The president of Honduras embraced the myth of the lost White City of the Monkey God in a speech delivered to university students this week. According to published accounts, Pres. Juan Orlando Hernández announced that a team of archaeologists had set out on Wednesday for the site of the lost city during a speech to private university students at the presidential palace in honor of the nation’s literacy program. The president made plain that he was embracing the myth out of a sense of national pride and for potential economic reward.
“Right now people in Europe are watching documentaries about Honduras,” Hernández said in a Spanish-language speech I am translating here from a transcript. “And the magnitude of the exposure Honduras has received is something we have not had before.” La Prensa, a Honduran newspaper, explained that a recent National Geographic Channel documentary on the site attracted 60 million viewers in 15 countries.
Hernández visited the site of the supposed lost city last spring and has embraced the potential value of the site for Honduras over the past year.
Hernández added that the so-called Ciudad Blanca would be a major tourist attraction for Honduras. “The rest of humanity is talking about us and the White City in terms of tourism, and we must place this in the context of the new infrastructure we are building in terms of highways, airports, and ports. We must prepare as a country to take advantage of this great opportunity.”
In other words, the White City’s true value is the publicity it can generate among credulous Europeans and Americans who might visit the country to see an archaeological site that can be passed off as the fictitious city of legend.
There is, of course, no evidence that the ancient site currently being excavated was ever the supposed White City of the Monkey God, especially since the story of such a city does not predate the twentieth century.
The deep origins of the myth allegedly start with letters written by Hernán Cortes and Cristóbal de Pedraza describing, respectively, a wealthy Honduran city and a place where nobles drink from golden cups. The letters are real, but they make no mention of a White City or a monkey god. Nothing much happened after this until the twentieth century, when Eduard Conzemius recorded a version of the legend in “Los Indios Payas de Honduras” in the Journal de la Société des Américanistes 19 (1927). Therein Conzemius attributed the story to a secondhand account told of rubber tapper who alleged that he had stumbled across ruins of white buildings sometime between 1900 and 1910. “All the Indians say that they do not know of it and that it is all a myth,” Conzemius reported. Somehow, around 1958, this account from 1927 became conflated with archaeological survey flights conducted by Charles Lindbergh in British Honduras (now Belize) in 1929, and after 1958 it was claimed that Lindbergh had discovered the ruins of the White City. No such record exists, but it the legend is so entrenched that it appeared in the recent bestseller Jungleland and a recent Ancient Origins article on the speech given by the Honduran preseident.
The Monkey God legend was more or less made up in 1939 by some American adventurers and then folded into the Ciudad Blanca myth. The legend proved popular enough that in 1960 Honduras named a preserve after Ciudad Blanca and has had a low level endorsement of the myth ever since. Now, a modern story concocted from vague references to real ruins, a rubber-tapper’s almost certainly fictitious story, and a bunch of modern fabrication is being hailed as the next frontier for Honduras.
This seems to be part of a trend in governments embracing historical fictions for modern gain. Turkey’s controversial president, you will recall, embraced a twentieth century Islamic fantasy that willfully misread Columbus’ poetic description of a Cuban hill as looking “like” a mosque as proof that Muslims discovered America first. He even provided money to build a mosque in honor of the imaginary achievement. Similarly, the controversial prime minister of India has embraced fringe history claims about high technology in Vedic India, including airplanes, to glorify Indian scientific prowess.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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