connections to real world legend, literature, history, science, and rumor. In gaming this was often a conscious creative choice, ostensibly to avoid offending peoples’ religious and cultural sensitivities.

The result… just isn’t as good. And it’s not merely a matter of taste alone either. Just as Tolkien describes the peculiar qualities of the effect happy endings have on readers of fairy tales, there is another similar effect when people realize that the tale could conceivably be true. With a foundation derived from real world lore, the sense of wonder when one encounters the fantastic is heightened.

To sacrifice that is to be deliberately innocuous. And the result will necessarily be underwhelming in comparison to the works of the pulp masters.

11 Comments
  • deuce says:

    Robert E. Howard’s use of Lemuria and Mu is looked at here:

    http://swordsofreh.proboards.com/thread/191/mu-lemuria-reh-hpl-cas

    It’s quite possible that Churchward, the inventor of Mu, was influenced not just by the Theosophical Lemuria, but also by the “Muria” featured in A. Merritt’s classic, THE MOON POOL. That novel exploded just a few short years before Churchward published his first Mu book. I don’t think it’s coincidence.

  • caleb says:

    Speaking of

    “sort of interplay between legend, literature, history, science, and rumor”

    something I have read but recently, “The Boneless Horror” by David H. Keller, does this excellently. Unbelievable, outlandish events from Earth’s ancient past are effortlessly mixed with nuggets of real history and geography.

    Also, this reminded of recomendation Raphael Ordonez made some time ago:
    http://raphordo.blogspot.ba/2016/06/the-lost-continent.html

  • Cambias says:

    The original concept of Lemuria was postulated by a British zoologist, Philip Sclater, in 1864, to account for the distribution of lemurs in Madagascar and south Asia. (Remember, this was before continental drift and plate tectonics were understood, and it was thought that landmasses rose and sank.) So I’m a little suspicious of that “ancient Tamil belief” in something a few months older than Campbell’s Soup.

    • deuce says:

      That article’s a little bit garbled. There really are Tamil legends about sunken lands off the south Indian coasts, but none of them are named “Lemuria”. Blavatsky and Theosophy are what launched “Lemuria” as a lost HUMAN continent, using Sclater and Haeckle as their “corroboration”. It was a stunning, state-of-the-art concept when Blavatsky co-opted it.

  • Christopher says:

    Jeffro, here’s an interesting piece that might offer some additional insights:

    The Cult of Alien Gods by Jason Colavito

    https://www.amazon.com/dp/B002OB5JOU/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

  • Carrington Dixon says:

    And speaking of your Amazing cover post. Anybody want to speculate on whether the Shaver Mystery had any effect on the use of Lemuria in other fantasy of the 1940s and early 1950s?

    • deuce says:

      There had been talk about Lemuria on the West Coast dating all the way back to the 1800s, basically because of the Theosophists. This article looks at Mt. Shasta and Lemuria:

      http://www.siskiyous.edu/Shasta/fol/lem/index.htm

      However, all anyone had to do was read an issue of Weird Tales in the ’20s and ’30s. Lovecraft, Howard and Clark Ashton Smith all referenced Lemuria in their tales, as did other WT writers. All of that came after the “Muria” setting in Merritt’s wildly popular novel, THE MOON POOL in 1918. In fact, it’s widely accepted that Merritt’s novel was an influence on Shaver. The guys in the ’40s and ’50s — like Shaver — were Johnny-cum-latelies following a trail blazed by their betters.

      • Carrington Dixon says:

        I was think more of a chilling effect. Shaver was pretty widely reviled outside the ZD magazines.

        • deuce says:

          Ah. You could easily be right. It might’ve even tarnished Merritt’s rep a tad by association.

          Kummer was another no-talent jackass who wrote about Lemuria. He always had his hero saying “Holy Mackerel!” Morgan and I were talking about him.

  • icewater says:

    I guess this is another one of those things that just stopped all of a sudden, as if someone pulled a switch. And, I guess, another thing I took for granted without paying any special attention to it until recently.

    Not Lemuria, specifically, but fabulous human (or non-human for that matter) civilizations in general as a motif in speculative fiction. From one of commonly encountered motifs in SF, fantasy and horror alike, to something that is seldom encountered (if we ignore all the modern milkings of Lovecraft’s universe – those those form separate world of their own, one where imagination and creativity are rarely seen).

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