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El Dorado (myth)

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El Dorado (myth)

For other uses, see El Dorado (disambiguation).

El Dorado (pronounced: [el doˈɾaðo], English /ˌɛl dəˈrɑːd/; Spanish for "the gilded one") is the name of a Muisca tribal chief who covered himself with gold dust and, as an initiation rite, dived into the Guatavita Lake. Later, it became the name of a legendary "Lost City of Gold", that fascinated explorers since the days of the Spanish Conquistadors and was supposedly located on Lake Parime in the highlands of Guyana.

Imagined as a place, El Dorado became a kingdom, an empire, and a city of this legendary golden king. In pursuit of the legend, Francisco Orellana and Gonzalo Pizarro departed from Quito in 1541 in an expedition towards the Amazon Basin, as a result of which Orellana became the first person known to have navigated the Amazon River along substantially its entire length.

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 Guatavita, near present-day Bogotá, Colombia.

In 1638, Juan Rodriguez Troxell wrote this account of the ceremony, 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 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 recognised as lord and king.

Small amounts of gold found

The Muisca towns and their treasures quickly fell to the conquistadores. At the same time, the Spanish began to hear stories of El Dorado from captured natives (mostly Indians), and of the rites which used to take place at the lagoon of Guatavita. The Spaniards also found much gold on these natives, which lead them to spread the word that El Dorado was near. The news of the gold was changed by word of mouth to the extent that it was said that the gold on these natives was proof that there was a kingdom of immense wealth in the south of the New World, or modern day South America.

The Spanish conquistadores also made several attempts at draining Lake Guatavita to find the rumoured treasure in its deeper waters. A successful attempt in the 16th century saw gold, armour and precious items found in the lake. These items were nothing compared to the rumoured treasure, however, so the conquistadores kept searching. It is now illegal to attempt to drain Lake Guatavita.


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.

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). During the Klein-Venedig period in Venezuela (1528–1546), agents of the Welser banking family (which had received a concession from Charles I of Spain) launched repeated expeditions into the interior of the country in search of El Dorado.

In 1540, Gonzalo Pizarro, the younger half-brother of Francisco Pizarro, was made the governor of the province of Quito in northern Ecuador. 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 natives 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 natives 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 Ocean, 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 Coro on the coast of Venezuela; and of Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, the Governor of El Dorado, who started from Bogotá (1569).

Sir Walter Raleigh, who resumed the search in 1595, described El Dorado as a city on Lake Parime far up the Orinoco River in Guyana. This city on the lake was marked on English and other maps until its existence was disproved by Alexander von Humboldt during his Latin-America expedition (1799–1804).[1]

Sir Walter Raleigh

During the 16th and 17th centuries, Europeans, still mystified by the New World, believed that a hidden city of immense wealth existed. Many searched for this treasure, in quests that ended in the loss of countless lives. The illustration of El Dorado's location on maps only made matters worse, as it made some people think that the city of El Dorado's existence had been confirmed.

In 1595 Sir Walter Raleigh set sail following one of the many old maps to El Dorado, aiming to reach Lake Parime in the highlands of Guyana (the supposed location of El Dorado at the time). He had set many goals for his expedition, and believed he had a genuine chance at finding the so-called city of gold. First, he wanted to find the mythical city of El Dorado, which he suspected to be an actual Indian city named Manoa. Second, he hoped to establish an English presence in the Southern Hemisphere that could compete with that of the Spanish. His third goal was to create an English settlement in the land called Guyana, and to try to reduce commerce between the natives and Spaniards.

Though Sir Walter Raleigh never found El Dorado, he was convinced that there was some fantastic city whose riches could be discovered. Finding gold on the riverbanks and in villages only strengthened his resolve.[2]

In 1617, he returned to the New World on a second expedition, this time with his son, Watt Raleigh, to continue his quest for El Dorado. However, Sir Walter Raleigh, by now an old man, stayed behind in a camp on the island of Trinidad. Watt Raleigh was killed in a battle with Spaniards. Overall, the second expedition was a disaster. Upon Raleigh's return to England, King James ordered for him to be beheaded for disobeying orders to avoid conflict with the Spanish.[3]


In the mythology of the Muisca today, Mnya the Gold or golden color, represents the energy contained in the trinity of Chiminigagua, which constitutes the creative power of everything that exists.[4] Chiminigagua is, along with Bachué, Cuza, Chibchacum, 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, California, 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. 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.

In a 1966 Howard Hawks film El Dorado,starring John Wayne and Robert Mitchum, El Dorado is a town in Texas cattle country. Most of Poe's poem is recited throughout the film by the James Caan character,Alan Bourdillion "Mississippi" Treherne and film's title song[5] by Nelson Riddle is derivative of Poe's poem.

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 and Shangri-la. The other side of the ideal quest metaphor may be represented by Helldorado, a satirical nickname given to Tombstone 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.

For five decades, starting in 1953, the most expensive model of General Motors' prestige make was the Cadillac Eldorado.

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 de Orellana, mentioned in the historical section, above.

Popular culture

  • The Road to El Dorado is a 2000 American animated comedy film by DreamWorks Animation, which tells the story of two 16th-century Spanish men who discover the mythical city and are declared gods by the inhabitants. The story mistakenly takes place in Central America, not in Colombia.
  • In Anthony Horowitz's novel Evil Star, when protagonists Matthew Freeman and Richard Cole end up in the Incan city of Vilcabamba, Richard compares the city to El Dorado, saying that Vilcabamba is a mythical city which hundreds of explorers have sought for yet never found, "a bit like El Dorado." He is amazed that he and Matt are actually in the middle of Vilcabamba, thus being in the heart of a lost city.
  • In the PlayStation 3 game Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, the game is based on a search for El Dorado and on its connections to Francis Drake. Expecting to find a city of gold, they find a huge gold statue, later discovered to be a golden coffin containing the victim and the remains of an ancient plague.
  • Heavy metal band Iron Maiden has on the album The Final Frontier a song called "El Dorado" about selling the myth that "The streets are paved with gold"
  • The Mysterious Cities of Gold – an animated miniseries produced in the 1980s that follows the fictional story of several children and a group of Spanish explorers as they search for El Dorado in the Americas during the 16th century. In the story, El Dorado is but one of seven cities of gold hidden around the world.
  • A portion of Voltaire's Candide is set in El Dorado. There, the city is made of material finer than gold and diamonds, which are just considered mud and rocks in the road.
  • Edgar Allan Poe wrote a rather satirical short poem entitled Eldorado, about a knight's search for the legendary city.
  • In Zynga's game Indiana Jones Adventure World, Zynga included El Dorado as the main objective for the player to complete, giving references to the character of Indiana Jones in the game.

See also

Mythical places



External links

  • Colombia)
  • The Legend of 'El Dorado' by Tairona Heritage Trust
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