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Hapgood's Secret Quest for Atlantis
On a rainy night in December 1982, a retired New England professor of anthropology named Charles Hapgood stepped off the pavement without looking left and was hit by an oncoming car. He died in hospital three days later.
Two months earlier he had sorted out his books and papers, and invited his sons to come and take what they wanted. He had been retired for sixteen years, and, at the age of seventy-eight, had the satisfaction of knowing that the last thirty years of his life had produced work of amazing originality. Earth's Shifting Crust (1958), written with the active encouragement and co-operation of Albert Einstein, had proposed a revolutionary new theory of the great ice ages: namely, that the crust of the earth can slide, like the skin on cold gravy, under the weight of polar ice caps, and move whole continents around. But perhaps his most revolutionary book was Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings (1966), which proved beyond reasonable doubt that civilisation is far older than historians had suspected; it should have brought him worldwide celebrity, since his arguments were irrefutable. He also produced a second edition of Earth's Shifting Crust (called The Path of the Pole, 1970) with still more evidence for his theory of crust slippage.
Born in 1904, Hapgood had graduated from Harvard in philosophy of science, then studied at Freiburg during the 1930s, when he witnessed the rise of the Nazis. At the outbreak of the Second World War, he was inducted into the Office of Strategic Studies--the forerunner of the CIA--as an expert on Germany. When the war was over, Hapgood became a professor of anthropology at Springfield College in Massachusetts.
He was a good teacher, who believed in involving his students as much as possible. When, in 1949, a student named Henry Warrington asked him about the lost continent of Mu, the legendary civilisation that is supposed to have been engulfed by the Pacific Ocean, Hapgood told him to go away to research it, then report back to the class. As an afterthought, he told Warrington to examine the evidence for Atlantis too.
Warrington had only to consult any good encyclopaedia to learn that in the 1850s an English zoologist named P. L. Sclater had observed a strange similarity between animals and plants as far apart as India and Australia, and suggested that there must have been a land bridge between the Malay archipelago and the south coast of Asia during the Eocene Age, around 55 million years ago. He called this Lemuria, because his missing continent connected places where lemurs--a primate species--were common.
The existence of Lemuria became incorporated into the teachings of the eccentric genius Madame Blavatsky, who said it was the home of what she called the 'third root race', predecessors of human beings who looked like giant apes and communicated by telepathy, who were followed by Atlantis, then our current civilisation, the fifth root race. But, since only members of the Theosophical Society took Madame Blavatsky seriously, this view of Lemuria failed to gain wide currency.
In the 1880s a brilliant but erratic French scholar called Augustus Le Plongeon claimed to be able to read texts of the ancient Maya of Mexico, where he said he had found references to a continent called Mu that had vanished beneath the waves after tremendous earthquakes. Few took him seriously. Then in 1926 a British ex-intelligence officer named James Churchward, who had been a colonel in the Bengal Lancers, wrote a book called The Lost Continent of Mu, following it up with four sequels. Churchward had a friend called William Niven, a Scottish engineer and amateur archaeologist, who had been excavating near a village called Amantia, north of Mexico City, when he found hundreds of tablets apparently written in the Mayan script.
From their depth, Niven judged them to be more than 12,000 years old. Contemporary Mayan scholars were unable to decipher the script, but when Niven showed some of the tablets to Churchward, the ex-lancer claimed to be able to read it. During his time in India, he explained, he had formed a friendship with a Hindu priest who, when he learned that the young British officer was interested in archaeology, spent two years teaching him to read inscriptions that, he claimed, were written in Naacal, which was the original tongue of mankind and also the language of the lost continent of Mu. And now Niven had demonstrated the truth of another assertion of Churchward's mentor: that the priesthood of Mu had sent emissaries to Central America to teach their secret knowledge and to prepare a place of refuge in the event of the destruction of their own civilisation. This had finally come about, according to Churchward, about 50,000 years ago.
Because Churchward made no attempt at a scholarly presentation, his books were generally dismissed as fantasy. When Henry Warrington presented his report to Charles Hapgood's class at Springfield College, everyone agreed that there was no real evidence for Mu.
Atlantis was a different matter. It had first been described by Plato in two of his dialogues, the Timaeus and Critias, and the Greek Neoplatonist philosopher Proclus had stated that Plato's student Crantor (c.340-275 bc) had visited Egypt, where he saw pillars inscribed with the legend of Atlantis.
In the Timaeus, Plato's uncle, Critias, describes how his ancestor Solon (639-559 bc), the great statesman, had visited Egypt about two centuries earlier. Realising that the Egyptians knew far more about history than the Greeks, he lured a group of priests to talk about the past by telling them what he knew of Greek history. The bait was successful; an old priest told him, 'Oh Solon, Solon, you Greeks are all children.' He went on to say that the earth had experienced many catastrophes that had almost destroyed mankind, some by fire, some by water, and some by other means. But 9,000 years before (i.e. about 9,600 bc), one of the greatest of these catastrophes had occurred--a destruction by water. At this time, Solon was told, Athens already existed, and out in the ocean, beyond the Pillars of Hercules (which we now know as the Straits of Gibraltar), there was an island-continent called Atlantis, 'as large as Libya and Asia combined'. (By Libya he meant all of North Africa and by Asia he meant an area equivalent to the Middle East.)
The priest then made a baffling statement. From Atlantis, he explained, it was possible to reach other islands that formed part of Atlantis, 'and from them, the whole opposite continent that surrounds what can be truly called the ocean'.
It is conceivable that, by the 'opposite continent', the priest was referring to America--for there is evidence that Europeans visited America thousands of years before Columbus--but to say that the opposite continent surrounds the ocean sounds odd. Sea can surround a continent, but surely a continent does not surround the sea?
On Atlantis, said the priest, a powerful dynasty of kings had succeeded in extending their empire as far as the borders of Egypt. Their next ambition was to conquer Egypt and Greece. But Greece had resisted; an alliance led by Athens succeeded in defeating the Atlanteans. After this, a tremendous catastrophe, involving earthquakes and floods, destroyed most of the Greeks, and engulfed Atlantis under the waves.
This is not the usual version of history. According to the Oxford Classical Dictionary, Athens probably dates from about 900 bc, possibly a few centuries earlier. Even though it admits that 'the more substantial remains of later periods have largely effaced prehistoric settlement evidence', there is still a huge gap between 900 bc and 9,000 bc. On the other hand, we know that archaeology is continually pushing back the age of civilisation. In the 1960s, Jericho--the first walled city--was believed to date from about 6,500 bc, but it is now believed to date from at least 2,000 years earlier. 'The great stone wall, some twenty feet high and nine feet thick, was joined by at least one apsidal tower which . . . would not have disgraced one of the more impressive mediaeval castles,' says one expert. But early settlers do not build walls and towers like that; they build one-room huts. It took European man about 1,000 years to move from fortified wooden barricades to medieval castles. So Jericho might well be as old as 8,000 bc. And in that case, why not Athens?
In the Critias, Plato continues the story. Atlantis was founded by the sea god Poseidon (Neptune), who fathered five pairs of twins on a mortal woman. The god built her a home on a hill, and surrounded it with concentric rings of sea and land. The twins were each allotted a portion of the island, and over the generations extended their conquests to other islands and to the mainland of Europe.
Great engineers, the Atlanteans built a circular city, 11 miles in diameter, with a metal wall and a huge canal connecting it to the sea. Behind the city there was a plain 229 by 343 miles wide, on which farmers grew the city's food supply. Behind this were mountains with fertile meadows and every kind of livestock, including elephants. Plato spends many pages describing the magnificent buildings, with hot and cold fountains, communal dining halls and palaces of many-coloured stone, then goes on to describe the Atlantean social structure at equal length.
As time went by, the Critias goes on, the god-like element among the Atlanteans became diluted with human stock and they were no longer able 'to carry their prosperity with moderation'. The meaning is quite clear: undisturbed prosperity makes human beings lazy, and those who are too aggressive to allow themselves to vegetate fly from boredom by using up their energies in a struggle for power and wealth (things have not changed all that much). Although the Atlanteans regarded themselves as fortunate and contented, the gods were fully aware of their corruption. So Zeus summoned all the gods to a meeting in his palace . . .
And at that point, the Critias breaks off. Plato never completed it, or went on to write the third dialogue of a projected trilogy, the Hermocrates. The likeliest explanation is that his plans were interrupted by illness and death--he died at the age of eighty.
The story of Atlantis continued to fascinate readers for more than 2,000 years. In the nineteenth century an American congressman named Ignatius Donnelly wrote the first complete study of the legend, concluding that it is almost certainly a record of fact. Atlantis, The Antediluvian World, which has been in print ever since it was first published in 1882, is a work of extraordinary range that argues that the colonies of Atlantis included North and South America, as well as Egypt and Spain, and is inclined to believe that the Azores, in the mid-Atlantic, are the only part of the sunken island that remains visible. Donnelly came close to persuading the British prime minister Gladstone to send a naval vessel to look for Atlantean remains.
Donnelly--described as 'the most erudite man ever to sit in Congress'--seems to have been a remarkable man. He was the author of an influential book proposing that William Shakespeare was in fact Francis Bacon, while a sequel to his text on Atlantis, Ragnarok, The Age of Fire and Gravel (1883), set out to explain the origins of the layer of sand, gravel and clay that covers most of our earth, arguing that it was left behind after a flood caused by the impact of some great comet which vaporised oceans and caused an age of darkness. This happened, Donnelly suggests, when man had already begun to establish civilisation, and the event is reflected in many myths of catastrophe. The area where the comet struck, he thinks, may have been the mid-Atlantic--in short, Atlantis.
It is an interesting speculation, for a cometary impact is as good an explanation as any for the destruction of Plato's legendary civilisation. But Donnelly's belief that Atlantis was located in the mid-Atlantic cannot be sustained. The explanation is summarised in a popular volume on mysteries published in 1961:
At first sight the configuration of the bed of the Atlantic between Bermuda and Spain appears to confirm the former existence of Atlantis. Depth sounders carried westwards from Spain disclose first a valley three thousand feet in depth, the sea bed then rising perpendicularly to the summits of the Azores which are in effect the tops of a high mountain range which runs under the sea north and south in the Atlantic. The ocean bed then drops to another valley two thousand feet deep and rises steeply again to the island of Bermuda, another mountain top. It appears, therefore, that the Azores represent the last remaining outposts of Atlantis. But geological surveys of the ocean bed have disclosed that, if any subsidences took place, they occurred at a date a hundred thousand years or more before the time of the supposed loss of Atlantis.
This, then, would appear to rule out the existence of Atlantis in the Atlantic Ocean--at least, if it was the size of North Africa and the Middle East combined.
As Hapgood reread Plato's account, he was struck by the fact that this sounded like a description of something that had actually happened. It seemed to him that the most interesting question was not so much where Atlantis was located, but what could have caused such a catastrophe. No volcanic eruption could be great enough to wreck a whole continent and extend its destructiveness as far as Greece.
A trivial domestic incident started a new train of thought. Hapgood had put a heavy rug, rolled into a bundle, into the washing machine, and when the drum had begun to spin, the machine shook until it tore the bolts out of the kitchen floor. At roughly the same time as this incident, a friend of Hapgood, Hugh Auchinloss Brown, an engineer, suggested his own theory of how an earth catastrophe could have taken place. The earth's polar ice caps are huge, Antarctica's alone being about twice as large as the United States; the northern ice cap is almost entirely floating ice, but Antarctica, on the other hand, is a vast continent covered with ice. Since the earth is continually spinning like a washing machine, its ice cap could act like the bunched-up rug, causing an uneven distribution of mass. Auchinloss Brown even went so far as to propose that the mass of ice at the poles can cause the earth to topple on to its side every 7,000 years, a view that was used by the science fiction writer Allan Eckert in a novel called The Hab Theory, 'HAB', being Auchinloss Brown's initials.
Auchinloss Brown pointed out that there is a significant difference between the rotations of a washing machine and our planet. Because it spins on its axis, the earth is 'fatter' at the equator than at the poles, so in effect it is like an enormous flywheel whose spin stabilises itself. A flywheel would spin erratically if someone attached a weight to its edge, but the polar ice is not on the edge but, so to speak, at the centre of the wheel. Hapgood had to try to work out the mass of irregular ice that could cause the wheel to 'judder'. He asked a colleague to calculate the centre of gravity of the Antarctic ice cap, which has an irregular shape. He learned that the centre of gravity of Antarctica was around 340 miles to the west of the Pole itself, which meant that when the ice reached a certain thickness, Antarctica could, in theory, cause a bunched-up-rug effect. Then he had to work out whether this irregular sheet of ice, much of it 2 miles thick, could cause the flywheel to judder. The answer, when it came, was disappointing. The flywheel-stabilising effect was thousands of times greater than the weight of ice at the South Pole. Auchinloss Brown's 'Hab theory' was also disproved.
From the Trade Paperback edition.