Skip to main content
3D illustration of an underwater scene - including a Parthenon-style temple and a human statue - that is based on the lost city of Atlantis

Lost worlds: Did these legendary sunken lands really exist?

Was Atlantis real? Was there a continent in the middle of the Pacific thousands of years ago? Did people once walk between Land’s End and the Isles of Scilly?


Legends of sunken lands – places on land that were lost to the sea - have been a part of folklore all over the world for thousands of years. For many, tales of drowned settlements are purely in the realm of mythology, but to others, they are more real and represent enticing archaeological mysteries.

Let’s take the plunge, explore the depths of these five famous drowned kingdoms, and find out if they are really lurking beneath the waves.

1. Atlantis

The earliest mentions of Atlantis are by the Greek writers Herodotus and Plato. Plato, writing in the 4th century BC, said that the story of Atlantis had been passed on to the Greeks from Egyptian priests two centuries previously.

According to Plato, Atlantis flourished about 9,000 years before his day, so over 11,300 years before the 21st century. The people of Atlantis – the Atlanteans – were half human and half god, Plato said. They were prosperous and civilised, and the land was rich in minerals and vegetation, and abundant with animals. Atlantis was covered with grand palaces, large manmade harbours and waterways, and its navy was powerful, expanding its sphere of influence into the Mediterranean. The military was eventually defeated, and then their island home was destroyed by an earthquake which caused it to be swallowed up by the sea.

Plato said Atlantis was as big as North Africa and that it was west of the ‘pillars of Hercules’, which meant west of the Gibraltar Strait in the Atlantic Ocean. Today, many scholars regard Plato’s story as fiction, but for centuries it was believed to have been more than just a myth. In the Middle Ages, for example, there was a strong belief in its real existence.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, occult writers such as Ignatius Donnelly and Helena Blavatsky posited the notion that ancient civilisations such as the Egyptians had been started by survivors of Atlantis, ideas considered pseudohistorical by modern scholars.

Many are doubtful that it ever existed, but for others, it’s the Holy Grail of lost lands. Nearly 50 locations around the globe have been suggested as the site of Atlantis, but compelling evidence remains elusive. Several contenders over the years have included a submerged landmass near Brazil, the famous Bimini Road in the Bahamas, and the island of Santorini in the Aegean Sea, which suffered a volcanic eruption in the 16th century BC that destroyed the advanced Minoan town of Akrotiri.

2. Lyonesse

One of the world’s oldest and most famous legends of a land lost beneath the waves comes from Cornwall. The Isles of Scilly, 25 miles southwest of Land’s End, are said to be the remnants of a long-lost kingdom which used to stretch out from the Cornish coast.

This land was called Lyonesse, and according to tradition was a prosperous land of 140 churches, rich fertile land, and a majestic capital city called Lions. The Seven Stones reef, halfway between Land’s End and the Isles of Scilly, was said to be the site of the grandest castle (or cathedral) in Lions.

Famously, the legend says that Lyonesse was swallowed up by the sea in a single stormy night and lost forever.

In Arthurian legend, Lyonesse was the home kingdom of Tristan, a knight of the Round Table. Tristan’s father was the King of Lyonesse.

There is some evidence to suggest that the legend could be rooted in real events. Scientists believe that as recently as the Bronze Age more of the land area between Mount’s Bay and the Isles of Scilly was above sea level than today.

3. Mu

One of the most famous single names in the world of lost lands writing is James Churchward. Born in Devon, Churchward was an engineer and writer who published his famous book on Mu in 1926.

According to Churchward, from about 20,000 BC, the Pacific Ocean was dominated by a huge continent called Mu. According to Churchward, Mu was a vast, flat landmass that straddled the mighty ocean over the equator. It was lush with vegetable and animal life and home to 64 million people. Mu was a theocracy, with the whole land under the rule of a high priest called Ra.

The era of Mu lasted 19,000 years and ended in the 12th century BC according to Churchward, who claimed that Mu came to an end when a series of geological events emanating from the earth’s core caused it to sink into the ocean.

He claims that his sources for Mu come from two sets of tablets, one of which was read by him and him alone (conveniently). The latter tablet was shown to him by an elderly priest he met in an isolated part of India while he was stationed there with the British Army.

Churchward’s writing was mauled by critics, notably L. Sprague de Camp, who pointed out numerous factual errors in his work. There is no scientific evidence for the existence of Mu, although several sections of intriguing underwater features have been proposed as possible ruins of Mu, such as those off the coast of Yonaguni Island, Japan.

4. Ys

In the northwest of France, 10 miles south of Brest, lies the Baie de Douarnenez. Underneath the waters of this bay sit the soggy ruins of a once mighty city, named Ys. That’s according to an ancient legend at least.

The tradition states that in the 5th century, Ys was a wealthy and powerful city with bustling markets, a busy port, large houses and stately palaces made of marble, cedar, and gold. But over time, as is typical in many drowned kingdom legends, someone in Ys did something to upset the order and brought a curse upon the city. After a grim sense of foreboding around Ys, including sightings of ghosts in the bay, a mighty storm struck one night. The next morning, the grand city of Ys had vanished, taken by the sea.

Another version of the story tells how the King's daughter opened the city’s floodgates while drunk on wine, submerging the city forever.

For centuries, the people of Brittany have believed in the existence of Ys. It is said that the waters of the bay are haunted by the drowned people of Ys and some believe the ruins of the city are visible in the bay at very low tide.

No scientific evidence has been found for the existence of Ys beneath the Baie de Douarnenez, and some alternative locations have even been suggested, but the legend endures.

5. Tyno Helig

Off the north coast of Wales, near Llandudno, is a rocky outcrop known in Welsh as Pen y Gogarth, and in English as the Great Orme. For centuries, this headland has been a place steeped in history, legend, and mystery, with many of the individual rock formations boasting their own tale.

One of these stories is the legend of Llys Helig (Helig’s Palace), a grand citadel which dominated the land known as Tyno Helig. In the 6th century, the palace was the royal base of a prince whose kingdom stretched across swathes of North Wales. The story goes that the prince’s daughter, Gwendud, fell in love with a commoner. This man, named Tathal, committed murder and robbery to trick his way into marrying the princess. The ghost of Tathal’s victim turned up at the wedding and swore vengeance.

The curse took many years to catch up with the royal family. One night, during a royal banquet, water started to rise up through the palace. The royals, noble guests, and staff fled inland, only to look back in the morning to see that the ocean had completely swallowed up the palace and the pocket of land on which it had sat.

The legend has endured, and it is claimed that the old royal palace can still be seen at low tide off the headland’s western slope, a formation known since the 17th century as Llys Helig.

In the 19th century, a survey claimed to have found walls beneath the sea off the western slope, that appeared to have been part of what was once a very large building. The surveyors believed this to be the lost palace of Tyno Helig.