The Great Web of Percy Harrison Fawcett. This logo is a trademark of "The Great Unknown, The Great Explorers" and "The Great Web of Percy Harrison Fawcett" - All Rights Reserved

The Great Web of Percy Harrison Fawcett. This logo is a trademark of "The Great Unknown, The Great Explorers" and "The Great Web of Percy Harrison Fawcett" - All Rights Reserved

Legend of El Dorado leads to sacred lake

By Randall Floyd
Columnist

Soon after the discovery of the New World, stories began circulating throughout Europe about the existence of a legendary city of gold in the Andes.

Incredible riches awaited whoever was bold enough and lucky enough to find the fabled city called El Dorado.

The search for El Dorado became a quest for many bored young conquistadors in search of glory and adventure. Most perished in the jungles or mountains without ever realizing that El Dorado was not a city, but a man.

The legend of El Dorado first reached the Old World through the Spanish who followed Christopher Columbus to Central America. Wherever they went, soldiers under Balboa and other explorers heard fascinating tales about the legendary city of gold.

As they plundered their way into South America, Spaniards and other Europeans were thrilled by the promise of great riches. Exaggerated accounts of El Dorado handed down by the sun-worshipping Chibeha Indians who lived in the 8,600-foot-foot high plateaus near present-day Bogota fired their imagination. The Chibeha tribe, it was said, venerated gold as the sun god's metal. They wore golden ornaments and for centuries had covered their buildings with sheets of the precious metal.

Some Indians spoke of a holy lake full of gold. Others told of meeting a golden chieftain in a city called Omagua.

As the tales spread, El Dorado came to be thought of as a city of gold; it was even shown on ancient maps of Brazil and the Guianas, though its location was vague.

In the 1530s the Germans and Spaniards sent several expeditions into what is now Colombia to seek El Dorado. But the mountains were nearly impassible, and they were forced to turn back when they ran out of food.

More than half the men were killed in skirmishes with Indians, and all the expeditions came to grief.

But the legend of the fabulous city still tantalized fortune hunters, and the very words constantly on their lips, "El Dorado," became synonymous with "The Golden Place" and its true meaning -- "The Gilded One" -- was ignored.

The Chibchas worshiped not only the sun but also a being who was said to live in the lake. Some said it was the wife of a chief who had thrown herself into its waters centuries ago to escape a dreadful punishment and had survived there as a goddess.

Indians made pilgrimages to present offerings to the goddess of the lake, and at least once a year the lake became the center of an elaborate ceremony.

The tribesmen would smear their chief with sticky resin and blow gold dust over him until he glistened from head to foot, literally an El Dorado. Then he was conducted in a magnificent procession to a raft on the edge of the lake. The raft was towed to the middle of the sacred Lake Guatavita. Plunging into the icy water, the chief rinsed the gold off his body while the others cast priceless offerings of gold and emeralds.

The story of El Dorado did not end with the conquistadors. Explorers in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, including the great Prussian natural scientist and traveler Alexander von Humboldt, also sought the fabled treasure.

No trace of El Dorado was found until 1969 when two farm workers dug up an exquisite model raft made of solid gold in a small cave near Bogota. On board the raft were eight tiny oarsmen-rowing with their backs to the regal golden figure of their chief.

Yet Lake Guatavita still refuses to yield its golden treasures.

Although some gold and emeralds were found in the muddy banks, the icy depths of the lake were never plumbed. So far as is known, the offerings to El Dorado -- the Gilded One -- are still at the bottom of the sacred lake.

Randall Floyd is a syndicated writer living in Augusta

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