THE EL DORADO CODE

El dorado map high res1024px-1599_Guyana_Hondius

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’.

Origins

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.

Guardians

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.

Documents

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.

Artefacts

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.

Back Story

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.

1808 mermaid tattoo

MYTHS THAT MAKE HISTORY

Ancient though their origins may be, the world’s many myths and legends have played an important role in history. Frightening fables of unknown southern lands, tales of lost cities, and endless rumors of hidden hordes of gold have motivated many of the world’s greatest explorations.
Five centuries before the common era, the Greeks knew the world was not flat. It was a globe and so, they reasoned, there must be a large landmass in the extreme south to balance the lands they knew in the northern hemisphere. The Romans embroidered the legend of a lost southern land by imagining it was peopled by strange beings who survived in great heat and, out of necessity, walked upside down.  By the second century AD, it was widely accepted that there was a southern land, probably inhabited, and laying at the bottom of the world – somewhere. It was featured on beautifully crafted European maps and charts complete with sea monsters and winged serpents. The Muslim world also produced maps that seem to represent some of Australia’s northern coastline in the ninth century AD.
From early times, Mariners began searching for the southland. It was frequently discovered, the news triumphantly announced, only to be disproved by later explorers. Many voyages undertaken by the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French and British were inspired by the desire to solve the riddle of the mysterious continent. It would be centuries before anyone did, but these many efforts provided the world with knowledge of distant places, unknown seas, new flora and fauna and contact with indigenous peoples previously unknown to Europeans.
Other beliefs also fueled world exploration. Stories about the ‘River of Gold’, now thought to be the Senegal River, reached southern Europe through contact with the Muslim world as early as the Thirteenth century. But from ancient times, there had been great interest in the rumoured river. Pliny the Elder and Claudius Ptolemy wrote about it and the Carthaginians sailed there more than four centuries BCE. A number of Arab expeditions were reported to have sought the river during the Twelfth century. Despite the unknown terrors of sea voyages in that era, people heard these yarns and went looking for the treasure. Most never returned. Or, if they did, we know nothing about it.
Despite—or perhaps because of—these uncertainties, the legend of the River of Gold grew on the tongues of traders, sailors and adventurers. An expansion of this tale based on ninth century Arab writings claimed that there was not only a river, but also an island called the ‘Lands of Gold’ in the chief city of which gold ‘grew in the sand like carrots’ to be harvested at sunrise. Three centuries later, writers were describing the magnificent gold clad horses and gold and silver-collared dogs of the king of this place (probably modern-day Ghana). His sons boasted gold-plaited hair and lowly pages who hefted swords mounted in gold.
Wild though these legends were, they spurred expansion into new lands, gradually filling the map of the world with facts rather than fiction. We will never know how many adventurers and treasure seekers set out to find the objects of their desire, although we can be sure that most of them died in their quests. But, in one case, we do know the explorer’s fate.
The Spanish began their occupation of South America when Cortez conquered the Aztecs in 1519.  The astonishing amount of gold and other valuables the Spaniards found as they cut their way through the indigenous peoples rapidly established South America as a hot spot of fabled wealth. One of the most potent tales concerned an indigenous community whose kingship ritual involved covering the anointed man with gold dust – El Dorado, ‘the golden one’. Other items in the ceremony were also either made of gold or covered in the precious metal. Together with other valuables, the gold was thrown into Lake Guativita. The king went in as well, washing the gold dust from his body and adding to the riches carpeting the lake floor.
By the time the Elizabethan adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh first heard about El Dorado from a captured Spanish sailor, it was no longer an individual, but rather a place: a city of gold along an Amazonian river in the wilds of Guiana (Guyana). Slowly but steadily, the lure of the golden city took hold of one of the greatest scholars and adventurers of the Elizabethan era. Raleigh had long been collecting relevant documents and maps and was well versed in the lore of the great treasure when he finally sailed to Trinidad and then to the mouth of the Orinoco River on his own quest for El Dorado in 1595. Previous unsuccessful attempts had been made from the east coast, and Raleigh was not about to repeat the mistakes of others. Nor could he afford to fail.
It was a horrific voyage. Raleigh’s passage through the “thick and troubled water” of the Orinoco and its endless tributaries was long, hot, and arduous. Raleigh ended his account with a strong promise of untold riches. But, the leaden truth was that “I gave among them [the Indians GS] many more pieces of gold than I received.” Raleigh’s quest had been a colossal failure – and he knew it. Although he did not find el dorado, his The Discovery of Guiana (1596), provided valuable anthropological, ecological and geographic knowledge of the region. Through it he also wrote himself out of immediate trouble with his Queen, Elizabeth I.
Still a believer, Raleigh tried again in 1617. His attempt was yet another failure and sealed his fate with a new monarch, James I. Soon after his empty-handed return to England, the great Elizabethan and earnest seeker of El Dorado was beheaded at the Palace of Westminster on 29 October 1618. In his dying speech he admitted to being “a man full of all vanity, and having lived a sinful life, in all sinful callings, having been a soldier, a captain, a sea captain, and a courtier, which are all places of wickedness and vice …”.
Misty and murky though they were, these and the many other legends of unknown lands and golden treasures had very real consequences for individuals, and for the greater sweep of world exploration and discovery.