The legend of El Dorado was about a fabulously wealthy city of gold and the king who ruled over it. The story sprang up shortly after the first Spanish explorers landed in Central and South America.
Local people told tales of a rich king who plastered his body with gold dust and then dived into a sacred lake to wash it off. Afterward, he would toss gold into the lake as an offering to the gods. The Spanish called the king El Dorado—The Gilded One—because his body was gilded, or covered, in gold. As the tale spread, the city he ruled came to be called El Dorado. Eventually, the meaning of the name changed to include any mythical region that contained great riches.
An early version of the El Dorado legend placed the city near Lake Guatavita not too far from modern Bogotá, Colombia. The story was based on the Muisca people who performed a ceremony similar to that in the legend. The Muisca king, covered with gold dust, boarded a raft in the lake and made offerings to the gods. Both Spaniards and Germans searched the region in 1538 but failed to find El Dorado. They looked in a number of other places as well.
Local inhabitants usually claimed that El Dorado was somewhere far away in the hope that the Europeans would search elsewhere and leave them in peace. Men as famous as Sir Walter Raleigh spent years in South America looking for legendary golden cities such as Manoa and Omagua. Other places mentioned in stories were Paititi, a land of gold located in Paraguay, and the City of the Ceasars, an invisible golden city in Chile. Several bloody expeditions were launched to find these imaginary kingdoms. One of the most tragic was led by a rebel soldier named Lope de Aguirre, a brutal madman who proclaimed himself king and was murdered by one of his followers.
El Dorado made its way into literature. In Candide, a novel by the French writer Voltaire, the main character accidentally discovers the rich city. Edgar Allan Poe's poem Eldorado refers to the legend, as does Paradise Lost by English poet John Milton.
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.