The ceremony sounds like some fantastic vision induced by ayahuasca, the powerful Colombian hallucinogen.
High in the Andes, a new cacique, or chieftain, of the Muisca people stepped onto a wooden raft at the weedy edge of an unusually round, green lake. Around him on the raft stood worthy warriors bearing tribal banners.
Impossibly, the new leader glowed, a shining man covered from head to toe with gold dust. He also wore an elaborate headdress of feathers, a gold nose ring, and adornments for his ears.
The raft pushed off into what the Spanish conquistadores would one day call Lago de Guatavita (Lake Guatavita). For the indigenous Muiscas, the lake was sacred. The immersion ceremony honored the life goddess of water, Chie.
As the raft slowly moved toward the center of the circular lake (many Colombians believe it’s a flooded meteor crater), the chief spread his hands wide … and scattered emeralds over the sparkling water.
At the center of the lake, the raft came to a stop.
The golden chief approached the raft’s edge, paused, then plunged into the water. The gold dust washed off his body, an offering to the goddess, and the spiritual event bound him and his tribe to her blessings.
A visitor to Colombia can’t fully understand this nation—or really the entire post-Columbus history of the Americas—without understanding the legend that arose from this ceremony.
The Spanish arrived in South America in the 16th century and soon grew fevered by tales of El Dorado, The Golden One. The more times the conquistadores told and retold the story, the bigger it grew. The golden king became a golden town. The golden town became a city of gold. The legend traveled by ship to the Old World, where it catalyzed exploration and settlement of the new one.
Fired by lust for precious metals, soldiers with steel armor and gunpowder poured into Colombia and all the rest of the Americas. They took no prisoners. By some estimates, more than 80 percent of the native peoples, including the Muiscas, died within a generation of their first encounters with Europeans. Smallpox and Spanish weapons proved more powerful than the goodness of goddesses.
The Spanish did find gold in Guatavita. Lots of it. Phillip II filled royal coffers with shiploads of loot, Muisca treasures melted into ingots and doubloons. The Spaniards tried more than once to drain the entire emerald lake, finally giving up when they realized it probably cost more than the gold and jewels they stood to recover.
It proved easier to simply take treasure from the Muiscas. In their village near the lake, craftsmen worked precious metals with great skill. They created all manner of golden decorative objects and spiritual votives from gleaming gold nuggets they found lying in river beds or from gold ore glittering in veins that streaked exposed rock.
Some of the Muisca’s gilded pieces—breast plates, earrings, nose rings, penis sheaths—simply served a function as ornaments. Other works had spiritual significance. These symbolically accompanied shamans as they took mystical journeys into the bodies of other life forms – jaguars, bats, and birds.
On the third floor of El Museo del Oro (The Gold Museum) in center-city Bogotá, about an hour drive from Guatavita, stands a small golden sculpture under dramatic lighting. La Balsa Muisca, the Muisca raft, is one of hundreds of gilded patrimonial objects somehow salvaged from the predations of the Spanish and gathered in one remarkable collection for Colombians and international visitors to marvel over.
Farmers near Pasca, in the Colombian state of Cundinamarca, found the golden raft in 1969 inside a ceramic vessel. More sculpture than totem, the Balsa depicts the El Dorado moment: the ascendant Muisca chief decked out in ceremonial finery, his attendant warriors vigilantly standing by his side, all the figures at full attention on the wooden raft. Everyone was finely wrought in Colombian gold.
Historians believe native craftsmen cast and polished the Balsa Muisca sometime between 600 and 1600 A.D. The farmers who found the precious work presented it eventually to a local Catholic priest, who kept it under lock and key until Colombian authorities at the gold museum acquired it and made it the centerpiece of its astonishing collection.
The original Guatavita, the El Dorado village, no longer exists. Like the emeralds and gold tithed to Chie, the native site today lies at the bottom of a lake: the Tominé Reservoir, a man-made body that supplies water to the 10 million people of thirsty Bogotá.
Colombia replaced the original Guatavita with a modern one built in the 1960s a safe distance above the water line. Its themed architecture makes it look curiously Mediterranean, like some of the gleaming white villages along the coast of southern Greece.
Today, tourists brave twisting roads from the new Guatavita to reach the sacred lake a few kilometers on. Those able to breathe the thin mountain air can walk the half mile or so to the lago from a welcome station with eager tour guides. The visitors can buy coffee in a replica Muisca hut and mail postcards that picture the golden raft, and tell the legend of El Dorado, the place that launched a thousand ships.
Does the El Dorado legend present a golden opportunity for politicians as they assume power?
Think of it. The United States now prepares for a transition in presidential authority. The old chief passes responsibility to a new cacique. Might we consider copying how the Muisca peoples invested their new leader with his might?
Imagine Donald Trump in a splendid Inaugural Day headdress, nose ring, earrings, and penis sheath—and sporting a brilliant, gleaming coat of 24-karat gold dust.
Following the oath of office, President Trump and a collection of stalwart billionaire cabinet members could push a small bark into The Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. They might scatter emeralds and silver dollars into the still waters.
The gilded Donald could take a dive. He could come out clean. God could bless America. Again. Now, will somebody please pass the ayahuasca?
Image: Mark Rowland, CC-BY
Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.