In his poem El Dorado, Edgar Allen Poe gives its location as
Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow
Which doesn’t help very much
But the directions followed by explorers in their search for the legendary El Dorado, a supposed city of gold and riches beyond belief, weren’t much more specific.
El Dorado is an excellent example of an evolving myth, growing and metamorphosing over time. Its allure is fueled by gold and our fascination with it. With gold of course, we find greed.
The search for El Dorado is a tragic one
It led to the devastation of entire civilizations at the hands of the Europeans, sometimes purposefully and sometimes through the inadvertent spread of disease. Evidence is growing that, prior to the arrival of the explorers, missionaries, and colonists, both the spare highlands and the thick jungles were in fact densely populated, with urban centers and complex engineering.
The cost wasn’t negligible for the seekers either. For over three hundred years, scores of expeditions organized by Spaniards, English, Germans, Portuguese, and Dutch often ended in death.
We learned things also: while searching for El Dorado, Francisco de Orellana navigated the entire length of the Amazon river in 1541.
A twisting spreading myth
The origin of the El Dorado myth is commonly attributed to stories of the Muisca in eastern Colombia. At the death of their ruler, the next in succession would enter Lake Guatavita dusted in gold. Jewels and gold objects were then thrown into the water.
This exquisite Muisca raft, found in 1969 within a clay vase in a small cave south of Bogota is dated between 600 to 1600CE. For amazing close-ups go to the Laboratorio Imagine (Universidad de los Andes). A beautiful 3-minute video the from Smithsonian shows the lost wax method used to make it.
There was also the story of Manoa, a city of gold on the banks of a huge lake (of the same name) with beaches of gold-bearing sand, described by a delirious Juan Martínez on his deathbed in 1531. The lake was apparently source to a river flowing into the Orinoco from the south .
And there were the rumors of a wealthy city to the east of the Andes, to which the Inca rulers had fled from the Spaniards.
Gold objects found among Aztecs and Inca fueled the El Dorado myth
The Spaniards sent so much gold and silver back to Spain that it destabilized the European economy, and served to fund the global empire of Carlos I of Spain and V of Germany.
The tradition of working with gold in the Americas goes back to at least 1500 BCE, when strips of gold foil were placed in a burial in Andahuaylas in Peru.
Gold was important to pre-Columbian civilizations, but interestingly not as currency. The few functional objects that have been found are heavily decorated and in a burial context. The value of gold was as symbol of the divine. It conferred rank to leaders and priests. Gold objects speak of ritual, of the supernatural and of transformation.
Tumbaga, an alloy of gold and copper with a low melting point, was widely used. Applying an acid to the surface of a completed piece dissolves the copper, leaving pure gold over a harder alloy base.
Beyond El Dorado at the British Museum
On a quest? Take a map
Maps are helpful for any search. Maps are also key for control, for access to resources, for power.
But areas of rampant vegetation and dangerous animals, seemingly endless rainy periods, rivers that seasonally flood their banks only to fall back to another course, and extreme changes in elevation don’t lend themselves to map-making.
Sir Walter Raleigh had access to Martínez’s story and was sure he could find the mythical city beyond the Orinoco. He had to turn back because of the onset of the rainy season in his first expedition. On return to England he wrote The Discovery of Guyana, which became the likely basis of the 17th and 18th century maps showing Lake Parime (in Arawak language) or Manoa (in Caribe).
However, there is no vast lake in the region, much less one harboring a city of gold. Alexander von Humboldt proposed in the late 18th century that Raleigh’s sources may have referred to Lake Amuku, which floods in the wet season.
Sometimes a mythical quest is just that
But just as most mythical destinations or objects have multiple meanings among those who seek, quests are usually about more than one thing. Raleigh was probably as interested in undermining Spanish authority in South America and beating the Spaniards to El Dorado as he was in finding it.
It didn’t work out so well for Raleigh. After returning from his second (unsuccessful) expedition to Guyana in 1616, where his son was killed, he was executed by James I.
What’s your El Dorado?
Whether you see it as the search for a desirable unattainable something or as a shameful chapter in western history, El Dorado is recognizable to most.
Do you have an El Dorado? What will you do to find it?