El Dorado – The Gilded One

El Dorado (Spanish for “the gilded one”) is a legend that began with the story of a South American tribal chief who covered himself with gold dust.

Origins of the legend

The myth began in the 1530s in the Andes of present-day Colombia, where conquistador Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada first found the Muisca (1537), a nation in the modern day Cundinamarca and Boyacá highlands of Colombia. The story of the Muisca rituals was brought to Quito by Sebastian de Belalcazar’s men; mixed with other rumors, there arose the legend of El Dorado, The Golden Man— el indio dorado, the golden Indian, and el rey dorado, the Golden King. Imagined as a place, El Dorado became a kingdom, an empire, the city of this legendary golden king.

 In search of this legendary kingdom, Francisco Orellana and Gonzalo Pizarro would depart from Quito in 1541 to the Amazon in the most fateful and famous expedition to find El Dorado.

 Tribal ceremony

The original narrative is to be found in the rambling chronicle, El Carnero, of Juan Rodriguez Freyle. According to Freyle, the king or chief priest of the Muisca was said to be ritually covered with gold dust at a religious festival held in Lake Guatavita, near present-day Bogotá.

In 1636 Juan Rodriguez Freyle wrote this account, addressed to his friend Don Juan, the cacique or governor of Guatavita:

 The ceremony took place on the appointment of a new ruler. Before taking office, he spent some time secluded in a cave, without women, forbidden to eat salt and chile pepper, or to go out during daylight. The first journey he had to make was to go to the great lagoon of Guatavita, to make offerings and sacrifices to the demon which they worshipped as their god and lord. During the ceremony which took place at the lagoon, they made a raft of rushes, embellishing and decorating it with the most attractive things they had. They put on it four lighted braziers in which they burned much moque, which is the incense of these natives, and also resin and many other perfumes. The lagoon was large and deep, so that a ship with high sides could sail on it, all loaded with an infinity of men and women dressed in fine plumes, golden plaques and crowns… As soon as those on the raft began to burn incense, they also lit braziers on the shore, so that the smoke hid the light of day.

At this time they stripped the heir to his skin, and anointed him with a sticky earth on which they placed gold dust so that he was completely covered with this metal. They placed him on the raft … and at his feet they placed a great heap of gold and emeralds for him to offer to his god. In the raft with him went four principal subject chiefs, decked in plumes, crowns, bracelets, pendants and ear rings all of gold. They, too, were naked, and each one carried his offering…. when the raft reached the centre of the lagoon, they raised a banner as a signal for silence. The gilded Indian then… [threw] out all the pile of gold into the middle of the lake, and the chiefs who had accompanied him did the same on their own accounts. … After this they lowered the flag, which had remained up during the whole time of offering, and, as the raft moved towards the shore, the shouting began again, with pipes, flutes, and large teams of singers and dancers. With this ceremony the new ruler was received, and was recognized as lord and king.

 It is believed that these rituals [citation needed] were carried out by the Muisca in several lakes along their territory.

 The Muisca towns and their treasures quickly fell to the conquistadores. Taking stock of their newly won territory, the Spaniards realized that — in spite of the quantity of gold in the hands of the Indians — there were no golden cities, nor even rich mines, since the Muiscas obtained all their gold in trade. But at the same time, the Spanish began to hear stories of El Dorado from captured Indians, and of the rites which used to take place at the lagoon of Guatavita. There were Indians still alive who had witnessed the last Guatavita ceremony, and the stories these Indians told [citation needed] were consistent.

 Guatavita today bears a curious notch in its cliffside, evidence of an attempt to drain the lake in 1580.


El Dorado is applied to a mythical country in which gold and precious stones were found in fabulous abundance. The concept of El Dorado suffered several transformations, and eventually accounts of the previous myth were also combined with those of the legendary city. The resulting El Dorado enticed European explorers for two centuries, never found, always seeming to be just beyond the limits of prior exploration.

 The most famous journey in search for El Dorado was undertaken by Francisco de Orellana and Gonzalo Pizarro (1541), who passed down the Rio Napo to the valley of the Amazon all the way to its delta.

 Other expeditions include that of Philipp von Hutten (1541–1545), who led an exploring party from Coro on the coast of Venezuela; and of Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, the Governor of El Dorado, who started from Bogotá (1549).

 Sir Walter Raleigh, who resumed the search in 1595, described El Dorado as a city on Lake Parima far up the Orinoco in Guiana (today in Venezuela). This city on the lake was marked on English and other maps until its existence was disproved by Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859). (See Parima-Tapirapecó).

 Among the most interesting stories was the one told by Diego de Ordaz’s lieutenant Martinez, who claimed to have been rescued from shipwreck, conveyed inland, and entertained at Omoa by “El Dorado” himself (1531);


In the mythology of the Muisca today, El Dorado (Mnya) represents the energy contained in the trinity of Chiminigagua, which constitues the creative power of everything that exists. Chiminigagua is, along with Bachué, Cuza, Chibchachum, Bochica and Nemcatacoa, one of the creators of the universe.

 Meanwhile the name of El Dorado came to be used metaphorically of any place where wealth could be rapidly acquired. It was given to El Dorado County, California, and to towns and cities in various states. In literature frequent allusion is made to the legend, perhaps the best-known references being those in Milton‘s Paradise Lost (Book xi. 408-411) and in Voltaire‘s Candide (chs. 18, 19). “El Dorado” was the title and subject of a four-verse poem by Edgar Allan Poe.

 El Dorado is also sometimes used as a metaphor to represent an ultimate prize or “Holy Grail” that one might spend their life seeking. It could represent true love, heaven, happiness, or success. It is used sometimes as a figure of speech to represent something much sought after that may not even exist, or at least may not ever be found. Such use is evident in Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem “El Dorado”. In this context El Dorado bears similarity to other myths such as The Fountain of Youth, Shangri-la, and to some extent the term “white whale” which refers to Captain Ahab‘s obsession in the book Moby Dick.

source : TASA

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