Where was the Garden of Eden? Religious scholars have spent thousands of years looking for the Biblical paradise. Commonly, scholars suggest that any potential real-world model for Eden existed at the head of the Persian Gulf where the Tigris and Euphrates once met the Persian Karun River and the now-vanished Wadi Al-Rummah that once emptied into the Persian Gulf. This would therefore correlate both with the four rivers of Eden described in Genesis as well as the proposed location of the Mesopotamian paradise called Dilmun. However, others have proposed locations ranging from India to Jackson County, Missouri.
Today I’d like to discuss one of the more fanciful suggestions, which attracted a scholarly hearing at the end of the nineteenth century.
In Paradise Found (1885), the Rev. William F. Warren, president of Boston University, proposed a startling new theory about the location of Eden, “that the cradle of the human race, the Eden of primitive tradition, was situated at the North Pole, in a country submerged at the time of the Deluge.” His evidence for this claim ranged from the improbable to the ridiculous, as judged in the light of modern science, but in his time scholars had not yet discovered two essential facts that we know today: (a) that there is no land mass hidden beneath the arctic ice cap, and (b) that the ice has been in place since before the emergence of human beings. So much for his geographic, botanical, and zoological evidence, which he though sealed the case that the Arctic had once been a tropic paradise and the place from which all life evolved.
More interesting is his claim for comparative mythology, which begins, as all fringe history books must (even when written by seemingly mainstream scholars), with the assertion that “the cosmology of the ancients has been totally misconceived by modern scholars” and that our author has some unique insight that gives him special knowledge of the truth. He begins by disputing that the ancients viewed the world as a flat plane surmounted by a metal or clay vault, in apparently willful contradiction of the plain reading of ancient texts (Enuma Elish 4.137-138, Iliad 17.425, Odyssey 15.329, Genesis 1:6-8, 3 Baruch 3:7, etc.). Instead, he claims that the ancients viewed the earth as a sphere in which the gods lived in the stars above the North Pole, humans in the northern hemisphere, the dead in the southern hemisphere, and demons in the stars below the South Pole. He is here literalizing the ancient concept of stacked planes and applying them directly to the earth itself. He goes on to literalize the concept of the world axis (around which the stars revolve) as twin mountains rising from the poles.
This interpretation, though, is more a difference of form rather than a difference in kind. Flat or curved, the result isn’t really all that different except in one detail: By asserting that the ancients knew the earth to be round, it makes north more than just a direction on a map and lets Warren revise the Islands of the Blessed (in the west) and Eden (in the east) to correspond with the polar paradise in the north imagined as Hyperborea and Ultima Thule, and the world axis with the North Pole, despite Hindu cosmology placing Mount Meru in “the middle of the earth,” the Canaanites claiming it to be Mt. Hermon, and so on—after all, relative to the observer, the stars appear to spin high above any spot on earth, not specifically the North Pole. By collapsing mythic variation into the physical reality of geography, he makes every myth into the North Pole, washing away contradictory evidence as corruption or misinterpretation. He also has difficulty accepting the ambiguity of ancient versions of the underworld (probably due to divergent traditions), where the land was accessible both by descending into the earth and by crossing the River Ocean, instead asserting that such a land could only be the southern hemisphere.
He concludes that the aurora borealis gave rise to the myth of a polar paradise blessed by God since the lights would have been taken as evidence of the divine abode of the gods in the memory of the descendants of the polar peoples.
Warren received some interesting support. William Gladstone, Homeric scholar and British prime minister, endorsed part of his idea because it conformed to his own idea of Homeric cosmology, and professors of various ancient languages, cultures, and religions endorsed his reading.
This isn’t really important. What is important is Warren’s claim, first expressed in an earlier book called The True Key to Ancient Cosmology and Mythical Geography (1882), which focused on Homer, that Atlantis “must be looked for, not between Europe and America, but at the pole, whither all the oldest ethnic traditions point us for the cradle of the human race.” While expressed in a footnote, he would expand upon it for the later book. There, he identified Atlantis with the Garden of Eden, and he asserted that both “were precisely where the tradition” of the ancients placed them: the North Pole. He does so by identifying Atlantis with Hyperborea (on the faulty claims of Noah’s Ark theorist Jacob Bryant, citing Pindar [Pythian 10], who said no such thing) and the charmed, long, and leisurely lives of the Hyperboreans (Pliny, Natural History 4.26) with the sinless world of Eden.
You will, undoubtedly, recognize the core of this claim. Although modern science makes a tropical continent at the North Pole impossible, modern fringe writers can’t let an old claim die. Rand and Rose Flem-Ath, in When the Sky Fell (1995), invert it, though apparently without knowledge of the original, basing their work on Charles Hapgood and the earth crust displacement theory. In 2004, Robert Argod wrote Out of Antarctica which more explicitly recycled Warren’s claims. He used the same evidence that Warren had—claims of tropical plants and warm-weather myths—but moved everything to Antarctica (the South Pole). Graham Hancock, of course, famously embraced the Antarctica-as-Atlantis theory for a time before the sheer weight of geological fact forced him to amend his views.
But surely the silliest application of the theory has to be in Raymond Bernard’s 1964 opus The Hollow Earth, actually written pseudonymously by Dr. Walter Siegmeister, an occultist who hoped to start a Master Race in Brazil. He was a UFO believer and an early exponent of ancient astronaut themes (vimana aircraft, etc.). He argued that the Atlanteans moved into the hollow earth where they developed UFOs and have become greatly upset at our nuclear weapons. In so doing, he adopted part of Warren’s argument and then made it ridiculous in his attempt to deal with the geological fact that no tropical paradise ever existed at the North Pole by removing it into the earth. Right after summarizing Warren’s claims and tying them to the hollow earth theory, he writes:
May not Santa Claus represent a race memory of a benefactor of humanity who came from this subterranean race, who came to the surface through the north polar opening—perhaps on a flying saucer, symbolized by his flying sled and reindeer?
So there you have it: Polar civilization, Atlantis in the Arctic or Antarctic, and Santa Claus conquering the Martians in his UFO. No idea, no matter how wrong, can ever just die.
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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