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Land of winds > Traditions > Legend | Issue 06. Jul.-Ago.2011
By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza

El Dorado (The golden one)

Andean legend El Dorado
If there ever was a famous legend in the America, one that led Spanish conquerors (and those who followed their steps and narratives) to undertake hazardous adventures, even to madness and death, that was the legend of El Dorado. According to early colonial chronicles, the origin of the myth might lie in a rite of passage or coronation celebration that happened at the Lake Guatavita (outside Bogotá, in the Colombian high plateau). The chief of the Muisca (or Chibcha) people covered himself in gold dust and then jumped into the lagoon as an offering to the gods.
The original narrative appeared in the controversial chronicle titled “Conquista y descubrimiento del Nuevo Reino de Granada de las Indias Occidentales del Mar Océano” (better known as “El Carnero”, the billygoat), written by American-born Juan Rodríguez Freyle in 1636. The chronicle is intended to be historical (it tells the story of the discovery of the New Kingdom of Granada and the foundation of the city of Bogotá and describes the native peoples that inhabited the region) but includes also several fictional elements through short stories. In 1683, Juan Rodríguez Troxell wrote the following account in a letter addressed to his friend Don Juan, cacique of Guatavita:
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 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 myth of El Dorado spread like wildfire from word to mouth after the Spanish conquerors arrived in Colombia, and highly exaggerated versions were heard in the natives’ answers each time they were asked for gold (those answers would probably have been either partially true statements intended to mislead or conveniently understood and accepted by conquerors).
The original stories about Muisca rituals told by local people became extremely successful and turned into mythical legends that survived in oral tradition and referred to “El Hombre Dorado” (the golden man), “El Indio Dorado” (the golden indian) or “El Rey Dorado” (the golden king).
Conquerors’ feverish imagination first turned the golden man into a golden city, then the golden city into a golden kingdom and finally the golden kingdom into a golden empire.
In 1531, a lieutenant at Diego de Ordaz’ command, whose surname was Martínez, stated that he had been rescued from a shipwreck and had seen “El Dorado” himself.
In 1536, Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada (called “the Governor of El Dorado”) set off from Santa Marta, to the north of Colombia, in search of the mythical kingdom. After a hellish journey, he encountered native Muisca people and brought their territory under his control founding present day Santa Fe de Bogotá.
At that time, Sebastián de Belalcázar was looking for El Dorado in the valley of Cauca while the German Nicolás Federmann did the same in the vast plains that stretch from Colombia into Venezuela.
In 1540, Gonzalo Pizarro, half brother of Peru’s conqueror, Francisco Pizarro, was designated Governor of the province of Quito and one year later led and expedition alongside his nephew Francisco Orellana in hope of discovering lands rich in gold that matched the description of El Dorado. After exploring the Napo River, Pizarro turned round and went back in the same way he came, entrusting Orellana with continuing on their mission and sending him to the east. The Spanish conqueror and explorer discovered the Amazon River and sailed down it to the Atlantic Ocean.
The same year, German adventurer Philipp von Hutten (Felipe de Utre) headed an expedition to survey a new route to the golden kingdom through the Omagua territory, in the Amazon region. This was not his first attempt: a previous one, along with his travelling companion Georg von Speyer, had failed six years before. Finally, Sir Walter Raleigh set off on the way to find the mythic city going up the Orinoco River in 1595 and claimed that he had discovered it at the shores of Lake Parime, in the Guyana. Curiously enough, the city appeared in the British maps until Alexander von Humboldt unfold the fallacy during his travels (1799-1804).
Nowadays, it is known that there were several lagoons where the rite would have taken place: many treasures found in them are now exhibited in the Museum of Gold in Bogotá, such as the Muisca’s Golden Raft found in Pasca (Cundinamarca department) that represents El Dorado ceremony.


El Dorado, in Wikipedia.
El Carnero, in Wikipedia.
The legend of El Dorado, in Apocatastasis [es].
The legend of El Dorado, in Sobre Leyendas [es].
The legend of El Dorado, in Toda Colombia [es].

Picture 01. Muisca’s Golden Raft.
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