The Legend of El Dorado
The Legend of El Dorado
Around 1541, less than half a century after Christopher Columbus's discovery of the Americas, rumors began to spread among European explorers in South America that somewhere in the hinterland of the vast continent lay a fabulous golden kingdom with riches far greater even than the great treasures of gold and silver Hernan Cortés and Francisco Pizarro had been able to extract from the Aztec and Incan empires of Mexico and Peru during the 1520s and 1530s. For the remainder of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Spanish, German, and English soldiers of fortune led expeditions through the jungles and mountains of South America, each hoping to be the first to find and conquer “El Dorado” (The Golden One), an Indian chief so rich that he clothed himself only with gold dust. All the expeditions failed, none able to find a golden chief, his wondrous kingdom, or a lake holding the great quantities of golden offerings which the legend promised. Today the legend of El Dorado is largely regarded as an unfortunate myth, a symbol of the greed that spurred Spanish conquistadors and other European explorers to conquer the land and aboriginal peoples of South America in their mad search for precious metals and easy wealth.
There is some debate among historians concerning the exact origin of the legend of El Dorado. The Spanish conquistadors Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada and Sebastián Benalcázar as well as the German explorer Nicolaus Federmann each claimed in their memoirs to have been searching for El Dorado when they converged near present-day Bogatá in the late 1530s; however, the first written description of the legend comes from the Spanish historian Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, who wrote in 1541 in his Historia General y Natural de las Indias, Islas y Tierra Firme del Mar Oceano of a story he had heard from the Muisca Indians of Columbia telling of a native leader who each morning had gold dust applied to his entire body, which he washed off each night before sleeping. Although de Oviedo could not confirm the veracity of this story of the chief he dubbed “El Dorado,” he reasoned that it was certainly plausible, considering the enormous quantities of gold that had been found in the previous two decades in Mexico and Peru. The following year another historian, Pedro de Cieza de León, recorded a variation of the El Dorado legend based on stories an expedition led by Gonzalo Pizarro had heard from the Quijos Indians. They told of a valley east of the Andes Mountains, where gold was so plentiful that natives commonly wore the metal as ornaments. The legend took on further dimensions in 1589, when Juan de Castellanos published his Elejias de Varones Ilustres de Indias, which claimed that Benalcázar had been told by a native of Bogatá of an Indian chief who regularly performed a sacred ceremony in which he threw golden treasures to the bottom of a lake. Subsequent seventeenth-century Spanish accounts, including Fray Pedro Simón's 1627 Noticias Historiales de las Conquistas de Tierra Firme en las Indias Occidentales and Juan Rodríguez Fresle's 1636 El Carnero de Bogatá: Conquista y descubrimiento del Nuevo Reino de Grenada continued to elaborate the association of El Dorado with a ceremony involving a lake, most commonly identified as Lake Guatavita, a circular lake near the highlands of Bogatá. Twice in the sixteenth century and again in 1801 and 1898, Spanish, French, and British treasure hunters attempted to drain Lake Guatavita in hopes of finding great treasures at the bottom of the lake; besides a few tantalizing finds, these attempts always ended in bankruptcy.
For much of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, lured on by the many variations of the legend, numerous expeditions marched over the high mountains and vast jungles of South America, each hoping to be the first to lay claim to the riches of El Dorado. Gonzalo Pizarro, Gonzalo Pérez de Quesada, Pedro de Ursúa, Pedro Maraver de Silva, and Antonio de Berrío led some of the most famous Spanish explorations for the legendary kingdom, nearly all ending in disaster as countless men died as the result of disease, hunger, and clashes with hostile natives. Spaniards, of course, were not the only Europeans who hungered to find El Dorado. The Germans Philip von Hutten and Nicolaus Federmann each vainly sought after El Dorado, as did the English explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh, whose 1595 Discoverie of the large, rich, and beautiful Empire of Guiana, with a relation of the Great and Golden Citie of Manoa (which the Spaniards call El Dorado) and 1618 Sir Walter Raghleys Large Appologie for the ill successe of his enterprise to Guiana are among the few first-hand accounts published in English that expound the legend of El Dorado. Like so many of the Spanish and German explorers before him, Raleigh's attempt to locate El Dorado cost him his life; he was executed in 1618 after a second unsuccessful voyage to Guiana in search of the land of gold yielded little.
Today it can be difficult to comprehend why European explorers would have believed that El Dorado could exist in any of its variations, either as an Indian chief who covered his body with gold each day, as a ceremonial lake into which gold was thrown in religious or political ceremonies, or as a vast kingdom where gold was so common that it was used as ordinary jewelry and even to construct houses. By and large, historians have led the examination of the legend of El Dorado, usually focusing on the hardships encountered by the various expeditions that attempted to find the location of the Indian chief and his fabulous kingdom. These historians have attempted to rationalize that search in several ways, both by reminding modern readers that after the tons of gold and silver which Spaniards found in Mexico and Peru in the first decades after the European discovery of the New World, it was not unreasonable to assume that more great civilizations would be found which collected the metals so valued in Europe, and by demonstrating that there is some reason to believe that the stories which led to the legend of El Dorado may have had some slight basis in fact, which was exaggerated in the legend. Literary criticism of the explorers' accounts tends to focus on the influence of traditional stories of gold—from Biblical tales of golden cities to the Greek myth of Jason and the golden fleece—which may have led Europeans to believe that a real Golden city as well as a New Golden Age could be found deep in the interior of the South American continent.
Antonio de Berrío
Memoria de los descubridores y conquistadores que entraron conmigo a descubrir y conquistar este Nuevo Reino de Grenada [Memories of the Discovery of El Dorado] (history) 1566
Fray Gaspar de Carvajal
Descubrimiento del Rio de las Amazonas segun la Relacion hasta ahora Inedita de Fr. Gaspar Carvajal, por Toribio Medina (history) 1894
Juan de Castellanos
Elejias de Varones Ilustres de Indias [Elegies of Illustrious Men] (history) 1589
Historia del Nuevo Reino de Grenada, publicada vez por D. Antonio Paz y Melia (history) 1886
Indianische Historia: Ein Schüne kurtz-weilige Historia Niclaus Federmann des Jungern von Vlm erster raise so er von Hispania vn Andolsia auss in Indias des Occeanischen Nors, gethan hat vnd was ihm allsa ist begegnet biss auff sein widerkunft inn Hispaniam auffs jurtzest beschriben gantz lustig zu lesen [The Charming and Agreeable Account of the First Trip of Nicolaus Federmann, the Younger of Ulm, to the Indies in the Ocean Sea, and all that happened in that country until his return to Spain. Briefly Written and Diverting to Read] (history) 1557
Lucas Fernández Piedrahita
Historia General de las Conquistas de Nuevo Reino de Grenada [General History of the Conquest of the New Kingdom of Grenada] (history) 1688
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SOURCE: Bandelier, A. F. “Cundinamarca.” In The Gilded Man (El Dorado) and Other Pictures of the Spanish Occupancy of America, pp. 1-30. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1893.
[In the following essay, Bandalier describes how the myth of El Dorado and the lure of gold spurred Spanish exploration and conquest of the New World.]
While the early Spanish adventurers in America are justly charged with neglecting the true interests of colonization in their excessive greed for treasure, and thereby bringing harm to those parts of the Western Continent which they entered, it cannot be denied that their irrepressible seeking for the precious metals contributed directly to an earlier knowledge and a more rapid settlement of the country. The Spaniards' thirst for gold led them into adventures which excite admiration and wonder as expressions of manly energy, while they offer the saddest pictures from the point of view of morals.
In every age gold has presented one of the strongest means of enticing men from their homes to remote lands, and of promoting trade between distant regions and the settlement of previously uninhabited districts. We have received from the earliest antiquity the stories of the voyage of the Argonauts, of the expedition of Hercules after the golden apples of the Hesperides, and of the settlement of the Phœnicians in Spain, the gold of which they carried to the Syrian...
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SOURCE: Zahm, J. A. “Chief Sources of Information Respecting El Dorado” and “Expedition of Sebastian de Belalcazar: Conflicting Reports Regarding El Dorado.” In The Quest of El Dorado: The Most Romantic Episode in the History of South American Conquest, pp. 1-8; 9-36. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1917.
[In the following essay, Zahm recounts several versions of the El Dorado legend and argues that the main reason so little is known about the expeditions which searched for El Dorado is that few of the original accounts have been translated into English.]
During a year's wanderings in Andean lands and in the valleys of the Amazon and the Orinoco I was frequently reminded of the numerous expeditions that centuries ago went in quest of that extraordinary will-o'-the-wisp, usually known as El Dorado—the Gilded King. Whether gliding down a Peruvian river in a dugout or traversing in the saddle the llanos of Venezuela and the lofty tablelands of Colombia, I found myself following the courses pursued by those intrepid adventurers who while seeking a phantom did so much toward exploring that vast region of mountain and plain which lies between the Equator and the Caribbean. At one time I was in the footsteps of Gonzalo Pizarro and Von Hutten, at another in the wake of Ursua and Orellana. Now I was following the course taken by Belalcazar and his eager band, as they hurried across the Cordilleras in...
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SOURCE: Hemming, John. “Chapter 6.” In The Search for El Dorado, pp. 97-109. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978.
[In the following essay, Hemming examines the earliest Spanish references to El Dorado, concluding that the legend was unknown before 1541, although several explorers would claim earlier knowledge of the golden kingdom in their attempts to gain exclusive rights to the region where it was believed to be.]
The legend of El Dorado, the Golden Man, was born in Quito at the beginning of 1541. It was a beguiling story and it quickly caught the imagination of the conquistadores. It spread fast, gained momentum and credibility, and evolved in detail during the ensuing century. It became one of the most famous chimeras in history, a legend that lured hundreds of hard men into desperate expeditions. Such is the conclusion of the distinguished Venezuelan historian Demetrio Ramos Pérez, who traced the genesis of the legend through elaborate detective work in documentary and chronicle sources. His painstaking research led him to fix the time and place of the birth of the legend, and to conclude that it was entirely unconnected with the Muisca. If he is right, he refutes the accepted version, an attractive story told by the chroniclers within a few decades of Jiménez de Quesada's conquest.
What exactly was the legend? Fernández de Oviedo was surprised by it and, with his usual diligence,...
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SOURCE: Silverberg, Robert. “The Gilded Man of Cundinamarca.” In The Golden Dream: Seekers of El Dorado, pp. 3-38. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985.
[In the following essay, Silverberg establishes how Spaniards could have believed in El Dorado by describing the riches in gold accumulated by explorers like Columbus, Cortés, and Pizarro.]
The quest for El Dorado was an enterprise of fantasy that obsessed the adventurers of Europe for more than a century. Tales of a golden kingdom and of a golden king, somewhere in the unexplored wilderness of South America, spurred men on to notable achievements of endurance, chivalry, and—too often—crime. Nothing halted the pursuers of the golden dream, neither snow-capped mountains nor blazing plains, neither the thin air of lofty plateaus nor the green intricacy of steaming tropical jungles. They marched on, killing and plundering, suffering incredible torments, often traveling—as one chronicler put it—con el alma en los dientes, with their souls between their teeth.
They did not find El Dorado. The stuff of dreams cannot easily be transmuted into solid reality. The seekers sought, and their deeds constitute a monument to futility as well as an epic of high adventure.
Yet there was a kernel of truth within the fantasy. This is where the quest began, a third of the way through the sixteenth century: with a...
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SOURCE: Ainsa, Fernando. “From the Golden Age to El Dorado: (Metamorphosis of a Myth).” Diogenes 34 (Spring 1986): 20-46.
[In the following essay, Ainsa examines the ways in which the European myth of a lost Golden Age contributed to the formation of the myth of El Dorado.]
The geographical Utopias that present a New World, from classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages to the exploration and conquest of American territories by Spain, give a two-fold vision of the myth of gold. On the one hand, the legendary lands in which were found the wealth and power generated by the coveted metal—El Dorado, El Paititi, the City of the Caesars—establish the direction of a venture toward the unknown, and a geography of the imaginary marked the ubiquitous sign of the mythical gold. But at the same time, America permitted the felicitous re-encounter in its territory of the Golden Age that had been lost in the Old World. The first steps of Western man toward the American adventure wavered contradictorily between these extremes, in that gold was at the same time “booty and marvel.”1
Colombus's enterprise itself is marked by that ambivalence. Does not the discoverer of America write in his copy of Imago Mundi indications of the precious stones and treasures of the mythical islands of Antiquity that he hoped to find in the West Indies, while in his diary and in the accounts of his...
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SOURCE: Bodmer, Beatriz Pastor. “The Models in Crisis: The Search for El Dorado.” In The Armature of Conquest: Spanish Accounts of the Discovery of America, 1492-1589, translated by Lydia Longstreth Hunt pp. 153-68. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992.
[In the following excerpt, Bodmer argues that belief in various myths about South America—including that of El Dorado—spurred the exploration of the interior of the continent.]
On the northern continent, territorial expansion had been organized in pursuit of two central goals: the Fountain of Youth and the Seven Cities of Cibola. Every great Spanish expedition to that region had been initially inspired by one of these two mythical objectives. Although these ventures ultimately failed, they never quite succeeded in curbing the mythical impulses of a people who persisted in identifying the unknown with the imaginary things and beings of ancient legends, Native American lore, and the “lying histories” that were the rage of the time.1
While expansion continued toward the north, the southern continent was gradually being explored from bases established along the coast in Peru, Quito, and Venezuela. The conquistadors who led these explorations seem to have been just as creative at myth-making as those who had developed and perpetuated the tales about the wonderful fountain and the enchanted cities. Irving A....
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SOURCE: Ainsa, Fernando. “The Myth, Marvel, and Adventure of El Dorado: Semantic Mutations of a Legend.” Diogenes 41, No. 4 (1993): 13-26.
[In the following essay, Ainsa traces the evolution of the myth of El Dorado from the story of a gilded king, to a belief in a treasure lying at the bottom of a lake, to the legend of a golden land.]
Dreams of gold have accompanied human history down through the ages. Gold is a beautiful and useful metal, easily shaped and immune to rust, and from the time of the ancient Sumerian and Egyptian civilizations, it has been regarded as a precious metal from which jewels and decorative as well as everyday objects have been fashioned. Even before the concept of money turned it into one of the principal forms of exchange, gold was used as a medium of barter.
Apart from being of commercial and aesthetic value, gold is also a part of the stuff of fables and legends. Legendary and mythical lands where gold abounds have crowded the imaginative geography of almost all civilizations. The Bible itself, in the Book of Kings, speaks of the Mines of King Solomon, the Kingdom of Ophir, and the City of Sidon, while the prophet Zechariah observes that in the City of Tyre: “silver is heaped up like dust, and gold as the mire of the streets” [Zachariah, 9.3].
From the treasures of Solomon and Ali Baba's cave to the islands where the...
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SOURCE: Nicholl, Charles. “Mapping El Dorado.” In The Creature in the Map: A Journey to El Dorado, pp. 9-19. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1995.
[In the following excerpt, Nicholl considers the search for El Dorado the result of a psychological “projection” onto the unexplored territory of South America of the desire for wealth and power.]
The purpose of Ralegh's Guiana Voyage was to locate El Dorado, and so a question immediately arises: Where was El Dorado?
The first and sensible answer is, nowhere. El Dorado did not exist. There never was a “great and golden city” (as Ralegh put it) lost in the South American jungle, and that is why it could not, and cannot, be found. There have been remarkable discoveries in Latin America this century—Machu Picchu, Buritaca, Akakor: genuinely lost cities, or anyway settlements, that lay undisturbed for centuries. There are probably others still waiting to be found, but El Dorado will not be among them. (I am aware of recent reports in the Brazilian press that a site being excavated near Boa Vista “is” El Dorado.1 It has certain constituents—a mountain lake, evidence of early gold-working—but as such it joins a longish list of places that may have contributed to the El Dorado legend.)
In another sense, of course, El Dorado certainly did exist. It existed, during a period that can...
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Criticism: Major Explorations For El Dorado
SOURCE: Sturcken, H. Tracy. “Raleigh and El Dorado of Guiana.” The Americas 19, No. 8 (August, 1967): 15-21.
[In the following essay, Sturcken describes how Walter Raleigh's failure to find El Dorado led to his execution in 1618.]
The Empyre of Guiana is directly east from Peru towards the sea … and it hath more abundance of Golde then any part of Peru, and as many or more great Cities than euer Peru had when it florished most … I haue beene assured by such of the Spanyardes as haue seene Manoa the emperiall Citie of Guiana, which the Spanyardes call el Dorado, that for the greatnes, for the riches, and for the excellent seate, it farre exceedeth any of the world, at least of so much of the world as is knowen to the Spanish nation: it is founded vpon a lake of salt water of 200 leagues long like vnto mare caspiū. And if we compare it to that of Peru, and but reade the report of Francisco Lopez and others, it wil seeme more then credible, and because we may iudge of the one by the other, I thought good to insert part of the 120 chapter of Lopez in his generall historie of the Indies, wherein he discribeth the court and magnificence of Guaynacapa, auncestor to the Emperour of Guiana, whose very words are these.
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SOURCE: Connell, Evan. “The Golden Man.” The Atlantic Monthly 241, No. 6 (June 1978): 65-71.
[In the following essay, Connell describes the hardships and madness endured by expeditions led by Ambrosius Dalfinger, Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, Gonzalo Pizarro, Lope de Aguirre, and Walter Raleigh as they vainly sought El Dorado.]
If you go to Bogotá and visit the Banco de la República you will see, in the bank's Museo del Oro, nearly 10,000 pre-Columbian gold artifacts: labrets, nose rings, brooches, masks, spoons, pincers, receptacles, representations of birds, snakes, crocodiles, people, animals—so many that you think they must be dime-store replicas. You walk along a corridor filled with display cases, each case cluttered with dull gold knickknacks. You turn right, walk down another long corridor past more of the same. Then more. And more. Finally, instead of going out, you enter a room which is completely dark. After you have been there a while the lights very gradually rise and you are surrounded by gold from the floor to the ceiling. If Tutankhamen's gold were added to this collection, together with everything Schliemann found at Mycenae and Hissarlik, you could scarcely tell the difference.
Quite a lot of it is Muisca. Unless you happen to be an anthropologist, or a collector, or at least a Colombian, the name Muisca may not mean anything. The Muisca Indians were one of the...
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SOURCE: Hemming, John. “Chapter 9.” In The Search for El Dorado, pp. 151-61. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978.
[In the following essay, Hemming describes expeditions by Antonio de Berrío and Domingo de Vera in the last two decades of the sixteenth century to find the elusive El Dorado.]
Gonzalo Jiménez died without any immediate family but with great estates of tribute-paying Muisca. He remained obsessed by El Dorado and determined that his heirs should conquer the kingdom that had eluded him. He chose as his heir his niece María, who was married to an old soldier called Antonio de Berrío, veteran of many Spanish campaigns in Italy, Flanders and against the Moors. In his will Jiménez de Quesada wrote: ‘Item: I declare as my successor in … the governorship [of El Dorado], Captain Antonio de Berrío, husband of my niece doña María …’1 He could not possibly have chosen a better successor. Berrío proved to be as stubborn a fanatic and as indestructible an old warrior as the Adelantado Jiménez de Quesada himself.
Within two years of learning about the legacy, the Berríos obtained permission to move to New Granada with their many children. They reached Bogotá in 1581 and by the end of the following year had, after a long legal wrangle, obtained the succession as governor of El Dorado between the Pauto and Papamene rivers. They settled in the village of Chita,...
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SOURCE: Sinclair, Andrew. “The Quest for El Dorado” and “The Knight of El Dorado.” In Sir Walter Raleigh and the Age of Discovery, pp. 56-63; 105-12. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1984.
[In the following essay, Sinclair recounts Walter Raleigh's two unsuccessful searches for El Dorado, the failure of which ultimately resulted in his execution.]
When the Spaniards seized rooms full of gold ornaments from the Incas, they never found the mines from which the metal came. Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada set off with an expedition to find the mines in the Amazonian jungles; most of his men died, including his brother, struck by a bolt of lightning; he survived to pass on his quest to Lope de Aguirre. Aguirre and his men did discover the connection between the Amazon and the Orinoco Rivers, the Rio Negro, before he was beheaded for treason. They both believed in the legend of a golden city named El Dorado, where the emperor was so rich that he used gold dust as powder on his body.
Quesada bequeathed the search for El Dorado to his heir Antonio de Berrio, who set up a base on the island of Trinidad at the mouth of the Orinoco. Berrio made three sorties into the interior as far as the mountains. He brought back geographical knowledge and news of gold mines. Raleigh knew of Berrio's endeavours from his captive Sarmiento. He wanted himself to find El Dorado and to establish a...
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SOURCE: Whitehead, Neil L. “The Discoverie as Ethnological Text.” In The Discoverie of the Large, Rich, and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana by Sir Walter Ralegh, edited by Neil L. Whitehead, pp. 60-116. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.
[In the following excerpt, Whitehead examines Walter Raleigh's Discoverie as an anthropological work that provides ethnographic information on the native peoples of Guiana, and he analyzes the “symbolic convergence of native and non-native traditions” regarding El Dorado.]
(I) CAPITAYNES, CASSIQUES AND INCAN IMPERIALISTS
Recent work in the anthropology of colonial contact and the texts it generates has emphasised the way in which political, economic and social assumptions are implicit within categories of explanation (see Dirks 1992, Hulme and Whitehead 1992, Schwartz 1994 and Chapter 1 (iii) above). At the same time texts, such as Ralegh's, may be quite overtly concerned to deliver a certain kind of impression of the political, economic and social capacities of the native population, in order to facilitate the colonial enterprise itself. Both features are present in Ralegh's Discoverie, which, as has been mentioned already, breaks with earlier forms of ethnographic reportage by giving a real significance to the forms of native voice presented in the text. This does not mean that the way in which supposed native...
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Lacey, Robert. Sir Walter Raleigh, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973, 391 p.
Biography of the English explorer who made two unsuccessful attempts to locate the kingdom of El Dorado in Guiana.
Loy, Jane M. “Quest for El Dorado.” The Americas 31, No. 3 (March 1979): 30-7.
Describes why so many explorations were made to discover El Dorado in northern South America between 1528 and 1595.
Naipaul, V. S. The Loss of El Dorado: A History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970, 334 p.
Depicts how the legend of El Dorado lured Sir Walter Raleigh to attack the Spanish fortress in Trinidad and how events over the next two decades would shape the future of this Caribbean island.
Parry, J. H. The Discovery of South America, London: Paul Elek, 1979, 310 p.
History of the discovery and conquest of the South American continent, including details of the legend of El Dorado which sparked many European expeditions in search of the golden king.
Severin, Timothy. “The Quest for El Dorado.” In The Golden Antilles, pp. 7-23. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970.
Describes how Spaniards came to believe the myth of El Dorado.
von Hagen, Victor W. “Philip von Hutten's Strange Desires.” In...
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