Civilization as we know it has been developing steadily for at least the past 6,000 years. Population and technology are estimated to have increased almost exponentially during this time. However, our perception of a simple linear development of society from the Stone Age to the present is no longer tenable. Cyclic processes are identifiable in the history of every culture: there is a process of rise and fall, flowering and decay, renewal and regeneration. Seldom asked but basic questions are: Where did the impulse for civilization come from? Were cavemen a product of gradual ascent through the process of Darwinian evolution? Or were they the degenerate remnants of a previous civilization? Is global civilization itself cyclical? If so, what could that previous civilization have been?
Many spiritual and mythological worldviews see the workings of nature from the top down and from the inside out -- rather than from the bottom up as in the modern West. Cultures with far more ancient roots than ours say there has been a repetitive cycle of civilization -- different phases or successions of humanity populating our globe. Unlike modern science, modern theosophy holds that we are the fifth humanity in the millions upon millions of years that mankind has inhabited this globe. It calls the preceding global civilization, lost in the mists of prehistory, Atlantean; the three humanities prior to the Atlantean are referred to as the Lemurian, Hyperborean, and "Self-born."
Atlantis is commonly understood today to be a small continent or island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean that submerged about 12,000 years ago. It comes from Plato's tale in his Critias and Timaeus of a lost, sunken island whose once noble civilization in its decline subjugated many of the prehistoric Mediterranean peoples.
There have been many speculations about the source of the Atlantis story. Plato's island has been variously identified with Ireland, the British Isles, the Canary Islands, and Bermuda. The accompanying floods and destruction by water have been associated with floods at the end of the last ice age. A favorite candidate of scholars today is the island of Thera, now called Santorini, in the Aegean Sea off Greece. Around 1640 bc a violent eruption buried a number of developing Bronze Age settlements on the island, while apparently wiping out the Minoan civilization on Crete.
The theosophic perspective places Atlantis in a broader context. Here Atlantis refers to a global system comprising the entire configuration of the world's continents as they changed over a vast time period from about nine million to one million years ago. The island spoken of by Plato, given the name Poseidonis, was but the last small remnant.
According to theosophic tradition, the Atlanteans were composed of numerous cultures which flourished around the globe over millions of years. But this collective civilization or humanity degenerated and collapsed gradually, in different parts of the world, resulting in migrations of the surviving inhabitants. The Greek myths of the old Titans battling the newer Olympians can be interpreted as representing Atlantean remnants migrating from the Atlantic through the Mediterranean, and interacting with the very early Egyptian and Greek cultures. Such tales are also preserved in the epics of India, where the Rakshasas from the south battle the new Bharatan race from the north. The term rakshasa now means a "demon," but in the context of the old Indian myths they may have been survivors from a previous age of humanity originating in the continent of which Sri Lanka is said to be a remnant.
Atlantis is commonly understood by scholars as "just a myth" related by Plato. Yet to the ancients, myths were descriptions and formulations of the workings of the world. Very few of us today think of scientific theories as mythology, but 500 years from now people may think differently. It could be said that current scientists and geologists have their own mythology: a tale of moving continents, shifting tectonic plates, and the ascent of modern humans from apes. Scientists don't know these to be facts, although they are often spoken of as such. They are theories, interpretations, or "myths" that try to explain how a certain civilization sees itself and its world.
In 1596 Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius proposed that America, Africa, and Europe were once joined together, but then split apart as a result of earthquakes and floods. He came to this theory by looking at maps of the coastlines of the three continents. Ortelius suggested America was the lost continent of Atlantis, but instead of sinking, it separated and moved away from the other continents. His basic idea is similar to the current continental drift theory, proposed by Alfred Wegener in 1912. Scientists now picture continents as resting on tectonic plates, huge landmasses that move very slowly over the surface of the earth. These geologic plates of the earth's crust "float" over the partly molten upper mantle. Only in the last forty years has the continental drift theory been taken seriously by geologists.
The theory of continental drift is still developing. There is much about dynamic, catastrophic processes of geology that scientists don't yet know. When geologists attempt intellectually or theoretically to reconstruct past changes in the configuration of continents, there is an assumption that the players have remained the same. But there are unknown pieces to the puzzle that science has not yet acknowledged, and some of those pieces could well be continental portions that have submerged and sunk into the mantle of the earth. Geologists already know that large portions of the ocean floor have disappeared into the depths of the mantle. In fact, there is very little original ocean floor left. It gets subducted and recycled back into the mantle, in the process forming deep ocean trenches, such as the Mariana trench near Guam and the Atacama trench off the west coast of South America. But what about the subduction or submergence of whole continents or continental shelves? There are many stories of land portions which are now submerged. For example, legends of King Arthur tell us that in southwest England near Land's End there was a country contiguous to the peninsula of Cornwall called Lyonnesse which has since sunk beneath the sea. Another example is the old city of Ys spoken of in Breton legend. It supposedly sank off the southern cape of Finistere in Brittany, France, directly south of Cornwall. Legend claims its fate was a punishment for its wickedness.
For more than ten years, the Ocean Drilling Program conducted by an international partnership of scientists and research institutions has taken core samples in the Indian Ocean. In 1988 they drilled into a submerged plateau off northwestern Australia, and the drillings revealed layers of sedimentary deposits that date from the latter Triassic period, 220 million years ago. These sedimentary rocks composed of clay and silt were not deposited in the depths of the ocean, but rather were formed from deposits at the bottom of shallow seas or river deltas along a coastline. The geologists' conclusion is that this plateau indeed sank.
Hundreds of miles west of Australia in the Indian Ocean, the Ocean Drilling Program investigated a sunken plateau called Broken Ridge. This large formation grew from the ocean floor some 90 million years ago because of a series of eruptions. Scientists conclude that soil and vegetation probably covered parts of the plateau because there are clay, silt, and small pieces of wood in the sediments. The plateau then apparently began sinking slowly into the ocean. Limestones containing fossils of sea urchin-like creatures and other animals testify that the plateau was once at a shallow depth. Over the last 60 million years, however, this area has subsided more rapidly, and it now lies some 5,000 feet below the ocean surface.
Deep in the Atlantic Ocean, roughly on the equator about 500 miles west of Africa, layers of freshwater diatoms (single-celled, silicon-structured algae) have been discovered in the sediment. It is possible that this section of the Atlantic was once at the surface and has since sunk.
What is the mechanism for the sinking of continental portions? A clue may lie in the instability of the earth. According to current theories, the collision of the Indian tectonic plate with the Asian plate is a relentless, slow-motion crash that is still pushing up the Himalayan mountain range. The height of the Himalayas continually fluctuates up and down by about 1 foot, due to the dynamic and unstable push of the Indian subcontinent against the Asian continent. How stable are the stresses on the earth's tectonic plates? The Himalayas are continually growing in height, but is there a reverse process? Once mountains have buckled and grown, if the tectonic forces and pressures change, could the mountains then collapse part way or slip? Underneath Europe and northern Africa today, scientists have recently discovered evidence for an immense, sheetlike flow of hot mantle rock upwelling from earth's interior. Nothing catastrophic is expected to happen for tens of thousands of years, but heat from that underground continental sheet may be "cooking" the bottom of the earth's crust in western Europe, causing it to begin to thin and spread apart. Could part of the process of sinking of lands be explained by volcanic activity deep underground causing rifting sufficient to undermine a landmass and cause it to sink, driving it beneath the earth's surface?
Given the myth of Atlantis, we might say that civilizations rise and fall both figuratively and literally. And we might very well ask why. Is the earth "throwing us off her back" through cataclysms? The Greeks called mother earth Gaia. Combining the modern Gaia hypothesis put forward by J. W. Lovelock with the theory of morphic resonance of Rupert Sheldrake implies an intimate connection between the energy fields of our actions and thoughts, and the energy fields of the earth and its dynamic processes. In the theosophic view every person's actions, thoughts, and emotions interact in some way with those of every other person, and even affect the earth. Perhaps one of the reasons the various continental fragments of Atlantis went through geologic upheavals and submergences was that they were triggered from the thought patterns and actions of the Atlanteans -- as in the French tale of Ys.
Theosophy and many other worldviews and philosophies see the cyclic nature of life constantly reimbodying itself -- in civilizations, cultures, and individuals. If there is truth to this idea, what does that imply about us here and now? Are we reimbodiments of the Atlanteans? Were our thoughts and actions then, and are our thoughts and actions now, connected in subtle ways we do not understand with the earth and its cataclysms -- such as earthquakes, volcanic activity, and floods?
For as we think, so we are. For as we think, so things are. The planet's outer life is changing rapidly because of our self-centered thoughts and our need to try to dominate and control. Who can know what subtle, but extremely powerful, effects our thoughts and feelings have on the inner life of the living earth? We need to discover the powers of our own minds, as well as those of nature, and understand their dynamic interaction -- inwardly as well as outwardly -- so that we might know humanity's responsibility as that part of earth which consciously guards the exquisite balance of all life. For responsibility can be ignored but never escaped.
(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1999; copyright © 1999 Theosophical University Press)