I just finished reading David Grann’s 2009 bestseller The Lost City of Z (soon to be a movie), which tells the story of Lt. Col. Percy Fawcett’s 1925 disappearance in the Amazon jungle while searching for what he believed was a monumental stone city lost to time. The story of a dashing explorer who vanished without a trace has been a source of fascination for the past nine decades, though to be quite frank, I didn’t find his disappearance all that compelling. I had rather hoped to find more information about Fawcett’s beliefs about the lost city he named Z, but Grann provides only a few hints and details. What he discusses, though, is a fascinating illustration of the consequences of fringe beliefs.
Fawcett’s public proclamations on the lost city of Z were fairly sober. He spoke of the possibility of a monumental city akin to those of Mesoamerica or the Inca, and he described his belief that a Portuguese traveler had run across this place in 1753 and recorded it on a faded document housed in Rio de Janeiro. That account spoke of a large and opulent city of stone, whose entrance gate contained three great arches, atop which an indecipherable alphabet was carved. In the center of the city stood, as I translate, “a black stone column of extraordinary greatness, and atop it the statue of an ordinary man with one hand on his left hip, and the right arm extended, pointing the index finger to the North Pole.” (I am not certain if the Portuguese word ordinário was meant to refer to an ordinary man or, as also used in the 1700s, an ordained bishop.) Another statue depicted a beardless youth “crowned with laurel.” A great temple was a work of such amazing artistry that the writer was left in awe. Beyond the city was a river leading to a field of great tombs, all covering in writing. Much later, Barry Fell would declare the writing (based on hand-drawn copies in the manuscript) Ptolemaic Egyptian, and the city therefore Classical.
Here I fault Grann for misleading his readers somewhat. He edits the manuscript to remove all elements of the fantastic, listing only “stone archways, a statue, roads, and a temple.” He makes the city seem plausible by removing the improbable.
“I do not assume that ‘The City’ is either large or rich,” Fawcett wrote, disingenuously. But privately his beliefs were much different. He told the Royal Geographic Society that he believed that Z might be an outpost of Atlantis, destroyed by a cataclysm 11,000 years ago, the memory which he said could have been accurately preserved in folklore through the “lifetime of only 110 centenarians” or men of normal lifespans repeating the story but 184 times down the generations. Fawcett grew upset that the RGS elders dismissed his ideas. But even these were not the depths of his belief in fringe history.
Unbeknownst to the public following his adventures, and largely hidden from the Royal Geographic Society that sponsored them, Fawcett had devoted himself to Theosophy, following the example of his idolized elder brother Edward, who assisted Helena Blavatsky in researching The Secret Doctrine and later became a science fiction novelist. Percy Fawcett became obsessed with Blavatsky’s vision of the human past, and he considered Z to be an outpost of the extraterrestrial gods who came to earth in deepest prehistory, akin to the “first rock cities” the Lemurians built “out of stone and lava” according to Blavasky. Fawcett began writing for spiritualist journals like the Occult Review, though he rarely presented his full view of Z.
When his first few expeditions to find the city failed, he turned for help to a psychic, Margaret Lumley Brown (a.k.a. “Irene Hay”), and Brown, in a letter, fed into Fawcett’s belief that he had formed a special connection to the lost history of Atlantis and its far-flung colonies:
Your query suggests you’ve been getting communications purporting to be of an Atlantean nature. Such is not impossible as Atlantis is very much ‘in the air’ just now. Such communication might come through sensitives; that is to say waves of released information are being picked up, or a deliberate plan is being developed.
Fawcett had come to believe that Z was a “White Lodge” of the Great White Brotherhood of Theosophy, the trans-dimensional beings or Ascended Masters who came to earth from parallel versions of the Moon and Venus and Mars. Here, Fawcett’s claims seem a bit at odds with Theosophy itself, which in his day described the Great White Lodge as the earthly occult hierarchy of reincarnated masters, housed all over the world, and headed (at least in 1911) by one of the last “Lords of the Flame, the Children of the Fire-mist, the great beings who came down from Venus nearly eighteen million years ago to help and to lead the evolution of humanity” and to secretly control history from behind the scenes, according to Theosophist Charles Webster Leadbetter, writing in The Inner Life (1911). I am not sure where the discrepancy arises, but it’s probably due to Fawcett’s development of his own personal vision of prehistory that combined Biblical, Classical, and Theosophical material.
In his last writings before leaving on his ill-fated expedition—writings his family kept secret for decades—Fawcett spoke of the End Times, of Atlantis, and how Atlantis might have been the fabled Eden. Z, he confessed, might have been “the cradle of all civilizations,” the very spot where the aliens from other worlds touched down to spark the human race. He believed he might attain transcendence by entering the city, according to Grann. Fawcett vanished in search of the city, along with his son Jack and a family friend.
Fawcett’s son Brian read these writings and asked himself in his diary, “Was Daddy’s whole conception of ‘Z,’ a spiritual objective, and the manner of reaching it a religious allegory?”
Grann is not terribly concerned with this aspect of Percy Fawcett’s obsession; his interest lies in Fawcett’s expedition more than its objectives. Nevertheless, the brief glimpses he provides into the Theosophical worldview that overtook the explorer and led him on a quest into madness are fascinating. Grann tries to partially rescue Fawcett from charges of lunacy by noting that there really was a medieval-era civilization in the Amazon, composed of earthworks and platform mounds and causeways, all lost to the jungle when the Conquest’s diseases wiped out Native populations. But it bears no actual resemblance to the fantasy of stone pyramids and Atlantean secrets Fawcett truly sought. It doesn’t match the 1753 description either, which specified that the ruins were of stone and of a city with arched gates.
The truth of the matter is that Fawcett formed the myth of Z out of a Theosophical interpretation of scraps of myth and legend, and then dressed it up in the language of science.
8/27/2014 07:20:25 am
"Fawcett grew upset that the RGS elders dismissed his ideas."
8/27/2014 07:25:53 am
Man, I was just reading about that whole cult thing!
8/27/2014 07:47:13 am
If I were to hazard a guess, I think he chose "Z" to limit interest in his expeditions by potential rivals. He believed "Z" to be the lost city of El Dorado, so being the first to discover and prove its existence would have made him world-famous.
8/27/2014 07:56:30 am
Wait, how would calling it "Z" limit others' interest???
Not the Comte de Saint Germain
8/27/2014 08:41:08 am
I always assumed the name Z was similar to the habit of labeling unknown things "X". Fawcett didn't know what the city's inhabitants had called it, after all.
8/27/2014 08:44:36 am
Fawcett called the city X
8/27/2014 08:54:55 am
Probably a typo
8/27/2014 09:23:59 am
I don't think it's a typo. Just do a search on "the Lost City of Z" and you'll find plenty of links. They all connect the city with Fawcett.
8/27/2014 09:30:32 am
Straight from the horse's mouth: "I call it 'Z' for the sake of convenience."
8/27/2014 10:23:42 am
Not outside of mathematics. Maybe the reason really is as simple as "for the sake of convenience." If he had called the city "Y" or "Q", etc., we might be having the same discussion.
8/27/2014 10:38:17 am
I sure hope so! :)
8/27/2014 11:33:29 am
"It could have been of some occult significance."
8/27/2014 12:19:20 pm
Oh, that's, like, Occultism 101! Kabbalah, to mention just one prominent example, is full of it:
8/27/2014 12:43:39 pm
I don't know how much a stretch this is (and it's nothing more than a conjecture on my part), but here is something that could have contributed to it:
8/27/2014 01:44:52 pm
That was some serious information overload. At least now I understand what you meant by occult significance.
8/27/2014 01:54:47 pm
Since his brother helped Blavatsky research the book I linked above, I'd say he was definitely in too deep.
9/7/2017 11:03:49 am
My comment is for "666" and "ONLY ME." On page 25 in the book "Mysteries of the unknown: Mystic Places" 1990 print by the Editors of Time-Life Books in Amsterdam the city is called "X."
8/27/2014 08:09:03 am
Fawcett probably inspired Conan Doyle's novel The Lost World
8/27/2014 08:27:07 am
Roy Pilot, Alvin E. Rodin, The Annotated Lost World: The Classic Adventure Novel (Wessex Press, 1996)
Jason, you should check the last sentence of paragraph five. I don't believe "few" is the word you intended.
8/27/2014 12:09:53 pm
Thanks. I fixed the typo.
8/27/2014 12:26:59 pm
That's not really all that shocking either. It's not like Fawcett is the only British traveler of the colonial era to have utterly batshit mystical beliefs. Look under 'Lawrence, T. E.' for more.
8/27/2014 07:22:24 pm
EP, could you spell that out a little?
8/28/2014 04:17:21 am
8/28/2014 05:25:15 am
If you're thinking I'm being unfair to T. E. Lawrence, then I agree - he's far from the best example of "utterly batshit". I guess I was relying on hazy memories of his discussion of religion in Seven Pillars, which I assumed to be fairly sympathetic.
3/30/2017 09:14:20 am
Jason, you should read Misha William's detailed introduction to his play AmaZonia. Williams had access to the private papers of the Fawcett family through Percy's daughter Joan. While the play itself is totally outlandish, the underlying information is well researched and very intriguing. He suggests that Percy and his family were even whackier than their theosophical persuation might suggest. There are strong hints that in the end Percy didn't even look anymore for Z. He might've intended to found an alternative society in the jungle with his son Jack, whom he believed to be an incarnation of a holy sage, as the center of a cult. If true, Percy never intended to return to civilization. That would explain his secrecy and his insistence that no search parties should be sent out. We can of course assume that something went very wrong and that this alternative society never took off. But all searchers might've looked for Fawcett at the wrong locations. His private correspondence suggests that he went into a different direction than officially but misleadingly announced. It's unclear how long he, his son and his son's companion managed to survive. Today it doesn't greatly matter. They have died one way or another.
8/28/2014 07:05:56 am
I don't know that much about Lawrence. I am not aware of any particularly weird ideas of his because I'm not particularly of his ideas generally. It is my understanding that he had at least some interest in Ubar, but other than that, I don't know that much about him. I intend to change that in the future, hence why I ask.
8/28/2014 08:24:00 am
My understanding is that he believed in some kind of generic "Higher Power". His discussion of Semitic religion reminded me of Thomas Mann, for what it's worth. I'd pucked up on a kind of creepy "in the emptiness of the desert the Divine is uncomfortay close" vibe.
8/28/2014 09:34:43 am
I'm interested in some of the beliefs and practices of early archaeologists.
8/28/2014 10:14:35 am
Have you read any of Bruce Trigger's work on the history of archaeology? (I really like A History of Archaeological Thought)
8/28/2014 11:54:21 am
I read it years ago as a required textbook in grad school.
8/28/2014 11:41:17 am
I remember reading some account of Fawcett's disappearance a long time ago but I always found the Michael Rockefeller disappearance much more interesting. The Fawcett story gave me the sense of a late-1930's adventure film - one that seemed too contrived.
8/28/2014 01:29:21 pm
Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) was discovered in Colombia in 1976.
5/2/2021 02:52:53 pm
11/17/2014 04:03:29 am
I have read about the disappearance of both Michael Rockefeller, hearing about when I was in the Philippines and reading an old SAGA MAGAZINE article on it and the 'identification' of the man who ate him, etc. which seems to have been dismissed or forgotten afterwards and is now rearing its 'grisly' head and also the disappearance of Col Fawcett in an old FATE MAGAZINE when I was in eighth grade or so. I am also acquainted with THEOSOPHY. I watched THE SECRETS OF THE DEAD recently and also THE ROOSEVELTS on PBS which had things on Fawcett. Many explorers of the AMAZON have been featured in a book which I have yet to read. BUT, LOST CITIES or traces of them is not a 'dead' topic but is actively being pursued by many archeologists in far too many ways to describe here and one need only go to underwater explorations and deep cavern dives to find artifacts but THERA is one of the more modern discoveries. Anyway, it pays to be a bit skeptical and less gullible no matter how exotic and fantastic some appealing notions are. No-sweat approaches on the internet are no substitute for getting out into the mountains and bushes and forests/jungles and trekking about and finding things rather than from a comfortable armchair where nowadays you are glued to a computer usually.
10/4/2015 02:12:29 pm
I believe Fawcett called his Lost City 'Z' because it was the last letter in the alphabet and what he thought was the last lost city to be found.
5/14/2017 05:45:23 am
I lived for some years on the edge of the Amazon, spending most of my time in the "selva" or forest, and often alone for days or weeks. What we call reality in a temperate world differs from reality in a tropical-equatorial world. I used to say, "the Gods are different". This does not mean that scientific discoveries obey different rules, but rather that the workings of the mind are different, and sometimes compellingly so.
5/2/2022 09:14:42 am
i find this extremely intriguing. i was obsessed with the amazon and the idea of el dorado as a teen and later came to the conclusion that it is similar to the alchemical quest for “gold.” something which is now considered to be immaterial but is in fact inside of us. i came to this conclusion and wrote some short pieces on it before i discovered Jung, who basically said the same thing: it is actually a psychological process, all those explorers who went looking outwards for lost (and probably imaginary) ancient treasures needed to actually look within. that is the alchemical process and the journey.
7/29/2017 12:05:22 am
Was reading up on some of the comments and knew of Fawcett from my Scottish Grandfather (emigrated to Canada,)who fought with the Canadian Field Auxillary, in WWI France. Saw the film, Hollywood typical political current BS and does not delve into the more interesting aspects of the historical facts. I enjoyed it somewhat though. Could have been so much more interesting.
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I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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