The Spaniards who came to the Americas were steeped in such legends and often tried to find proof that the New World could fit into the Greco-Roman legends, to better situate the New World into the Old. It’s impossible now to know how many of the stories they recorded about Native accounts of a Fountain of Youth were accurate version of Native lore and how many were filtered through their European mythic background. The attempts to see the Inca land as the Colchis of the Argonaut myth and to find Sir John Mandeville’s monsters in the Caribbean suggests that European contamination of the stories was probably strong.
Our hosts, Justin Fornal and Emiliano Ruprah, assume that the Fountain of Youth was located in America, and they travel to Florida and Arkansas to find it. Our hosts at least understand that there are pre-Columbian stories of the Fountain of Youth in the Old World, though Ruprah wrongly calls Gilgamesh’s thematically similar search for the plant of immortality a story of the fountain of youth. Immortality is not necessarily youth—ask the Greeks about Tithonus—and a plant is not a fountain.
The two men review a map included in Peter Martyr’s 1511 Decades, which I copy below.
The map appears on one side of the page, and a Latin description of the map is also visible in the scan, printed on the other side. The text is a letter Martyr wrote to a cardinal explaining the map and “marvelous countries and lands” (miras etiam terras micosque tractus) thought to be Florida. There is some bibliographic confusion about the map that the show doesn’t get into. The few known copies of the map were found in the 1511 Decades, but not all copies of the Decades from 1511, including three printed on vellum, have the map, nor did the 1516 or 1530 reprintings. Some scholars argued that the map was added into the book, while others felt that the Spanish government suppressed the map and had it removed from the book. Based on Martyr’s text and similar maps, some scholars today attribute the actual drawing of the map to Andrea Morales. The map (and Martyr’s text) offers some evidence for Spanish knowledge of Florida (thought to be an island) prior to its official discovery in 1513.
Even though Peter Martyr was the author of the Decades and not the cartographer who drew the map, the hosts describe him as a cartographer and falsely pretend in reading part of Martyr’s second Decade that they are reading an annotation on the map. Martyr wrote:
Beyond Veragua the coast bends in a northerly direction, to a point opposite the Pillars of Hercules; that is, if we accept for our measures certain lands discovered by the Spaniards more than three hundred and twenty-five leagues from the northern coast of Hispaniola. Amongst these countries is an island called by us Boinca, and by others Aganeo; it is celebrated for a spring whose waters restore youth to old men. Let not Your Holiness believe this to be a hasty or foolish opinion, for the story has been most seriously told to all the court, and made such an impression that the entire populace, and even people superior by birth and influence, accepted it as a proven fact. (Decades 2.10, trans. Francis Augustus MacNutt)
Our hosts, however, quote this section not from a standard or modern translation but from Michael Lok’s archaic 1612 translation (best known from being used by Washington Irving in his early nineteenth century history of the age of exploration), though the exact wording they used I could only find in the version adapted for a set of children’s flashcards on conquistadors. I wish I was making that up. But wait: It gets worse. Our idiot heroes use a light table to view a printout of what seems to be the Wikipedia image of the map (though it may also be a photo from the gallery where the map was held at the time of filming), and seeing the printing on the other side of the page visible in the scan, they declare it a “secret” code that Peter Martyr used to communicate with Juan Ponce de Leon. You know, the “secret” code printed and published, addressed to a cardinal.
Confused by the fact that printed material contains printing, they immediately fly to Barry Lawrence Ruderman Rare Maps Inc. in San Diego to meet with gallery curator Alex Clausen from Antiques Roadshow to investigate the secret backward writing code. The gallery where Clausen works owns a torn-out page from Peter’s 1511 Decades featuring the map, and our hosts imagine they can find the fountain by using it. (BLR sold the map after filming, but the buyer’s name wasn’t disclosed.)
In Florida, they hear that the “fountain” was a Spanish invention, based perhaps on preexisting Native stories of a lake or river of rejuvenating potential. Dispensing in mere seconds with Ponce de Leon, who was famous for seeking the Fountain of Youth, they instead pursue a conspiracy theory that the Spanish crown—at that time Ferdinand II as King of Aragon and Regent of Castile, Isabella having died in 1504—sent Hernan de Soto to hunt the fountain in the middle of America in order to … well, it’s not clear. In my book on the mound builders—out in February—I wrote a chapter on de Soto, and in so doing, I read all of the expedition diaries and early histories of his travels, and none of this appears in any of the original documents.
Our heroes go to Arkansas to look at a piece of corroded metal that a local man claims is a Spanish sword from the 1500s that had been discovered in a sealed cave. The owner shows our heroes grooves in a rock that he says someone—he doesn’t say who—verified was a map of the cave system carved in the 1500s. None of it looks anything like Spanish material of that date, and I wouldn’t even go out on a limb to assume the grooves on the rock are artificial in origin. Fornal and Ruprah explore the caves—more like tunnels, really—and find nothing but water, a lizard, and a dead end. So, they bring in a mapping expert to map the caves, and a long segment mapping the caves and doing more exploring follows. Somehow, during all this, Fornal claims that “the legend is pretty clear” that the Fountain of Youth is “flowing” water. Oh, really? How so? Amazing the way the story changes according to need.
Eventually, they go to a “hidden” chamber in the cave where they discover a rough carving of an eyeball and a wavy line. The men leap to the conclusion that De Soto carved it as a “signal.” Why would they assume that? Honestly, it looks like modern graffiti, though I imagine anyone could have carved it at any time over the years. Fornal says De Soto “seemingly” left it and that it is a coded map, with Ruprah adding that it is an image of Arkansas’s Zig Zag Mountains and the Ouachita lake and river. How they imagine that De Soto compiled a topographic map of Arkansas when he literally had no idea where he was going, I cannot fathom. To confirm their guess, they meet with Lynn Barrett, whom I swear I’ve seen before. I think she was on one of the other fringe shows, maybe America Unearthed, but I can’t quite recall. Anyway, she offers local Arkansas folklore to the effect that waters in the Zig Zag Mountains were imagined to have healing properties. An oral tradition from unnamed local Natives that she recounts—and which sounds like a modern tale, frankly—claims that De Soto visited the area, was injured in battle, and had been healed by the waters. This story does not appear in the expedition accounts and almost certainly never happened.
Our heroes go looking for the spring where De Soto allegedly bathed. They pick a small stream and declare that it is “mystical” and “feels different” because of the “silence” surrounding it. It’s just a creek. In fact, even the hosts realize this. “It looks like a thousand other creeks,” Fornal says. They then drink the water in search of “magical effects.” None occur. They have a sample of the water analyzed by Dr. Dana Churchill, a naturopath who runs an anti-aging practice. They don’t reveal that he has some unconventional ideas about restoring youth that he charges patients to experience, but you could guess that from his belief that bathing in magic water can miraculously heal wounds. Everyone is excited that the spring has a lot of silver and silica in it, and Churchill gives the standard prattle about how silver heals. Anyone who has seen the people who have turned blue from consuming colloidal silver will understand why the good doctor borders on quackery in imagining that this creek possesses significantly more restorative powers than any other waters. As the Mayo Clinic reported, silver has no known purpose in the body, much less the ability to heal damaged nerves.
Based on this, Fornal declares that he found “the real Fountain of Youth.” Perhaps it is true. He seems to grow more childishly foolish with each passing episode.
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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