The Wealth of the Gods

The Wealth of the Gods

Since the beginning of civilization the minds of man have been filled with glittering dreams of gold. Of all the myths of gold the most compelling came out of the New World. To the Spanish explorers of the sixteenth century, gold was a prize for which they would sacrifice everything. For in the New World was located . . . the wealth of the gods.

One day in 1535 Sebastian de Belalcazar, veteran of the Inca conquest, founder of Quito, capital of Ecuador, met an Indian who fanned his imagination with a most unusual story. The native told the Spaniard of a king of a large tribe who lived near what is now Colombia. The nobles anointed him every day with a sticky gum and covered him entirely with gold dust. At the day's end he was carried to a nearby lake and rafted out to the middle along with an abundance of golden ornaments and emeralds. The Spaniard listened, fascinated, as the Indian described how the smoke from the many bonfires onshore drifted across the lake and the assembled multitudes shouted in awe and joy as their king slipped into the waters and washed off his golden "skin." Simultaneously the nobles and priests accompanying him on the raft threw the golden ornaments and precious gems into the lake as an offering to the sun.

Belalcazar had no reason to doubt the storyteller — had he not seen with his own eyes the fantastic gold hoards of the Incas? When the storyteller finished, the fired—up mind of the Spaniard coined a name that became engraved on the minds of fortune seekers for centuries to come. He called the mythical king "El Dorado" — the Golden One.

When one considers the wealth of the Incan and Aztec empires prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, El Dorado could scarcely be entirely legendary. In their possession was far more wealth than the conquistadores could have imagined in their wildest dreams. Many scholars believe that the Incas alone mined more than two million ounces of gold per year and almost twice that much silver. Although those totals could be overstated, the amounts of precious metals mined had to be fantastic by modern standards. The Aztec output of gold and silver was only slightly behind that of the Incas. Doubtless, then, these two empires together possessed more precious metal than the combined treasuries of all the European countries. No wonder the invading Spaniards went berserk at the sight of so much gold!

These early Indians used gold mainly for ornaments and as a building material, in very much the same manner that contemporary Europeans used marble. There were life—size statues of people, animals, and naturally the gods, all molded from solid gold; such statuary was quite common. Although gold was sometimes used for bartering, it was not utilized as money.

The temples and, for that matter, all the important buildings were always roofed over with gold and, as often as not, decorated with golden friezes. Interior walls and pillars of the nobles' mansions were plated thickly with gold, while in their gardens solid gold fountains sprayed water into solid silver basins. Members of the nobility and their families would routinely dine from golden plates while sitting on golden stools. The nobles even played a game that strongly resembled modern bowling but with a slight modification. The balls and pins used in the game were made of solid gold!

Such vast wealth would be almost impossible to evaluate by modern standards, but certainly it would rival the United States' national debt.

Cuzco was the main city of the Incas; it was the microcosm of the empire. The first Spaniard to see Cuzco described it as "ablaze with gold." The Spanish king's inspectors, in written reports to their king, told of "buildings hundreds of feet long entirely plated with gold, in some instances almost a finger thick." From one building they took down 700 gold plates that together weighed 500 pesos of gold (1 peso = 4.18 grams). The Temple of the Sun, the residence of the sun—god Inti, was the greatest prize. The count of gold plates that covered its walls has been lost, but the plates must have numbered several thousand, weighing from four to ten pounds each!

The most amazing feature of the Temple of the Sun was in the garden surrounding the temple. It contained a golden mimicry of plants. Maize, actual size, had been "planted" with its stalks cunningly wrought with gold in a soil of clods of earth, all of which were made of gold. All the stems and leaves of the garden were sculpted of gold. On the outskirts of the garden was thick golden grass on which twenty life—size Ilamas grazed. The llamas were also solid gold, as were the replicas of the shepherds who watched over them.

When invading Spaniards saw the cornfields of gold, they quickly became vegetarians and harvested the entire field; within two days not a single blade of golden grass remained. The defeated Incas could only stand by helplessly and watch. They probably expected Inti to exact his revenge, and when he did not, they must have concluded that even their great god was helpless before the might of the greedy Europeans.

The golden pieces of Aztec and Incan art were exquisite, but most of them quickly found their way into the Spanish melting pots. Only a few lovely ornaments survived. In 1931, however, an undisturbed Aztec tomb of a high official was discovered. The design and shape of the necklaces, earplugs, and rings, by their sheer intricacy and bulk alone, made one realize that the Spanish descriptions of the conquistadores' loot gravely understated the rich artistic ability of the Aztec and Incan goldsmiths.

For centuries the Aztecs had been levying gold tribute from subordinate Mexican peoples, who were required to collect the gold by washing stream gravel in gourds and mining for it in the hills. Most of the yellow metal they produced was turned over to the Aztecs as taxes or tribute, for lowly people were not allowed to own the metal of the sun. As a result, gold accumulated throughout several hundred years of required mining and filled the temples and palaces of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City). It would be futile to attempt to describe such storehouses of treasure.

In 1520 Hernando Cortes marched on the Valley of Mexico with 600 men. His goal was the treasure of Montezuma II, the supreme Aztec ruler. Cortes had thus far been successful in his invasion of Mexico because of a superstitious quirk. The Aztec rulers, and especially Montezuma, mistook the bearded Castilian for a powerful god whose return to the Aztecs had long been prophesied. Fear of offending the god precipitated their destruction.

The Indians decided these white gods were too strong for their blood and wanted them to leave, peacefully. Montezuma sent rich gifts of gold, including a huge disk the size of a cart wheel that represented the sun. It was of solid gold. The bearers of the gifts conveyed messages begging Cortes to turn back. As was to be expected, the sight of so much gold only served to spur the invaders on. Finally, with a great caravan laden with golden gifts, Montezuma himself ventured out to meet with Cortes. The great king was borne on a golden litter. This was the last great attempt to convince the Spaniards to take the gifts and leave in peace. Montezuma doubtless realized the futility of trying to distract the Spaniard from gold, because Cortes looked on such golden gifts as trinkets, mere samples of what lay ahead. And he was right.

The Catilian conqueror marched on Tenochtitlan. When the conquering Spaniards saw the wealth contained in the city, it was as if they were hungry sharks being fed raw meat — it drove them into a frenzy. It unleashed a fury that resulted in their committing some of the foulest deeds that so—called civilized man ever committed against his fellow men. The frenzy did not cease until the entire Aztec Empire lay in complete devastation, from which the survivors and their descendants have never really recovered.

In 1513 Vasco Nuniz de Balboa and a small band of men crossed the disease—ridden isthmus of Panama in search of India gold. Instead Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean. He later tried to organize another expedition to explore South America's Pacific shore, but a rival for power managed to have Balboa arrested, tried for treason, and beheaded. One of Balboa's original band, an illiterate swashbuckler named Francisco Pizarro, went on to discover the golden kingdom of the Incas in a high valley of the Peruvian Andes.

With the coming of Pizarro the Incan Empire was destined to suffer the same fate as the Aztec; nothing could stop the frenzied greed of the conquistadores. The sight of the vast treasure of the Incas as described earlier was enough to seal their fate. The grandeur that was the Incan Empire was near its end; merely a shadow of it remains today.

The invading Pizarro rode inland in 1532 at the head of 368 men heavily armed with swords, crossbows, and muskets. The supreme Incan king, Atahualpa, who was worshiped as a divine offspring of the sun, came out to meet him with an escort of about 5,000 warriors. The king wore a string of large emeralds around his neck, complemented by a breastplate of gold that glittered in the sunlight. He was borne majestically forward, seated on a golden throne. None of his attendants were armed. Instead they wore precious gems and glittering golden ornaments. Doubtless Atahuapla was making the same mistake Montezuma was destined to make; he showed the Spaniards too much gold.

Pizarro was even more deceitful than Cortes; he pretended he really wanted nothing more than their friendship. This was short—lived but effective, because it put the Indians completely off guard. Suddenly, without warning, Pizarro signaled his men to attack. The one—sided battle lasted no more than thirty minutes, and when it was over more than 2,000 Incan warriors lay dead and the remainder were taken prisoner, including the great king Atahualpa. Historians recorded that not a single man among Pizarro's forces was killed.

The Incan king was held captive in a large room, where in desperation he offered the greatest ransom in history for his freedom. He agreed to fill the room, seventeen feet long by twelve feet wide, with gold as high as he could reach, which came to about eight feet. Accepting these terms, Pizarro drew a white line at this height. An adjacent room of much greater dimensions was to be filled with silver and precious stones. For nearly two months the king's subjects brought prescious gold and silver artifacts into the rooms, and eventually their ransom was paid. The value of such a treasure, based on present market prices, would be hundreds of millions of dollars!

But treachery seemed to be a way of life for the Spaniard, because the king was not freed. To deprive the Incas of their leader, Pizarro had the lord Atahualpa strangled in full view of his people. Poetic and impartial justice did triumph, however. A similar fate awaited most of the conquistadores, who were soon, and not surprisingly, fighting bitterly among themselves over gold and power. Pizarro was assassinated by his fellow Spaniards in the palace he had built for himself, in what is now Lima.

And thus ended the rich empires of the Americas. However, the vast hoards of precious metals obtained from the Aztecs and the Incas were but mere suggestions of the great metallic treasures that were subsequently mined and transported across the Atlantic to Spain. From Mexico southward, the Spanish conquerors established a vast network of mines worked, as a final outrage, by the Indians they had subjugated. The output was so great that convoys sometimes numbered more than a hundred ships. Storms and privateers took their toll, but most galleons did make the crossing safely. Records show that during the 1550s alone the coffers of Spain were enriched by well over 100,000 pounds of gold mined from its possessions in the Americas. Who can dispute that the Wealth of the Gods had indeed passed into the hands of "civilized" man!

Word of the defeat of the god—king Atahualpa quickly spread throughout the Incan Empire, and great hoards of gold were secreted away, remaining almost permanently elusive to the treasure hunters who sought them. The search still goes on, and quite recently one site was found. It contains treasure from the two most sacred temples of the Incan religion, but recovery of the treasure does not seem imminent. Although how much treasure was actually housed there can never be known, all descriptions seem to be consistent. It is quite possible that much of what is described next really did exist. What is certain is that all the events included in this recounting are true.

In Lake Titicaca, Bolivia, are two islands that were once inhabited by hundreds of noblemen and priests. The Temple of the Sun, located on the large island, was reportedly crammed full of gold offerings. A gold chain 120 feet long hung around the altar. At least twenty strong men were required to lift it. On the alter was a huge sun—ray disk made of solid gold, which must have weighted almost a ton! There were numerous life—size replicas of large animals, such as llamas and jaguars, all made of pure gold.

To the east, about 500 yards distant, is the smaller island, which at that time contained the Temple of the Moon. It was said to be literally stuffed with silver offerings, statues, and an immense round silver shield, with a diameter of over ten feet, representing the moon.

Both temples housed numerous pyramidlike piles of precious gems, consisting mostly of emeralds and topaz. Some of these piles of wealth were over six feet high.

The network of spies established by the Spanish consistently reported the contents of the temples to the conquistadores, who documented the information. When the invading soldiers advanced on the islands, they had great visions of limitless wealth. But the priests had their own spies, who reported the oncoming invaders. The priests, knowing what to expect, hastily dumped all of the temple treasures into the lake. The battle that followed witnessed the death of most of the islands' Incas. The conquerors burned the temples and destroyed the gardens, probably to relieve the frustration of losing such a gigantic treasure.

The gorge between the islands, where the priests dumped the treasure, is probably one of the deepest places in Lake Titicaca. So the treasure of the ages lies well over a thousand feet below the surface, buried under many feet of lake mud. To date all attempts at recovery have been futile.

The people who live near the islands today consist of a handful of impoverished Indian farmers. They scratch out a meager existence from the soil, without the slightest regard for the enormous wealth buying just offshore. But all is not completely lost; the ruins of the temple are still available to those who wish to visit them.

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth