Nieuwe caerte van het Wonderbaer ende Goudrjcke Landt Guiana by Jodocus Hondius (1598) shows the city of Manoa on the northeastern shore of Lake Parime, alleged location of El Dorado.
Lost treasure legends around the world share a number of features. Readers of this blog will by now be familiar with these motifs, scattered through the tales of untold wealth just waiting for some lucky and persevering seeker to gather them up. This is a handy compilation of the essential elements for the delight of sceptics and the caution of the hopeful.
There is a treasure (or desired object of some kind)
At some time, some one or ones must claim to know of the existence of a mine, cave, horde, wreck, city etc., somewhere. It is often not apparent when and how the story of the treasure originates.
There is a hero/es
One or a number of seekers, searchers, questers have been, or will be, on an intrepid journey to find the desired treasure. Think ‘Indiana Jones’.
Untold riches – or other desired object/s – in the hands of ignorant indigenous peoples are the staple of the El Dorado code. While these beliefs sustained centuries of exploration and colonisation, they are becoming less saleable in the modern world, though this does not seem to deter seekers – or producers of movies and ‘documentaries’ that fuel the delusions of seekers and their backers.
The older the better
Ancient treasures are the most popular. This seems to be because people give most credibility to allegedly authoritative sources from the distant past and because the longer the treasure has been ‘lost’, or unfound, the more intriguing it is to questers and the general public, encouraged by mass media and the internet.
The more remote the better
Distant and/or difficult to reach locations are the norm. After all, if the treasure were readily accessible it is likely that someone will already have found it.
Usually related to the remoteness of the treasure is the warning that it may be under the protection of a fierce group of indigenous people. Sometimes the indigenes are replaced with a hereditary cult or secret society of some kind whose members are charged with guarding the secret of the treasure’s location and preserving it from seekers.
Some form of documentation allegedly verifying the existence of the treasure is almost always part of the story. The most frequent and most intriguing, of course, is a map, chart or other visual representation of the treasure’s alleged location. Usually these are contradictory, absurd and, in any case, impossible to decipher.
Other forms of documentary ‘evidence’ may include ciphers, scrolls, manuscripts, sometimes books, sometimes markings on rocks.
Whatever form the documentation takes – and it may be more than one per treasure – it will be ‘old’, have a chequered history – or ‘mythtory’ – of transmission that is difficult, if not impossible, to verify.
Closely related to documents are objects of one kind or another that allegedly come from or are otherwise relate to the treasure. The standard incredibly rich ore sample has long been a favourite of fake gold mine/reef hoaxers. Other tangible ‘proofs’ might be ancient jewels or statuettes, a gold coin from a seventeenth century shipwreck and so on. The possibilities here are almost numberless.
These elements will form part of the narrative surrounding any given treasure, though there are often a number of ancillary elements adding additional spice. Hair raising tales of what happened to previous seekers are popular. (Especially at the hands of fierce native guardians). Gruelling treks with deprivation, suffering and many deaths are frequent tropes, as are mysterious individuals or groups appearing in archives or at other relevant locations, apparently looking into things.
The ‘one that got away’ effect comes into play here. In common with fishing yarns, lost treasure legends tend to grow more astonishing and fabulous with each telling.
These overheated discourses flow through the channels of oral, digital and mass media transmission and provide continual ‘buzz’ and, for some, validation of the existence of any given treasure.
The treasure remains ‘lost’
Despite maps, artefacts and expeditions, fabled treasures remain stubbornly ‘lost’. This only stirs a continual stream of hopeful seekers, further fuelling the legend. In their turn, these seekers fail, leaving the field open to the next batch of deluded optimists with a new map or new interpretation of existing ‘sources’.
The El Dorado code validates itself and the cycle begins again.