One of the things that routinely baffles newcomers to occultism is the amount of verbiage that occult literature tends to devote to exotic rewritings of history. Pick up pretty much any book written on occult subjects during what we may as well call the Theosophical Century—the period from 1875 to 1975, when the somewhat quirky faux-Hindu cosmology developed by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was the lingua franca of occult studies across most of the industrial world—and you’re as likely as not to find references to Atlantis, Lemuria, and various other locations not found on conventional maps.
Though that’s still the most common version of occult history, others abound. It used to be de rigueur, for example, for mass-market books on Wicca to devote Chapter One to a colorful and dubious exposition of faux history tracing the origins of Wicca back through the medieval witch cult to some suitably romantic goddess-worshipping culture of the distant past. On a considerably more erudite level, most of Revolt Against the Modern World, Julius Evola’s manifesto of Traditionalist occultism, is devoted to his account of a suppositious Heroic-Uranian past and its slow degeneration into what he saw as the effeminate slime pits of modernity. Other examples abound; for well over a century and a half now, it’s a poor excuse for an occult tradition that doesn’t have some topsy-turvy version of the history of the world on offer.
That habit has become so pervasive that it’s easy to assume that it was always the case. I well recall how surprised I was when I discovered that this isn’t true at all. From the oldest forms of Western occultism on record straight through to the heyday of Renaissance magic, occultists got along just fine with the same version of history their more conventional neighbors believed in. As far as anybody knows, the ancient Greek goetes and magoi who first fused bits of Greek philosophy and myth with the magical techniques of Egypt and Babylon, and created the first draft of Western occultism, didn’t concern themselves with colorful narratives about lost civilizations.
For that matter, when Aristocles of Athens—the philosopher whose broad shoulders got him the nickname Plato—put narratives about a drowned country called Atlantis into two of his dialogues, nobody seems to have connected those passages with anything particularly occult. Students of his writings for centuries thereafter carried on boisterous debates about whether he’d meant Atlantis as a bit of actual history or as a colorful extended metaphor, of the sort he put elsewhere in his writings, but nobody in ancient Greece seems to have been interested in tracing their occult teachings back to some hypothetical Atlantean source. Occult wisdom, from their perspective, didn’t come from the past; it came directly from the gods.
Fast forward through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and the same rule by and large applies. The classic magical textbooks of both periods—the Picatrix in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, Cornelius Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy in the later Renaissance—made plenty of noise about their dependence on old books and ancient sources, but the books and the sources came from places and times well known to the mainstream historians of the day. It’s when you jump into the dark age of occultism that followed the scientific revolution—the two centuries or so when magic, astrology, and the rest of it survived only among rural cunning folk and secretive occult lodges—that the scene changes abruptly: strange claims start popping up around a handful of points on the historical spectrum, and spread from there.
By the time Eliphas Levi kickstarted the modern occult era with his Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic in 1855, occultism and romantic rewritings of history were a happily married couple. Levi himself gave the pair a belated wedding present with his book A History of Magic, which is great fun to read but has rather less to do with actual history than your average Harlequin romance has to do with actual relationships. Thereafter the flood gates opened promptly, leading to the situation sketched out in the opening paragraphs of this essay.
So what happened? How did made-up history and occult philosophy meet, fall in love, and tie the knot? It’s a complicated question, but part of the answer certainly dates to the year 1614, when a scholar named Isaac Casaubon published an essay on the date of a collection of eccentric religious writings.
The writings are usually called the Corpus Hermeticum. They’re in koine Greek—the mutant form of ancient Greek that emerged in the eastern half of the ancient Mediterranean world after Alexander the Great’s conquests placed that end of the ancient world under Greek-speaking management—and they teach a religious doctrine that reads more or less like what you’d get if you took the mystical end of Greek philosophy and blended it with an assortment of borrowings from Judaism, on the one hand, and the more intellectual end of ancient Egyptian religion on the other. (As we’ll see, this isn’t accidental.) The two other facts you need to know about the Corpus Hermeticum are, first, that it says some very positive things about magic, and second, that it was supposedly written by an ancient Egyptian sage named Hermes the Thrice Great: in Greek, that works out as Hermes Trismegistos.
Until 1614, all that anybody in Europe knew about the Corpus Hermeticum was that one copy—in all probability, the only one that survived the end of the Roman world—went onto the antiquities market after the fall of Constantinople in 1452, and got picked up eleven years later by a buyer for Cosimo de Medici, the ruler of the Italian city-state of Florence. Cosimo, who liked to fancy himself a patron of art and culture, had a brilliant young man on his staff named Marsilio Ficino, who promptly turned the Greek text into readable Latin and launched it on its career. Historical scholarship was still pretty much in its infancy; nobody saw any good reason to question the idea that an ancient Egyptian sage named Hermes Trismegistos had written the Corpus Hermeticum; and it didn’t hurt, either, that an early Christian author had written about this same sage, praising his wisdom and claiming that he’d been an older contemporary of Moses.
Imagine for a moment, dear reader, that you’re a typical Renaissance intellectual, fascinated by Greek philosophy, intrigued by magic, and less than impressed by the official religion of your time, though of course you wouldn’t admit to the latter two in public. All of a sudden somebody hands you a book that’s apparently the last surviving body of ancient Egyptian religious wisdom, full of stuff that looks a lot like Greek philosophy and other things that are highly reminiscent of your favorite parts of the Bible—and it says that magic isn’t evil and Satanic, far from it, it’s a way to worship God. Are you going to jump on it, as my grandmother used to say, like a duck on a June bug? Of course you are.
That was the historical accident that kicked Renaissance occultism into high gear. All over Europe, people interested in magic grabbed the Corpus Hermeticum and used it to convince themselves, and on occasion other people, that their interest in magic was perfectly harmless, even holy. In the process, an imaginary Egypt took shape in the European mind, a land of mighty temples where sages pored over the mysteries of the cosmos and, by the way, knew a lot more about everything worth knowing than anybody in modern times. Then Isaac Casaubon came along and ruined it all.
He probably had that intention in mind, to be fair. A devout and dour Protestant with no time for occultism, he tackled the Corpus Hermeticum with an eye toward inconsistencies, of which it had quite a few, and showed beyond reasonable doubt that it had to have been written much, much later than its eager fans believed. Modern scholars agree with him, by the way; the current consensus is that it was written in Egypt in the first few centuries of the Common Era by various members of a religious movement related to, but not identical with, the Gnostics.
Casaubon’s essay was followed in short order by the scientific revolution, and by the huge change in intellectual fashions that swept away the last embers of the Renaissance and replaced them with the rationalist materialism that eventually gave us the modern western worldview. Most of the people who kept practicing magic, as already mentioned, were rural cunning folk whose magical resources were usually limited to a couple of printed books from the end of the Renaissance—Cornelius Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy, for example, was one of the standard texts for British and American folk magicians straight through into the nineteenth century—and a handwritten recipe book for things they’d learned themselves or gotten from other practitioners. Not many of them seemed to care much about Egypt, much less the Corpus Hermeticum.
Those secretive occult lodges I mentioned earlier, though, were another matter. That was the great seedbed of occult history, because one of the core ingredients of any lodge—magical, fraternal, or what have you—is narrative. Just as freemasons built their rituals around the story of the construction of King Solomon’s temple, the early magical lodges found their own stories to use as foundations for ritual. The rise, fall, and survival of the Knights Templar was a huge favorite; so was the curious set of stories surrounding the Rosicrucians, a supposed body of medieval mystics; and there were others—more and more of them as the years passed and magical lodges bred like bunnies.
Egypt had to wait a little while, but it returned with a splash due to the ingenious Antoine Court de Gebelin, who published a sprawling nine-volume opus on ancient Egypt beginning in 1773. Those of my readers who know the history of Egyptology will remember that in 1773 nobody on the planet could read a single word of ancient Egyptian, but this didn’t slow down Court de Gebelin at all. He simply gathered together every scrap of evidence he could find from Greek and Roman sources, and filled in the myriad blanks with his own vivid imagination. He’s the guy who decided that the Tarot cards came from ancient Egypt (they didn’t; they were invented in 1418 by an Italian named Marziano da Tortona), and that the word “Tarot” itself came from the ancient Egyptian words tar rosh, “royal road.” (“Royal road” in ancient Egyptian is w3t nsw—the 3 is a glottal stop like the Hebrew letter Aleph—and if you’d like to extract tar rosh from that, you’re welcome to try.)
So all at once the Egypt of the Renaissance imagination burst back on the scene. Sometime, when you’re in the mood for occult nostalgia, take in a performance of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, which is all about the conflict between Catholic orthodoxy (represented by the Queen of the Night) and the occult wisdom of Egypt (represented by the sage Sarastro). This is particularly nostalgic for those of us who’ve been trained in the occult system of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which uses the same lush mix of Egyptian decor, Greek philosophical mysticism, and Jewish and Christian symbolism you’ll find in the Magic Flute, or for that matter all over the more colorful corners of Freemasonry, which was where Mozart got it in the first place.
By the time the Golden Dawn got in on the act—it was founded in 1887—the luminous Egypt of the Renaissance was getting distinctly down at the heels from age, though this didn’t keep other magical orders from borrowing it thereafter. There was also the little problem that by 1887, scholars knew a fair amount about ancient Egypt, and each deciphered papyrus and wall inscription put distance between the impressive but distinctly down-to-earth realities of the Egypt of the pharaohs and the shining image of an Egypt that never was. The Templars and the Rosicrucians still had their followings—the Golden Dawn claimed Rosicrucian origins, for example—but there was a growing demand for something new and thrilling. That demand, in turn, was met by the inimitable Helena Petrovna Blavatsky.
We could spend a long time talking about Blavatsky’s astonishing career, and sooner or later she’s probably going to get a post of her own. Though she wrote plenty of other things, her major impact on occultism came through two vast books: Isis Unveiled, published in 1877, and The Secret Doctrine, published in 1888. They’re very different books; Isis Unveiled is an all-out assault on the apparent certainties of the scientific and religious thought of the Victorian era, while The Secret Doctrine claims to present the ultimate spiritual teaching behind every religion and occult tradition, including the real history of the world and humanity—but both of them spend a lot of time talking about Atlantis.
In 1877 Atlantis was little more than a collection of footnotes in Plato, but it served Blavatsky’s purposes well. One of the things she wanted to challenge with Isis Unveiled was the insistence on the part of Victorian intellectuals that evolution equals progress, and that the late nineteenth century industrial world, its ideas, and its social customs were therefore unutterably superior to anything that any other human society had ever had to offer. Her response was to propose that human history was not a straight line but a series of cycles, in each of which civilization had risen up out of savagery and then descended straight back down to it again. The legend of the lost continent of Atlantis, for her, was a lingering memory of the last cycle before ours, and Isis Unveiled also discussed a cycle even before that—the age of Lemuria.
Lemuria? That’s what biologist Philip Sclater in 1870 called a hypothetical land bridge connecting southern India and eastern Africa. This was back in the days when continental drift was still crackpot pseudoscience, remember, and so scientists had to cook up any number of land bridges to get plants and animals from one continent to another at various points during prehistory. The distribution of lemur fossils inspired Sclater’s land bridge, thus the name, but Blavatsky wasn’t going to let that get in her way. Lemuria duly began its career as a lost continent from the age long before, in Robert E. Howard’s less than felicitous phrase, “the oceans drank Atlantis.” (I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I’ve always wondered how the continent got liquefied—you don’t drink solids, after all...)
Meanwhile, between the publication of Blavatsky’s two great books, Atlantis suddenly stopped being a footnote to Plato and became a cultural presence in its own right. This was the work of the astonishing figure of Ignatius Donnelly, a fire-breathing radical Democrat who served four terms in the US House of Representatives and then took up a second career as America’s first bestselling author of alternative history. Atlantis: The Antediluvian World first appeared in 1882, and ran through more than fifty printings; it’s still in print today, and you’ll have a hard time finding a book on Atlantis anywhere these days that doesn’t directly or indirectly reference it.
You’ll have an even harder time, though, finding a book on Atlantis anywhere these days that doesn’t indirectly reference Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine—next to none of them cite it directly, but that doesn’t matter. Blavatsky picked up all of Donelly’s ideas and ran with them, turning the fall of Atlantis into a morality play in which the Atlanteans brought about their own destruction by dabbling in evil magic, and a small remnant who hadn’t fallen into evil ways fled the doomed continent before its destruction. You won’t find that in Plato; you won’t find that in Donnelly—but once it found its way into Blavatsky’s sprawling epic, it was everywhere.
That’s true even when the authors in question had no interest at all in Theosophy. Many of my readers will doubtless recall J.R.R. Tolkien’s references to Numenor, the drowned continent of Middle-Earth, which went under as a result of exactly the sequence of events I’ve described. Tolkien was a devout and highly conservative Catholic, and yet his Atlantis—Numenor is called Atalante in Elvish, in case you needed the hint—is Blavatsky’s Atlantis in all but name. I’m not sure if he got it by way of the pulp fantasy fiction he and his friend C.S. Lewis read voraciously, or if he actually took the time to read one of the popularizations of Blavatsky’s story—William Scott-Elliot’s The Story of Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria was widely available, for example—but one way or another, the connection is there.
Atlantis, Lemuria, and the other vanished continents of Blavatsky’s vision were all over occultism by the time the Theosophical Century drew to a close. Even when covens of goddess-worshipping witches preserving secret lore from ancient Utopian matriarchies became more popular than turbaned sages preserving secret lore from an assortment of drowned continents, the Atlantis link survived for a while—I’ve been told by more than one elderly Wiccan that among the oral teachings passed around in various Wiccan circles in the 1980s was the claim that Minoan Crete had been the real Atlantis, that Wicca had originated there, and that Wiccans therefore were passing on the secret lore of lost Atlantis.
Nor has there been any shortage of other alternative histories for occultists and neopagans who have an interest in such things. The ornate lineages by which various old-fashioned Druid orders have tried to claim descent from the ancient Druids, while their roots were by and large about as stable as those of Birnam Wood, are classics of of the type—and here again, if you poke around in the right places, you can find claims that the Druids, too, preserve mystical secrets from ancient Egypt and lost Atlantis.
All in all, the panoply of manufactured histories is reminiscent of nothing so much as the kind of magic lantern show the Victorians loved, in which brightly colored images were projected onto any convenient blank wall for the entertainment of those present. It’s a great source of fantasy fiction—and in fact most of the English-language fantasy fiction of the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, from L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz through Robert E. Howard’s assorted barbarian heroes to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings were heavily influenced by Theosophy’s version of occult history—but as a guide to what actually seems to have happened in the past, well, let’s just say that it makes great fantasy fiction.