Mysterious Shasta beckons the world-weary traveler, eager to escape from the world of the mundane into the world of the divine. Even the stark, rolling beauty of the northern California highway, flirting with the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, sharply gives way to the sublime majesty of mighty Shasta’s peak. Upon approaching the scenic beauty of the great mountain and its numerous secondary features, one feels somehow transported to another land, to a magical, former time when life was simpler, and grander.
My first experience with Shasta was as a side trip while visiting relatives in northern California one summer. I was expecting to experience the typical day trip: a good day’s hike, some nice scenery, a good meal at a local restaurant, some nice souvenirs to take home, and perhaps some interesting experiences to talk about around the dinner table. However, what I got was a wide array of sights and experiences that impressed me perhaps more than any other single travel destination I had experienced, either before or since.
After some window shopping in cozy downtown Mount Shasta city, a luxurious hike on Shasta’s Bunny Flat Trail, and a visit to the Sisson Museum, my traveling companions and I settled down for a bite to eat at the Black Bear Diner, a great little diner southeast of the city center. Chomping down on a massive bacon cheeseburger called the “Papa Bear Burger” — the best I’ve ever had anywhere, by the way — I noticed that they had a small, custom-made newspaper called the Black Bear Gazette, which also serves as their menu (nice touch). On the cover of one of the gazette/menus (there were several versions), was an intriguing story called, “Shasta’s ‘Sphinx Rock’ — Made by Man or Nature?”. The story related the tale of one Frank Bascom of Dunsmuir (another Shasta town just south and east of Mount Shasta city) and one of the discoveries he had made while hiking on the upper slopes of Shasta, way back in 1937:
Bascom liked to hike on the upper slopes of Mt. Shasta, and he always took his camera. One day he was photographing the sulphur springs near the top of the mountain and also other odd formations when he unknowingly snapped a picture of Sphinx Rock. The next day he was developing his prints and in one of them he saw an awesome face on a huge boulder. He became very excited about it and went back up the mountain the next day to hunt for the strange face…. Bascom finally located the boulder on the point of a ridge which faces due south in Clear Creek Canyon … one half mile northwesterly from Mud Creek.1
After experiencing the more conventional, “touristy” aspects of the Shasta area, this story about the “Sphinx Rock” brought back to mind the mystique of the area that I had read about in books such as Mysterious California and Rosemary Ellen Guiley’s Atlas of the Mysterious in North America. These sources told whispered tales and rumours of spectral beings that haunt Shasta’s slopes, of dwarves and ape-men who skulk about its lofty shoulders in broad daylight before many witnesses, only to disappear without a trace. As Guiley explains,
The Hopi believe that a race of lizard men have a city underneath the volcano, as well as beneath the city of Los Angeles. The mountain also is said to be the home of the legendary Lemurians, who survived the catastrophic sinking of the lost continent of Lemuria in the Pacific Ocean thousands of years ago. Many sightings of ape men and hooded phantoms have occurred.2
California is actually one of the wierdest places on Earth. From the city of Blythe’s giant petroglyphs, ancient seagoing vessels found marooned in the Yuma desert near the Salton Sea, rumours of giant mummies buried in various parts of the state and, of course, the ubiquitous Bigfoot sightings, Shasta’s stories fit right in with the ancient and exotic travel millieu of the western United States.3 No Hollywood script can hold a candle to some of the bizaare and mysterious artifacts left behind by countless ancient cultures that have left their imprints on the California landscape over the last several thousand years. And perhaps the greatest of these imprints are those that have been left behind on mysterious Shasta.
Some mysterious places are born with legendary qualities, others have legendary qualities thrust upon them. Both are the case with Mt. Shasta, which has been the subject of mystical speculation perhaps more than any other single mountain in history.
Shasta was first discovered in 1826 by a Hudson’s Bay Company trapper by the name of Peter Skene Ogden, who named the lonely mountain
Native Americans, as with all ancient cultures, tended to define the world in terms of natural forces. As a result, the most prominent natural forces, such as the wind, the rain, the sun, moon and stars, animals, plants, forests, hills, and mountains were all accorded a reverence relative to their effect upon their lives. Thus Shasta, which was such a dominant figure on the skyline, and which occasionally roared forth with powerful volcanic forces, became the center of their lives, and of their myths.”Sastise” after a local tribe of the same name.4 Early in the 20th century, ethnologists found a variety of Native American tribes living around the base of Mt. Shasta, and collected a number of tribal myths and legends as part of their study. They found that these tribes were variously related to several major Native American cultures, and as a result they found that Mt. Shasta was “an integral part of the mythology of the peoples of a large cultural sphere. There were legends of Coyote on Mt. Shasta, typical of cultures both in central California and northward. The personification of Wind, which was very common to the Northwest Coast tribes, was also often a factor in legends surrounding the mountain.”5
Mt. Shasta was the unmistakeable physical and visual center of several tribes. It was customary for great peaks to be regarded by Native American peoples as the starting point of their many boundaries. And, in spite of the differences among tribes in locations, languages, and tribal affiliations, Shasta was recognized by each in its own way as something of such immense grandeur that its existence could only be attributed to the Great Spirit, or Creator. The mountain, therefore, was also the tribes’ spiritual center: it was held to be the Great Spirit’s wigwam. The smoke and steam seen as the summit was the smoke-hole of the Spirit’s lodge, as well as the entrance to the Earth. Native American legends connected the material and spiritual worlds and described the powerful natural forces that people witnessed in their environment.6
One myth involved Coyote, the ubiquitous trickster character, and The Great Flood which, as we have seen, shows up frequently in the myths of many ancient peoples. According to one Native American Flood story, Coyote, “the shrewd trickster and people’s perpetual nemesis”7, was walking by the water one day, and an evil spirit in the lake caused the water to rise up in order to cover him. Coyote shot the spirit with his bow, but the water kept coming, so he ran away, the water following after him. Coyote ran onto higher ground, but the water continued to chase after him. Coyote then ran up to the top of Mt. Shasta in order to escape the raging water, as that was the only dry place left. There he made a fire, where the other animals ran to to escape the Flood. After the Flood, they then came down off of the mountain, and became the ancestors of all of the animals on Earth.
The Modoc tribal origin story also involves Shasta. The story goes, thousands of snows ago, there was a great storm over Mt. Shasta. The Great Spirit, who lived within the mountain, sent his youngest daughter out to speak to the storm and tell it to stop blowing so hard, or else the mountain might blow over. He also told her not to stick her head out the top of the mountain, or the wind could catch her long, red hair, and blow her away. The girl, however, having never seen the sea, was overcome with curiosity and stuck her head out of the top of the mountain to see it. As her father the Great Spirit had warned, her long, red hair caught the mighty wind, and she was blown away. Fortunately a group of Grizzly bears found her and took her in. These Grizzly bears were not like modern Grizzlies, however, they were more like humans, walking on two feet, and when the Great Spirit’s daughter came of age, she married the oldest Grizzly’s son. Their children were then a combination of spirit and animal, having the nature of both; they were the first Modocs.8
The modern myths possess many of the same characteristics the ancient Native American myths, in that they recognize the sacredness of the mountain and its central importance to the history of the area. They are also no less fantastic than the tales of Coyote, the Great Spirit’s daughter, and the many other tales told by the area’s native inhabitants.
One of Shasta’s secrets is its many tales of ancient and unusual races that are believed to populate its interior. One race is the Yaktavians, who are said to be the greatest bellmakers in the world. Through their use of sound and vibration, they are believed to have hollowed out vast underground tunnel systems and cities. It is also believed by some that “great transparent bells, invisible to mortals, are used to protect the secret mountainside entrances to their caverns.”9 As part of this modern myth, it
is believed that the sound of the wind blowing against the lips of these transparent bells — which can only be seen from a few feet away — creates a highly unpleasant tone that is just out of the range of hearing. This unpleasant tone is believed to subconsciously repel both the curious and the ignorant in order to keep them from discovering these secret entrances.
Perhaps it was these bells, or the entrances that they guarded, that in the 1930s one Edgar Larkin of Mount Lowe Observatory in southern California claims to have observed while testing the observatory’s more powerful telescopes. Larkin is reported to have seen “a glimmering curved surface that was truly unusual.”10 Upon later observations, he found what appeared to him to be two or three oriental-looking, gold-tinted domes, and the corner of what appeared to be a marble building. After more observations Larkin claimed that the domes continued to emit light even after dark, proving that they were of artificial origin. However, as Emilie Frank suggests:
Another race of beings believed to live within the mountain are a race of dwarves, or “little men”. One account tells the tale of how one “Mah-Atmah Amsumata”, a.k.a. Norman Westfall, was picnicking with friends on the slopes of Shasta one day when they were approached by a “tiny dwarf” (vertically challenged?) who offered to bring them some gold:Mt. Shasta: California’s Mystic Mountain the “gold-tinted domes” are most likely sulphur-encrusted, dome-shaped rocks that can be found on the slopes of Shasta.11 Another probable candidate is Castle Crags just south of Mt. Shasta — which lay between southern California and Shasta — specifically the Castle Dome, a dome-shaped prominence on the crags. Over a long distance, and with distortions caused by lenses, focal length, and atmosphere, these crags could easily be transformed by the imaginative mind to be mysterious domes far up on the slopes of Shasta.
He then disappeared and soon returned with a sack of what appeared to be coal. The dwarf explained, however, that the sack contained black diamonds and that within them lay a secret. Westfall relates that they suddenly realized that this was a dwarf of vast wisdom, and strangely enough, other dwarfs appeared and explained that they were from the lost continent of Lemuria. The tiny men began to sing, seeming to blend their voices in a chorus of beautiful cosmic sounds — all the while working with tiny anvils and hammers…. Then, amazingly, there appeared another being, somewhat larger than the others. Lordlike in appearance, he introduced himself as Pelleur, the Lord of Wisdom of Lemuria, the great dwarf who sits in the center of the four corners of the earth.12
One of the most powerful and enduring legends regarding Mt. Shasta is its supposed “Lemurian” heritage. Lemuria was an ancient, theoretical continent or series of continents that were spread all across the Pacific, thousands of years ago. Then, after a series of natural (some believe manmade) disasters, the large islands that made up the bulk of Lemuria sank beneath the sea, forever silencing the ancient voices of this antediluvian people. The belief that Mt. Shasta is the last outpost of this mysterious ancient race is probably the most widely held among those who study the history and lore of the area. Michael Zanger explains in Mt. Shasta: History Legend and Lore,
Lemurians, Atlanteans, and other lost races sequestered within Mt. Shasta are often-told stories. Supposedly, Lemuria was once a great continent in the area now covered by the Pacific Ocean. The continent’s eastern shore had once been part of the present states of California, Oregon, and Washington, separated from the rest of North America by a large inland sea…. Lemuria is said to have disappeared into the Pacific during a cataclysm that changed the geography of the entire globe. Some Lemurian people migrated east when their continent began to sink and made their way to Mt. Shasta. Because of their very advanced knowledge of science, energy, and cosmic powers, the Lemurians fashioned huge caverns within the mountain and were self-sustaining in every respect.13
Probably the first known reference to “Lemuria” in reference to Shasta occurred in 1883. A young Yreka teenager by the name of Frederick Spencer Oliver, while working on marking the boundaries of his family’s mining claim, suddenly found himself writing uncontrollably on the notebook he had brought along for the task. He immediately ran home in terror and, when he finally reached home, he sat down and allowed the strange force motivating his hand to write freely. These “automatic writing” spells continued on and off for several years, where he would write out a few pages, and then the strange force would stop, leaving as abruptly as it had come. By 1895 he had finished a complete book, which he titled A Dweller on Two Planets, which has since proved to be a major New Age text.
The story that emerged from Oliver’s automatic writings was that he had been chosen as the amanuensis, or secretary, to an ancient, disembodied Lemurian spirit named “Phylos”.
Oliver claimed that Phylos, who lived during several previous incarnations on Atlantis, took him to mysterious temples and elaborate dwelling places of a mystic brotherhood within Mt. Shasta. He wrote that the interior of the mountain contained a labyrinth of great corridors with walls of polished jewels and floors carpeted with fur. The entrance to Mt. Shasta’s inner sanctum was supposedly by a clear pool near a branch of the McCloud River on the mountain’s east side.14
In 1931, another writer by name of Spencer Lewis published another book linking Shasta with the mysterious lost continent of Lemuria, publishing it under the nom de plume of Wishar Cerve. This book, enitled Lemuria: The Lost Continent of the Pacific, is supposedly based upon long-lost Asian manuscripts that describe Lemuria as having risen and fallen as long as 5 million years ago, making it much, much older than Oliver’s Phylos had described it.
Cerve recounted tales of strange-looking, robed persons emerging from the forests and coming into nearby towns surround Mt. Shasta to trade gold nuggets for supplies: ‘These odd looking persons were not only peculiar in their dress and different in attire from any costume ever seen on the American Indian, and especially in the California Indian, but distinctive in features and complexion; tall, graceful and agile, having the appearance of being quite old and yet exceedingly virile.’ A protrusion in the center of their very high foreheads was said to be a special organ enabling them to communicate by telepathy. When approached by townspeople, the Lemurians would apparently vanish into thin air.15
In the same year (1931), another book specifically dealing with the lost continent of “Mu” (another name for Lemuria) was published. This book, appropriately entitled The Lost Continent of Mu, was written by a Colonel in the British Army named James Churchward. Churchward, who was stationed in India, claimed to have befriended a high priest in one of the local temples who taught him how to decipher the ancient stone tablets locked away in their vaults. And it was from these ancient tablets that Churchward claims to have learned the history of an ancient, sunken continent called Mu:
Churchward tells of Mu, a strange country of 64 million inhabitants who had developed a superior civilization and was at the height of her magnificence 50,000 or more years ago. Mu was an immense continent which covered half of what is now the Pacific Ocean, and was thousands of miles long. The very southern tip contained what is now Easter Island (with its 555 carved statues), some of which did not sink. Churchward tells of the dominant people of Mu, a white race. But besides this race, there were other races, people with black, yellow, or brown skin. The ancient inhabitants of Mu were excellent navigators and sailors who took their ships all over the world. They were also learned architects, building great temples and and palaces of stone, carving and setting up great monoliths as monuments.16
Yet another legend involving the Lemurians (there are dozens) contradicts the commonly accepted notion of Lemurians living within the mountain. Instead, as one Dr. M. Doreal states in a newsletter put out by the Brotherhood of the White Temple in Sedalia, Colorado entitled Mysteries of Mount Shasta, that it is Atlanteans, not Lemurians, who inhabit Mt. Shasta. Though the Lemurians had indeed created vast, underground pleasure palaces beneath the mountain, they had lost their freedom in a great war with the Atlanteans, and remain imprisoned by the Atlanteans in their pleasure palaces even today. “After their retreat, the Atlantean victors sealed the entrance and established an elaborate guard system which prohibits the Lemurians to ever escape their bondage. The Atlanteans, Dr. Doreal states, still reside in their colony beneath Mt. Shasta and commute every three months by strange cigar-shaped airships to that area in the South Pacific in order to check the sealed entrance of the imprisoned Lemurians.”17 It is these aircraft, some say, that accounts for the occasional appearances of UFOs above Mt. Shasta.
Shasta today has become more a popular resort town in northern California than a mystical hermitage for New Age spiritualists, though the mystical side of Shasta remains a potent force in the town’s cultural evolution. From the Harmonic Convergence of 1987 to the regular visits of Tibetan monks and well-known spiritualists, Shasta’s mystical heritage is consistently reaffirmed by the belief of many worldwide that it is a major spiritual power center. Moreover, the regular sightings of unexplained lights over Shasta’s glistening peaks and the regular recurrence of mysterious lenticular clouds keeps one wondering whether some of the whispered tales of Shasta’s secrets are true. For the seeker of spiritual enlightenment, or the adventurous soul looking for new frontiers to conquer, Shasta’s secrets still remain unsolved, and the heart of the lonely mountain still remains unconquered.