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El Dorado (myth)
El Dorado (Spanish for "the gilded one"), a legend that began with the story of a South American tribal chief who covered himself with gold dust. In time the name applied to a mythical city or land of gold, and then broadly, the Spanish obsession with Latin American riches.
In the original tale, the king or chief priest of the Muiscas — a South American tribe — was said to cover himself with gold dust at a religious festival held in Lake Guatavita , near present-day Bogotá, Colombia. Another versions locates the myth in the lakes near Pasca, Cundinamarca.
The details are largely passed on through to the chronicle by Juan Rodriguez Freyle , who in 1636 wrote this account of his friend Don Juan, said to be the Spanish governor of Guatavita:
- The ceremony took place on the appointment of a new ruler. Before taking office, he spent some time secluded in a cave, without women, forbidden to eat salt and chilli pepper, or to go out during daylight. The first journey he had to make was to go to the great lagoon of Guatavita, to make offerings and sacrifices to the demon which they worshipped as their god and lord. During the ceremony which took place a 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 lagoon 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... As soon as those on the raft began to burn incense, they also lit braziers on the shore, so that the smoke hid the light of day.
- 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 ... and at his feet they placed a great heap of gold and emeralds for him to offer to his god. In the raft with him went four principal subject chiefs, decked in plumes, crowns, bracelets, pendants and ear rings all of gold. They, too, were naked, and each one carried his offering .... when the raft reached the centre of the lagoon, they raised a banner as a signal for silence. The gilded Indian then ... (threw) out all the pile of gold into the middle of the lake, and the chiefs who had accompanied him did the same on their own accounts. ... After this they lowered the flag, which had remained up during the whole time of offering, and, as the raft moved towards the shore, the shouting began again, with pipes, flutes, and large teams of singers and dancers. With this ceremony the new ruler was received, and was recognized as lord and king.
The Muisca towns and their treasures quickly fell to the conquistadores. Taking stock of their newly won territory, the Spaniards realized that — in spite of the quantity of gold in the hands of the Indians — there were no golden cities, nor even rich mines, since the Muiscas obtained all their gold from outside. But at the same time, they began to hear stories of El Dorado from captured Indians, and of the rites which used to take place at the lagoon of Guatavita. There were Indians still alive who had witnessed the last Guatavita ceremony, and the stories these Indians told were consistent.
Guatavita today bears a curious notch in its cliffside, evidence of a 1580 attempt to drain the lake.
El Dorado is also applied to a legendary city called Manoa or sometimes Omoa; and more broadly, to a mythical country in which gold and precious stones were found in fabulous abundance. This El Dorado enticed European explorers for two centuries, and was never found, always seeming to be just beyond the limits of prior exploration.
The legend, which has never been traced to its ultimate source, had many variants, especially as regards the situation attributed to Manoa. It induced many Spanish explorers to lead expeditions in search of treasure, but all failed. Among the most famous were the expedition undertaken by Diego de Ordaz , whose lieutenant Martinez claimed to have been rescued from shipwreck, conveyed inland, and entertained at Omoa by "El Dorado" himself (1531); and the journeys of Orellana (1540–1541), who passed down the Rio Napo to the valley of the Amazon; that of Philip von Hutten (1541–1545), who led an exploring party from Coro on the coast of Caracas; and of Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada (1569), who started from Bogotá.
Sir Walter Raleigh, who resumed the search in 1595, described Manoa as a city on Lake Parimh in Guiana. This lake was marked on English and other maps until its existence was disproved by Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859).
Meanwhile the name of El Dorado came to be used metaphorically of any place where wealth could be rapidly acquired. It was given to a county in California, and to towns and cities in various states. In literature frequent allusion is made to the legend, perhaps the best-known references being those in Milton's Paradise Lost (Book xi. 408-411) and Voltaire's Candide (chs. 18, 19).
- Bandelier, A. F. A. The Gilded Man, El Dorado (New York, 1893).
- Freyle, Juan Rodriguez. El Carnero: Conquista y descubrimiento del Nuevo Reino de Granada. ISBN 8466000259
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