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El Dorado (Spanish for "the golden one") is a legend that began with the story of a South American tribal chief who covered himself with gold dust and would dive into a lake of pure mountain water.

Imagined as a place, El Dorado became a kingdom, an empire, the city of this legendary golden king. Deluded by a similar legend, Francisco Orellana and Gonzalo Pizarro would depart from Quito in 1541 in a famous and disastrous expedition towards the Amazon Basin; as a result of this, however, Orellana became the first person known to navigate the Amazon River all the way to its mouth.

Tribal ceremony

The original narrative is to be found in the rambling chronicle, El Carnero, of Juan Rodriguez Freyle. According to Freyle, the king or chief priest of the Muisca was said to be ritually covered with gold dust at a religious festival held in Lake Guatavitamarker, near present-day Bogotamarker.

In 1638 Juan Rodriguez Troxell wrote this account, addressed to the cacique or 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, 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 at the lagoon, they made a raft of rush, 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 in trade. But at the same time, the Spanish began to hear stories of El Dorado from captured Indians, and of the rites which used to take place at the lagoon of Guatavita.

Expeditions

El Dorado is applied to a legendary story in which precious stones were found in fabulous abundance along with gold coins. The concept of El Dorado underwent several transformations, and eventually accounts of the previous myth were also combined with those of the legendary city. The resulting El Dorado enticed European explorers for two centuries, and was eventually found to be in Colombia.

Among the earliest stories was the one told by Diego de Ordaz's lieutenant Martinez, who claimed to have been rescued from shipwreck, conveyed inland, and entertained by "El Dorado" himself (1531).

In 1540 Gonzalo Pizarro, the younger half-brother of Francisco Pizarro, was made the governor of the provenance of Quitomarker in northern Ecuadormarker. Shortly after taking lead in Quito, Gonzalo learned from many of the natives of a valley far to the east rich in both cinnamon and gold. He banded together 340 soldiers and about 4000 Indians in 1541 and led them eastward down the Rio Coca and Rio Napo. Francisco de Orellana, Gonzalo’s nephew, accompanied his uncle on this expedition. Gonzalo quit after many of the soldiers and Indians had died from hunger, disease, and periodic attacks by hostile natives. He ordered Orellana to continue downstream, where he eventually made it to the Atlantic Oceanmarker, discovering the Amazon (named Amazon because of a tribe of female warriors that attacked Orellana’s men while on their voyage.)

Other expeditions include that of Philipp von Hutten (1541–1545), who led an exploring party from Coromarker on the coast of Venezuelamarker; and of Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, the Governor of El Dorado, who started from Bogotámarker (1569).

Parime Lacus on a map by Hessel Gerritsz (1625).
Situated at the west coast of the lake, the so called city Manoa or El Dorado
Sir Walter Raleigh, who resumed the search in 1595, described El Dorado as a city on Lake Parime far up the Orinoco River in Guyanamarker. This city on the lake was marked on Englishmarker and other maps until its existence was disproved by Alexander von Humboldt during his Latin-America expedition (1799–1804).

Metaphor

In the mythology of the Muisca today, El Dorado (Mnya) represents the energy contained in the trinity of Chiminigagua, which constitutes the creative power of everything that exists. Chiminigagua is, along with Bachué, Cuza, Chibchachum, Bochica, and Nemcatacoa, one of the creators of the universe.

Meanwhile, the name of El Dorado came to be used metaphorically of any place where wealth could be rapidly acquired. It was given to El Dorado County, Californiamarker, and to towns and cities in various states. It has also been anglicized to the single word Eldorado.

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 in Voltaire's Candide (chs. 18, 19). "Eldorado" was the title and subject of a four-stanza poem by Edgar Allan Poe. In the 1966 John Wayne film El Dorado, most of Poe's poem is recited by the character nicknamed Mississippi. El Dorado is also referenced in Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness. Within Conrad's work, the Eldorado Exploring Expedition journeys into the jungles of Africa in search of conquest and treasure, only to meet an untimely demise.

El Dorado is also sometimes used as a metaphor to represent an ultimate prize or "Holy Grail" that one might spend one's life seeking. It could represent true love, heaven, happiness, or success. It is used sometimes as a figure of speech to represent something much sought after that may not even exist, or at least may not ever be found. Such use is evident in Poe's poem "El Dorado". In this context, El Dorado bears similarity to other myths such as the Fountain of Youth, Shangri-la, and to some extent the term "white whale" which refers to Captain Ahab's obsession in the book Moby Dick. The disillusionment side of the ideal quest metaphor may be represented by Helldorado, a satirical nickname given to Tombstonemarker by a tardy miner who complained that many of his profession had traveled far to find El Dorado, only to wind up washing dishes in restaurants.

Werner Herzog's film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, also explores the El Dorado metaphor. The main character, Lope de Aguirre, is historically based, but is actually an amalgam of Aguirre and Francisco Orellana, mentioned in the historical section, above.

Notes

  1. http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/humboldt/alexander/travels/chapter25.html Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America by Alexander von Humboldt
  2. [1]


References

  • Bandelier, A. F. A. The Gilded Man, El Dorado (New York, 1893).
  • Fernandez de Oviedo, Gonzalo Historia General y Natural de las India, islas y Tierra-Firme del Mar Oceano, Madrid: Real Academia de la Historia, 1851.
  • Freyle, Juan Rodriguez El Carnero: Conquista y descubrimiento del Nuevo Reino de Granada. ISBN 84-660-0025-9
  • Hagen, Victor Wolfgang von The Gold of El Dorado: The Quest for the Golden Man
  • Naipaul,V.S. The Loss of El Dorado, 1969
  • Nicholl, Charles The Creature in the Map, London, 1995 ISBN 0-09-959521-4


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