Decoding the Treasures of El Dorado: A Voyage Through the Pre-Columbian Mind

February 21, 2000 @ 10:30 am – 11:30 am
Marin Civic Center
San Rafael

A Slide Lecture by Armand Labbe

Reviewed by Tom Perardi

The lecture, “Decoding the Treasures of El Dorado: A Voyage through the Pre-Columbian Mind,”  was a voyage through the geography and ancient art of an area that is now Colombia. A central theme was the “myth” of El Dorado, the Golden Man, which, in reality, is no myth at all. Rather it was a real happening: a part of the succession ritual among the Muisca people in north central Colombia around 1500. When a new king was to be installed, his body was covered with resin and then coated with gold dust to appear as the spiritual essence from the sun. He was launched on a raft, with attendants, in the Sacred Lagoon, and was showered with gold offerings. A gold model of the coronation raft party is part of Labbe’s current traveling exhibit “Shamans, Gods, and Mythic Beasts: Colombian Gold and Ceramics in Antiquity”. The new Muisca ruler, in brilliant gold, conveyed the spiritual grace and vital force that could bring new life not only to the wombs of women but also the crops in the fields. In a symbolic rebirth and transformation, he would dive into the lagoon, and re-emerge, cleansed, as the man-king of his people.

A larger theme of the lecture was the power and diffusion of shamanic traditions in South and Central America. One senses that Labbe is something of a maverick among the fortified ivory towers of Pre-Columbian scholarship. But he makes a convincing case that shamanic beliefs and practices were central to several major cultures, with great similarities heretofore ignored or unreported. He posits an early evolution of a powerful shamanic tradition in the northwest Amazon basin before 1000BC. The exact time is not clear, because the available evidence dates back to only 1000BC when the tracks of its diffusion become visible in the durable artifacts from Chavin, Tairona, Malamboid, Malagana and Olmec. Some common iconographic clues are faces with jaguar-like fangs indicating human-animal transformation; “tingunas” or body emanations or force fields, shown as cayman heads, serpents, or bird wings extending from the shaman’s body and expressing the eddies of energy from his/her shamanic power; grimacing expressions indicating trance; powerful eyes, sometimes over the entire body, indicating the all-seeing wisdom of the shaman.

Labbe’s special talent is the energy to investigate and integrate archaeological evidence, geographic settings, previous scholarship, living informants, ancient artifacts and contemporary arts. His sharp eye and inquiring mind help him, and his audience, bridge disciplines and achieve new insights. His traveling exhibit will be at the Bower’s Museum in Santa Ana from October 29, 1999 to January 9, 2000.

Armand Labbe is the Bowers Museum Director of Research & Collections in Santa Ana, CA.