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South American Emerald Legends

A Guide To Emeralds In South America

male resplendent quetzal
A male resplendent quetzal with vibrant emerald feathers.

Long before the European conquest of the New World, emeralds from Colombia were prized by indigenous cultures throughout Central and South America, including the Incas, Aztecs, Toltecs, and the Mayans.  Emeralds played an important role in the celebrations and religious rites of these cultures, and they were also used extensively for personal adornment.

Mexico and South American Emerald History

emerald goddess south america
One of the great missing emeralds of Peru, The Emerald Goddess was the centerpiece of a Shrine to the Goddess Umina.

In Mexico, the emerald was called Quetzalitzli because its color resembled the brilliant green plumes of a bird called the quetzal.  According to Kuntz (1915), quetzal feathers were a symbol of royalty.  Although the emerald was held in high esteem, its use was not confined to royalty alone.

To the Inca of Peru, emeralds symbolized the tears of the moon goddess.  Garcilasso the Inca was the son of an army captain and an Incan princess.  According to King (1867) and Kuntz (1913), he wrote of a legendary emerald almost as large as an ostrich egg that was worshipped by the people of Manta (Peru):

This emerald goddess bore the name of Umiña, and, like some of the precious relics of the Christian world, was only exhibited on high feast days, when the Indians flocked to the shrine from far and near, bringing gifts to the goddess. The wily priests especially recommended the donation of emeralds, saying that these were the daughters of the goddess, who would be well pleased to see her offspring. Sir Francis Drake was believed to be in possession of The Emerald Goddess after commandeering a Spanish galleon. In this way an immense store of emeralds rewarded the efforts of the priests, and on the conquest of Peru all these fine stones fell into the hands of Pedro de Alvarado, Garcilasso de la Vega, and their companions. The mother emerald, however, had been so cleverly concealed by the priests of the shrine that the Spaniards never succeeded in gaining possession of it. - Kuntz, 1913

Later though, with European explorers ravaging the Americas, the massive emerald was said to have fallen into the hands of Sir Francis Drake, an English sea captain, when he commandeered La Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion (The Cacafuego) a Spanish Treasure Galleon off the coast of Peru in 1578.

Muisca precolombian people map
The Muisca, a pre-Colombian people, had settled in and around presend-day capitol Bogota.

The source of the legend of El Dorado is attributed to the Muisca (Chibcha) Indians, indigenous people of Colombia.  The Muisca were agriculturalists with the technological know-how to melt and cast gold and copper ornaments, mine emeralds, weave textiles, and make pottery.

Among the Muisca, emerald was a symbol of fertility.  It was also revered as a mythological ancestor to their tribe.  Padre Simon, a 17th century chronicler, reports the following story (Furst 1981):

Muisca gold figurine
A Muisca gold figurine of a mother holding her child, circa 600-1600 A.D.

“In ancient times it was announced that the sun would fertilize a maiden from the town of Guachetá and the fruit of her womb would be the true child of the sun king.  Hoping for this happening of such grandeur, the chief’s daughters often went to the hills near the town in the mornings hoping to be the chosen one, as did occur.  After the term of her pregnancy, [one] princess gave birth to an emerald, which she kept in her bosom, [and which] eventually turned into a beautiful boy whom she named Goranchacha.  

He stayed with his mother until [he was] 24 years old.  When he was a grown man, he traveled to sacred lands of Ramiriquí and Sogamoso to take charge of the tribe.  He started to build a temple to the sun god Tunja, but the task was interrupted with news of the arrival of the Spanish on the coast and then this legendary person disappears altogether.”  

legend el dorado gold raft
One of the standout pieces of Muisca gold works representing the Legend of El Dorado.

The El Dorado legend was built around a Muisca ceremony, also partly legendary, in which the king or high priest was covered with gold dust and then washed in a sacred lake at sunrise.  The ceremony purportedly took place at Lake Guatavita, which is located high in the Andes about 50 kilometers north of Bogotá.

lake guatavita el dorado
The mythical lake that was the setting of the El Dorado legend.

Evidently, emeralds played a significant role in the proceedings, because the Muisca also cast immense quantities of emeralds into the waters of the lake during the ceremony (Kuntz 1915):

“It was also related that at these semi-annual festivals the Caciques [kings or high priests] and the principal chiefs, bearing valuable gifts of gold-dust and emeralds, were paddled out in canoes (or on rafts) to the exact middle of the lake, this point being determined by the intersection of two ropes stretching from four temples erected at four equidistant points on its banks.  

Muisca spindle whorl artifact
An advanced civilization, the Muisca people had a thorough understanding of astronomy and the calendar as it was so important to their agriculture. This spindle whorl would have been used in these endeavors.

[Once they] arrived at this spot, the offerings were cast into the lake, and the Cacique of Guatavita, whose naked body had been coated with an adhesive clay, over which gold-dust was sprinkled in profusion, sprang into the water, and after washing off the gold-dust, swam to the shore.  At the moment the “Golden Cacique” made his plunge into the lake, the assembled people scattered along its banks turned their backs toward the water, shouted loudly, and threw their propitiatory offerings over their shoulders into the lake.

The El Dorado myth began in the 1530s, when conquistador Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada first encountered the Muisca.  With time, the story grew and evolved until El Dorado became a fabulous city with streets paved in gold.

Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada portrait
Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada made the first European contact with the Muisca.

The indigenous Muisca were probably guilty of embellishing their own accounts of El Dorado because it encouraged the Europeans to pack up and leave their environs, pressing onward in their quest to find the fabulous city of gold and emeralds. The legend of El Dorado tantalized European explorers for more than a century. During the 19th century, entrepreneurs attempted to recover the legendary treasures of Lake Guatavita with varying degrees of success.  Kuntz (1915) chronicles one of the more successful ventures:

“One of the early attempts at least resulted in the recovery of so much treasure that the Government’s three percent share is said to have amounted to $170,000.”

Many emeralds, some of them from South America, have entered a powerful realm of meaning when they are used as Amulets & Talismans. We explore those next!

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