What is the Legend of El Dorado and the Gold of the Chibchas
Who Were the Chibchas?
Long ago, the Chibchas people, also called the Muiscas, were thriving. The Spanish conquistadores had heard of their riches and set out to find them, generating the sparks that would become the Legend of El Dorado.
The Spanish weren't the only ones who had heard of El Dorado. The list of souls who ventured into the jungle includes English knights, sailors and even people native to South America who went on this quest.
Though the Spanish never found a vast City of Gold, the Chibcha rituals and culture is probably the origin of El Dorado. The Spanish encountered them in 1537, and would set into motion a change in the very social fabric in which the Chibchas lived.
The Chibchas lived near Lake Guatavita near present-day Bogotá, Colombia. They lived high in the Andes Mountains and were part of a loose confederation of tribes. If any of the tribes faced danger, the confederation would unite to face their common enemy.
The Chibchas lived a comfortable life. They regularly mined and used emeralds, copper and coal to make masks, jewelry and other objects. They used gold for many of their crafts and religious ceremonies because it was so abundant; they generally imported it from surrounding areas.
They Needed to Honor the Goddess
According to legend, the Chibchas believed that they needed to honor the goddess of Lake Guatavita.
In some accounts, she was a serpent that lived at the bottom of the lake and anyone who touched the water would later disappear to the bottom to be with the goddess.
To appease her, once a year the people would have a fire ceremony near the lake. They anointed their king with resin and dusted him with gold using long mouth pipes.
He would float on a raft to the center of the lake where he would offer gifts of gold and emeralds, and then jump in, offering himself and his body of gold.
The Chibcha king would perform this ceremony once a year. This earned him the name, “The Gilded One.”
Historians have verified that this ceremony did take place.
Another twist of the legend states that Lake Guatavita may have formed as a result of a meteorite crash. Having witnessed the crash, the Chibchas sent over their king. He got on a raft to quiet the waters and appease the god they thought lived beneath the water.
Present-Day Lake Guatavita Outside of Bogota, Colombia
The Spanish Quest for Gold
By the time the Spanish heard about the "Gilded Man," the Chibchas likely had ceased to execute this ritual.
However, the rumors persisted about a place where gold was abundant, people traded with precious jewels and the people painted gold on their king.
The Spanish started their search on the east coast of South America.
In an effort to keep the peace, some tribes would direct the Spaniards westward. By telling them that the place they were looking for was farther to the west, many Native American tribes could avoid conflict. If they had heard of the legend themselves, they often passed this information on to the gold-hungry Spaniards.
By the time the Spanish encountered the Chibchas, the story had grown epic. In 1537, Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada conquered the Chibchas.
Sadly, the Spaniards killed both kings of the Chibcha confederation.
The Spanish were so interested in finding the gold that they put their own lives in peril to find treasure. They also did not value the lives of the native peoples. If a Spaniard could unlock the key to wealth, they would often kill or enslave native peoples after killing their leader.
In 1545, the Spaniards began to drain Lake Guatavita. They could not drain it very much. However, the lower water level exposed hundreds of pieces of gold. They could not successfully drain the lake any more, and so never found the hidden treasure that was reported to lay at the bottom.
Maybe There Was More to This Than Just the Gold - Part I of V
Do You Think the Spanish Really Found 'El Dorado'?
What Was 'El Dorado' Really?
The video above suggests that El Dorado may have had something to do with agriculture.
Still, the fact that the Spanish had toppled so many civilizations and pillaged their resources could attest to the fact that they had already found El Dorado over and over again. Before they conquered the Aztecs, they had already heard of a king and a culture that had incredible amounts of gold. It was no different with the Incas or the Chibchas.
If you think about the fact that foods like potatoes, tomatoes, corn, squash, chocolate and even chilies only grew in the Americas, the Spanish now had a wealth of new crops and menu items to take back to Europe. Coffee, sugarcane, and many kinds of animals native to Europe did very well in the Americas. Thus, South America itself was a land of wealth for the person who grew the right crop with the right market.
To the Europeans, El Dorado was about the quest for gold. But, what about the wealth of land and people they discovered? The foods? The jungles?
The Spanish were indeed on a quest to be the victors in all circumstances. It is interesting to think about how their dream-like quest for gold became the death of numerous civilizations with many untold stories and secrets of the ages.
References and Links
Aronson, Marc. Sir Walter Ralegh and the Quest for El Dorado.
Van Laan, Nancy. The Legend of El Dorado. Knopf Books for Young Readers.1991.
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Cynthia Calhoun