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El Dorado

Page history last edited by Andrea Brownstein 14 years, 1 month ago

 

El Dorado

One of the legendary places in this world is located traditionally somewhere in South America. For centuries, people looked for it and hundreds of lives were lost to this dream. Their thirst was the unquenchable lust of gold.

From time immemorial, it has tantalized, aroused, consumed, pauperized, destroyed: “Gold is the child of Zeus. Neither moth nor rust devour it but the mind of man is devoured by it,” wrote the Greek poet Pindar. Gold is the king of metals and the metal of kings; it is the ultimate measure of value. Columbus went so far as to say that, with gold, man can “gain entrance for his soul to paradise.”

Within fifty years of Columbus’s first landing and report of gold in the New World, the Aztecs of Mexico and the Incas of Peru had succumbed to the conquistadores’ voracious appetite for gold. The Sinu Indians’ rich tombs in the high Andes were robbed. The city of Bogota was founded in 1539 in the Muisca people’s territory by European gold-seekers.

It was among the Muisca that the legend of El Dorado was first heard by the Spaniards. They were told of a ritual ceremony that took place at Lake Guatavita, some distance to the North of Bogota.

The lake appears mystical and mirror-calm, a perfect circle, surrounded by uniform, barren hills. The legend supplies the bottom of the lake with unimaginable treasures dumped there by the ancient Muisca, to whom the lake was sacred. They believed that the spirit of a former chieftain’s wife lived in the lake, bound there by a terrible monster. A peculiar ritual on the lake was part of the acknowledgment of a new king. An ancient eye-witness account describes the proceedings:

"The first journey [the new king] had to make was to go to the great lagoon of Guatavita, to make offering and sacrifices to the demon which they worshipped as their god and lord. During the ceremony which took place at the lagoon, they made a raft of rushes, embellishing and decorating it with the most attractive things they had. They put on it four lighted braziers in which they burned much moque, which is the incense of these natives, and also resin and many other perfumes. The l agoon was large and deep, so that a ship with high sides could sail on it, all loaded with an infinity of men and women dressed in fine plumes, golden plaques and crowns . . .

 

The city of Eldorado lies conveniently close to a harbour as shown in this old woodcarving (left).

The prospective royal is covered with mud, and gold dust is distributed over his body by blowing through a pipe (right).

"At this time they stripped the heir to his skin and anointed him with a sticky earth on which they placed gold dust so that he was completely covered with this metal. They placed him on the raft on which he remained motionless, and at his feet they placed a great heap of gold and emeralds for him to offer to his god. On the raft with him went four principal chiefs, decked in plumes, crowns, bracelets, pendants, and earrings all of gold. They, too, were naked and each one carried his offering. As the raft left the shore the music began, with trumpets, flutes and other instruments, and with singing which shook the mountains and valleys, until, when the raft reached the center of the lagoon, they raised a banner as a signal for silence.

"The gilded Indian then made his offering, throwing out all the pile of gold into the middle of the lake and the chiefs who had accompanied him did the same on their accounts. With this ceremony, the new ruler was received, and was recognized as lord and king.”

This account of the ceremony of El Dorado gave way to the persisting legend of the unimaginable wealth lying on the bottom Lake Guatavita. Attempts to drain the lake started almost immediately after the first rumor was passed on. Today the surrounding hills bare a curious notch carved by Antonio de Sepulveda, a Bogotan merchant, who, in the 1580’s, attempted to drain the lake to uncover the mythical wealth. The effort was abandoned when the hillsides caved in and covered and killed many of the workers, even though gold was discovered. The loot went to King Philip II of Spain.

It was not too long after these expeditions that the story of El Dorado was embellished with accounts of his golden city, the mythical Manoa where even the cooking utensils were made of gold. Explorers and adventurers took off on the hunch that the city was located somewhere in the unexplored forests of the Amazon valley, and vanished into the jungle, scores never returned.

Soon the Golden Man faded from memory, but the place for wealth unknown continued to live and assumed the name Eldorado. For the next two centuries the expeditions continued in the Andes and the Amazon jungle. No one has reported having found any shining metal.


Main source: "Eldorado," by Jennifer Westwood, in Mysterious Places, Galahad Books, New York, 1987.

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