Has the geography of the world changed enough that entire lands and continents have disappeared? Throughout history, a lot of people have thought so. The drowned continent of Atlantis is the most famous of these mysterious lands, but there are dozens of others.
Some of these lands may have disappeared due to erosion, ice melt and tectonic plate shifts. Others could simply be the result of poor navigation by confused sailors. But the stories of lost lands linger on, appearing and reappearing at the edges of history and science. One things’s for sure: there are a lot of mysterious lands supposedly out there.
Also known as Maida or the Isle of Mam, Mayda is a phantom island in the Atlantic Ocean located southwest of Ireland. Sailors in the Age of Exploration considered Mayda very unsafe — a 1397 map showed it surrounded by dragons and sea monsters, and it included a warning in Latin about the dangers waiting for anyone who sailed too close. The mysterious island first showed up on maps in the Middle Ages and continued to appear throughout the centuries, always as a crescent-shaped island. Its final appearance was on a 1906 map published by Rand McNally, a surprisingly recent appearance considering there’s nothing to be found to the southwest of Ireland.
9. Cantref Gwaelod
According to legend, this beautiful Welsh kingdom was found in what is now Cardigan Bay. Because it was below sea level, a sluiced dike protected it from the water. The kingdom stayed safe until a visiting king seduced the maiden responsible for closing the gates at night. They were left open, and the kingdom was flooded by the rising seas.
In February 2014, storms in Cardigan Bay stripped away layers of sand to reveal a forest of petrified stumps, as well as ancient timber walkways. Further out to sea, a pile of stones and boulders resembling a ruined building became visible. But whether these are the remains of Cantref Gwaelod or simply prehistoric artifacts that gave rise to the legend may never be known.
Lyonesse is a lost island off the coast of Cornwall in England. It’s famous both as the home of Sir Tristan in Arthurian legends and for its mysterious disappearance. According to folk stories, the land was drowned in a single night as punishment for the sins of its inhabitants. Only one man escaped, racing ahead of the flood on a white horse.
Modern archeologists speculate that the legend refers to several of the Isles of Scilly. These were above sea level at the time of the Roman conquest of Britain but were later covered by water due to changing currents and ice melt. Diving expeditions have found the remains of many settlements on the submerged islands. In spite of various scientific explanations, the legend remains. Locals will tell visitors to listen for the bells of drowned Lyonesse, which can be hearing ringing under the water on stormy nights.
Much larger than a single island, Mu was an entire drowned continent in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Mu was supposedly inhabited by members of an ancient civilization that dispersed to places in Eurasia, Northern Africa and the Americas. This explains, believers claim, how ancient cultures like the Mayans, Japanese, and Egyptians became so advanced.
The possibility of an entire continent disappearing without leaving a trace has been generally debunked by scientists. However, underwater mysteries keep the story alive. One of the most controversial is the Yonaguni monument. Beneath the Yaeyama Islands of Japan, divers have found ruins of what appears to be an temple on the ocean floor. Skeptics claim these giant, step-like structures are natural formations. Others say that they are physical evidence of sunken continent that could be Mu. Whatever the truth of this underwater riddle, the site is a popular destination for divers and believers alike.
6. Kumari Kandam
The legend of Kumari Kandam comes from the Tamil people of the Indian subcontinent. According to written and oral tradition, Kumari Kandam was the birthplace of the Tamil nation. Kumari Kandam was believed to stretch across the Indian Ocean, connecting Madagascar, India, Sri Lanka and Australia. It was a thriving, peaceful civilization where the Tamil poets created their greatest works. According to legend, Kumari Kandam was lost to kadatkol — the ancient Tamil word for “the sea devours the land.”
The Silappathikaram, one of the most famous Tamil literary works, describes hills and kingdoms that were “submerged by the raging seas.” Whether these passages refer to an entire continent lost beneath the waves of the Indian Ocean or to islands covered by rising sea levels is unknown. However, many Tamil scholars agree that their ancestors were displaced by some cataclysmic event.
It turns out that a drowned continent linking India and Madagascar isn’t impossible. In 2013, scientists found evidence of one off the coast of Mauritius. Called Mauritia, the microcontinent is thought to have once been part of the land mass that joined India, Madagascar, Australia and Antarctica. It now lies below sea level, buried under masses of volcanic crust.
Of course, the lost continent of Mauritia differs from lands like Atlantis and Kumari Kandam in one crucial respect: scientists believe it drowned due to plate tectonics and the breakup of supercontinents about 85 million years ago. But where one drowned continent exists, there could always be another…
Hy-Brasil was a small island off the coast of Ireland that appeared on maps during the Age of Exploration. Sound familiar? It was sometimes confused with the island of Mayda, but in most instances it has its own distinctive circular shape.
For centuries, many mariners returned to their homes with tales of landing on Hy-Brasil. These visitors described a mysterious island appearing out of the mist, and peaceful island inhabitants who gave them gifts of silver and gold. After the nineteenth century Hy-Brasil no longer appeared on official maps, since its location couldn’t be verified. Anthropologists suspect that Hy-Brasil came from the Irish myth of Bresal, a mysterious island of fairies and kings that appeared once every seven years.
But underwater islands have been discovered off the coast of Ireland, especially in the shoal area known as Porcupine Bank. Although scientists say these islands were covered before humans settled there, believers claim they’re proof that ancient mariners may have stumbled upon a mysterious island after all.
Thule was first identified by the writer Pytheas in the fourth century BC, who described it as an icy, misty land somewhere north of Europe. Because the original account of his journey was lost the exact location he traveled through is unknown, leaving the identity of Thule a lingering mystery.
References to Thule appear everywhere from the writings of Virgil to the explorations of Columbus, who claimed to have reached Thule on his way to America. Sometimes Thule is a mysterious land all its own, and other times it’s identified with real places. The fifth century AD poet Claudian described it as “ice-bound beneath the pole-star,” leading some historians to suspect that Pytheas traveled to Scandinavia or Iceland. Others speculate that he was referring to Britain or Scotland. Whatever the truth of its location, Thule is unique among the lost lands in that many historians believe it hasn’t been lost at all, but perhaps merely mislaid.
Iram, also known as Iram of the Pillars or Ubar, is another unique lost land. It wasn’t drowned by water, but by sand. It’s first referenced in chapter 89 of the Quran as “Iram who had lofty pillars.” According to Islamic texts, it was a rich kingdom built at the command of King Shaddad, who wanted it to be the most magnificent land on earth. But Shaddad’s vanity drew the wrath of Allah, who sent a sandstorm to cover Iram as punishment.
For centuries, scholars believed Iram was only a legend. But in 1992, an archeological expedition to Oman discovered the ruins of a giant city buried beneath thousands of tons of desert sand. The team that unearthed it discovered artifacts dating back as far as 2000 BC, and a pattern of destruction that seemed to match the cataclysmic account of the “Atlantis of the Sands.”
Shambhala first appeared in the Hindu text Mahabharata, then later in the Buddhist Kalachakra texts. In both traditions, the hidden kingdom is a beautiful, peaceful valley whose wise inhabitants lived for thousands of years, never growing sick or old.
Shambala was introduced to the Western world by Lost Horizon, James Hilton’s 1933 novel about Shangri-La, a fictional paradise based on the myth of Shambala. While spiritualists believed it was a real location, most scientists and historians doubted that it was anything more than a myth. However, in 2007 a team of archaeologists exploring the ancient kingdom of Mustang in Nepal found a series of caves and valleys that contained a treasure trove of ancient religious texts and art. These artifacts were centuries old, dating from before the Tibetan conversion to Buddhism. The team speculated that these hidden sanctuaries could have been the original spiritual paradise of Shambala.