By K.E. Roberts / December 5, 2016
The Bermuda Triangle became a fixture in the popular imagination following the 1974 publication of Charles Berlitz’s The Bermuda Triangle, which sold 14 million copies worldwide and was translated into 22 languages. The supposedly supernatural region would, over the next 15 years, become the subject of hundreds of books and articles, as well as several feature films, TV movies, TV episodes, a TV series, comic books, cartoons, songs, albums, and tabletop and video games. Along with Bigfoot, UFOs, and all manner of “mysteries of the unknown,” the Bermuda Triangle permeated the weird wilderness of 1970s pop culture. While primed by a cult following dating to the mid-1960s that was heavily influenced by the writings of paranormal researcher Charles Fort, the myth can be traced all the way back to Plato’s description of a lost land called Atlantis. Despite being exhaustively debunked shortly after the appearance of Berlitz’s book, it continues to exert a pull on many thousands at a time when three out of four Americans hold at least one paranormal belief.
The first known attribution of mysterious disappearances to the region now known as the Bermuda Triangle comes from a nationally syndicated Associated Press article by E.V.W. Jones first published in the Miami Herald and the Miami News on September 17, 1950. Jones does not specifically mention a triangle, although the diagram accompanying the article all but completes one, with the now common vertices named: Miami, Bermuda, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. What Jones does reference is a “limbo of the lost… into which men and their machines and ships can disappear without a trace”—a description not unlike the engraving on Dante’s gate to hell, a “city of woe” and “lost souls,” in the Inferno. The slant of the article is that no matter how powerful our technology in “the age of the mechanical mind,” it cannot penetrate or control the world’s great mysteries, the sea preeminent among them.
Jones details incidents that soon became gospel in the literature of the unexplained: the S.S. Sandra “disappeared without a trace” in 1950, despite “[carrying] radio,” an instrument that Jones likens to a modern miracle, a voice that “comes out of the void”; the British aircraft Star Tiger, along with its 25 passengers and 6 crew members, vanished on approach to Bermuda in 1948; and the disappearance of the “five torpedo planes” of Flight 19, upon which so much of the Bermuda Triangle legend hangs, off the coast of Florida on December 5, 1945. Though the disappearances are in no way attributed to supernatural or extraterrestrial forces, Jones makes a distinction between the known world, circumscribed by our modern machines, and the “vast unknown” or “elusive limbo” into which those machines have been “swallowed up,” just as utterly and consistently as in the days sailors feared Scylla and Charybdis.
The Jones article appeared just five years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the advent of the Cold War, at a time when Americans, despite being awash in abundance and new technologies, were becoming increasingly panicked that the weapon their country had twice leveled at Japan would soon be unleashed on them. The myth of the “lost continent” of Atlantis, originating in the Platonic dialogues Timaeus and Critias (both c. 360 BC), is, like the Jones article (and like another Greek myth, the flight of Icarus), a warning against the hubris of a technologically advanced civilization, in this case a great military power “insolently advancing” from an island in the Atlantic “which was larger than Libya and Asia together.” The Atlanteans, formerly of “divine nature” but later “visibly debased,” were defeated by the noble Athenians (Plato’s countrymen), and Atlantis was later “swallowed up by the sea and vanished,” and “this is why the sea in that area is to this day impassable to navigation… hindered by… the remains of this sunken island.” (The translation here is by J.B. Bury, an influential early 20th century Classics scholar whose works on Ancient Greece were standard issue textbooks.)
Modern interest in Atlantis began with U.S. Congressman Ignatius Donnelly’s Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882) and became a mainstay of the Western occult tradition with the publication of Madame Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine (1888), in which the co-founder of the Theosophical Society formulates and describes the seven “root races,” the fourth race originating in Atlantis. Scotsman Lewis Spence, in an effort to rescue Atlantis from esoteric figures like Blavatsky and continue the serious “scientific” study begun by Donnelly, wrote The Problem of Atlantis in 1924 (several volumes on the subject would follow). Here he argues that Atlantis was once a great continent that took up a substantial portion of the ocean it was named after, and that towards the end of the Miocene epoch tremendous volcanic activity caused the continent to break apart into two massive islands, Atlantis and Antillia. The smaller of the two, Antillia, lies directly within what is now called the Bermuda Triangle.
L. Sprague de Camp, who wrote the definitive history of “lost continent mythology,” 1954’s Lost Continents: The Atlantis Theme in History, Science, and Literature, details Spence’s view of how the sprawling civilization came to ruin:
Final disaster appears to have overtaken Atlantis about 10,000 B.C. Antillia, on the other hand, seems to have survived until a much more recent period, and still exists fragmentally in the Antillean Group, or West Indian Islands. [Italics mine]
Enter Edgar Cayce (1877-1945), the alleged psychic who became a national phenomenon during World War II for the “life readings” he gave while in a state of trance. (The genesis of his popularity may have been a 1943 article in Coronet magazine.) Cayce, who was known as “The Sleeping Prophet,” was heavily influenced by the writings of Blavatsky (who drew heavily on Donnelly and Spence), and had elaborate theories of his own—though he claimed no ownership of any of his prophecies—about Atlantis and its sister lost lands, Lemuria and Mu, both supposedly once located in the Pacific. During a trance state in 1933 (reading 440-5), Cayce described ancient records existing
in the sunken portions of Atlantis, or Poseidia, under the slime of ages of sea water—near what is known as Bimini, off the coast of Florida.
And in 1940, during another reading (958-3),
Poseidia will be among the first portion of Atlantis to rise again. Expect it in ’68 or ’69; not so far away!
These pronouncements caused some excitement in the 1960s among a cultural milieu that was openly exploring the “Aquarian frontier” and generally sympathetic to psychic and zodiacal prognostications. The first edition of the still-in-print Edgar Cayce on Atlantis, “interpreted” and edited by Cayce’s sons, appeared in 1968, though his readings were in vogue and widely circulated by Cayce’s Association for Research and Enlightenment (A.R.E.) before that.
In August 1968, Manson Valentine, a former Yale zoology professor and amateur archaeologist, discovered what he called a “temple” off the coast of North Bimini Island that he hoped “might be part of Atlantis.” Now called the Bimini Road and pegged by geologists as a natural rock formation, Valentine had been a “student of the Bermuda Triangle” since the disappearance of Flight 19 and reportedly engaged in the dive “in hopes of confirming Cayce’s prophecy.” Valentine would later collaborate on several books with Charles Berlitz, including The Bermuda Triangle. The book offers many possible supernatural explanations for disappearances within the Bermuda Triangle, one of them centering on advanced technology (energy crystals called “firestones”) said by Edgar Cayce to be left over from the destruction of Atlantis.
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Intimately connected with “lost” Atlantis is the Sargasso Sea, a large tract in the North Atlantic known for its still waters and named for the large masses of Sargassum seaweed found and preserved there by the circular tides. In nautical lore, the Sargasso Sea is the proverbial “graveyard of lost ships,” and has been discussed and avoided by mariners since at least the first voyage of Columbus, whose ships were likely the first to cross it. (Some credit the 5th century Carthaginian explorer Himilco with the discovery of the Sargasso Sea, as he claimed to have encountered a sluggish, weed- and sea monster-infested area in the Atlantic, but it is highly unlikely he traveled that far; his coastal vessel was about half the size of a Polynesian catamaran, and he had no compass.)
As noted in Columbus’ journal on September 16, 1492, four months after the three ships under his command embarked from Spain, the crew of La Santa María spotted “many tufts of grass which were very green, and appeared to have been quite recently torn from the land.” The Admiral and crew were sure this meant an island was near, but over the next week they found only “weeds,” “herbs,” and “very fine grass.” At one point the crew became frightened when the compass didn’t point to true north, a result Columbus shrewdly attributed to magnetic variation (the “malfunctioning” compass would, with Flight 19, migrate to Bermuda Triangle lore). On September 21, “they saw so much weed that the sea appeared to be covered with it, and it came from the west,” and on September 23, “the sea being smooth and calm, the crew began to murmur, saying… that the wind would never blow so that they could return to Spain.”
In The Bermuda Triangle, Berlitz brings up another entry from Columbus’ journal, this one from September 15th, the day before the “many tufts of grass” were seen floating in the ocean: “In the early part of the night there fell from heaven into the sea a marvelous flame of fire, at a distance of about 4 or 5 leagues from them.” Berlitz’s book was adapted into a documentary of the same name in 1979, produced by Sunn Pictures (In Search of Noah’s Ark, The Mysterious Monsters), the beginning of which shows Columbus and crew agape as dozens of luminous, saucer-shaped objects dash across the sky, the ship’s compass spinning wildly.
In fiction, the region becomes a plot device starting in the late 19th century with Julius Chambers’ In Sargasso (1896) and Thomas A. Janvier’s In the Sargasso Sea (1898). In Lost Worlds, L. Sprague de Camp describes the latter work:
Some odd ideas are current about the Sargasso Sea because in 1896 [sic] the novelist T.A. Janvier wrote a gripping novel, In the Sargasso Sea, in which he described the tract as an impenetrable tangle of weed holding fast the remains of ships of all ages from Spanish galleons down.
The “impenetrable tangle” would become a distinctly supernatural “borderland” in the Sargasso Sea cycle of William Hope Hodgson, a collection of short stories published between 1906 and 1920. In “From the Tideless Sea” (1906), Hodgson’s narrator describes the horrors of being stuck
… in the heart of the dread Sargasso Sea—the Tideless Sea of the North Atlantic. From the stump of our mizzen mast, one may see, spread out to the far horizon, an interminable waste of weed—a treacherous, silent vastitude of slime and hideousness!
The literary trope headed to the stars as early as 1931, with Edmund Hamilton’s The Sargasso of Space, and was a haven of psychedelic adventure in Hammer Films’ The Lost Continent (1968).
Explicit identification of the Sargasso Sea with Atlantis, assuming Himilco’s story was not itself a creative appropriation of Plato’s story, begins with W.H. Babcock’s Legendary Islands of the Atlantic (1922) and Lewis Spence’s Atlantis in America (1925). Both authors ascribe Plato’s description of “unnavigable” waters over sunken Atlantis to the “dead waters of the Sargasso Sea.” The 2,000,000 square mile ellipsoid spans the entire area of Spence’s island of Antillia, as well as the southern portion of his Atlantis.
The Atlantis-Sargasso Sea connection is picked up by Edgar Cayce, who mentions in a February 1932 reading (364-4) that Atlantis “near what would be termed the Sargasso Sea first went into the depths…” In an April 1932 reading (364-11) Cayce is asked to “Describe in more detail the causes and effects of the destruction of the part of Atlantis now [in] the Sargasso Sea.” He responds:
As there were those individuals that attempted to bring again to the mind of man more of those forces that are manifest by the closer association of the mental and spiritual, or the soul forces that were more and more as individual and personal forms in the world, the use of the these elements – as for the building up, or the passage of individuals through space – brought the uses of the gases then (in the existent forces), and the individuals being able to become the elements, and elementals themselves, added to that used in the form of what is at present known as the raising of the powers from the sun itself, to the ray that makes for disintegration of the atom, in the gaseous forces formed, and brought about the destruction in that portion of the land now presented, or represented, or called, Sargasso Sea.
Charles Fort (1874-1932), an originator of the field of anomalous investigation (his biographers have called him the “prophet of the unexplained” and “the man who invented the supernatural“), postulates the existence of a “Super-Sargasso Sea” starting with his first book, The Book of the Damned (1919). Part reportage (“a procession of data that science has excluded”), part satire, and part nonsense literature, the text is an attack against what he saw as the arrogance of the “exclusionary” scientific worldview—he once referred to scientists as “pale ignorances, presiding over microscopes.” Thanks to the publishing genius of Donald Wollheim, Ace Books released new editions of all four of Charles Fort’s books throughout the 1960s, starting with The Book of the Damned in 1962. Ace, though specializing in science fiction, had been releasing titles in the booming “strange but true” genre since the late 1950s.
The Super-Sargasso Sea—a motif that runs throughout his work—is, according to Fort, a stationary, upper-atmospheric, extra-dimensional holding tank from which things unaccountably appear (i.e., fish falling from the sky during an earthquake) and into which things unaccountably disappear (i.e., the crew of the Mary Celeste). After introducing the phrase as a sentence unto itself, Fort goes on:
Derelicts, rubbish, old cargoes from inter-planetary wrecks; things cast out into what is called space by convulsions of other planets, things from the times of the Alexanders, Caesars and Napoleons of Mars and Jupiter and Neptune; things raised by this earth’s cyclones: horses and barns and elephants and flies and dodoes, moas, and pterodactyls; leaves from modern trees and leaves of the Carboniferous era—all, however, tending to disintegrate into homogeneous-looking muds or dusts, red or black or yellow—treasure-troves for the paleontologists and for the archaeologists—accumulations of centuries—cyclones of Egypt, Greece, and Assyria—fishes dried and hard, there a short time: others there long enough to putrefy—
He concludes, as far as any thought can be concluded in a book devoted to undermining the basis of all conclusion (an irony of which Fort is all too aware), that the Super-Sargasso Sea “functions very well as a nucleus around which to gather data that oppose Exclusionism,” though “something else… may overthrow it later.” Fort was no doubt familiar with William James, the American philosopher and psychologist who was also a founding member of the American Society for Psychical Research. James developed the philosophical school of pragmatism, whereby the definition of the “true” was “what works” in the mind of the believer, and much of his writing is a spirited defense of the validity of personal, private experience (including mystical experience) and the “feelings of human beings” over (but not irrespective of) the “esteem for facts” vaunted by scientific materialism.
Charles Berlitz reintroduces the Atlantis-Sargasso Sea connection of Babcock and Spence in his first book, The Mystery of Atlantis (1969), but even before that, in 1968, the National Geographic Society had described the Sargasso Sea as “a legendary twilight zone for mariners,” comparing it to the “legend of the Bermuda Triangle.”
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Mentions of strange happenings within the Northwest Atlantic “triangle” area start to appear in the press soon after publication of Vincent Gaddis’ Invisible Horizons: True Mysteries of the Sea in 1965. The book, rushed into paperback by Ace (naturally), includes a chapter called “The Triangle of Death” expanded from his 1964 article for Argosy, “The Deadly Bermuda Triangle”—the first recorded use of the moniker. Gaddis, a journalist by trade before he went freelance, was a member of the Fortean Society and wrote for the Society’s magazine, Doubt, starting in the 1940s. He was also a contributing editor for the San Diego-based The Round Robin (1945-1959), “a bulletin of contact and information for students of psychic research and parapsychology” edited by N. Meade Layne, a former English professor whose theory of a parallel dimension called Etheria influenced Gaddis as well as the ufology field.
Gaddis’ coining of “Bermuda Triangle” and his mystification of the area almost surely owes something to both Charles Fort’s Super-Sargasso Sea and his “London Triangle,” the latter first mentioned in New Lands (1923):
There is a triangular region in England, three points of which appear so often in our data that the region should be specially known to us, and I know it myself as the London Triangle. It is pointed in the north by Worcester and Hereford, in the south by Reading, Berkshire, and in the east by Colchester, Essex. The line between Colchester and Reading runs through London.
The “triangular region,” according to Fort, experiences a high degree of disturbances including earthquakes, “repeating explosions in the sky,” “luminous” aerial phenomena, and falling meteorites—“the type of phenomena that might be considered evidence of signaling from some unknown world nearby.”
“The Triangle of Death” covers all the disappearances mentioned by E.V.W. Jones in his 1950 AP article, with a big section devoted to “the most incredible mystery in the history of aviation,” the disappearance of the five Navy TBM Avengers of Flight 19 in 1945. Flight 19 is a myth unto itself that dates to a 1962 American Legion article by Allan W. Eckert called “The Mystery of the Lost Patrol,” though UFO researcher Donald Keyhoe had written about the event in 1955’s The Flying Saucer Conspiracy, suggesting that the planes had been swallowed by a “giant mother ship.” Eckert’s article is unsourced and includes much sensational hearsay repeated verbatim by Gaddis, Charles Berlitz, and many others. Especially memorable is the line Eckert gives to flight leader Charles Taylor: “We cannot be sure of any direction … everything is wrong … strange … the ocean doesn’t look as it should.” (The Gaddis and Berlitz versions would insert an important emphasis: “Even the ocean doesn’t look as it should.” [Italics mine]) Eckert was a historian and a historical novelist who apparently had a problem distinguishing between the two callings. His controversial tendency to invent dialogue “to make history more interesting to the general reader” has been well documented, and reviews of his nominal biographies note and generally admonish the practice. Said Kirkus Reviews on Eckert’s 1991 biography of Tecumseh, A Sorrow in Our Heart: “in its interpretative zeal it strays from, or at least embellishes, the historical record to the point of being suspect.”
In 1972, Larry Kusche, then a librarian at Arizona State University, started accumulating source material on the Bermuda Triangle due to the “overwhelming demand” of his patrons. The end result was 1975’s The Bermuda Triangle Mystery – Solved, to this day the definitive refutation of “a manufactured mystery” whose narrative was “repeated so many times that it began to take on the aura of truth.” Kusche researched and documented the Navy’s 400-page report on “The Loss of Flight 19”—a report Eckert had said did not exist—and found none of the dialogue Eckert recorded and his followers regurgitated. There was nothing at all mysterious about the incident, Kusche concluded: only a perfect storm of pilot error and bad luck.
Gaddis’ own conclusion about the Bermuda Triangle is that
occasional aberrations of an unusual type occur in the air and on the surface of the ocean. These aberrations might cause magnetic, possibly gravitational, effects; in which case might for all practical purposes be referred to as “space warps,” and cause deadly turbulence ending in total disintegration of planes and ships…
Earlier in the chapter Gaddis refers to the aberration as a “hole in the sky”—shades of Fort’s Super-Sargasso Sea and Meade Layne’s Etheria, of course, but also straight out of Eckert’s article: the imaginary “Captain Jimmy Drake” believes an “unstable aberration in the atmosphere” is responsible for the disappearances, “a hole in the sky that planes fly into and can’t get out of… Maybe something that throws them into another dimension?” Gaddis speculates in his concluding chapter, “Invisible Horizons”:
Could some of these crews have been kidnapped by extra-terrestrials? To those who have investigated this question, the evidence that there is interplanetary or interstellar traffic is impressive. We may be ignored for the same reason that savages on a jungle-clad isle are ignored by passing merchant vessels… Still, occasional visitors from the void may pick up some of us for exhibition in their zoos!
Gaddis was the bridge between E.V.W. Jones and Charles Berlitz. He popularized not only the Bermuda Triangle but a foundational trope in ufology that went mainstream with Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), the conclusion of which shows the crew of Flight 19—their bombers discovered intact and operational in the Sonoran Desert at the beginning of the film—and other alleged abductees being released from the alien mothership.
The tremendous advancements in science and technology over the last 70 years have done nothing to curb belief in the paranormal. If anything, the opposite has happened. In 1957 only 25% of Americans believed UFOs were extraterrestrial in nature, compared to nearly 50% today, and a National Geographic poll from 2012 found that 77% of Americans “think that aliens have visited earth.” Meanwhile, 39% of adults in the U.K. believe in ghosts, compared to only 10% in 1950—numbers nearly identical in the U.S. In that same span, church attendance on both sides of the Atlantic has declined significantly, as has membership in, trust in, and relevance of organized religion. Still, as Kusche says at the end of his book: “We all seem to have an innate desire to remain in awe of those phenomena for which there appears to be no logical, scientific explanation.” At no time was that statement truer than in the 1970s, a decade marked by grim, all too terrestrial austerity on the one hand, and a population highly receptive (thanks to the previous decade) to free-form occult metaphysics on the other. It’s simply much more exhilarating and meaningful, and so much less tragic, to imagine the baby-faced crew of Flight 19 abducted by a Vegan starship, or thrown into “a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man,” instead of running out of gas and ditching into stormy seas on what was supposed to be a routine training mission.