This Week’s Prompt: 93. A place one has been—a beautiful view of a village or farm-dotted valley in the sunset—which one cannot find again or locate in memory.
The Resulting Story: Yonster Over Yonder
This week, we are covering a concept or topic that came up before briefly when we discussed lost Irem: lost and hard to find lands. However, this time, I’m going to focus specifically on the nature of the place as unfindable, and discuss places long sought or supposed that have entirely vanished or been moved into the world of metaphor.
Stories of cities of luxury and wonder, just over the horizon, have existed since the conception of stories. But there was certainly an explosion of such cities during the colonization of the Americas. One of the most elaborate stories–especially tracing the changes in narrative over the years and the telling–is El Dorado.
The first reports of El Dorado were in fact accounts of a ritual for the new chief of the Musica, not a city itself. This ritual involved an offering to the gods and a dive into a nearby lagoon. Afterwards, the new king was adorned with golden dust–hence the name, El Dorado. The Gilded Man.
After the Spanish conquered the Muscia, and found their gold supplies mostly imported, the legend moved somewhat. It became not merely a single man, but an entire city made of gold. These cities were supposedly isolated from the world. The city of gold was believed perhaps to recognize Christians (a tell tale sign of a European origin), and numerous map makers added it’s location to their maps (leading to a few failed attempts to reach the confirmed city).
Part of El Dorado’s origins come from reports by Hernando Cortez, that claim there lies in the West of the Aztec Empire a province more populous than Spain and richer than the recently plundered cities. These rumors played into the notion of seven legendary cities of gold in the Americas. These cities were located in the southwest, among the Zuni, and of course contained no gold. Six of these cities were ransacked by the Spanish, desperate for gold. The seventh city, sadly but not unsuprisingly, did not exist and has never been found.
Cortez’s writings also contributed to the stories of La Ciudad Blanc. This region in Hondaras was vaster than Mexico, and had as many inhabitants and far far more riches. This region was multi-cultural, with a number of native language groups living there. The conquistadors never found evidence of such a place, although lost cities have been found in the rainforest since then.
In South America, two of these cities are recorded. One is the City of the Caesars–this city was of course rich in gold, silver, and diamonds. Unlike others, we have more detailed descriptions of what it looks like–it’s between two mountains, one of gold and one of diamonds. Some accounts have the city moving to avoid capture. Inhabitants of the city range from ghosts, lost Spanish survivors, exiled Mapuche, giants, and the remains of the Inca Empire! Some believe that stories of the Empire of Peru inspired the legend itself!
The other city is the Lost City of Z–a city that contained a temple with hieroglyphics, statues, and arches. Pursuit of this city was put off do to World War II. Still, the city was the most recent to be pursued to my knowledge.
The French reported a similar city in the North. More accurately, they claimed to record an Iroquois legend of the land of Saguenay. This was a land to the north, with great silver and gold mines and inhabited by blonds, who loved furs and had them in abundance. This of course was never found, and was perhaps a lure to get more settlers into Canada.
Back across the Atlantic, Europe was no stranger to imaginary lands. The most famous of course gave the ocean it’s name–the island of Atlantis. Described first in Plato’s dialogues, the city was founded by Posiedon’s children and, generations later, began an expansionist conquest. The island itself was paradisal, and about the size of Anatolia, if not larger. The hubris of
Further north is most distant Thule, a land where the sky meets the sea. Early descriptions say the land has no air or water, but rather something like a jelly consistency. It is six days north of Britain’s northernmost edge and where the Sun goes to rest. Some sources point to Iceland or the Faroes, others Britian itself (some quotes about Pictish blood support this understanding) and others say it is ice-locked beneath the polestar.
The land of Prester John is in the other direction. Prester John’s kingdom was rumored to be in Asia, at first specifically in India. Supposedly, the kingdom was founded when the disciple Thomas visited India, and was a land of plenty and wisdom. Prester John was sometimes a descendant of the Three Wise Men who visited the birth of Christ. Later reports even claimed that his grandson, King David of India, was conquering Persia during the Fifth Crusade–an inaccurate report of the very much Tengri Ghengis Khan. Over time, Prester John’s kingdom was moved closer to Ethiopia (the term “India” referred to a wide number of places, including Ethiopia). It wasn’t until the seventeenth century that notions of the Preseter John were dispelled.
Cockaigne was another lost utopia, although much more clearly allegorical. It’s roads and houses were made of pastries, everything was free, roasted pigs wandered the streets with knives in them already. The only location it was ever ascribed, jokingly, to London (as the land of Cockneys). Brittia, a place between Britain and Thule in many descriptions, was a similar paradise ruled by a Frankish king.No taxes were paid, and no labor required except manning the boat that brought the dead over.
Moving farther along we can find in Egypt Zerzura. Zerzura is a white city built around an oasis, guarded by giants at all times. Its front gate is carved to resemble a bird At the center of the city is a sleeping king and queen. A traveler who touches the beak will achieve entrance into the city, and find the great treasures within–a story that reminds me of narratives of the City of Brass.
Moving off to the Philippines, there is Biringan City. This city, according to some accounts, pulls people in a trance–against their will to an elegant city. Some reports indicate that fisherman and drivers will end up in this city by mistake–fishermen especially when their catches go poorly. The spirits that dwell there sometimes abduct the soul of those they love, leaving behind only a lifeless corpse. These creatures, engkantos, are also responsible for skin diseases and can change their appearance at will.
Circling up again, we can find another lost and unmarked land in the Pacific. Here, we find two versions of a strange mountain. In China, it’s called Mount Pengali. It is the home of the Eight Immortals, and knows no misery or sorrow. Here there are fruits that grant everlasting youth, and summer never ends. There are even wines that will raise the dead that the First Emperor sought out. To contrast that is an account of Mount Horai from Japan–an island who’s atmosphere is made of thousands and thousands of dead souls, which if inhaled grant wisdom of the dead. The inhabitants here are childish–odd, given the presence of the dead–and no nothing of wickedness. The island’s winters are cold and harsh.
Moving to the mainland and across to Tibet, we come to our last group of unseen and unmarked lands. Mount Kunlun is on such place–a place inhabited again by divinities and animals. The Queen Mother of the West has made her place her, with fruits of immortality, trees of jade, and more. Immortals regularly visited, while a river circling it that pulled all things down into it kept out the unworthy.
Not far away, we move from Taoist influenced missing lands to Buddhist ones. Shambhala is also located in Tibet. The land is in some case ruled by the future buddha, and the capital city is shaped like a three dimensional mandala. Other texts, particularly Hindu ones, point to it as the birthplace of the last avatar of Vishnu. When the world has reached its end, and the wheel must begin again, it will begin again in Shambhala. This paradisal place will be the seed that grows into a new world.
All of these paradises seem primed for a story about journeys and obsessions. A metaphorical attempt to attain the past–to reach back to something felt of the past. Something dimly remembered and distant–we should consider that, for many of these European stories, physical distance was the same as temporal distance. These far away places were often equated to earlier times in the past–they were places that could hold a secret Eden. What place do you remember, distantly? That you can’t place where exactly or even when?
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