What is Lemuria?

The Wizard of Lemuria
The Wizard of Lemuria (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So what the heck is a Lemuria, anyway? The history of Lemuria begins, as a remarkable number of things do, with Ancient Rome. Specifically, with the concept of the Lemure.

The lemures, also known as larvae, were the restless and malignant dead of Roman mythology. They are similar to the modern idea of the ghost. The Romans had an annual holy day for the lemures, known as Lemuria, or Lemuralia. The holiday was designed to appease the spirits of the restless dead (usually with beans), and filing that scaring them away (usually by banging pots together.) It was sort of their Halloween, if Halloween as incredible sedate and boring.

Next up in the story of Lemuria is the 18th naturalist Carl Linnaeus, known as the ‘Father of Modern Taxonomy.’ He developed a modern system for naming organisms, called binomial nomenclature (homo sapien, felix domesticus, etc.) He coined the name lemur for the small primates native to Madagascar, due to his observations that they were mainly nocturnal and slow moving, like the Roman conception of the lemure. It has sometimes been said that the primates were named after lemures because they were as creepy as ghosts when you shined a light on them at night, but this is evidently not the case (lemurs, with their shining eyes, are still spooky however.)

This leads us to the 19th century, in which scientists had a problem. They knew that animals weren’t just plunked down on the Earth willy nilly. They knew that animals species tended to be found in regions, and that if you went from one region to another, especially to another continent, you would tend to find a different species. But here was the problem- there were a number of species in the South Pacific that seemed to be bucking this trend. They were too closely related, yet too widely separated by being on different continents and islands. So, either someone was plunking down animals will nilly, or there was some hidden way for those widely separated to be connected.

Nowadays, we know the answer to this problem is plate tectonics- those widely separated places weren’t widely separated in the past. But plate tectonics is a 20th century idea, and they didn’t know about it in the 19th, and thus needed another explanation. They one they came up with was a hypothesized sunken continent connecting all these places when it was above water, then disappeared as it sank. Because Madagascar was supposed to be a former peak of this continent, this hypothetical land was called Lemuria, after the lemurs of Madagascar.

This is where the story gets differently interesting. I won’t say more interesting, because I find Roman mythology, word etymology, and the history of science to be pretty damned interesting in their own rights. But it does get interesting in other ways now.

Helena Blavatsky was a 19th century occultist, and might reasonably considered to be the ‘Mother of the New Age Movement‘. Anything dealing with Atlantis, Lemuria, crystals or other such woo in today’s popular culture can usually trace an inspiration back to her writings. She wrote that Lemuria was a lost continent, and home to one of Humanity’s ‘root races’. Writers such as Robert E Howard, HP Lovecraft, Lin Carter, and Richard E Shaver took her ideas and ran with them. A full list of uses of Lemuria in popular culture may be found here.

So there it is. Lemuria, land of ghosts and high weirdness. My kind of place.


Subscribe to the Cinematic Pigs' Feet podcast on iTunes here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *