Peter Tompkins's Son Describes His Father's Hunt for Atlantis and His Own Belief in Sex-Crazed Demons
A few days ago I mentioned that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos called for activists and government to stand up against professors indoctrinating students. Now in Arkansas a ridiculous new bill introduced by one extremist state legislator aims to ban all books by leftist historians Howard Zinn from public school libraries and classrooms for being, essentially, liberal. While likely unconstitutional, the bill is a reminder that government is never more than a minute from trying to legislate truth and corrupt history for political ends. Banning authors—and historians no less!—is the first step toward imposing official government truths. Fortunately, for now it’s just one legislator’s bad idea.
Publishing executive and writer on esoterica Mitch Horowitz directed my attention to a recent interview that the fringe magazine New Dawn ran with Ptolemy Tompkins, the son of 1970s mystery-monger Peter Tompkins (1919-2007). It was by turns charming and depressing, and painted a picture of a family steeped thoroughly in an imaginary belief system born of fabrications and fantasy. The most interesting thing is that, as the younger Ptolemy tells it, his father differed from modern purveyors of nonsense about ancient history by actually believing with his whole heart and soul in the reality of a lost Atlantis and also spending significant amounts of his own money on a fruitless quest to document its ruins.
Peter Tompkins is probably best remembered for his classic bit of ’70s nonsense The Secret Life of Plants (1973), which alleged that plants had sentience which could be studied with a lie detector. Claims found in that book, derived from the work of CIA agent Cleve Backster on the psychic powers of plants, never entirely went out of style among the fringe and appeared, for example, in alt-right intellectual Jason Reza Jorjani’s Prometheus and Atlas (2016) as proof of a mystical level of reality. Oddly, Tompkins had once been a spy for the OSS, the predecessor of the CIA.
But for our purposes, Tompkins is better remembered for his “ancient mysteries” books such as Secrets of the Great Pyramid (1971) and Mysteries of the Mexican Pyramids (1976). While these volumes are considered classics in their genre, I have mentioned many times over the years that Tompkins was a poor researcher, deeply credulous, and happy to repeat any false fact without checking the source. His books are filled with misrepresented quotations, dubious claims, hoaxes, and completely made up stuff. I find it ridiculous, given the sheer volume of evidence against his scholarship, that anyone would take him seriously, but the world of esoterica is a strange one, where emotions and feelings are more important than facts, and the perception of being a True Believer forgives scholarly sins.
New Dawn asked Tompkins’s son Ptolemy about his father’s occasional belief that Atlantis was a real place. Here is how Ptolemy Tompkins responded:
My dad was convinced that the Edgar Cayce readings about the rising of Atlantis were correct. He spent thousands and thousands of dollars photographing the limestone formations off Bimini – the so-called “Bimini Road.” My father loved the idea of Atlantis returning because he wanted the world to become a kind of new Eden. He was a true father of the New Age in this sense – he had the core New Age belief that the world once was, and would be again, a better place. But not better in some mundane sense, but in the sense of being elevated back into a spiritualised condition that it had fallen away from. That’s what the Bimini stuff was all about. Generally speaking, one had to be naked during the filming. There were often times when I was the only one aboard the various boats he hired with a bathing suit on. It drove my dad nuts.
Here we see a number of the key themes I’ve discussed over the years boiled down to their essence. I’ll leave aside the weird naturist fetish. The first theme is the unquestioning acceptance of earlier fringe claims. Even though it has always been quite clear that Edgar Cayce was recycling material from Theosophy, fringe literature, and pulp fiction, the elder Tompkins believed in him because he had the right ideology. Cayce was very clear in terms of citing the sources he stole shamelessly from, and he literally said that he was repeating claims previously found in the book Dweller on Two Planets and in Theosophical literature (reading 364-1).
The second theme is the more important one. Advocacy of strange claims about the past isn’t really about history at all but rather about modern social and political concerns. Here, the elder Tompkins, like Graham Hancock today, allegedly believed that Atlantis represented a superior ancient spirituality and thus by proving that it once existed, he could justify belief in that spirituality and thus the changes to society and politics necessary to enact its principles. This sort of primitive utopianism, the search for a lost Golden Age, has long been part of human mythology. It will probably never go away.
For what it’s worth, Tompkins came out of his Bimini adventure disappointed. He concluded that the rock formation that believers in Cayce hoped would prove to be the ruins of Atlantis was nothing more than beach rock. He remained ambivalent about Atlantis to the end, sometimes speculating that it might represent nothing more than pre-Columbian trans-Atlantic trace and other times embracing unusual claims that an Atlantic continent had been destroyed by an asteroid.
In his last fifteen years of life, he came to embrace “alternative Egyptology” based on John Anthony West and Robert Bauval fantasies, and he told J. Douglas Kenyon that hidebound academics would never accept it because “they would have to rewrite all their archeological schoolbooks if some of this is proved.” In his last years, he devoted himself to proving that Theosophy’s elemental spirits were real because he had come to see Theosophy as a prophecy of the future.
The younger Tompkins, however, moved from his father’s New Age spirituality into a more mainstream Judeo-Christian framework. He writes books about heaven and angels, but he betrays his father’s credulity. When asked about angels and demons, he talks about wet dreams (nocturnal emissions) and sex dreams as proof that horny demons are read: “The whole succubus/incubus business, with people engaging in what, to hear them talk, is entirely satisfactory sexual congress with nonphysical beings, I find fascinating. There is much literature on this subject, and so much is just so believable. So belief in demons is a great sort of gateway drug to belief in angels.” He also, naively, believes that Ouija boards work through mystical power rather than the ideomotor effect. The quote of the month must be his ode of thanks to demons for awakening him to spirituality: “So I’m very grateful to the demonic world. It had a hand in breaking down my culturally engrained positivist/materialist tendencies that were hardwired into me as a member of modern culture.”
How does one have a rational discussion with someone who believes that demons communicate with him through a Ouija board? Or that wet dreams come from demons? The interviewer tried to get at that with his final question, asking the younger Tompkins how he separates fantasy from reality. Tompkins fell back on a Cartesian philosophical answer: He knows nothing but that he himself exists. Everything else, he implied, is a story we tell ourselves based on uncertain stimuli from beyond our brains. The great thing about that philosophy is that I don’t have to tell myself the story that makes any of that true, or that gives any credence to the idea that demons provide “entirely satisfactory” sex.
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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