Down a Hollow to a Cavern by Nigel Roth

Updated: Mar 4

If I told you that I sailed this week on the Sea of Mirovia, on my way to the southern tip of the land of Rodinia, having first traversed the endless plains of Laurentia and Ur, and rode the tide across the Poseidon Ocean, you’d probably think I was trying to emulate CS Lewis or JRR Tolkien, and describe a world of magic and wonder from a dark period of prehistory where humans were mere twinkles in the unfamiliar stars.

If, on the other hand, I told you I once made a journey from the Kioram, down through Egyplosis and Tanje, past the lands of Mylosis and Calnogor, and finally to Hilar in the great expanses of Atvatabar, you might think I was recalling the antics of Bruce Chatwin or Paul Theroux, traipsing through the outer reaches of Patagonia with an attitude, or paddling the Oceanic Islands in a bucket, respectively.

And of course, you’d be justified in thinking that both of these journeys were impossible.

The first because I would've had to have lived billions of years ago on our then youthful and atmospherically-challenged planet Earth, and I just don’t look old enough for that, and, the second because I would’ve had to have agreed with the thinking of the greatest geophysicist, mathematician, meteorologist, and physicist the world has ever produced, the brilliant Astronomer-Royal Edmond Halley, who determined the size of the Solar System, proved Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of motion were correct, and worked out the complex return cycle of the comet that now bears his name, that the Earth was actually hollow.

Yes, hollow.

Of course, Clive Staples Lewis also thought hard and long about a hollow Earth, but only as a tantalising potential sidetrack for Prince Rillian, who almost decided to visit the Really Deep Realm, which lay six-thousand feet underground, while escaping the Fall of the Underland and that mind-bending Silver Chair, but only in his fantasy world of Narnia, where the Lady of the Green Kirtle held sway.

And, while many cultures have tales of the land beneath, from the Greek Hades to the Nordic Svartalfaheimr, from Hell to Sheol, from the Tibetan Shamballa to the Celtic Cruachan, and the heaving mass of origin tales that begin with emergence from underground places and end mainly with smallpox, it would take an eighteenth century American to really own this bizarre theory.

Enter John Cleves Symmes Junior, a man who, at the age of thirty-eight, joined the realm of pseudoscience we’re all now very familiar with thanks to our respective governments.

Born in the middle of an eight-and-a-half year revolutionary uprising, but on the very day that Chief Little Turtle defeated the great Colonel Augustin De la Balme by creeping up on him when he wasn’t looking, Symmes used his uncle, John Cleves Symmes Senior, to move up the ranks to Captain in the United States Army.

While Uncle Symmes had distinguished himself as a colonel in the Revolutionary War, a delegate to the Continental Congress, and the father-in-law of President William Henry Harrison, Symmes Junior is known for his claim that the Earth’s crust is about sixteen-hundred kilometers thick, with an entrance to the hollow part at both Arctic and Antarctic poles, the latter being a bit wider, obviously.

We may mock the craziness of Symmes hypothesis, but we must also note that he conjured this nonsense in-between selling chewing tobacco to soldiers and pipe tobacco to their commanding officers, while running an unsuccessful general store in the frontier town of St Louis, Missouri, not while applying for the post of Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, as Edmond Halley was when he suggested that the Aurora Borealis was a result of escaping gases from deep inside the planet’s many concentric rotating domes, wherein a luminous atmosphere kept underground inhabitants alive and well.

Halley did not get that job, mainly because Sir Isaac Newton found time to champion a different candidate, when he wasn’t searching for the legendary Philosopher’s Stone and ‘muddling with alchemy’, which he did for at least thirty of his eighty-four years on the topside of the planet.

Back to the future we go, though, and find Symmes receiving mixed reaction to the publication of his Circular No 1, in 1818, which he disseminated at his own quite substantial cost. It was sent, he said, to “each notable foreign government, reigning prince, legislature, city, college, and philosophical societies, throughout the union, and to individual members of our National Legislature”.

In his circular he declares that “the earth is hollow, and habitable within; containing a number of solid concentrick spheres, one within the other, and that it is open at the poles 12 or 16 degrees; I pledge my life in support of this truth, and am ready to explore the hollow, if the world will support and aid me in the undertaking.”

It is worth noting that Symmes, and Halley, Jean-Antoine ‘Louis Milfort’ Le Clerc, and others, all claimed the Earth to be hollow, but also spherical, which would, of course, allow for the inside to be there at all.

About the time that Symmes was chewing on his first solids, Le Clerc was exploring Creek Indian caves, near the confluence of the Red and Mississippi Rivers. These caverns, it was told, were where the original Creeks emerged onto the Earth’s surface, from deep within the planet, and Le Clerc happily acknowledged that the caves could hold as many as eighty-thousand people. He lived with the tribe for twenty-years or so, and became a dear friend of their Chief, Alexander McGillivray, who, you may have realized, wasn’t entirely Creek, though his mother was indeed Muscogee.

Anyway, I mention the spherical nature of the Earth only in contrast with the Flat Earth Society, the lunatic members of which ignore photographic evidence, GPS readings, space travel, Moon landings, and all other obvious support for the truth, and hold that the “Earth is a disc with the Arctic Circle in the center and Antarctica, a 150-foot-tall wall of ice, around the rim. NASA employees, they say, guard this ice wall to prevent people from climbing over and falling off the disc.”

Symmes, of course, had none of the technology we now have to make this truth an obvious, rather than just a probable, one. And, though most responded to his circular with jest and ridicule as we do to anyone who claims the Earth is flat, he began a campaign to defend his thinking, sending out more pamphlets and letters, and even giving lectures about our Hollow Earth.

But he didn’t stop there. Symmes still wanted to go to at least one pole to test the Arctic entrance theory.

In his mind, one I’m happy to not be in with him, he saw the slopes of these polar entrances being gradual enough that you could just walk right in and descend, very much in contrast to Jules Gabriel Verne’s volcanic tubes, into the Earth. They became known, rather unfortunately I feel, as Symmes Holes.

But his were not dark holes.

Unlike the artificial light that poses as the Sun in the Underland, Symmes believed that the inside of the Earth would get sunlight reflected from the surface of the next sphere down, making the land habitable. He also determined that all other planets were also hollow, something I’m surprised the Astronomer-Royal didn’t conjure in an alchemical high, and wrote seven additional circulars describing this and other phenomenon that the world should really take note of.

And it did.

The Light Between the Spheres, gained a much wider audience when it was published in the National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser, which circulated around Washington DC, and on the back of this publicity, Symmes began lecturing, rather unconvincingly it must be said, on his Hollow Earth Theory, using a wooden model of the planet with removable ends, and which is now on display in the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.

And, he started to gain popular support for his Arctic expedition and fame for his doggedness, to the extent that the French naturalist John James Audubon sketched him in 1820, and notated the drawing with 'The man with the hole at the Pole'.

As with all fundraising ventures, getting the right sponsors onboard, connecting with the most influential backers, and making the required contacts, takes time, but Symmes never wavered in his determination to make his expedition a reality, and prove once and for all that the Earth was hollow.

And so, after nine more years of writing and pamphleteering, and of traveling from town to town espousing and lecturing endlessly, and, unfortunately quite nasally, on his theory, Symmes finally took a step for which there was no turning back.

He died.

And that was that.

No-one went to look for his holes, and no-one took a stroll down into the Earth's sunny core. He never wrote a book of his life’s work, so no literary tome exists, and he didn’t get to prove his theory, nor did anyone disprove it while he was alive.

Some of his fervent followers did publish his ideas after he was gone. Like James McBride who composed Symmes' Theory of Concentric Spheres in 1826, and Jeremiah N Reynolds who wrote Remarks of Symmes' Theory in 1827. An ethereal Professor W.F. Lyons published The Hollow Globe in 1868, and Symmes' own son, Americus, produced the catchily-titled Symmes's Theory of Concentric Spheres: Demonstrating That the Earth is Hollow, Habitable Within, and Widely Open About the Poles, Compiled by Americus Symmes, from the Writings of his Father, Capt. John Cleves Symmes, in 1878.

And in the end, after dedicating his entire life to the Hollow Earth theory, Symmes did finally make it to the underworld, although not quite as he might have expected he’d get there.

photo by Pat Whelan

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