Conquering a New World – WIF Into History

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Why the Conquistadors

Were in

the New World

When Christopher Columbus arrived at Hispaniola (the island now split down the middle between Haiti and the Dominican Republic), he could hardly believe his eyes. With its extraordinary lushness and biodiversity, mighty rivers flowing with gold, and abundance of honey and spices, it was the embodiment of Heaven on Earth, Paradise, the Garden of Eden especially compared to back home.

Even the human inhabitants went about in the nude, with only leaves to cover their genitals. They were also unusually innocent, being entirely without greed. Appearing to lack any concept of property, they shared freely with their alien arrivals?and were overjoyed to receive old broken pottery fragments in return.

Columbus was astounded. If this wasn’t the biblical Garden, he wrote to the King and Queen of Spain, then it must be somewhere nearby. This wasn’t hyperbole either; he was absolutely certain of his claim: Some 5,000 years after God kicked us out, Man had found his way back to Eden.

His plan? To ruin it.

True to form, Columbus immediately set about plundering Hispaniola for its wealth. He built mines, military forts, cities, and farms no doubt devastating forests in the process. Worse, he enslaved the friendly natives to do it for him, threatening to send many back to Europe in chains.

Although he was eventually arrested by the Spanish for his appalling governance of the island, Columbus was far too powerful to lock up. In any case, it did nothing to change human nature. His treatment of the Tano people proved a horrifying portent of the conquest yet to come. Before long, thousands of Europeans followed him across the Atlantic, every one of them hungry for adventure, wealth, and prestige whatever the human cost.

What’s interesting is that while the conquistadors called this strange new continent the New World, they saw everything in terms of the old filtering their understanding and perceptions through Bible stories, classical myths, and outmoded maps and ideas.

Before he stuck a flag in the Garden of Eden, for example, Columbus thought that Cuba was Japan. He even made his crew take an oath on pain of a hundred lashes and having the tongue slit never to contradict his assertion, so insistent was he on imposing the old world on the new.

Likewise, when he came across Antillean manatees, he saw not an exciting new species to classify but a shoal of legendary mermaids (although he did concede they weren’t half as beautiful as in pictures).

Ferdinand Magellan also appealed to mythology when he called the Tehuelche (A’nikenk) of Patagonia giants. Sure, they may have been taller than average, but his encounter reads like a fairy tale: Seeing the first of them singing and dancing on the shore, he and his crew went up to greet them with gifts, cleverly tricking two of the giants into handcuffs and charting a course back to Europe?only for the specimens to die in terror en route.

According to Antonio Pigafetta, a scholar along for the ride, the giants had deep, booming voices and a fear of their own reflection; and they were so tall that even the tallest among the crew only came up to their waists. These giants were later depicted on maps of the New World, alongside mermaids, sea monsters, dragons, and UFOs even though Sir Francis Drake made it clear that they didn’t exist. Having gone looking for the giants himself, Drake concluded they must be a myth and suggested the Spaniards, who probably did not think that ever any English man would come hither to Patagonia to reprove them, had simply made the whole thing up.

But virtually all the conquistadors?Spanish or not were guilty of fanciful projections, imposing time-worn ideas on every square inch of new land, scrutinizing the wide open Western hemisphere through the old narrow lens of the past. Hence they didn’t see the natives as people, they saw them as savages and monsters; and they didn’t see the Aztecs as civilized but as a blasphemous affront to their God.

Basically, the conquistadors were in a world of their own and an often absurd one at that. For hundreds of years they interacted not so much with reality as with a mythological nowhere realm in which nothing was too extraordinary to believe.

El Dorado

In particular, the idea of rivers flowing with gold and other precious metals and gems became a tantalizing trope for the conquistadors?culminating most famously in their obsession with El Dorado.

Spanish for the golden or gilded one, El Dorado originally referred to a man, a fantastically wealthy ruler covered from head to toe in pure gold. The myth most likely originated with the Muisca tradition of crowning a new leader by covering his body in gold dust and rowing him to the middle of a sacred lake surrounded by fires and priests. For the Muisca, the alluringly shimmering metal was a symbol of spiritual power and their connection to the divine. But the conquistadors weren’t interested in ethnology; they were dazzled by the prospect of gold. Hence the legend of the gilded one quickly turned into a city, and the city became an obsession, inspiring boatloads of Europeans to find it.

Among the first to go looking, in 1529 and then again in 1531, was Ambrosius Ehinger, the ambitious German governor of Venezuela. He was aided in his search by hundreds of men including captured Indians and trailed by pigs and dogs. Together, they crossed marshes, rivers, and mountains deep into unknown territory. But in the end, having no qualms about killing or torturing the natives that he came across, Ehinger was slaughtered in return.

Later, in 1541, Gonzalo Pizarro and Francisco de Orellana mounted their own quest from Quito, enslaving natives along the way to help them carry their gear?only to meet with disaster in the end. The same happened to Pedro de Ursa, who was mutinied by his men in 1561.

Even Sir Walter Raleigh was taken in by the myth and twice went in search of the city. Scouring the highlands of Guiana, he ended up battling with the Spanish and losing his son in the process. When he finally returned to England in disgrace, by now an old man, he was beheaded by King James I.

Expeditions for El Dorado were hopelessly open-ended, called off only when they ran out of food (or men) to keep going. After all, they were chasing a mirage across a vast, uncharted continent so there was really no other end in sight. Of course, it didn’t help that any natives they interrogated barely understood what they were looking for, let alone where on Earth it might be, and usually just pointed to the next tribe with a shrug.

Ironically the conquistadors did actually find El Dorado, in one of the first places they looked. In 1536, Gonzalo Jiminez de Quesada conquered the Colombian Cundinamarca plateau, home of the Muisca, and drained their sacred lake. Naturally he found plenty of gold religious offerings from generations of priests and new leaders, but not nearly as much as he wanted. So the conquistadors took their search elsewhere, far from the origin of the myth, and continued to pursue El Dorado until at least 1800, when Alexander von Humboldt finally declared it a sham.

The Seven Cities of Gold

But El Dorado wasn’t the only golden city; there were said to be seven more.

Shipwrecked on an expedition to Florida in the late-1530s, two men (of only four survivors) found themselves wandering the wastes of New Mexico. One was the Franciscan friar and missionary Marcos de Niza and the other a North African slave by the name of Estevanico. Having already been captured by natives and escaped (perhaps explaining the distance they covered), they were keen to avoid any further contact until they reached the nearest safe haven.

But something caught their eye.

Situated on the brow of a roundish hill, de Niza claimed, once he’d made it back to Mexico, was a very beautiful city, the best that I have seen in these parts.? In fact, it looked to be made out of gold. But when Estevanico got too close, he was killed by the native inhabitants and de Niza was forced to run.

It was an irresistible tale. For some, it meant only one thing: The long lost Cities of Gold had been found. Unlike El Dorado, however, these were from the folklore of Spain. When King Roderic lost Hispania to the Muslims in 711-712 AD, he is said to have sent seven of his bishops to found a new one. Sailing across the Atlantic to Antillia one of a number of early phantom islands that was probably the American mainland they each built a city to govern. And then they burned their ships and navigational equipment to ensure they could never go home.

Needless to say, if the legend was true and any of these cities remained, the gold would belong to the Spanish. In 1541, the conquistador Francisco Vazquez de Coronado boldly retraced de Niza’s steps back to the site of the city, accompanied by hundreds of other men and backed by some hefty investments.

Unfortunately, it was only a pueblo, an adobe Zuni settlement that, to a distant observer at sunset, might look a little like it had a kind of glow. It definitely wasn’t made out of gold, though. Plus it had only five neighboring settlements?one short of the fabled seven in total.

The expedition had failed and its financial investors were ruined. It did, however, open up a route to the north, since de Coronado and his men pressed on all the way to Kansas before finally giving up on the search.

The Fountain of Youth

De Niza could hardly be blamed. He was primed to see fantastical things. After all, the shipwrecked expedition that stranded him in the desert in the first place had been in search of the Fountain of Youth a wild and ultimately ruinous goose chase led by Pnfilo de Narvez. Evidently, they’d all been taken in by a rumor about Juan Ponce de Len, who never really looked for the Fountain. Instead, the myth is thought to have been spread as a smear against Ponce de Len’s manhood his quest for eternal youth being a search for an impotence cure.

The Fountain was also mentioned by Pietro Martire d’Anghiera, a contemporary Spanish historian who seems to have believed it was real. In his Decades of the New World, he even gave rough directions:

Beyond Veragua the coast bends in a northerly direction, to a point opposite the Pillars of Hercules  Amongst these countries is an island  celebrated for a spring whose waters restore youth to old men.

This placed it somewhere in the Bay of Honduras, on the island of Boinca or Aganeo. Meanwhile, the Ponce de Len smear pointed more toward his own land of Florida. In truth, though, anyone looking for it, wherever they were, was always on the verge of its discovery. Because whenever the natives were asked for the whereabouts of this miraculous restorative spring, they would have just pointed to water.

The Amazons

Place names were another way for the conquistadors to impose their own version of reality onto the New World. Venezuela (Little Venice), for example, got its name because the stilt houses on Lake Maracaibo reminded Amerigo Vespucci of Venice (Venezia). And it was grouped with other proto-countries (like Colombia, from Columbus) under the Viceroyalty of New Granada, after the city in southern Spain. Indeed, all conquered territories in the New World were collectively branded New Spain.

The Amazon, meanwhile was named for the legendary Amazons, the ancient female warriors from Themiscyra in modern-day Turkey.

Why? Because the conquistadors imagined they lived there.

In 1542, having blustered through the rainforest for almost a year looking for El Dorado, Pizarro and de Orellana’s expedition was in shambles. They’d eaten all their pigs and many of their horses and dogs, and were now facing sickness, starvation, and death. They couldn’t ask the natives for help (on account of all the torture they’d put them through), but they could probably steal something to eat. Desperate not to die in the jungle, Pizarro sent de Orellana and 50 of his men along a wide open river they’d discovered, urging them to come back with food.

But they never did. Evidently the men were a little disgruntled with Pizarro and refused to return upriver to save him, especially from a fate that he probably deserved. (It?s unclear whether de Orellana was in agreement, but he made them all sign a declaration to say that he wasn’t and continued downriver regardless.)

On their meandering way to the sea, they continued to seek El Dorado and the natives kept shrugging their shoulders or more often bracing for attack, having had just about enough of the Spaniards and their conquest. In fact, as they pressed on, de Orellana and his men were shocked to find even women firing arrows from the river bank.

Surely these were no ordinary women, they thought; these women could fight! They were also nude, fair-skinned, and exceptionally skilled with a bow and arrow. They were nothing like the women they knew.

So they had to be the legendary Amazons.

De Orellana assumed their capital must be a few days inland and the riverside villages they passed were outlying vassal states. Of course, when he tortured natives for intel, they only confirmed his suspicions?saying just about anything to make him go away.

In any case, de Orellana and his men were in no mood to go trekking through the jungle in search of this mighty queendom, particularly if it meant certain death. So they sailed on to the Atlantic, returned to New Spain, and got royal backing to settle the region by force. Obviously they never found Amazonia, but they gave it the name all the same. Otherwise, it might have been called New Andalusia, after the region in southern Spain.

The Devil and Prester John

The conquistadors were obviously nuts; that much can be said for sure. But they were really just children at heart vicious, out-of-control, lunatic children, but children nevertheless.

Interestingly, many of their fruitless pursuits?be it for mythical warriors, immortality, untold wealth, or even Paradise itself can be traced to just one earlier myth: the legend of Prester John?s kingdom.

Sometime in the 1160s, long before anyone heard of the ?New World,? a mysterious letter arrived at the court of the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Comnenus. Purporting to be from one Prester John, a descendant of the Three Magi, it described a vast and otherworldly empire with 72 tributary kingdoms and a strange assortment of inhabitants, including vampires and dog-headed men. It also had a Fountain of Youth, which Prester John claimed could revert anyone to the age of 32, no matter how old they were at the time. He himself had supposedly lived for more than half a millennia by drinking from its waters. There was also a tremendous river, filled with gold and precious gems, that flowed directly from the Garden of Eden. Furthermore, this being a Christian empire, it was entirely free of sin and its people had plenty to eat.

Pope Alexander III, seeing in Prester John a formidable ally for the Crusades, dispatched an envoy to seek out this land. At first, it was thought to be in India, then in Central Asia or possibly Africa. For a while, everyone assumed it was Abyssinia (Ethiopia), which was already a Christian country. Europeans even started addressing the Abyssinian ruler by the name of Prester John, despite his attempts to correct them. They also altered maps of the African kingdom to depict various elements from the letter, including Mount Amara, where Prester John?s sons were allegedly held in captivity.

The real location of his kingdom (if it had one) was never found, but there?s every reason to suspect the New World revived these old hopes.

Obviously, the natives weren’t Christians but neither were they thought to be evil?not entirely. Although Hernan Cort’s described one indigenous leader as a Satanic monster: huge, fat, with hands drenched in blood and blackened with smoke, and a striped black-red face with red mouth and teeth, spilling blood,? this wasn’t the general consensus. The Spanish preferred to see the natives as playthings of the Devil as opposed to the Devil himself, or in other words as souls crying out for salvation.

The existence of the Devil in the New World justified its conquest by the Spanish. So it came to be seen as the Devil’s playground, a New World in mockery of the old. It was the world turned upside down,world inverted by the Devil.

Hence the Aztecs were the inverse of the Israelites, as Satans chosen people against Gods. It wasn’t a New World so much as a black mirror for the old one, a bizarro realm where nothing was new, just darkly topsy-turvy.

This doesn’t excuse their behaviour, of course, but it explains the conquistador mindset.


Conquering a New World –

WIF Into History

Legends Are Made of These – WIF Mythical Travel Edition

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Ancient Places of Legend

That May Never

Have Existed

History books tell us of ancient places with amazing architecture, and world wonders long past. Archeological discovery has learned much about the world before us. The idea of many of these locations has inspired imaginations for many years. However, the truth is that history gets distorted over time both through constant retellings and sometimes through historical records that were actually just fanciful stories written after the fact. Many of the most famous locations may not have existed at all. Many of those that did, were much different than most people usually imagine.

Editor’s Note: Anything relating to The Bible is probably true (despite these explanations)

10. The Legend of El Dorado Didn’t Start Out About a City

el-dorado

The City of El Dorado, also known as the City of Gold, was popularized in myth. Fairly recently, it was retold in a very shiny and colorful Disney movie. The myth claims that there was a city of gold, told of by the South American natives. Many explorers went searching for it in the hopes of finding amazing riches. However, the original legend was actually about a person, not a city. It morphed into a city that needed to be searched for, because many of the natives were happy to lead the explorers on a wild chase.

The original legend told of an ancient leader who was so rich, that every morning he would be doused in gold dust. Then every evening, he would bathe in sacred waters, washing the dust off again. This was an example of his absolutely ridiculous wealth. However, while the legend is based on this, it isn’t actually true either. Archeologists have discovered that the original story began because of the Musica people who would perform a similar ritual when anointing a new king. But they certainly weren’t wasting that kind of gold every day. It was for very special occasions.

 9. The City of Troy May Not Be At All Like People Think

troy

The City of Troy has captured people’s imaginations ever since The Iliad and The Odyssey. More recently, there have been very visually stunning movies that have helped rekindle modern interest in the ancient city. Many people assume the city and the famous siege that took place may have been similar to how it was described in Homer’s work, or in the movies. But the issue of Troy is extremely complicated.

To begin with, much of Homer’s original work that would complete the two famous stories is missing, and may never be found. This makes it difficult to understand how much of his work was fact, and how much was fiction. Also, for some time historians weren’t sure the city of Troy existed at all. Now they have found an archeological site that they believe may contain the city, but that has only made the problem even more complicated. The site has several layers built on top of each other, which means that even if Troy was once there, figuring out which layer was the Troy described in Homer’s epic would be incredibly difficult.

Archeologists also have good reason to believe at this point that the siege described in Homer’s work actually took place over the course of many years. There also may have actually been more than one siege, of more than one Troy, over the course of history — all on the same spot. For this reason, trying to get a historically accurate picture of Troy may be next to impossible.

8. The Lost City of Atlantis Was Probably a Myth, Or Just a Regular Destroyed Island

atlantis

 The Lost City of Atlantis has been popularized in myth for millennia. The idea of a lost city of prosperous people, who perhaps had interesting knowledge or technology is a fascinating idea. Some myths even go so far as to suggest that the people of Atlantis somehow continued to survive underneath the ocean. Wilder myths even suggest they are responsible for the Bermuda triangle — bringing down anything that gets too close to the truth of their hidden existence.

However, in all likelihood if Atlantis did exist, it was just an ordinary island struck by natural disaster. The first references to such a place were in an allegory by Plato about the suddenness that something could disappear, and about the hubris of not being prepared for danger. Many people are convinced this is the truth, and that there was no Atlantis. But, people often write about what they know. There is evidence that a prosperous island fairly near Plato was swallowed up almost instantly by a volcano, so he could have been making a reference to that event. Either way, there was nothing particularly special about the city Plato was referencing.

7. The Fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon Were Probably Not That Advanced

hanging-gardens

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon are one of the wonders of the ancient world. They also probably never existed at all. Many people have an idea from artwork of a huge city of mostly sandstone, with beautiful terraced gardens throughout, despite being in the middle of the desert. It certainly captures the imagination, but the first references to such a place were not written until hundreds of years after the city of Babylon was gone, greatly calling into doubt their existence.

The site of Babylon was only recently found, and wasn’t exactly where archeologists expected, either. It turns out it was closer to a neighboring city known as Nineveh. The people of Nineveh had taken over the Babylonian culture through war. But they liked to assimilate the enemies’ names into their own cities, making archeological identification difficult at first.

 Archeologists have not yet been able to prove the existence of any kind of hanging gardens or super advanced irrigation system. But even if they had, it wouldn’t have been that impressive to begin with. It turns out that the actual site of Babylon is not particularly arid, and would be quite useable for growing vegetation.

6. The Bermuda Triangle Is A Modern Myth, Not An Ancient Danger For Mariners

bermuda triangle

The Bermuda Triangle is a place that will cause many people to short circuit the logic part of their brain. They’ll start talking about the silliest paranoid conspiracy theories imaginable. Nearly everyone knows a mysterious story or two about the area. While most people would agree it is a natural phenomenon, the average person is convinced that something is going on there.

However, the truth is that there is no such thing as the Bermuda Triangle in the first place. What we mean by this is that there is no map in the world that has ever considered that particular region to be anything special to avoid or not. The entire idea of the triangle was made up by folklore.

Statistics show that there are no more accidents or disappearances of boats and planes in the triangle than anywhere else in the ocean. In other words, you could draw a triangle anywhere in the ocean and you would be just as likely to find a similar set of mysterious disappearances. This is because weather can cause ships and boats to go under, and the ocean is incredibly vast. Any part of the ocean can be dangerous. But there’s no evidence that particular area is any more dangerous than any other.

5. The Garden Of Eden Was Probably Philosophical, Not Physical

eden

 The Garden of Eden is a subject that has caused some controversy for many years. Certain Christians are convinced that the Garden of Eden was once a physical location somewhere on the globe, and have done a lot of research to suggest various possible locations. Most of them are somewhere in the Middle East, fairly near the locations mentioned in the early days of the bible.

Interestingly though, the Jewish faith never believed in the Garden of Eden as a physical place to begin with, but as a state of being. When men were first created, in their view, they were in a state of perfect harmony. The sin of man broke that harmony and they were no longer in the Garden of Eden, but harshly viewing the world as it actually was — alone, in the desert to fend for themselves. Many Christian scholars have increasingly taken up a similar viewpoint over the years.

4. The Tower of Babel was Probably Just an Unfinished Building

babel

The legend in the bible says that after the great flood, many people who spoke the same language came together and arrogantly forgot about God. They planned to build a tower to reach the heavens. Partway through their building, God struck them with confusion. Now, they had many languages, and they scattered across the globe. Some people dismiss the entire thing as just a story, and some people have looked for archeological evidence. The truth is a little more complicated.

 There is no evidence to support the biblical story itself. However, there is evidence of a great Ziggurat that could fit the description of the tower that existed in the Babylonian Empire while the Hebrews were their slaves. The Ziggurat was unfinished during that time. Despite being quite grand, multiple attempts had been made to finish it. Some historians believe that the Jewish writers of the time, looking for allegories to teach important lessons, were inspired by the unfinished Ziggurat nearby.

3. Ponce De Leon was Probably Never Actually Searching for a Fountain Of Youth

fountain-of-youth

We already know there was no actual fountain of youth. The idea of a magical fountain that could restore the vitality to anyone who bathed in it is quite ridiculous. However, while no one today really believes the story, some assume that the people of a few hundred years ago would have been stupid enough to believe it.

The legends claim that Ponce De Leon wasted years of his time in Florida searching for this mythical fountain. A fountain, it turned out, that was a trick allegedly played on him by the natives. However, there is no evidence in his writings he was searching for any such thing. The only source for his alleged search was a fanciful account written by a suspect source, trying to gain political favor with his views. It is more than likely the entire legend was a complete fabrication from beginning to end.

2. Jericho Was Probably Just Built on a Fault Line

jericho

Many people have heard the story of the fabled Wall of Jericho. Jericho was an ancient city in biblical days, held under siege. God was to help bring down the city, but needed the help of His chosen. The army was to blow their trumpets and march around the city continuously, and He would bring the city walls down for them. After several days, the walls came down, and the people of God were victorious.

 Now, while the city of Jericho was real, many historians believe this story was far stranger than many people first realized. The city was actually in an area that would have been prone to earthquake activity. With armies using up nearby waters during a siege, it could increase the risk. Some historians would say that the army got lucky. Or, that someone knew the earthquake activity in the area and hoped to use it to their advantage. Believers would suggest that perhaps God chose that moment to activate an earthquake along that particular fault-line. No one will ever know.

1. Roswell is Really Just Home to an Old, Unused Air Force Base

roswell

We know the military presence at Roswell was hardly anything ancient. But with the belief many people have in ancient aliens, and their connection to Area 51 and the US government, it brings the entire thing full circle. Now, we aren’t saying that the town of Roswell, New Mexico doesn’t exist. But we are saying that there is a lot of confusion over what exactly Roswell is. Most people know that it’s the town where there was an alleged crash of a UFO. The Air Force would later claim it was just a weather balloon. Over time, most secret government projects have been associated with Area 51. Somehow the two places — Roswell and Area 51 — have often become conflated in the popular mindset.

While there was an Air Force Base located at Roswell, it has not been functioning for many years now. And it was never used for highly secret projects. In fact, Walker Air Force Base was a fairly generic and unimportant military post. When budget cuts came near the end of Vietnam, it was one of the first bases to close up shop. There’s a museum celebrating the legacy of the base, but what is left now serves commercial purposes. And no, there are no aliens there.


Legends Are Made of These

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– WIF Mythical Travel Edition