Myths for Monday -- The Real Legend of El Dorado

Few Legends have had a greater impact on the History of the America than that of EL DORADO!!! It's name stirs up Hollywood type images. But did you know that the Legend that started it all came from a small area in what is now the department of Cundinamarca -- today's source of our Myth for Monday?

In a way it is hard to call today's story a myth, because in reality, it was not. The Legend of El Dorado was well rooted in an actual practice of the Muisca/Chibcha Indians of the Altiplano Cundiboyacense (what is today the departments of Boyacá and Cundinamarca). The myths that were spawned by this historical practice, however, are legendary.

I now present to you the HISTORY that SPAWNED THE LEGEND:


Among the Musicas, the kingship was not passed from Father to Son as it was in Europe. Rather, it was passed from the king to his nephew -- the oldest son of his oldest sister. This occurred in an elaborate ceremony that took place at the lake in GUATAVITA.

The new king (Zipa) to be was first sheltered in a cave for many days. There he could not eat salt. He could not enjoy the company of women nor go outside.

Following this seclusion, he would make the trek to Guatavita. There, his subjects would have made a raft, which would be decorated with innumerable riches (particularly gold and emeralds) and burning incense. The new Cacique would then be covered in a sticky substance then guilded with gold dust from head to toe.

He then would be placed on the raft with four of his most important chieftains (caciques). They too were decked out in gold -- crowns, bracelets, earrings, breastplates, etc. They would then be paddled out in to the lake, where all of the gold and jewels would be dumped into the lake as an offering to their god.

The raft would return and the new Zipa would be recognized as the leader.

Indians from all around (all of Colombia, parts of Venezuela, Ecuador and even Peru) knew of this tradition -- why? Because the Muiscas obtained all of their gold through TRADE. The Muiscas were the third large group of indigenous peoples in the Americas in 1492. They traded near and far what they thought was valuable -- SALT and BLANKETS, for the gold used in their ceremonies and decorations. Those they traded with told others, and they told 2 friends and so on.

When the Spanish heard of these stories, they assumed that the people must live in a city built of gold -- after all they had so much that they would throw it away. Also, who knows, it might have been like a rumor growing as it spread from one group to another -- you know something like this, "The Panches say that the Quimbaya say, that they hear from the Muisca traders".

In reality, Jimenez de Quesada found little gold. When his brother asked the Zaque of Tunja to fill a hut with all of the Muisca treasure, he was stunned to find blankets, ruanas, and salt stuffing the room instead of gold. This lack of cultural understanding cost Quemeunechatocha -- the Zaque -- his life, but convinced many Spanish that the Indians must be hiding the real location of their city of gold from them.


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