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What is the Legend of El Dorado and the Gold of the Chibchas

Updated on November 25, 2015
This piece is dated between 1200 and 1500 AD.  It is a raft with the king of the Chibchas as if on Lake Guatavita - perhaps the source of the Legend of El Dorado.
This piece is dated between 1200 and 1500 AD. It is a raft with the king of the Chibchas as if on Lake Guatavita - perhaps the source of the Legend of El Dorado. | Source

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

This artifact is from the nearby Inca Empire.  Some would say that the European thirst for gold was legendary.
This artifact is from the nearby Inca Empire. Some would say that the European thirst for gold was legendary. | Source

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'?

See results

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.

El Dorado Legend - National Geographic. Retrieved March 30, 2012.

Muisca People - Wikipedia. Retrieved March 30, 2012.


© 2012 Cynthia Sageleaf

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    • Daisy Mariposa profile image

      Daisy Mariposa 5 years ago from Orange County (Southern California)

      Cyndi,

      I knew a little bit about the Legend of El Dorado before reading your article...I know so much more after having read it.

      I like your use of the map, showing us where present-day Lake Guatavita is located.

      Thanks for publishing this very professionally-written Hub.

    • sandrabusby profile image

      Sandra Busby 5 years ago from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA

      Very interesting, especially the part about the wealth could have been the crops and the land. Thanks for SHARING.

    • poshcoffeeco profile image

      Steve Mitchell 5 years ago from Cambridgeshire

      Cyndi,

      I am so gonna bookmark this hub. The layout is one of the best I have seen. This is the type of layout I must aspire to. Thanks thanks thanks and thanks again!

      All the votes except funny to you.

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 5 years ago from Nepal

      I was in school when I read about Eldorado. Since then this legendary place has always fascinated me very much. later I read a book by V.S Naipaul, where the Nobel prize winning author wrote about the historical references about Eldorado.

    • Sally's Trove profile image

      Sherri 5 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      Great video series. Watched two of them this morning and plan to view the rest tonight. Thanks for this thoughtful look into one of civilization's grand puzzles. Up and interesting.

    • Austinstar profile image

      Austinstar 5 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      I hope no one ever finds El Dorado. It's better left to legend status. However, if I came across the outlaw Sam Bass' gold coins in my backyard it would not hurt my feelings.

      Everyone loves treasure hunting!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Very well done my friend but I would expect nothing less. Great hub with some info I did not know. Have a great week of R&R and we'll chat when you get back.

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 5 years ago from Dubai

      An interesting story with a lot of information. Enjoyed the read. Voted up.

    • old albion profile image

      Graham Lee 5 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Brilliant hub. Well researched and presented. The video said it all I think. No proven agriculture in the area, therefor no sustainability. voted up / awesome.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 5 years ago from North-East UK

      Great hub, very interesting and the formatting looks so professional. I agree with Steve -definitely one to aspire to for me, well done!

    • cclitgirl profile image
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      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      Daisy - thank you so much for your kind words and for stopping by! This was a fun hub to write. :) I didn't know you could still find Lake Guatavita - I thought it was re-named, but it wasn't! Yes! (HUGS)

    • cclitgirl profile image
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      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      sandrabusby - thank you so much for stopping by! I appreciate the shares and I'm glad you found this interesting. (HUGS)

    • cclitgirl profile image
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      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      Steve - you're awesome! Thank you so much for stopping by and reading. This was definitely fun to research. :) Thank you for the feedback on the layout. I appreciate your feedback so much!

    • cclitgirl profile image
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      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      Vinaya - I'm going to have to check out that book. It has to be a great read if it's by a Nobel prize winner! :) (HUGS)

    • cclitgirl profile image
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      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      Sally's Trove - thank you so much for stopping by! I really enjoyed watching the series. For layout purposes, I only included one here, but I figured (hehehe) that it would be tantalizing enough for people to watch the others. Thank you, too, for your feedback. :)

    • cclitgirl profile image
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      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      Austinstar - you're right. I love the stuff of legends. I'm with you on the gold coins, too. Hehe. I don't think I would mind it too much if I found some gold coins in my backyard. Hehe. Thanks for stopping by! ;)

    • cclitgirl profile image
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      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      Thanks, billy. The campground is great! I have enough wi-fi to respond to comments. Hehehe. I'm getting GREAT writing ideas, though. Woohoo! Thanks so much for your feedback. You are the best. I mean it. :)

    • cclitgirl profile image
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      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      Vellur - thank you, dear friend, for stopping by and commenting. I do so look forward to your thoughts and insights. :) I'm glad you enjoyed this. As soon as I get back from the beach, in a few days, I'll be over to read your hubs. ;)

    • cclitgirl profile image
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      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      old albion - thank you for your thoughts and comments. I really enjoyed the video and echoed my thoughts as I wrote this. Agriculture is truly the cornerstone, isn't it?

    • cclitgirl profile image
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      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      Jools99 - thank you so much for your kind words. :) Aw, shucks. I'm definitely trying to go professional, haha. Thank you again. This hub was a lot of fun to write. :)

    • alocsin profile image

      alocsin 5 years ago from Orange County, CA

      I'd heard of the Legend but not the chibchas, though I may have seen one or two of their artifacts in museums. I absolutely agree that the "gold" the Spanish found in the form of new products was the real treasure. Voting this Up and Interesting.

    • Teresa Coppens profile image

      Teresa Coppens 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Cyndi, lovely hub. I love the graphics to separate your capsules. How do you guys do that? I love looking into places of mystery. You certainly have inspired me!

    • cclitgirl profile image
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      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      alocsin!! Great to see you. Thanks for stopping by. Before researching this, I'd only heard of the kids' version of this legend. I became fascinated. I appreciate the votes. :)

    • cclitgirl profile image
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      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      Teresa - aw, shucks. Thanks!! I learned how to do those graphics over at missolive's hub: Bling my hub. Check it out. You just create them in MS Powerpoint. :)

    • cardelean profile image

      cardelean 5 years ago from Michigan

      I love history and this was a great read! Thanks for sharing this fascinating story. Well done as always!

    • tammyswallow profile image

      Tammy 5 years ago from North Carolina

      This is fascinating! I love this era in history. Really comprehensive and well written!

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

      Fascinating! Say, in that ceremony on the lake, was the Chibcha king sacrificed, or did he just swim back to shore after the gesture was made? Is that known?

    • cclitgirl profile image
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      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      Cara - thanks so much for your feedback. :) I appreciate you, too, as always! (HUGS)

    • cclitgirl profile image
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      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      tammyswallow - thank you for stopping by!! Thank you for the kudos and feedback as always, friend. :)

    • cclitgirl profile image
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      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      Simone - you know, one story I read said that the king would sacrifice himself. Another story said he would offer himself to the lake year after year until the lake called him to live at the bottom with the serpent. Since the stories conflicted, I decided to leave that part out to minimize confusion. But that is a really good question - I wondered the same thing as I was researching. I suppose it's hard to know what really happened since there's a scarcity of written history on this. Hmmm. Thanks for stopping by!

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      kelleyward 4 years ago

      I knew nothing about this until I read your article. So interesting. Shared on Twitter and with followers. Voted up and interesting! Take care, Kelley

    • cclitgirl profile image
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      Cynthia Sageleaf 4 years ago from Western NC

      Kelley - thank you so much! The quest for El Dorado left many people wondering for sure. :D Thank you so much for the votes and shares! Cheers!

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 4 years ago from New York

      This was fascinating. Your progession from start to finish really provided some good information on a subject I wasn't too familiar with. In some ways we've progressed beyond the greed of the Spaniards in the 1500s and in other ways our civilization is just as bad.

      Voted up, useful, and interesting.

    • mollymeadows profile image

      Mary Strain 4 years ago from The Shire

      Interesting! And one more confirmation that gold fever is a very nasty virus. I once saw a museum exhibit that told the story of the chocolate trade from its first beginnings, and I was amazed to learn that people were enslaved and murdered so that others could eat chocolate. Sad....

    • cclitgirl profile image
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      Cynthia Sageleaf 4 years ago from Western NC

      tillsontitan - thank you so much! I completely agree - we've progressed so much, but in other ways, I wonder if we've really grown as a human race. Thanks for your feedback. :)

      mollymeadows - yes, the whole chocolate trade did get ugly at times. At one point, it was even used as currency! I cannot believe that people were enslaved and murdered over it, just as I can't believe that people are enslaved and murdered for similarly pointless reasons today. :\ Thanks so much for your feedback! Cheers!

    • Hady Chahine profile image

      Hady Chahine 3 years ago from Manhattan Beach

      Great hub! I was hooked after reading the first paragraph. I wonder what equipment the Spaniards used back in 1545 in their attempt to drain Lake Guatavita.

    • Victoria Lynn profile image

      Victoria Lynn 3 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      You always are a wealth of information, Cyndi! Well done on this one!

    • cclitgirl profile image
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      Cynthia Sageleaf 3 years ago from Western NC

      Hady - you know, that's a great question! I imagine, sadly, that they had the Native American Indians bailing out water from that lake and others probably went diving. Not sure though - it would be worth investigating.

    • cclitgirl profile image
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      Cynthia Sageleaf 3 years ago from Western NC

      Vicki - you always are so sweet! Thank you for stopping by!

    • Kara Skinner profile image

      Kara Skinner 21 months ago from Maine

      I just learned about El Dorado in my history class and I actually love this legend. This is a really informative hub on it, which I'm happy about because we only touched on it in class. I didn't know they actually did the gold ritual. That's really cool. In my opinion the true City of Gold was the wealth of knowledge and different cultures all of the natives had. Too bad the Spanish destroyed so much of it in the face of greed.

    • cclitgirl profile image
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      Cynthia Sageleaf 21 months ago from Western NC

      Kara - no doubt! Thanks for your comment and I'm really glad you found this informative. I love writing about these legends and what possibly became of these cultures and why they did what they did. Have a great day!

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      maddie 2 months ago

      i need help with my homework

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