Europeans of the sixteenth century presumed that somewhere deep in South America was a vast city called El Dorado that contained unimaginable mineral riches. Several Spanish conquistadors made perilous, often deadly journeys to find it. Sir Walter Raleigh (1554–1618), the English raconteur, explorer, and visionary, claimed in a book he published in 1596 that he knew the whereabouts of El Dorado. But in spite of such valiant efforts, El Dorado seems to persist only as a symbol of the rapacious greed with which the English and Spanish beheld the New World.
Europeans first learned of El Dorado through word-of-mouth tales that circulated among South America's indigenous peoples. There was a small grain of truth to the story: high in the eastern range of the Andes, in what is now Colombia, lived the Chibcha people. Geographically isolated, they mined gold and emeralds freely, and built a highly stratified and developed society. When they anointed a new priest-chief, they covered the man in balsam gum, and then blew gold dust all over his body through cane straws until he resembled a statue of pure gold. The new priest-chief then ceremonially bathed in Lake Guatavita, a sacred place to the Chibcha. This practice ended around 1480 when they were subdued by another tribe. But the story of the "gilded one" became part of the oral folklore traditions in South America, and in its retellings, the tale took on added dimensions: the gilded one supposedly ruled over a vast kingdom where nearly everything was made from gold, silver, or precious stone.
Spanish colonization of Latin America began not long after the end of this practice. Francisco Pizzaro (c. 1475–1541), who conquered the powerful Inca civilization in the 1530s in what is today Peru, saw the technically advanced and lavishly prosperous city of Cuzco that the tightly organized indigenous culture created. He believed that the continent held enormous mineral wealth, and he took bags of gold and stacks of silver bars back to Spain from his plunder of the Inca. Not long after the conquest, a messenger from an unknown Indian tribe appeared in Peru with a message for the Inca emperor, unaware the empire had been defeated. Interrogated by the Spanish, he told them he came from the Zipa people in the Bogota region, but knew of another kingdom, high in the mountains to the east, a tribe so rich that they covered their chief in gold.
The Spanish, who had already heard about the Chibcha, became increasingly certain that El Dorado, their translation of "the gilded one," really existed. Adding to the mystery was a rumor that a renegade Inca faction had managed to escape the violent Spanish conquest and had fled to the mountains. Supposedly they had migrated into the Amazon River jungle. There, according to folklore, was an empire richer than that of the Inca. The Spanish assumed that the rebels took large amounts of mineral wealth with them, and that this fugitive empire was flourishing some-where in what is today Venezuela.
Between 1536 and 1541, the Spanish sent out five major expeditions in search of El Dorado. After the journeys proved fruitless, the Spanish became certain that El Dorado must lie in the northern part of the continent into which they had not yet ventured—the jungle basin between the Orinoco and Amazon rivers.
Meanwhile, another mysterious appearance of a man who spoke of a city of gold he called "Manoa" only fueled their desire. His name was Juan Martinez, and he had been a munitions master on board a Spanish ship exploring the Caroni River that branched off from the Orinoco at San Thome. His group headed deeper into the jungle, but the journey was aborted when its gunpowder stores exploded. Martinez was left behind in an open canoe as punishment for the accident.
He claimed to have met friendly Indians, who blindfolded him for days and led him to their kingdom, called Manoa, where everything in the royal palace was made of gold. Martinez said that riches had been given to him as a departing gift, but they had been stolen by Indians on his way back.
This story was told to Sir Walter Raleigh in England around 1586. Raleigh had established an ill-fated colony in North America on Roanoke Island and had fallen out of favor with Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603). Wishing to restore his reputation and status at court, he set sail for South America. After arriving in March of 1595, Raleigh and his party spent weeks sailing along the Orinoco River, but found nothing but a massive Spanish anchor, which had been lost when Martinez's ship had exploded.
Raleigh brought back to England exotic flora and fauna and some blue-tinged rocks that hinted at great ore deposits. But when Raleigh told his extraordinary tales of the jungle, his enemies ridiculed him, claiming that he had been hiding in Cornwall the entire time. In response, he wrote a book, The Discovery of the Large, Rich and Beautiful Empire of Guyana with a Relation to the Great and Golden City of Manoa.
The book was absorbing, but the English expedition had not ventured into any parts of the Orinoco that the Spanish had not already explored. Raleigh claimed that the city of Manoa was on Lake ParÌma, behind a mountain range. He provided a map so remarkably accurate that most atlases of South America showed the mythical lake for the next 150 years. Raleigh also wrote of a tribe of headless, club-wielding warriors with eyes and mouths on their torsos. That brought further discredit to his book, but it sold well, even in translation.
Raleigh's claims failed to interest Queen Elizabeth I or potential investors who might finance a further search for El Dorado. After the monarch died in 1603, Raleigh was imprisoned in the Tower of London by her successor, King James I (1566–1625), on charges of treason. Convinced in the very least that vast gold mines existed close to the Orinoco River, Raleigh continually petitioned for release; only when dire financial straits fell on Great Britain did the king allow Raleigh a second chance. Raleigh's 1618 expedition battled the Spanish, and Raleigh's son died in battle. When Raleigh returned to England empty-handed, he was jailed again, tried in secret, and executed on the 1603 treason charge.
The term "El Dorado" became part of Renaissance-era English culture; John Milton (1608–1674) wrote of it in Paradise Lost, and William Shakespeare (1564–1616) mentioned the headless warriors in Othello. El Dorado has become synonymous with a place of fabulous wealth or inordinately great opportunity. Accepted theory holds that El Dorado existed only in the minds of the Europeans who were eager to discover the quickest path to riches.
Gordon, Stuart. The Encyclopedia of Myths and Legends. London: Headline Books, 1993.
Larousse Dictionary of World Folklore. New York: Larousse, 1995.
Juan Rodriguez Freyle's El Carnero
The legend of El Dorado (pronounced el doh-RAH-doh) was about a fabulously wealthy city of gold and the king who ruled over it. The story sprang up shortly after the first Spanish explorers landed in Central and South America.
Local people told tales of a rich king who plastered his body with gold dust and then dived into a sacred lake to wash it off. Afterward, he would toss gold into the lake as an offering to the gods. The Spanish called the king El Dorado—The Gilded One—because his body was gilded, or covered in gold. As the tale spread, the city he ruled came to be called El Dorado. Eventually, the meaning of the name changed to include any mythical region that contained great riches.
An early version of the El Dorado legend placed the city near Lake Guatavita, a circular lake formed in a volcanic crater not too far from modern Bogota, Colombia. The story was based on the Muisca people who performed a ceremony similar to that in the legend. The Muisca king, covered with gold dust, boarded a raft in the lake and made offerings to the gods. Both Spaniards and Germans searched the region in 1538 but failed to find El Dorado. They even attempted to drain the lake in an effort to locate gold; today, Lake Guatavita still bears a deep groove along its crater rim that was cut by Spanish explorers.
El Dorado in Context
One of the reasons Spanish explorers aimed to conquer the Americas was to find new sources of wealth—specifically, gold. The myth of El Dorado appealed strongly to these Spanish explorers because it played into their desire to locate untold riches and claim it for their country (and themselves).
Local inhabitants usually claimed that El Dorado was somewhere far away in the hope that the Europeans would search elsewhere and leave them in peace. Men as famous as English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618) spent years in South America looking for legendary golden cities such as Manoa and Omagua. Other places mentioned in stories were Paititi, a land of gold located in Paraguay, and the City of the Caesars, an invisible golden city in Chile. Several bloody expeditions were launched to find these imaginary kingdoms. One of the most tragic was led by a rebel soldier named Lope de Aguirre, a brutal madman who proclaimed himself king and was murdered by one of his followers.
Key Themes and Symbols
The myth of El Dorado symbolized riches beyond imagining to Spanish explorers. The idea of a place where gold was so common that it could be tossed into a lake also represents the way different cultures viewed wealth, and what is considered precious. Also contained within the myth is the underlying notion that Native Americans were too uncivilized to understand or appreciate the value of their resources; this was often used as a justification for conquering native tribes throughout the Americas.
El Dorado in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
El Dorado was such an appealing myth to Europeans that it made its way into literature. In Candide, a 1759 novel by the French writer Voltaire, the main character accidentally discovers the rich city. Edgar Allan Poe's poem “Eldorado” refers to the legend, as does Paradise Lost by English poet John Milton. More recently, the myth of El Dorado was the basis of the 2000 Dreamworks animated film The Road to El Dorado, featuring voice work by Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh.
Today, the term “El Dorado” is often used to refer to a mythical place of untold riches. Several cities and towns in the United States have used the name, and Cadillac has even named one of its cars the Eldorado.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Mythical places such as El Dorado usually offer something that cannot be found in the real world. For El Dorado, it is untold wealth; for the mythical Buddhist city of Shambhala (renamed Shangri-La in a 1933 British novel called Lost Horizons), it is perfect peace and harmony. To the Arawak Indians, the mythical land of Beemeenee offered eternal youth. If you could journey to a mythical land that offered something not available in the real world, what one thing would you like to find there? Why?
The legend of El Dorado was about a fabulously wealthy city of gold and the king who ruled over it. The story sprang up shortly after the first Spanish explorers landed in Central and South America.
Local people told tales of a rich king who plastered his body with gold dust and then dived into a sacred lake to wash it off. Afterward, he would toss gold into the lake as an offering to the gods. The Spanish called the king El Dorado—The Gilded One—because his body was gilded, or covered, in gold. As the tale spread, the city he ruled came to be called El Dorado. Eventually, the meaning of the name changed to include any mythical region that contained great riches.
An early version of the El Dorado legend placed the city near Lake Guatavita not too far from modern Bogotá, Colombia. The story was based on the Muisca people who performed a ceremony similar to that in the legend. The Muisca king, covered with gold dust, boarded a raft in the lake and made offerings to the gods. Both Spaniards and Germans searched the region in 1538 but failed to find El Dorado. They looked in a number of other places as well.
Local inhabitants usually claimed that El Dorado was somewhere far away in the hope that the Europeans would search elsewhere and leave them in peace. Men as famous as Sir Walter Raleigh spent years in South America looking for legendary golden cities such as Manoa and Omagua. Other places mentioned in stories were Paititi, a land of gold located in Paraguay, and the City of the Ceasars, an invisible golden city in Chile. Several bloody expeditions were launched to find these imaginary kingdoms. One of the most tragic was led by a rebel soldier named Lope de Aguirre, a brutal madman who proclaimed himself king and was murdered by one of his followers.
El Dorado made its way into literature. In Candide, a novel by the French writer Voltaire, the main character accidentally discovers the rich city. Edgar Allan Poe's poem Eldorado refers to the legend, as does Paradise Lost by English poet John Milton.
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
El Dorado, the European legend of great South American wealth associated with the Muisca (Chibcha) traditions of a chieftain who covered himself in gold dust before immersing himself in the waters of Lake Guatavita, north of Bogotá.
The European legends of El Dorado, "Land of Cinnamon," became a central element in the lore of Spanish and English exploration and conquest in northern South America in the sixteenth century. The El Dorado fantasy had both Amerindian and Spanish origins. On one hand, New World informants repeated rumors of the pre-Columbian Muisca rite of accession to political leadership in which the chieftain of Guatavita, covered with gold dust, dipped himself in the sacred lake and shed his gold covering while attendants and spectators threw golden offerings into the water. The extensive artistry of indigenous Colombian goldsmiths and native practices of body painting have lent credence to this account. On the other hand, the conquistadors Gonzalo Jiménez De Quesada, Sebastián de Belalcázar, and Nicolás Federmann, all of whom met in Muisca territory in 1539, and their chroniclers (including Gonzalo Fernández Oviedo, Pedro de Cieza De León, Juan de Castellanos, and Fray Pedro Simón) embellished the myth to explain feats of conquest and to enliven their narratives.
Over the course of the sixteenth century and into the eighteenth, the legend was transformed from that of the golden man of Guatavita to a golden land in northeastern South America, which is what attracted Walter Raleigh in 1595 and 1617–1618. The persistent association of the legend with Guatavita, however, led to several attempts between 1562 and 1913 to drain the lake and expose its alleged hidden treasure.
See alsoGoldwork, Pre-Columbian .
Walker Chapman, The Golden Dream: Seekers of El Dorado (1967).
John Hemming, The Search for El Dorado (1978).
Demetrio Ramos Pérez, El mito del Dorado: Su génesis y proceso (1973).
Victor W. Von Hagen, The Golden Man: The Quest for El Dorado (1974).
Ainsa, Fernando. De la edad de oro a El Dorado: Génesis del discurso utópico americano. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1992.
Nicholl, Charles. The Creature in the Map: A Journey to El Dorado. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
Silverberg, Robert. The Golden Dream: Seekers of El Dorado. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1996.
Lance R. Grahn
El Dorado ★★★ 1967
A gunfighter rides into the frontier town of El Dorado to aid a reckless cattle baron in his war with farmers over land rights. Once in town, the hired gun meets up with an old friend—the sheriff—who also happens to be the town drunkard. Switching allegiances, the gunslinger helps the lawman sober up and defend the farmers. This Hawks western displays a number of similarities to the director's earlier “Rio Bravo” (1959), staring Wayne, Dean Martin, and Ricky Nelson— who charms viewers as the young sidekick “Colorado” much like Caan does as “Mississippi” in El Dorado. 126m/C VHS, DVD . John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, James Caan, Charlene Holt, Ed Asner, Arthur Hunnicutt, Christopher George, R.G. Armstrong, Jim Davis, Paul Fix, Johnny Crawford, Michele Carey; D: Howard Hawks.
The belief, which led Spanish conquistadors to converge on the area in search of treasure and Sir Walter Raleigh to lead his second expedition up the Orinoco, appears to have originated in rumours of an Indian ruler who ritually coated his body with gold dust and then plunged into a sacred lake while his subjects threw in gold and jewels. The name comes from Spanish, and means literally ‘the gilded one’.