El Dorado

El Dorado (ĕlˈdəräˈdō, –rāˈ–) [key] [Span., = the gilded man], legendary country of the Golden Man sought by adventurers in South America. The legend supposedly originated in a custom of the Chibcha people of Colombia who each year anointed a chieftain and rolled him in gold, which he then ceremonially washed off in a sacred lake, casting offerings of emeralds and gold into the waters at the same time. This custom had apparently disappeared long before the coming of the conquistadors, but the tales lived on and grew into a legend of a land of gold and plenty. Gonzalo Pizarro and Francisco de Orellana set out in quest for it, the latter drifting down the length of the Amazon River in the process. From the middle of the 16th cent. a series of adventurers searched for El Dorado and its fabulous variants—Omagua, the Land of Cinnamon, or the golden land of Manoa. El Dorado passed into European literature and found its way to the maps. The conquistadors of Venezuela and New Granada—Federmann, Benalcázar, and Jiménez de Quesada—all searched for El Dorado. Perhaps best known to English-speaking peoples is the expedition of Sir Walter Raleigh in 1595. The location of the mythical land shifted as new regions were explored, and similar legends appeared in W United States. Cabeza de Vaca told of the Seven Cities of Cibola; interest in these treasure-laden cities reached a peak with the stories of Fray Marcos de Niza and culminated in a tremendous but fruitless expedition under Francisco Vásquez de Coronado. El Dorado is used figuratively to mean any place of fabulous wealth, a utopian dream, or the land of desire.

See A. F. Bandelier, The Gilded Man (1893, repr. 1962); G. Arciniegas, The Knight of El Dorado (tr. 1942); R. Silverberg, The Golden Dream (1967); V. S. Naipaul, The Loss of El Dorado (1970).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Latin American History