Before I was so rudely interrupted with A+E Networks’ cease and desist order, I was planning to discuss the Ciudad Blanca story a bit more. So, here is what I originally planned to write yesterday, delayed by one day:
On Thursday, I discussed the question of whether archaeologists discovered Ciudad Blanca, a legendary lost city in Honduras. I must confess that in writing the piece, I intentionally left out an important part of the story in order to focus on the fact that the existence of a myth of legend is no barrier to archaeological interest in a topic. The part I left out? The “legend” of Ciudad Blanca is a modern fabrication drawn from a number of sources. That story, being long and complex, is justifiably the subject of a separate discussion, one that casts additional light on the workings of “alternative” history.
The story begins, I suppose, with Christopher Columbus’ claim in 1502 that the coast of Honduras held gold nuggets and an entire island of gold. In my previous post I quoted Hernando Cortes’ fifth letter to Charles V, in which the conquistador describes his quest for a city called Hueitapalan or Xucutaco, a wealthy metropolis somewhere in Honduras. As with similar Spanish legends of El Dorado, the Seven Cities of Gold (themselves derived from the mythical seven Christian cities of Antilla), and Quivira, the story of Ciudad Blanca is one of exaggeration, wishful thinking, and the imposition of European cultural ideas onto Native landscapes. Shortly after Cortes wrote, actual gold and silver were found in Honduras, leading to a Spanish mining operation and lending credence to the myth of Xucutaco. In 1537, the natives rose up against the Spanish who had enslaved them, and in time African slaves replaced native miners.
Two decades after Cortes wrote to Charles V, Cristóbal de Pedraza informed the emperor-king that he had heard from a Native princess that beyond the sea lay a fabulous civilization where the nobles drank from golden cups.
Nothing much came of this story, but over the centuries various travelers claimed to see glimpses of a forgotten city in the jungles of the Mosquito Coast. Some of these accounts report that the stone gleamed white, giving the city its name. This may possibly be a reference to white outcroppings of rocks that can be seen along rivers in the region. Others may refer to various ruins known to exist in the area. The actual term “Ciudad Blanca” was not in popular usage until the modern era when it seems that Charles Lindberg and some bush pilots began describing sightings of ruins in the jungle as a “white” city (for the reflective quality of their limestone walls), giving rise in 1960 to the “Ciudad Blanca Archaeological Preserve,” the name of which persisted until 1980, when it became a biological reserve under another name. According to many mystery-monger authors, Lindbergh discovered the city in 1927.
So far as I know, Lindbergh’s 1927 claim is where many believe the name Ciudad Blanca comes from, but even this isn’t certain since this legend saw print only in the 1950s, some three decades after the fact. (The oft-quoted phase “an amazing ancient metropolis,” attributed in the recent book Jungleland to Lindbergh, is actually another author’s paraphrase of a third author’s 1958 claim.) I believe, from what I can gather, that the Lindbergh claim is a misunderstanding of Lindbergh’s 1929 flight over the Yucatan, British Honduras (Belize), and other Central American locations, where he identified several hitherto unknown Maya sites; this flight, under the auspices of the Carnegie Institution, was one of the first successful demonstrations of aerial reconnaisance in archaeology.
The oldest reference I can find to Ciudad Blanca by that name was in 1938 in An Archaeological Reconnaissance of Northwestern Honduras, where it is described as a “reputed ruin.” In 1939 an American expedition to chart the Mosquito Coast claimed to have found the “Lost City of the Monkey God” in the region, though the alleged discoverer, Theodore Morde, was run over by a bus in 1940 before revealing its location. By the 1950s, the name “Ciudad Blanca” had stuck, and by the late 1960s, archaeologists were writing that an “important Mayan ruin” was located in the region, but one that had only been spotted from the air. Memories of it were now attributed to “folklore” by anthropologists and folklorists, despite not having existed just decades before! Some tribes in the region have myths of a “sacred” or “hidden” city that later researchers have retroactively applied to the burgeoning myth of Ciudad Blanca, sort of like a black hole sucking in all vaguely related matter around it.
Fun fact: In Lost Cities of North and Central America (1992), David Hatcher Childress copied word-for-word without quotation marks (though with an endnote) from David Zink’s 1979 book The Ancient Stones Speak in describing the lost city. Compare the two authors:
In turn, Zink was paraphrasing Frank Griffith Dawson’s 1977 article “The Ciudad Blanca Quest.” None of these authors, or others, like John Blashford-Snell, who paraphrased their works identified the source of this alleged engraving.
I am not able to find any such engraving, nor can I find a reference to a “White City” in Honduras before the twentieth century, as I noted above, or to the engraving prior to 1977. I can’t say the engraving doesn’t exist, but if I had to guess, I’d say it’s a misinterpretation of one of the plates from travelogues like Ephraim Squier’s Notes on Central America or Travels in Central America, which covered “aboriginal monuments” of the area, or any number of travelogues from the Yucatan published in those years. I haven’t been able to review all of them, but there are an awful lot to choose from. If there was in fact a Honduran engraving, it does not appear to have ever been reproduced outside Honduras.
Some Christian extremists believe that the White City is part of a Satanic conspiracy. According to conspiracy theorist David J. Dionisi, the modern myth that the White City was the birthplace of Quetzalcoatl proves that the New World Order claimed the Western Hemisphere for Satan. In this reading, Amerigo Vespucci was a patsy chosen to hide the fact that the Americas were named for “Amaru,” another name for Quetzalcoatl (it’s not, really; Amaru was an Incan royal name), who as a serpent god is therefore the serpent of the Garden of Eden, i.e. Satan. Dionisi believes that the site of Ciudad Blanca currently under discussion in the media is the exact spot where Lucifer fell from heaven in yet another myth extrapolated from a misreading of ancient texts. (The myth of the “fall” of Lucifer depends upon a misinterpretation of Isaiah 14:12 as applying to an angel and not a mortal king.)
So, in short, the legend of Ciudad Blanca is a modern extrapolation from an imaginative reinterpretation of what may well have originated as a real ruined city in the Honduran jungle; or the whole thing could be a coincidence based on the fact that an actual civilization once existed where Natives tried to dupe Cortes into going to get him out of their towns. The question is how much the Ciudad Blanca legend is similar to the fabricated story of Atlantis and now much it resembles the vague memories of the lost cities of Troy or Pompeii that persisted into the Middle Ages. Whatever the answer, the fact remains that the Ciudad Blanca story growing out of the 1930s bears little resemblance to the originating passages in the Spanish accounts—a situation almost identical to the elaborate post-1959 myth of the lost colony of Henry Sinclair and the Templars, bearing no resemblance to its one textual source, the Zeno Narrative, similarly misinterpreted and falsified to support a Eurocentric fantasy.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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