Early 20th century engraving by Robert Lawson depicting the Sargasso Sea as a “watery graveyard” for “derelict ships from another time”
The Sargasso Sea, probably first crossed by Christopher Columbus in 1492, is an area in the North Atlantic known for its still waters and named for the large masses of Sargassum seaweed found there and kept 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 ancient times.
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 was integrated into science fiction beginning in the early 1930s.*
Explicit identification of the Sargasso Sea with Atlantis (see part two of this series) 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 post-cataclysm Atlantean waters as “unnavigable” to the “dead waters of the Sargasso Sea.”* The vast body of water spans the entire area of Spence’s island of Antillia, as well as the southern portion of his Atlantis.*
E.S. Hodgson painting of the Sargasso Sea, early 20th Century, referencing Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798)
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 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 (“pale ignorances, presiding over microscopes”).
The Super-Sargasso Sea—a motif that runs throughout his work—is 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, 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.”
The Sargasso Sea is not mentioned in Vincent Gaddis’ Fortean Invisible Horizons (1965), but John Wallace Spencer devotes a small section of his Limbo of the Lost (1969) to the fabled area, rejecting the notion that it has anything to do with mysterious vanishings as unsubstantiated (Spencer’s theory is that UFOs are abducting craft from the area). The National Geographic Society describes the Sargasso Sea as “a legendary twilight zone for mariners” and compares it to the “legend of the Bermuda Triangle” as early as 1968.*
Charles Berlitz reintroduces the Atlantis-Sargasso Sea connection of Babcock and Spence in his first book, The Mystery of Atlantis (1969),* and slots the Bermuda Triangle into the equation with his next book, 1974’s myth-cementing The Bermuda Triangle.
The Sargasso Sea was almost completely demystified by the middle of the 20th century,*** being easily subject to repeated scientific study. The mantle of the “graveyard of lost ships” has long since been transferred to the Bermuda Triangle, whose alleged supernatural properties are inherently unfalsifiable.
(Images via the Goldstein Lawson Collection, Art and Sea, and National Geographic)