Ethical Implications of the Atlantis Myth in New Age Thought

Michael York

Bath Spa University College

Beginning with the 1960s’ musical Hair, the eclectic and diverse range of spiritual practices broadly known as the New Age movement began its ascent into public consciousness if not also popularity. Expectation of a `new age of Aquarius’, based on the astronomical phenomenon known as the precession of the equinoxes, became the chief metaphor for what is understood as an imminent quantum change in collective consciousness. This expectation of a `New Age’, however, is not particularly new. The term itself was already in use with the launching of its journal, The New Age Magazine, in 1900 by a US branch of Freemasonry. And in many if not most respects, the movement may be seen as an updated version of Theosophy – itself a continuation of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism condemned by ecclesiastical councils.

But if New Age is essentially theosophical and gnostic in orientation, as a sociological form it is both elusive and precarious. Institutionally, it is neither a church, denomination, sect or cult – though elements of all these may be located within its wide scope of manifestation. What this means, then, is that there is no individual, group or mechanism that can speak for the movement as a whole. There is no register of members, no provision for expulsion, in short, no one who can declare definitively what and what not New Agers believe. If religion is a form of culture and new religions or religious movements are sub-cultural expressions that usually fasten onto some element or theme within the inherited cultural register, the New Age movement is a new form of sub-culture. Inasmuch as it is theosophical/gnostic, it adopts a soma sema attitude and views life as a fall from an original state of grace. In its endeavour to regain humanity’s original state of beatitude, the material world is viewed as the furthest and lowest emanation from the primary source of being. Consequently, it is regarded as something that intrinsically is without value, and hence something to be discarded, eliminated, by-passed or penetrated in order to obtain spiritual truth. Transcendental reality, true reality, is merely masked by the physical.

But if this understanding of nature as an illusion, the Hindu mâyâ, is implicitly prevalent throughout New Age, because of the movement’s lack of institutional authority, it is not clearly and definitively articulated. There remains instead an unresolved tension between considering nature as merely a veil to be penetrated, on the one hand, and considering – even honouring – nature as reality, even divine reality, on the other. While much of this second attitude has coalesced instead as the diverse movement known as contemporary Western paganism, the dialectic between nature as real and nature as illusion remains throughout New Age itself.

Consequently, I wish to look at the legends of Atlantis and how they are viewed within New Age and with what consequences. While much of the impetus and practices of New Age have been imported from the Eastern spiritualities of Hinduism, Buddhism and Sufism, as I have already said, new religious movements as sub-cultural expressions have often selected particular themes or elements from within the inherited cultural register and marketed these to those people for whom they have resonance or appeal. The myth of Atlantis is one of these. It belongs more precisely to the sub-cultural register – what Colin Campbell has referred to as `the cultic milieu’. If we were to consult virtually any handbook, dictionary or encyclopaedia on the occult or New Age, almost invariably we would find a section on Atlantis. Ever since Plato first mentioned the destruction of Atlantis in his Timaeus and Critias, it has been part of Western cultural exchange. Not only does it echo biblical apocalypticism, but it has also come to embody Hesiod’s `golden age’ and the Book of Genesis’ `garden of Eden’ alike. The appeal of the Atlantis story, therefore, is one that goes to the roots of Western civilisation: it depicts a glorious past that has been lost. As Francis Bacon in his The New Atlantis puts it, “the dream-like strength of this particular myth poses as an allegation of truth.”

In 1969, Greek archaeologist Angelo Galanopoulos suggested that Plato’s Atlantis civilisation had been that of Minoan Crete which was destroyed by the volcanic eruption of the Aegean island of Thera/Santorini around 1500 B.C.E. Dutch writer Joop Slagter has even suggested that the Atlantean capital was not Herakleion on Crete but Santorini itself - the very centre of the explosion. Plato, however, claims that Greece derived the story of Atlantis from Egypt when the Athenian lawgiver Solon visited and first learned of it from priests of a temple in Sais. Plato describes Atlantis as having been beyond the Pillars of Heracles, that is, the Straights of Gibraltar and larger than Anatolia and Libya together. Through military conquest, the Atlanteans controlled much of the Mediterranean Basin but had been repulsed by the Greeks. The destruction of Atlantis occurred at the height of its power.

Despite lingering interest in the Atlantis story in the classical and renaissance worlds, it was in the nineteenth century with the release of Histoire philosophique du genre humain by Fabre d’Olivet and, more particularly, with the 1882 publication of Atlantis: The Antediluvian World by Ignatius Donnelly, that modern fascination with the legend begins. Donnelly collected all the known information on the island continent which he believed had been in the Atlantic Ocean and was where civilisation first developed and from where it was exported in the form of colonies to the rest of the world. Among these colonies, Egypt was the oldest. The end of Atlantis occurred through natural causes, and only a few of its inhabitants managed to escape and bring the story to others where it has survived in the flood myths of various peoples around the world.

Donnelly’s version of Atlantis was adopted by Helena Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophical Society. For her, it became an essential part of her theory of root races in which Lemuria, a Pacific Ocean equivalent of Atlantis, was recognized as the home of the third root race, the inhabitants of Atlantis as the fourth, while the world is now occupied by the fifth root race. One unfortunate spin-off of Blavatsky’s anti-Darwinian root race theory became the ideas of a `master race’ developed by Germany’s Völkische movement through the writings of Hermann Wirth, Karl Georg Zschaetzsch and Alfred Rosenberg which, in turn, led to a Third Reich Nazi obsession with Atlantis as the original Aryan homeland. But apart from this aberration, Blavatsky’s student, Rudolf Steiner, claimed to be able psychically to access the `akashic records’, the traces of all events preserved on the astral plane, and thereby learn that the Atlanteans possessed telepathic powers, extraordinary memories and advanced technology. Not only did Steiner contribute to the currently popular understanding of Atlantis as a centre of evolved civilisation, but he also launched the New Age technique of channelling through which information concerning Atlantis and its history can allegedly be acquired.

The most important in this vein for the ongoing development of the Atlantis story has been the occultist and psychic Edgar Cayce (1877-1945). Cayce exalted Atlantis beyond being simply a place of advanced civilisation into that possessing the highest degree of technical accomplishment. He also predicted the re-emergence of Atlantis near the end of the 1960s – thereby fuelling the growing expectation of a `New Age’. But there was also a new twist to the story that concerned the original demise of Atlantis. Whereas formerly the island continent had reached its end through the havoc caused by natural causes, in Cayce’s version Atlantis was destroyed through its inhabitants’ own hubris. The Atlanteans’ downfall became a result of their own misuse of their engineering achievements. In other words, it became a punishment.

While not pictured this way by all New Agers, the Cayce comprehension of Atlantis is held in particular by those who feel the new era is to come about through apocalyptic earth changes and upheavals. This idea is found frequently within what we might designate as the `Christian wing’ of New Age thought, but it also occurs among the `Galactians’ who follow the Enochic tale concerning the Watcher Angels of Genesis who had been sent by God to look after humanity but became lustful over the `daughters of men’ and produced a lineage of evil offspring as a result. Within the New Age identity, we find various versions of the `angelic fall’ ranging from James Jacob Hurtak’s The Keys of Enoch to Elizabeth Clare Prophet’s Church Universal and Triumphant. For Hurtak, Atlantis fell because its people had intermarried with the offspring of the fallen Lords of Light and had subsequently engaged in mixed genetic code experimentation. For Prophet, the descendants of the evil offspring now head the various governments throughout the world as well as the financial institutions, multi-nationals and underworld drug cartels.
Consequently, we have two different versions to explain the Atlantis catastrophe. The older and original understands the demise as a freak event of nature. It amounts to plain bad luck for the Atlanteans that they had their homeland and high level of civilisation on a part of the earth that was cataclysmically vulnerable. In contrast, however, the theosophically-inspired New Age version sees the Atlantis story as a cautionary tale. Here, the consequence is no longer seen as an `accident of nature’ or a random act of God but as the result of sinister and prideful behaviour. However, if the older version supports what we could term a `culture of nature’ and feeds into today’s neo-pagan and earth-based religions movement, the newer version suggests a `culture of spirituality’ or, more correctly perhaps, a `culture of transcendence’ that reflects New Age’s gnostic revival.

In the time that I have left, I wish therefore to explore some of the possible ethical consequences suggested by these divergent readings of the Atlantis legend. The most obvious appears to be the greater ecological concern from the `nature culture’ position. Contemporary pagans as a rule hold the earth to be sacred, something to be cherished, and, as a living divine being, not simply something to be exploited. While much of the contemporary rapid growth in pagan spirituality being witnessed by sociologists can be attributed to a Western dissatisfaction with traditional Judaeo-Christian paradigms and values, even more of it appears to be motivated by a fear for the environment and the wish of maintaining a viable ecological balance. To this end we find widespread pagan support for the road protest camps, campaigns on behalf of such areas as Oxleas Woods or the Artic National Wildlife Refuge, and demonstrations against the World Bank and economic summits of the `Big Seven’.  The material world is real to the pagan, and she/he endeavours to protect it and the forces or manifestations of nature which underpin it as a part of their religious expression.

In contrast, for much of the New Age as `transcendence culture’, nature becomes simply a beautiful illusion. While this essentially gnostic attitude survives to varying degrees within traditional Christianity despite its ecclesiastical condemnation and allows the biblical injunction of Genesis 1.28 in which God commands man to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth,” the New Age consequence is ostensibly different. Both the Christian and the New Ager, however, share a basic devaluing of the earth and material reality in preference for the spiritual that is not found among the contemporary pagan. But for New Age, this consideration of the unreality of nature leads to a preoccupation with the self. While the pagan sees reincarnation as an opportunity, New Age retains the Eastern Dharmic position and regards the cycle of reincarnation as something from which to escape. For the New Ager, the purpose of life is to return the self to the all-emanating Source from which it came. Consequently, while this is not a ubiquitous rule, New Age appears much less concerned with eco-activism than is the Neo-pagan. Its emphasis is fully upon the individual and the individual’s ultimate gnostic/theosophical attainment.

While both New Age and Neo-paganism appear to favour the contemporary postmodern position that favours the experiential, intuitive and emotional over the utilitarian rationalism of modernity, when we consider the Atlantis legend there is a certain irony. Nature-oriented pagans accept the catastrophe of Atlantis as a natural event, however unfortunate. While ethics are important in that the individual sows his or her own rewards, there is little incorporation of the Atlantis story and its theosophical interpretation as an illustration. The pagan and Wiccan `law of the threefold return’ is an affirmation of the Aleister Crowley/Dion Fortune adjunction, `An ye harm none, do what ye will!’ This ethical rule appears to apply to individual behaviour alone and not to the collective as we see in the fate of Atlantis. While the Atlantis model could serve as an exemplary, perhaps because of its theosophical associations, it is in general something that one does not encounter within the contemporary pagan world. Part of the irony is that Bacon’s The New Atlantis utopia is intended to be a `dialogue with nature’ and a refutation of the Cartesian dualism that promotes `mastery and possession of nature’. The Atlantis metaphor could provide a perfect fit with Neo-pagan aspirations, concerns and demands, but so far it has been largely ignored. It is the model of initiation and restoration that one would expect could resonate with many pagan rituals.

Within New Age by contrast, the irony only deepens. One consequence of the amalgamation or hybridisation of the human and fallen angelic races as espoused, for instance, by the Church Universal and Triumphant, is that we as humans are not all potentially equal. The Enoch story allows discrimination and a suffrage that is not universal. Once again we are moving into that interpretive realm that allowed the successor to the Völkische movement to embark upon some of the worst infringement against human sanctity that the world has known. As the Church Universal is a comparatively minor group, its attitudes do not appear to be particularly dangerous. But elevate it to the accomplishment of the Third Reich, it could be a completely different story.

But the irony is to be found even beyond this. The Atlantis version as promulgated by Cayce would seem to be a symbol of modern industrial society. If hubris and environmental disregard became the seeds of the Atlanteans’ undoing, it would appear that the cautionary tale of Atlantis should apply equally to present-day society of the rampantly expanding technological West. But to date, the commercialisation of spirituality that appears to be the hallmark of New Age and a reflection or corollary of multinational globalisation, while employing the Atlantis legend, does not appear to act upon the message that that legend suggests. Whereas the pagans do not employ the metaphor, they nevertheless act upon it. But whereas the New Agers do employ the Atlantis story as a cautionary tale, they do not appear to act to avert its suggested consequences. Such might be the contradictory dissonance of contemporary political, social and religious culture.