“Terraces along Colca Canyon” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by wallygrom
El Dorado, the Lost City of Gold. A name familiar to millions, no thanks in small part to the BBC soap opera which took the myth for its’ title.
The story of an everyday expat community in Spain held you rapt as the scriptwriters and cast displayed a dogged determination to plumb new depths of bad acting. Which they did on an impressively frequent basis, it must be said.
The search for El Dorado is the legend of all legends. It endures because, at its heart, the tale involves the perfect raw material for pop culture: wealth, mysticism and the pursuit of dreams, with more than a little room for treachery. It’s a plot which travels across every platform, from books to movies, pc games to virtual reality and Art and Theatre. While the names might change, the story remains the same.
THE TRUE TALE OF EL DORADO
While the myth inspires legions of writers, the truth was rather less romantic.
The Spanish phrase translates as “the Golden One”, and was the name of a Muisca chief, also known as the “Zipa”. The Muisca People survive to this day, with their homeland in Colombia’s Eastern Range.
A tribal ritual in the 15th century contained at its’ heart the chief covering himself in gold dust and submerging himself in Laguna de Gautavita, to the north of Bogota. The offering to the goddess Gautavita was part of the Zipa’s initiation as tribal leader.
With gold and other riches thrown into the lake as well, it was an important part of the culture of the time. And one which fed the imagination of the Spanish Conquistadors.
The tales, distorted through telling, morphed from the Golden One to a City of Gold. Expeditions to find the city naturally failed but only fuelled further embellishment of the tale. It wasn’t just a City of Gold, it was now ‘Lost’.
One of the most infamous expeditions (except this one) was led by Gonzalo Pizarro in 1541. 140 Spaniards and 3,000 Native Americans died of starvation. His second-in-command, Francisco de Orellana took 50 men to look for food while Pizarro headed back to Quito, only to find his brother, Francisco, murdered.
El Dorado, it seemed, was cursed.
De Orellana, meanwhile, discovered and plotted the course of the Amazon river.
Once it was established that El Dorado didn’t actually exist, Laguna de Gautavita became the centre of attention. The Spanish realised that, if the stories of the Muisca were true, the lake was full of gold.
Attempts to drain it initially ended with frustration but in 1580, the Spaniards succeeded in reducing the water level by 20m to recover significant quantities of gold. It came at some human cost; the walls of the drainage channel collapsed, killing most of the slaves working on the project.
Eventually, a British company succeeding in draining the lake in 1911. In an ending which befits the myth, the silt and mud of the lakebed hardened very quickly in the Colombian heat, leaving most of the remaining artefacts irrecoverable.
EL DORADO IN POPULAR CULTURE
Popular culture embraced the legend of El Dorado although more as inspiration for the traditional mediums.
Virtual reality didn’t hold back. Assassin’s Creed II reference Pizarro in the glyphs, nodding toward Francisco’s murder with his death at the hands of the Assassins. Meanwhile, online casinos such as Betway, have the slot game, Gonzo’s Quest among their offerings.
Arguably, Hollywood’s finest hour on the subject came through the literal translation of the phrase, with Howard Hawks 1966 western of the same name. James Caan recites several verses of the Edgar Allan Poe poem, El Dorado, during the film, while Kiefer Sutherland quoted the last stanza in the movie, Young Guns 2. Silent movies, animated movies; you name it, they have been made in the USA, Belgium, Israel and Spain.
“Peru” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by szeke
In keeping with the apparent curse attached to the legend, the British film, El Dorado, was canned after it emerged that the film’s funding came from fraudulent VAT returns. There has to be a Hollywood movie in that tale alone!
Television wasn’t to be left out either. Francisco Pizarro, in the 1980s animated series The Mysterious City of Gold, was a portrayed with a nod to historical fact, as a ruthless conqueror of the Incas. His obsession with gold was an amalgamation of the two brothers and their link to the myth.
El Dorado, the Lost City of Gold, may not have existed but the legend built around it, is embedded in our culture for eternity.