Hollow Earth? Fact or Fiction?
Hollow Earth tales have surfaced since man first walked on two legs. Our ancestors sheltered themselves in caves for many more generations than they have lived in houses. Haunting cave drawings from the dawn of time remain as mute testimony that early humans probed and speculated about the deep recesses of the earth. Small wonder that the idea of life underground – a hollow earth – has obsessed many since well before recorded time.
It has never been an entirely comfortable thought. Cave dwellers sometimes had to wrest their living quarters from ferocious animals, and the fear of yet one more creature in the dark at the back of the cave must have been widespread. Perhaps that is why the nether world came to become closely associated with death and dragons, with Satan and the supernatural.
The Dawn of Science – and the Hollow Earth Fascination Continues Unabated
As the human mind developed and began to ponder the wider universe, the hollow earth beckoned with as much allure as the heavens. While some myths populated the distant universe and the remote mountain tops with gods, others saw a hollow earth below, a realm of similarly potent, though frequently less benevolent, deities. Later, with the dawn of science and exploration, the globe was slowly yielding its secrets to far-flung adventurers. Travelers who reported finding portals to underground worlds were afforded no more credibility than those who spoke of new worlds beyond the seas.
In time, astonishing claims were heard of a mysterious inner earth peopled with benign giants or Eskimo evil dwarfs or prehistoric reptiles. Even today, with the outer world having been thoroughly mapped and explored, photographed, and plumbed by sophisticated electronic instruments, uncertainty remains about the hollow earth. The darkness at the back of the cave has yet to disappear entirely.
Myths from the Dawn of Western Civilization
The legendary Assyro-Babylonian king, Gilgamesh, was reported to have had a long conversation about the underworld with the ghost of a devil companion. The Greeks were constantly speculating about the depths of the earth; one myth tells how the musician, Orpheus, tried in vain to rescue his wife, Eurydice, from Hades.
The incomparable storyteller/poet, Homer, imagined an underworld waiting to be explored, and the philosopher, Plato, wrote that there were “tunnels both broad and narrow in the interior” and in the center, a god who sits “on the navel of the earth.” Egyptians also believed in an infernal underground kingdom, and later, Christians were told about their hell. We have also read that the Incas managed to thwart the blood-thirsty marauding Spanish conquistadors when they carried their treasures into deep tunnels that have yet to yield their ancient secrets.
First, the Comets, then the Hollow Earth
After the dark ages receded and science ascended in place of superstition and myth in explaining the world, the underground remained a prominent location. One pioneer whose deductions led him below was the brilliant English astronomer, Edmond Halley, discoverer of the comet that is seen yet racing through the heavens and bears his name. In 1672, while still a schoolboy, Halley became interested in the earth’s magnetism.
Halley found that magnetic north was not always in the same place. Studying compass readings taken by himself and others over most of the world, he discerned several patterns of error. He recognized that local environments–such as magnetic mineral deposits–might cause a compass needle to deviate. Furthermore, needles deflected downward, away from horizontal, to a degree that corresponded to latitude. At various longitudes, compass readings varied laterally from actual magnetic north, in predictable ways that navigators charted and took into account.
But the real enigma emerged when Halley examined readings that had been recorded in past times. They showed that variation–the lateral deflection that changed according to longitude–was slowly changing. The only way that Halley could explain this phenomenon was to posit the existence of more than one magnetic field.
He suggested that the earth was twinned—with an outer shell within which could be found a separate, inner nucleus. Each of the globes, he proposed, had its own axis, with north and south magnetic poles, and the axes are somewhat inclined to each other. That, along with slight differences in the velocity of rotation, could cause magnetized needles to seek one or another of the poles–hence the slow shift in the position of magnetic north.
Later, when Halley came across readings that could not be accounted for by one interior earth, he added two more, each nestled inside the other like a set of Chinese boxes. “They are,” Halley told the Royal Society of London in 1692, “approximately the size of Mars, Venus and Mercury.”
Like many other trail blazers of science, Halley felt he had to square his ingenious theory with his religious beliefs. He speculated that since God had stocked every part of the earth’s surface with living things, he would not have neglected the inner world.
But this raised another problem, for it seemed self-evident that life requires light. Halley suggested that the interior atmosphere itself is luminous and that the aurora borealis, or northern lights, is caused by the escape of this glowing essence through the thin crust at the North Pole. During the eighteenth century, as other investigators pushed back the frontiers of knowledge, Halley’s theory was modified but not refuted. The Swiss mathematician, Leonhard Euler, rejected the idea of multiple planets within, replacing them with a single sun, which he reasoned would provide warmth and light to an advanced inner-earth civilization.
Later, the Scottish mathematician, Sir John Leslie, determined that there are really two interior suns, which he christened Pluto and Proserpine.
But it would not be a European scientist who first brought international attention to the idea of a world within the earth. That distinction would go instead to a hot-tempered American, a career soldier and man of action from the state of New Jersey.
The son of a judge, John Cleve Symmes was born in 1780 and was named for an uncle who had served in the American Revolution. His was hardly the cloistered life of a scholar, although he enjoyed a solid early education and was intensely interested in the natural sciences. In 1802, at the age of twenty-two, he entered the United States Army as an ensign.
From then on, Symmes’s life was nomadic and turbulent. In 1807, he insisted on fighting a duel with a fellow officer who had suggested that Symmes was not a gentleman. Both men were shot. Symmes was wounded in the wrist and his opponent in the thigh. Both suffered from their wounds for the rest of their lives, though we are pleased to report that they eventually became good friends. Symmes fought courageously against the British in the war of 1812, once leading his troops in storming a British artillery battery and spiking an enemy cannon with his own hands.
Symmes left the army in 1816 and established a trading post in St. Louis. There, with little else on his hands to do, he indulged in his lifelong passion for reading about the natural sciences. Symmes was especially fascinated by speculation about the formation of the earth, and he began to elaborate with growing enthusiasm and conviction on a theory that may have occurred to him years earlier.
By the year 1818, Symmes was ready to share his ideas on the international lecture circuit. He did so in a most spectacular manner. In a letter addressed, “To All the World” and sent politicians, publications, learned societies, and heads of state throughout Europe and America, he wrote: “I declare the earth is hollow, and inhabited within; containing a number of solid concentric spheres, one within the other, and that it is open at the poles or 16 degrees; I pledge my life,” he continued, “in support of this truth, and am ready to explore the hollow, if the world will support and aid me in the undertaking.”
Symmes assured his readers that he would prove his case in greater detail with a subsequent publication. For skeptics, he included a character reference and a testimonial to his sanity signed by local physicians and businessmen. That Symmes asked for “one hundred brave men, companions, well-equipped, to start from Siberia in the fall season, with reindeer, and sleighs, on the ice of the frozen sea; I engage we find warm and rich land, stocked with thrifty vegetables and animals if not men, on reaching one degree northward of latitude 82; we will return in the succeeding spring.”
But instead of the support and aid as Symmes had requested, the public responded with hoots of derisive laughter. He told his theory, and his audacity was ridiculed in newspapers and scientific journals the world over.
Undeterred, Symmes launched a vigorous campaign with newspaper articles, more open letters, and countless lectures around the country. Over and over, he argued that a mass of spinning, unformed matter–such as the earth had once been formed from–could not have organized itself into a solid sphere. Centrifugal force throws rotating matter away from the axis of rotation; gravity pulls it inward. When the forces balance, he reasoned, the result is a belt of material with the densest matter outermost and the axis open. In this way, Symmes claimed, the materials of the earth were organized as concentric, hollow spheres open at the poles.
Symmes marshaled all kinds of evidence, from the astronomical to the commonplace, to support his scheme. Look at the concentric rings of Saturn, the polar caps of Mars, he said. Look how a cup of any liquid material, rotated, will sort itself into concentric circles according to its density. He appealed to religion: Nature, he pointed out, was a great economist of matter, having opted wherever feasible for hollow construction-hollow bones, stalks, quills and hairs. Furthermore, he said, God would not have created a vast inner world only to have it barren and empty. Symmes reasoned from the general to the particular and developed specific dimensions for the multiple earths he envisioned. The known world, the outermost of five, he said, has an opening 4,000 miles across at the north pole and another, 6,000 miles in diameter, at the South. One could walk into these openings, for they are inclined into the earth’s thousand-mile-thick crust at a gentle angle. Anyone who did so would find within a gentle, sheltered land warmed by the indirect rays of the sun shining in at the polar portholes.
Symmes spoke relentlessly to all who would listen to him, poring out great, disorganized jumbles of his thought. His fervent speeches drew large crowds of the curious but, for the most part, elicited only amusement or mild interest instead of cash for his arctic expedition. He did make a few converts, however, among whom the most significant was an Ohio newspaper editor named Jeremiah N. Reynolds. Reynolds began giving his own lectures in support of Symmes’s theories.
Jeremiah N. Reynolds, newspaper editor and author of Moby Dick inspiration, Mocha Dick
Another adherent was a wealthy Ohioan named James McBride. It may well have been McBride who requested Kentucky senator, Richard M. Johnson, who later served as vice-president in the Martin Van Buren administration, to introduce in Congress a petition for funding the proposed expedition. It was tabled. McBride then compiled a book summarizing, in a more concise and logical fashion than Symmes ever did, the theory of concentric spheres (which was more popularly and rudely referred to as the Theory of Symmes’s Hole). But it was all for naught. The strain of ten years of vigorous proselytizing broke Symmes’s health, and he died in 1829 without seeing his theory accepted or his expedition mounted.
Symmes had clearly hoped that his quest would bring him monumental renown. Indeed, using the pen name of Captain Adam Seaborn, he published in 1820 a fictional account of a voyage to the earth’s interior, entitled Symzonia — Voyage of Discovery, in which he spelled out the class of glory he hoped would be his.
As Captain Seaborn prepared to land at a subterranean utopia peopled with gentle, fair-skinned beings, he mused: “I was about to secure to my name a conspicuous and imperishable place on the tablets of History, and a niche of the first order in the temple of fame…The voyage of Columbus was but an excursion on a fish pond, and his discoveries, compared with mine, were but trifles.”
We know this was not the way the world remembered him. After his death, Symmes’s vision of a hollow earth was nearly forgotten. The polar expedition he had so long espoused, however, was soon given another life.
In fact, Congress authorized such a voyage in 1828, the year before Symmes’s death. This was in part the result of vigorous lobbying by Jeremiah Reynolds, who instead of appealing to scientific curiosity, shrewdly stressed the trade to be opened and territory to be claimed. The idea gained support of President John Quincy Adams but not of Andrew Jackson, who succeeded Adams as president in 1829. The expedition would not sail for another decade.
Meanwhile, the impatient Reynolds joined a sealing and exploration expedition to the South Seas aboard the Annawan. (A magazine story that he wrote on his return, Mocha Dick, or The White Whale of the Pacific, may have been the inspiration for Herman Melville’s masterpiece, Moby Dick, published twelve years later.) On his return, Reynolds renewed earlier calls to sealers and whalers to add their voices to the clamor for an expedition, now proposed to Antarctica.
In an 1836 speech given in the US Capitol’s Hall of Representatives, Reynolds conjured a stirring vision of American ships casting anchor at the South Pole, “that point where all the meridians terminate where our eagle and star-spangled banner may be unfurled and planted, and left to wave our axis of the earth itself!” If he still believed in Symmes’s theory at that point, Reynolds kept it to himself.
Swayed by such patriotic appeals to the whalers and other commercial interests. Congress then approved the expedition and provided $300,000 for it. However, two years dragged by before it actually departed. By that time, the impassioned Reynolds had so roundly denounced the Secretary of Navy for dawdling that Reynolds was ignominiously struck from the expedition roster when the ship finally sailed in 1838.
Named for its commander, Navy Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, the four-year Wilkes expedition — the first to team civil engineers and scientists with naval crews — did make important discoveries, but not those that Symmes had so fondly hoped for. There would be no charting of a polar opening. The voyagers returned, having mapped thousands of miles of Antarctic coastline, having discovered that this little-known landmass was in fact, big enough to be named the earth’s seventh continent.
Like Symmes before him, Reynolds found that the tangible rewards for his devotion were slim. An expedition botanist who discovered a new genus of ivy in Samoa on the southward journey named it Reynoldsia in honor of Reynolds’s “unflagging zeal.”
Reynolds also appeared to have wielded considerable influence over the fevered mind of one of America’s greatest authors, Edgar Allan Poe. In the short story, “MS Found in a Bottle,” and his novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gorden Pym of Nantucket, Poe described doomed voyages that ended with ships being sucked into a watery abyss at the South Pole — ideas founded on the hollow-earth writings of Reynolds. Although the two probably never met, Poe was heard calling Reynold’s name when he died in a Baltimore hospital in 1849.
Such stimulation of fiction writers by scientific speculations was a hallmark of the nineteenth century, and many fictional excursions were so plausibly presented that readers were sometimes hard-pressed to separate the real from the imaginary. Nowhere did flights of literary fancy seem so credible — or foretell the future more accurately — than in the writings of Jules Verne. With remarkable prescience, he envisioned submarines prowling the ocean depths, aeronauts circumnavigating the globe, and astronauts traveling to the moon. One of his first ventures into his special world, where fact and fantasy were nearly indistinguishable, was his Journey to the Center of the Earth.
The story begins in 1863 in Hamburg, Germany, where Otto Lidenbrock, an eccentric professor of mineralogy, has deciphered a coded, runic document from Iceland. It turns out to be directions for reaching the center of the earth. Lidenbrock and his nephew, Axel, immediately go to Iceland, hire a guide, and descend down the chimney of an extinct volcano into the depths of the earth.
They make their way through hazardous passages and survive the tortures of thirst to discover, eighty-eight miles down, a vast sea. What amazes them the most, after their long ordeal in a series of labyrinthine tunnels, is the brightness of the underground world.
Declares Axel: “It was like an aurora borealis, a continuous cosmic phenomenon, filling a cavern big enough to contain an ocean.”
They construct a raft and sail across this mysterious ocean, discovering a lost world of giant plants and prehistoric reptiles. Throughout, the professor remains the model of a rational nineteenth-century scientist. He speculates that the ocean had flowed down from the surface through the fissure, closed, and that some of the vapor had evaporated to cause clouds and storms. The nephew reflects that, “This theory about the phenomenon we had witnessed structured as satisfactory, for however goes the wonders of nature they can always be explained by physical laws.”
Eventually they are lofted by a volcanic eruption to the island of Stromboli, off the coast of Italy, having traveled under the whole of Europe, and return to a hero’s welcome to Hamburg. As a touch of verisimilitude, Verne’s story included a reference to Sir John Leslie, the eighteenth-century mathematician who proposed the theory of a hollow earth which has twin suns, Pluto and Proserina. And at one point, the young lad wonders aloud about Leslie’s theory, musing, “Could he have been telling the truth?”
The same question was often asked in The Coming Race, a novel by Lord Lytton, published following his death in 1873. Edward Bulwer-Lytton, as this English peer was known, was the author of a celebrated historical novel, The Last Days of Pompeii, and a member of several mystical societies. His story, like that of Jules Verne, begins with the chance of discovery of an opening into an underground world. But what Lytton’s narrator finds there is more ominous than Verne’s imaginings.
He enters a mine shaft, penetrates a fissure on a landscaped road, and finds himself amid a race of supermen. He discovers that in the world of the Vril-ya, as these handsome giants themselves, all human dreams have been realized. War and social conflict have been abolished. Machines perform menial chores; people are free to do what they prefer and a street keeper is as highly regarded as the chief magistrate. Drunkenness, and all such vices are unknown, and everyone lives past a hundred years of age in vigorous health.
All of these blessings derive from “vril,” a versatile fluid that gives these people absolute control over all forms of matter. It allows them to fly on artificial wings, to heal and preserve, to protect their cities, and to blast away rocks for the creation of settlements. Its destructive manner is so absolute that war has been outlawed.
This interior world is a vril society that abides by its motto: No happiness without order, no order without authority, no authority without unity. But Lytton’s narrator soon realizes that all is not well. “If you were to take a thousand of the best and most philosophical human beings you could find,” he muses, “and place them as citizens in this beautified community, I believe in less than one year they would either die of boredom or attempt some revolution.”
He begins to dream of imbibing a glass of whiskey and consuming a juicy steak, with a cigar to follow.
The Vril-ya realize that this imperfect earthling is a destructive force. But he must not be allowed to leave; the Vril-ya intend to return to the outer world, from whence they originated, to supplant the inferior races who now live there. They return to kill Lytton’s narrator, but he is rescued by the one Vril-ya who loves him, and he ascends the mine shaft supported on her wings.
He ends his account with a chilling message, “Being frankly told by my physician that I am affected by a complaint which, though it gives little pain and no perceptible notice of its encroachments, may at any moment be fatal, I have thought it my duty to my fellow-men to place on record these forewarning of THE COMING RACE.”
At about the same time that Lytton was writing his curious book, which would later become part of occultist lore, an American herbalist was upending the whole idea of the hollow earth. This mysterious realm is not to be found below us, proposed Cyrus Read Teed, but above us; we are not on the globe, but in it.
Born on a New York farm in 1839, Teed served as a corporal in the Union Army during the Civil War before setting up his practice of herbal cures. He read widely and found that scientifically accepted theories of an infinite universe were a threat and an affront to his devout sensibilities. Teed dreamed instead of a more compact and comprehensible cosmos. When he finally conceived his own theory, he considered it not only a scientific revelation but a religious one as well.
Teed expounded on his notions in a book entitled, The cellular Cosmogony, or, the Earth–a Concave Sphere, which he wrote under the pseudonym of Koresh, the Hebrew name for Cyrus. The known world is on the concave, inner surface of a sphere, he explained, outside of which there is only void. At the center of the sphere, the rotating sun, half-dark and half-light, which gives the illusion of rising and setting. The moon is a reflection of the earth’s surface while the stars and planets reflect from metallic planes on the earth’s concave surface. The vast internal cavity is filled with a dense atmosphere that makes it impossible to see across the globe to the lands and peoples on other sides.
Odd as this vision was, it turned out that it could not be disproved mathematically. Indeed, Teed, who took Koresh as his permanent name offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could refute his theory, but he found no takers. When a scientist would use geometric inversion to turn a sphere inside out and map external points in their corresponding internal position, the result would be a universe that looked like the one described by Teed, or Koresh.
But Teed did not need the validation of mathematics. “To know of the earth’s concavity,” he wrote, “is to know God, while to believe in the earth’s convexity is to deny Him and all His works.”
Captivated by his vision, Teed abandoned medicine — as well as his wife and child — and proclaimed himself the messiah of a new religion called Koreshanity. To help spread his gospel, he formed a church, established the World’s College of Life in Chicago, and began publishing the Flaming Sword, a magazine that continued to appear until 1949. With disciples and donations attracted by his impassioned lectures, and spurred by threats from irate husbands whose wives had abandoned them to join the Koreshans, he bought a 300 acre tract in Florida in 1894 and founded a community he called the Koreshan Unity, Inc. It was meant to be a home for 10 million converts but only 250 actually settled there. They were fiercely loyal, however, and when Teed died in 1908, they mounted a vigil, waiting for him to rise again and carry them with him to heaven, as he had prophesied. The hoped-for ascension did not come to pass; after four days, the local health officer ordered a conventional burial.
True to form, Teed’s internment was anything but conventional. He was laid to rest in an immense mausoleum with a twenty-four hour guard, until his tomb was washed away by a hurricane in 1921. Forty years later, his tract was turned into the Koreshan State Historic Site, and Koresh’s disciples offered guided tours until the last one died in 1982.
As the twentieth century began, it might have seemed that the idea of a hollow earth would become more and more difficult to sustain. Explorers, after all, were combing the world’s surface at an ever-faster clip. But the new information that they brought back did not put an end to hollow-earth speculations. Indeed, two proponents, William Reed and Marshall B. Gardner, weighed in with major contributions to the theory.
The two men were stimulated by some anomalous discoveries by polar explorers. For one thing, according to many accounts, water and air temperatures grew warmer with greater proximity to the North Pole. Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian explorer and statesman, reported from far inside the Arctic Circle that it was almost too warm to sleep. He observed that winds from the north seemed to raise the temperature whereas south winds lowered it.
Other travelers reported similar warming trends and described seeing abundant wildlife-birds, mammals, and plagues of mosquitoes, encountered at high latitudes. Many of these creatures appeared to be migrating north, rather than south, and were seen to be returning from sojourns where there should have been barren regions. Incongruously, they looked sleek and well-fed. There were accounts, too, of travelers who saw multicolored snow — red, green, yellow and black. [Perhaps the yellow can be explained, according to a Frank Zappa song. Ed.]
An even more arresting mystery had been created in 1846 by the discovery of a long-extinct woolly mammoth frozen in the ice of Siberia. So well had the creature been preserved in the arctic cold that its stomach still contained identifiable traces of its last meal of pine cones and fir branches. Scientists wondered how this enormous animal could have been frozen quickly enough to arrest its digestive processes which normally would continue even after death. Some theorized that the mammoth had lived near the pole when the climate was much warmer and had succumbed to a sudden freeze. Marshall Gardner, among others, claimed no climate change could have been that sudden.
In his book, A Journey to the Earth’s Interior, or Have the Poles Really Been Discovered, published in 1913, Gardener devoted a full chapter to the truly mammoth mystery. The explanation, he said, was simple: Mammoths had not become extinct at all but are wandering today in the interior of the earth. “When he ventures too near the polar orifice…he becomes stranded on a breaking ice floe and carried over from the interior regions, to the other regions or perhaps falls in a crevasse in ice, which afterwards begins to move in some great glacier movement. In these ways the bodies are carried over to Siberia and left where we have seen them discovered.”
Reed, in his book, The Phantom of the Poles, had an explanation for the colored snow cited by travelers. The red, green, and yellow must be pollen, he said. The black would be soot from volcanoes. And all must have come from the earth’s interior, the closest possible source. Accounting for the polar warming was more complex, but Gardner and Reed both attributed it to Symmes-like openings into the inner earth. Reed described the earth’s crust as 800 miles thick, with gravity acting toward the deepest part of the shell. In other words, the same gravity that pulled objects on the outside of the sphere inward would thrust objects inside the globe outward. Voyages could thus sail over the edge of the polar openings without being aware that they had left one world for another, Indeed, Reed insisted that “all, or nearly all, the explorers have spent much of their time past the turning-point, and have had to look at the interior of the earth.”
Gardener believed that the interior was lit by a central sun, possibly 600 miles in diameter, left over from the spinning nebula from which the earth had been formed. Mars had been formed in similar fashion, he wrote, and its interior sun could sometimes be seen glinting through its polar openings. Reflected light from the earth’s interior sun, according to Gardner, creates the startling brilliance of the aurora borealis at the North Pole and the aurora australis at the South Pole.
On this subject, Gardner parted company with Reed, who maintained that the inner world got its light from the outer sun shining in at the poles. As for the auroras, Reed had an ingenious explanation. The northern lights, he said, are the reflected images of interior prairie fires of volcanoes. They obviously are not caused by electricity, as orthodox scientists had proposed.
This theory Reed disposed of with a scornful, rhetorical question: Does electricity ever move through the heavens as if driven slowly along by some unseen agency?” To explain why the aurora is most brilliant during the arctic winter, Reed pointed out that the sun shines directly into the south polar opening at that time of year. The ice and snow at the rim reflect and intensify the light that emerges from the North Pole to create the aurora. Presumably, the situation is reversed in summer.
Reed was eager to see the inner earth, with its “vast continents, oceans, mountains and rivers, vegetable and animal life,” put to use. And by his reckoning, the interior “…can be made accessible to mankind with one-forth the outlay of treasure, time, and life that it cost to build the subway in New York City. The number of people that can find comfortable homes (if it not already occupied) will be in the billions.”
For his part, Gardner thought that at least some of the interior was already peopled by Eskimos, who must have originated there. As evidence, he cited Eskimo myths about a warm homeland to the north of the arctic. He reasoned that the Eskimos must have migrated to the ice-bound region where they now live because it was easier to hunt whales and seals there than it was in open water.
What really fired Gardner’s imagination was the prospect of mining the interior, where he expected to find bountiful lodes of gold, platinum, and diamonds. “Our country has the men, the aeroplane, the enterprise, and the capital,” he declared, “to appropriate these treasures.” But he was not suggesting that the exploration be done out of greed; rather, it was the duty of America, Gardner believed, “with her high civilization, her free institutions, her humanity, (for there may be native population to deal with), and her generosity,” to move more quickly.
“Do we want one of the autocratic countries of Europe to perpetuate in this new world all the old evils of colonial oppression and exploitation?” he asked rhetorically.
While Reed and Gardner were content to theorize about the inner earth, Olaf Jansen claimed to have actually been there. Jansen was a Norwegian sailor who retired to Glendale, California, in the early 1900’s. Just before he died, at the age of ninety-five, he told writer Willis George Emerson, one of his few friends, an incredible story, which Emerson published in 1908 under the title The Smoky God, or, a Voyage to the Inner World. Jensen had waited to reveal the truth, he explained, because when he first tried to tell his story, he was locked in an asylum for twenty-eight years.
As a teen-age boy in 1829, Jensen related, he sailed with his father to Franz Joseph Land, a group of islands high above the Arctic Circle, in search of ivory tusks. Finding open seas and fair weather, they resolved to explore unknown waters to the north. A storm drove them through a barrier of fog and snow, nearly capsizing their frail sloop, and delivered them to a cloudless calm beyond. They sailed on in fine weather and spied a smoky God that was worshipped as a deity by the inhabitants of the inner world they had entered.
There the Jensens met with a race of good-humored giants, ten to twelve feet tall. They visited a seaport city that was surrounded by vineyards and richly ornamented with gold. They saw a forest of trees that would make the California redwoods seem like underbrush, and they ate grapes as large as oranges. They were whisked by monorail to the city of Eden, where they met the great high priest in a palace paved with gold and jewels.
After two-and-a-half years in this paradise, the homesick father and son were allowed to leave. Carrying bags of gold nuggets, they sailed through the south polar opening. The elder Jensen drowned when an iceberg crushed their sloop, but Olaf was rescued by a Scottish whaler.
In support of this fantastic tale, Jensen called on some of the same evidence that Reed and Gardner had used in their theorizing. He mentioned magnetic irregularities at the poles, wind-blown pollen, and mammoth bones in Siberia. And he believed a party of Swedish polar explorers, lost in a balloon after leaving Spitsbergen in 1897, “are now in the ‘within’ world, and doubtless are being entertained, as my father and myself were entertained, by the kind-hearted giant race inhabiting the inner Atlantic Continent.”
All of these inner-earth visionaries suffered for their beliefs. Jensen was locked up; Reed and Gardner were ridiculed. But Gardner, for one, was equally intolerant of fellow enthusiasts. He dismissed Symmes’s theory as merely “supposition” and declared, “Of course it is very easy for anyone to deny all the facts of science and get up some purely private explanation of the formation of the earth. The man who does that is a crank. Unfortunately the man in the street does not always discriminate between a crank and a scientist.”
Gardner was enraged to discover that some scientists had the same difficulty and relegated his own work to the “crank” category. As an example, the director of the Lick Observatory of Santa Cruz, California, wrote to him: “It may be a disappointment to you to learn that we are placing your book in the class which contains pamphlets which we perennially receive on such subjects as, ‘The Earth is Flat,’ etc. It is surprising how many of these contributions there are which ignore, with apparent deliberation, the great body of modern scientific knowledge.”
“Sheer misrepresentation,” fulminated Gardner, who preferred to quote more favorable opinions from a Professor A. Schmidt of Stuttgart (“a very weighty physical hypothesis”) and Professor H. Sjogren of Stockholm (“originality and audacity”). Gardner remained unshaken in his beliefs despite the increasing number of explorers-such as Cook, Peary, Scott, and Admundsen. The future would prove him correct: “We shall see all when we explore the arctic in earnest, as we shall easily be able to do with the aid of airships.”
Before full-scale aerial surveys of the poles could shed much light on the polar regions, a kind of dark age intervened, during which exploration and scientific progress were overshadowed by war and tyranny. In 1933, Adolf Hitler proclaimed himself the leader of a Thousand Year Reich, a civilization of superman that would rule the world. The Nazi philosophy was based on a belief in the supremacy of the Aryan race, and strenuous efforts were made to buttress this claim with evidence dredged from history, folklore, and science. In this atmosphere of myth, hollow earth theories thrived.
Peter Bender, a German aviator who was seriously wounded in World War I, attracted favorable attention in Germany during the 1930’s with his elaborations on Koreshanity. Top Nazi leaders, including Hitler, reportedly took seriously the concept of a concave world that was first proposed by Cyrus “Koresh” Teed.
It appeared that these leaders sometimes translated theirs beliefs into concrete actions. In April 1942, for an example, at the height of the war, Dr. Heinz Fischer, an expert on infrared radiation, purportedly led a group of technicians on a secret expedition to the Baltic island of Rugen. The men aimed a powerful camera loaded with infrared film into the sky at a forty-five degree angle and left it in the position for several days. The goal, which proved elusive, was to take a picture of the British fleet across the hollow interior of the concave earth.
Other beliefs about inner worlds gained currency among Nazi enthusiasts. There was, for an example, a VRIL Society, also known as the Luminous Lodge, which held that Lord Lytton’s book The Coming Race, was true and that it offered a blueprint for the future.
Members of this occultists body no doubt thrilled to the Vril-ya slogan-“No happiness without order, nor order without authority, no authority without unity.” They apparently were convinced that the vaunted Aryan race had its most glorious evidence down there. They had discovered that developing a race of supermen was difficult and took time. The Luminous Lodge wanted to make contact with any existing race of superior beings, in hope of establishing peaceful relations and learning their secrets.
Other organizations followed similar urges. The anti-Semitic Thule Society of Bavaria, whose adherents included Nazi philosopher Alfred Rosenburg and deputy fuhrer, Rudolf Hess, sometimes claimed to represent survivors of Atlantis who lived in the Himalayas, the legendary secret chiefs of Tibet. Some of the society’s more enthusiastic members believed that they could contact their master, the King of Fear, by use of tarot cards.
According to some accounts, Hitler may have even believed that he had seen a member of a super race from the inner earth.
He reportedly told Hermann Rauschning, the Nazi governor of Danzig: “The new man is living amongst us now! He is here!…I will tell you a secret. I have seen the new man. He is intrepid and cruel. I was afraid of him.” The fuhrer was also rumored to have dispatched expeditions to Tibet and Mongolia in search of Underground wisdom. In further pursuit of such knowledge, special units are said to have scoured the mines and cavern of occupied Europe for passages leading to a subterranean world. And then there is the recurring legend that senior Nazis took refuge in the bowels of the earth as Germany collapsed in ruins.
By then, the airborne explorations of the poles envisioned by Gardner were well under way. In 1926, United States Navy aviator Richard E. Byrd had become the first to fly over the North Pole; three years later, he made the first flight over the South Pole. He would cross the South Pole by air twice more, in 1947 and 1955.
His findings were hardly calculated to bring cheer to die-hard hollow-earthers. Byrd reported that he flew an enormous triangle around the South Pole and, “surveyed nearly 10,000 square miles of the country around and beyond the pole” and found nothing.
“Although it is somewhat disappointing to report,” he wrote, “there was no observable feature of any significance beyond the pole. There was only the rolling white desert from horizon to horizon.”
Elsewhere on the continent, the landscape appeared more varied. Byrd found jagged mountains of coal black and brick red, where ice-covered rocks reflected the sun “in an indescribable complex of colors, blends of blues, purple, and greens such as man seldom has seen before.” Greatly impressed by this natural beauty, Byrd became almost lyrical: “At the bottom of this planet lies an enchanted continent in the sky. Sinister and beautiful, she lies in her frozen slumber, her billowy white robes of snow weirdly luminous with amethysts and emeralds of ice.”
Byrd’s discoveries did little to end speculations about a hollow earth, open at the poles; on the contrary, believers were stimulated to new heights of endeavor-and confusion over dates and places-to discredit Byrd’s reports. In 1959, two years after the polar explorer’s death, a writer named F. Amadeo Giannini insisted, in a book entitled Worlds Beyond the Poles, that Byrd had in fact flown into the inner earth — 1,700 miles beyond the South Pole in 1956.
Others, including pulp magazine editor, Ray Palmer and the highly imaginative author, Raymond Bernard, shared a belief that someone was conspiring to keep Byrd’s real findings secret. They found confirming evidence in Byrd’s phrases about “the country beyond” and “the enchanted continent in the sky.” And they claimed to have discovered other radio messages that told of iceless land and lakes, mountains covered with trees, and even a monstrous animal resembling the mammoth of antiquity moving through allegedly polar underbrush.
Palmer, for one, had a considerable professional interest in keeping alive the notion of habitable regions beneath the earth. As editor of the magazine, Amazing Stories, he started publishing in the mid-1940s a long running series of articles by Richard S. Shaver, a Pennsylvania welder who claimed to have stumbled upon a race of underground creatures called deros were survivors of the lost land of Lumeria and used mysterious rays to influence events on the earth’s surface.
As Shaver had it, deros were to blame for all the evils that plagued humankind. Every mishap, from airplane crashes to sprained ankles, could be traced to machinations of the deros. Once, after Shaver had visited with Palmer, the editor experienced an amazing infestation of fleas. Queried about the sudden appearance of the vermin, Shaver insisted that he had never been troubled with fleas. Surely he said it was the work of the deros.
Palmer cheerfully billed the Shaver tales as “something NEW in science fiction.” But as sales of the magazine soared on the strength of disclosures about the deros, he was deluged with earnest letters from readers who reported that they, too, had encountered the subterranean beings. Some told of harrowing adventures. One correspondent warned that Palmer was “playing with dynamite” in exposing the deros. He and a companion, he wrote, once fought their way out of a cave with a submachine guns, and still bore the scars of wounds inflicted by vicious creatures. “Don’t print our names, “he pleaded. “We are not cowards, but we are not crazy.” Contemplating Shaver’s obsession with the mysterious deros, Palmer could only conclude,“If it is a delusion, many people have it.”
Others shared with Palmer and Bernard the belief that there was more to the Byrd story than had been revealed. A woman wrote to Palmer claiming that, in 1929 in White Plains, New York, she had been able to see a newsreel of Byrd’s 1926 flight over the North Pole, in which Byrd “exclaimed in wonder as he approached a warm-water lake surrounded by conifers, with a large animal moving about among the trees.”
No such newsreel has ever been found, and the reported radio broadcasts found no place in Byrd’s detailed accounts of his Antarctic expedition. Bernard suggested darkly that they may have been suppressed by secret forces. The truth of Admiral Byrd’s discoveries, he declared, remains “a leading international top secret.” But the diehards soon had more difficult evidence to deal with. In March of 1959, the U.S. nuclear submarine, Skate, having sailed under the arctic ice pack, surfaced at the North Pole.
The crew used inertial navigation equipment to calculate the speed of the earth’s rotation and thus to confirm arrival at the pole, where the rotation settles to a single point. The skipper, Commander James F. Calvert, wrote later, “We took exhaustively careful soundings, gravity measurements, and navigation readings to ensure that we had attained the precise navigational Pole, and had as much data as possible from the famous spot.”
Palmer had little to say about the Skate expedition, but he returned triumphantly to the fray in 1970. “THE WHOLE!…NOW WE HAVE A PHOTO!” he proclaimed in Flying Saucers magazine, which he launched in 1957.
And indeed he did have a picture, courtesy of the Environmental Science Service Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce. It was one of a series of about 40,000 satellite photos of the earth and showed what looked to be a gaping, circular black spot or void around the North Pole?
“how many more photos will we require to establish a fact?” demanded Palmer, claiming that the supposed opening was concealed by clouds on all the other satellite photographs.
Sadly for Palmer, the photograph turned out to be not a conventional photo at all, but a mosaic of television images transmitted by an orbiting satellite. The images, taken during a twenty-four-hour period from many points along the satellite’s orbit, were processed by a computer and reassembled to form a composite view of Earth as if seen from a single point directly over the North Pole. During this time, regions near the Pole were shrouded by the continuous darkness of the northern winter. Hence an unlighted area occupies the center of the picture.
But the true believers in the existence of a world within persist despite daunting accumulations of evidence to the contrary. They point out that no one has penetrated very far beneath the earth’s crust, and they take heart from the fact that despite technological advances, modern science holds different theories about what is to be found there.
Indeed, earth scientists continue to encounter the unexpected. Soundings of the planet’s depths, taken with instruments that analyze shock waves from earthquakes and man-made explosions, have turned up considerable surprises. The technique, called seismic tomography, uses the analysis of thousands of earthquakes over a multiyear period to create a computer-generated image of the earth’s interior. It has long been generally agreed that the earth has three principal layers: a solid crust of granite and basalt that averages twenty-five miles in thickness; a 2,000-mile thick mantle of viscous rock and a central core of molten iron and nickel, 4,000 miles in diameter.
Scientists have assumed that the inner core is a smooth sphere, but images examined in the mid-1980’s show instead a lumpy blob, with mountains several miles high and canyons six times deeper than the Grand Canyon. Researchers speculate that the mountains were caused by ponderous currents in the molten mantle, where hotter, less dense areas rise from the core like hot air from a radiator; cooler regions closer to the crust sink toward the core. Such movements could well push up some areas of the core and depress others. But the belief in the world within the earth is far too durable to yield even to reams of computer printouts or acres of satellite images. There are always contradictions in the data or obscure areas in the images, always for a dedicated believer to wedge in doubt and cling to a contrary notion.
Thus the dark at the back of the cave persists, along with a deep-seated need to know for sure what is there. Not by abstract calculation or inference, but for certain. Beyond that, there is the compulsion to envision better worlds, where intractable human problems have been solved, where the future is under benevolent control. There is an almost instinctive human eagerness to follow the path of any dim trail of anomalous clues when there is a possibility that it will lead to shining or secret place, whether it be Agartha under the earth, Atlantis beneath the sea, or a ring of stones pulsing with primeval energies. Proving that such places or things do not exist is not enough. Indeed, it is hardly relevant.
The mysteries will remain as long as we are here to ponder them.