Wednesday 8 May 2013


“Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition.” - Adam Smith

The ancient Romans believed that on May 9th, 11th and 13th the gates between Earth and Hell opened allowing the Lemures (restless spirits) to come into this world. The term larvae was sometimes used synonymously with term Lemures. The male head of each household had to get up at midnight on each of these nights of May and exorcise the Lemures with a special ritual. He washed his hands three times, strode through the house, spitting and tossing black beans behind him that the ghosts were tempted to gather up and consume. Black was the appropriate colour for offerings to chthonic deities. This was repeated nine times. He would wash his hands anew and strike a brass gong, calling out nine times: “Shades of my fathers, depart!”  Because of this and other reasons, May was considered an unlucky month to celebrate marriages in.

Lemures represented the wandering and vengeful spirits of those not afforded proper burial, funeral rites or affectionate cult by the living. Ovid considers the Lemures as vagrant, unsatiated and potentially vengeful ancestral gods or spirits of the underworld. To him, the rites of their cult suggest an incomprehensibly archaic, quasi-magical and probably very ancient rural tradition. Four centuries later, St. Augustine describes both the Lemures and the larvae as evil and restless manes that torment and terrify the living: Lares, on the other hand, are good manes.

Lemures were formless and liminal, associated with darkness and its dread. William Warde Fowler interprets the gift of beans as an offer of life, and points out that they were a ritual pollution for priests of Jupiter. The Lemures themselves were both fearsome and fearful: Any malevolent shades dissatisfied with the offering of the paterfamilias could be startled into flight by the loud banging of bronze pots.

The Lemures inspired Linnaeus’ Modern Latin backformation of “Lemur”. According to Linnaeus’ own explanation, the name was selected because of the nocturnal activity and slow movements of these slender monkeys. Lemurs are a clade of primates endemic to the island of Madagascar. Although lemurs often are confused with ancestral primates, the anthropoid primates (monkeys, apes, and humans) did not evolve from them; instead, lemurs merely share morphological and behavioural traits with basal primates.

Lemurs arrived in Madagascar around 62 to 65 million years ago by rafting on mats of vegetation at a time when ocean currents favoured oceanic dispersal to the island. Since that time, lemurs have evolved to cope with an extremely seasonal environment and their adaptations give them a level of diversity that rivals that of all other primate groups. Until shortly after humans arrived on the island around 2,000 years ago, there were lemurs as large as a male gorilla. Today, there are nearly 100 species of lemurs, and most of those species have been discovered or promoted to full species status since the 1990s; however, lemur taxonomic classification is controversial and depends on which species concept is used. Even the higher-level taxonomy is disputed.

Lemuria is the name of a hypothetical “lost land” variously located in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The concept arising in the 19th century, is an attempt to account for discontinuities in biogeography; however, the concept of Lemuria has been rendered obsolete by modern theories of plate tectonics. Philip Sclater wrote an article on “The Mammals of Madagascar” in The Quarterly Journal of Science. Using a classification he referred to as lemurs but which included related primate groups, and puzzled by the presence of their fossils in both Madagascar and India but not in Africa or the Middle East, Sclater proposed that Madagascar and India had once been part of a larger continent. He wrote:

“The anomalies of the Mammal fauna of Madagascar can best be explained by supposing that ... a large continent occupied parts of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans ... that this continent was broken up into islands, of which some have become amalgamated with ... Africa, some ... with what is now Asia; and that in Madagascar and the Mascarene Islands we have existing relics of this great continent, for which ... I should propose the name Lemuria!”

Although sunken continents do exist – like Zealandia in the Pacific as well as Mauritia and the Kerguelen Plateau in the Indian Ocean, there is no known geological formation under the Indian or Pacific Oceans that corresponds to the hypothetical Lemuria. Though Lemuria is no longer considered a valid scientific hypothesis, it has been adopted by writers involved in the occult, as well as some Tamil writers of India. Accounts of Lemuria differ, but all share a common belief that a continent existed in ancient times and sank beneath the ocean as a result of a geological, often cataclysmic, change, such as pole shift.

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