Information icon.svg Results for the 2023 RationalWiki Moderator Election have now been posted. Thank you for participating in this election, and congratulations to the winners!

Lewis Spence

From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Spence in 1948
Fiction over fact
Icon ancient aliens.svg
How it didn't happen

Lewis Spence (1874–1955) was a Scottish journalist and writer on folkloric and occult topics. His subjects included Atlantis and other lost continents; the origin and customs of the Celtic peoples of the British Isles; Nazi occultism; and pre-Columbian Central American religion including the Mayan religious text the Popol Vuh. His work sought to establish a commonality between the Celts and native North Americans as descendants of the people of Atlantis (along with the ancient Egyptians), and to contrast that with a bloodthirsty, destructive Teutonic influence from Germany and Scandinavia, which manifested in weaker form in Anglo-Saxon England.[1]

Not coincidentally, he was prominent in the history of Scottish nationalism, founding the Scottish National Movement which eventually became part of the Scottish National Party. His belief in the superiority of the Celts tied into his political nationalism and many of his other ideas.


His early life was conventional: he studied dentistry at Edinburgh University, followed by a career as editor of The Scotsman (1899-1906), The Edinburgh Magazine (1904-05), and The British Weekly (1906-09).[2][1] His interest in occultism began while he was still working as a journalist, with The Mysteries of Britain: Secret Rites and Traditions of Ancient Britain Restored (1904) his first book. After that he wrote a large number of books on folklore, lost civilisations, and occult topics.

At the same time he was involved in Scottish nationalist politics from the mid 1920s, standing unsuccessfully for parliament in North Midlothian in 1929. During his campaign he advocated for a Scottish parliament in Edinburgh as the solution to Scotland's declining population and economic depression.[3][4] He spoke in favour of nationalisation of the nation's coal mines and when challenged with, "You are a communist!" he replied "There is a lot of truth in that."[5] He also was one of those who popularised the idea of a Scottish Renaissance in the 1920s, a revolt against the earlier literary traditions of Walter Scott, RL Stevenson, Robert Burns and others, that brought to prominence the likes of Christopher Murray Grieve (aka Hugh MacDiarmid).[6][7]

He wrote poetry, and produced non-mystical prose works such as a biography of William Wallace.[1] Despite his interest in the Celtic people, he did not write in the Celtic language of Gaelic but instead in English or Scots (the west Germanic language of northern Britain), speaking of the importance of creating "a Scots which can be described as a standard national speech fit for all the purposes of literary craftsmanship in prose and verse".[8]


He wrote several books on the lost continent of Atlantis, from The Problem of Atlantis in 1924. He also wrote two books on Lemuria. He sought to trace out commonalities between different religious traditions around the world, which he explained as having originated in the lost civilisation of Atlantis which by its geographical position influenced both Europe (principally but not exclusively the Celts) and the pre-Columbian peoples of the Americas. The Problem of Atlantis suggested there were three waves of migration from Atlantis to Europe, the Aurignacian or Cro-Magnon at 25,000 years ago, the Magdalenian at 16,000 years ago, and the Azilian 10,000 years ago; the Atlanteans also reached North America at some point. This theory amongst other things explains how both the ancient Egyptians and the Mayans had pyramids, which came from Atlantis. Much of his geographical and geological argument was incorrect, and the islands of the Atlantic are not the mountain peaks of a sunken continent, and Greenland isn't moving rapidly through the North Atlantic. He also assumed that volcanic rocks found deep below the Atlantic would have to be formed above sea level, when submarine volcanoes can also produce them; but his work did draw on the then-new theory of continental drift and reflected other uncertainties about geology.[9]

At the same time, his studies of mythology did not always explain every commonality between different nations' stories as being based on common race or ancestry, but he recognised that different people facing the same problems in the same environments might well create similar stories.[10]

There was also a racial element in this, as he believed the Scots and other Celts were descended from the Cro-Magnon people whom he considered to be the descendants of the inhabitants of Atlantis.[1]


He wrote several books that purported to rediscover the religious traditions of ancient Britain such as Druidism and Celtic religion. He was one of the most important figures in creating the modern image of the pagan Celt, particularly in popular culture and modern New Age communities.[1] He popularised the idea of a Celtic mystery religion with secret rituals, linked with the Holy Grail, drawing on the ideas of James Frazer author of The Golden Bough and similar to the ideas of Jessie Weston's From Ritual to Romance, although Spence's version of the ritual was more chaste and tied up in ancestor worship.[11] Following Frazer, he saw the stories of King Arthur and the Holy Grail as expressions of a mystery religion rather than stories of a real, historical monarch.[12]

He dismissed unsavory aspects of Celtic or druidic religion such as human sacrifice as corruption of the ancient religious traditions of Atlantis, tending to blame bad things on Teutonic influence. This fitted in with his Scottish nationalism which cast the English as Teutonically-influenced Anglo-Saxons and the Scots as noble Celts.[1] In contrast, he promoted the image of Celts as living in gender equality with warrior queens such as Boudicca (see Goddess movement) and profound respect for human life beyond their neighbours.[1] He liked the idea that the Celtic druids practiced ancestor worship, connecting them to ancient traditions, and thought that they used mediumistic techniques to contact their ancestors.[1]

In various lectures and articles, Spence had a habit of declaring that everybody he liked was secretly a Celt, such as Charles Dickens (born in Hampshire, England).[13] He claimed to detect mixed Celtic and Iberian blood in the poet Robert Burns.[14]

He wrote in depth about fairies in British Fairy Origins, which considered various theories of the origin of fairies as ancestral spirits or product of a tendency to anthropomorphise the world, and sought to compare them to folk religions of Australia and the south Pacific.[12]

Other folklore[edit]

The first edition of his A Dictionary of Mythology was published in 1910.

He typically took the view that occult and mysticism allowed people to exercise psychic powers to access a higher level of consciousness, and an enhanced sense of brotherhood. For Spence these powers existed apart from orthodox religion and social control: he contrasted the direct mystical experience of paganism with the authoritarianism of organised religion.[1] This idea is common in more recent New Age belief, where adherents often reject organised religion in favour of personal spiritual exploration.

He wrote several books about the Americas, including North American Indians, Central America, and Peru. These included a study of the Popol Vuh, a sacred text of the K'iche' people, a pre-Columbian civilisation whose descendants still live in the highlands of Guatemala.[15]

His studies of central American mythology had considerable cultural influence, including popularising the myth of Quetzalcoatl as featured in D H Lawrence's The Plumed Serpent.[16]

He also published books on the mythology of ancient Egypt, the ancient Middle East, Brittany, and the Rhine. He suggested the ancient Egyptians were influenced by the Atlanteans.


His book Occult Causes of the Present War, published in 1940, was one of the first to suggest that Nazi Germany was motivated by occult purposes. This drew on his earlier, more general idea that evil Teutonic peoples were responsible for all that was bad in the world and constantly seeking to corrupt the noble Celts. He cast the war as a conflict between the decadent Teutons and the noble British as exemplified by King Arthur and the legend of the Holy Grail.[1] (It is ironic that even though he viewed the English as tainted by Teutonic, Anglo-Saxon influence, he still supported them against Hitler and the more purely Teutonic Germans, but he wasn't the only person to see World War Two as a case of the bad against the worse.)

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 "Gipsy Witches and Celtic Magicians: Charles Godfrey Leland and Lewis Spence", Juliette Wood, Béaloideas, Iml. 76 (2008), pp. 1-22 (22 pages) via JSTOR
  2. See the Wikipedia article on Lewis Spence.
  3. MR SPENCE'S CAMPAIGN, The Scotsman (1921-1950); Edinburgh, Scotland [Edinburgh, Scotland]08 Jan 1929: 9. Via ProQuest.
  4. SCOTLAND DECAYING: MR SPENCE'S FEARS, The Scotsman (1921-1950); Edinburgh, Scotland [Edinburgh, Scotland]25 Jan 1929: 10. Via ProQuest.
  5. "YOU ARE A COMMUNIST.": HECKLER AND MR SPENCE, The Scotsman (1921-1950); Edinburgh, Scotland [Edinburgh, Scotland] 18 Jan 1929: 9. Via ProQuest.
  6. "October Reviews". The Times (London, England), October 1, 1925, Issue 44081, p.8. Via Gale
  7. See the Wikipedia article on Scottish Renaissance.
  8. "Work of the makars: Mr Lewis Spence's advice", Letter, The Scotsman (1921-1950); Edinburgh, Scotland [Edinburgh, Scotland] 13 May 1948: 4. Via ProQuest.
  9. "Reviewed Work: The Problem of Atlantis by Lewis Spence", Review by: R. N. R. B., The Geographical Journal, Vol. 64, No. 2 (Aug., 1924), pp. 181-182 (2 pages), via JSTOR, DOI: 10.2307/1780708
  10. "Red Indian Legends". The Times (London, England), July 28, 1914, Issue 40587, p.6. Via Gale.
  11. "The Search for the Holy Grail: Scholars, Critics and Occultists", Juliette Wood, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, Vol. 22 (2002), pp. 226-248 (23 pages), via JSTOR
  12. 12.0 12.1 "Realm of Faerie", The Scotsman (1921-1950); Edinburgh, Scotland [Edinburgh, Scotland]18 Apr 1946: 7. Via ProQuest.
  13. "DICKENS AS A CELT: Nothing Saxon in Him MR LEWIS SPENCE", The Scotsman (1921-1950); Edinburgh, Scotland [Edinburgh, Scotland] 27 Nov 1936: 8
  14. "CELTIBERIAN TYPE: Burns Looked at from the Racial Angle: MR LEWIS SPENCE", The Scotsman (1921-1950); Edinburgh, Scotland [Edinburgh, Scotland]26 Jan 1937: 8. Via ProQuest.
  15. See the Wikipedia article on Popol Vuh.
  16. Lewis Spence and the myth of Quetzalcoatl in D. H. Lawrence's "The Plumed Serpent", Michael Ballin, The D.H. Lawrence Review, Vol. 13, No. 1, D.H. Lawrence: Myth and Occult (spring 1980), pp. 63-78 (16 pages)