Lagos de Oro

I visited the Museo del Oro in Bogota, Colombia in 2016. It is an impressive collection of gold items, from jewelry, to head pieces, to ritual items, and more created by the Pre-Colombian and Andean peoples of Colombia and South America. Most of the gold pieces depict animals and forms found in nature: jaguars, snakes, birds, etc.

The museum also has some excerpts from books, mainly written by the Spanish when they arrived. Most Spanish accounts are similar, they simply could not believe their eyes when they saw these mostly naked people wearing more gold and emeralds than they had ever seen in their lives. The accounts are eventually what fueled something you have heard of: the search for El Dorado.

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“They searched for gold in the mountains, high where the rain came down.”

The crown jewel of the Museo del Oro is a beautiful piece called the Balsa Muisca (Musica Raft). It depicts a ceremony of the zipa (a chief-like figure of the Muiscas) in the middle of a raft. This ceremony took place on a lake, which was the reason for the raft. The priests of the tribe would build the raft, and begin loading it up with valuables, emeralds, and tons of gold. Then, they would cover the zipa in gold dust and light four torches which they attached to each corner of the raft. Fires were started and incense was burned to create a smokey atmosphere, and the zipa was sent out to the middle of the lake, where he would throw everything on the raft into the lake. This ritual definitely took place at Lake Guatavita, and similar rituals may have taken place at other lakes where the Muisca resided. Imagine the expressions on the faces of the Spanish when they saw this ritual for the first time. It still makes me laugh. If you would like a couple more laughs, there are many articles out there on how many times people have tried to drain this lake in order to dig up the jewels and riches that surely must be encased in mud at the bottom of Lake Guatavita.

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Muisca Raft, Museo del Oro, Bogotá, Colombia

The zipa ritual was based on a creation myth of the Muisca. Their creator was a female goddess known as Bachué, who descended to Earth from the Milky Way. The Muiscas saw lakes as an Earthly version of the Milky Way, as the sky was reflected in the lakes. The Milky Way was where the Gods resided, both the malevolent and benevolent, the former being represented in the darker portions of the Milky Way, and the latter in the brighter areas. The Muiscas universal belief was based on the idea that good and bad was balanced throughout existence. Bachué was made of the feminine power, Amuya, and the masculine power, Muyyan. She came down, and appeared in the middle of Lake Iguaque, with a small child, her son. She built a house by the side of the lake, and when her son came of age, (here is where it gets weird, as all creation myths usually do) she marries him and their union is so bountiful, they have four to six children at a time. This is how the first men and women came to be.

The Muiscas were not only interested in the Milky Way, they also studied other astronomical phenomena. Outside Villa de Leyva, Colombia, there are the archaelogical ruins of a temple, named El Infernito (The Little Hell) by the Spanish. The Spanish took one look at the site, the phallic stones that were stuck out of the ground, and immediately associated the site with demons, thus the name. However, the stones served a purpose, which was to mark the solstices and the equinoxes. Also, some researchers have suggested that El Infernito points in the direction of Lake Iguaque (only a few kilometers away), and perhaps used the lake, as well as the temple, for rituals during the solstice.

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A square in Villa de Leyva, Colombia
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Main Square in Villa de Leyva, Colombia

I did not partake in any lakeside rituals. Aside from Lake Iguaque, Villa de Leyva is a very beautiful town. It dates from the time the Spanish first came and colonized. It still impresses me how much people searched for gold, because there are mountains everywhere, and the drive to Villa de Leyva from Bogotá is still mostly a dirt road. Our bus on the return trip got a flat tire, and this is so common, it was changed quite quickly. Although, the trip is not for the faint of heart, as I was sure our bus was going to topple over a cliff at any moment. Despite all this, Colombia is a beautiful country with many stories, myths, and interesting places, if you are lucky enough to get there.

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