Throughout history, tales have been told to explorers about mythical places that no-one has ever seen – cities of gold, valleys of milk and honey, a Baskin-Robbin’s which really does carry all 32 flavors. Many people have gone in search of these places, but none have succeeded and some have not come back at all. The cities of gold may still be out there if you look hard enough – pick up all the clues you need in our Top 10 Mythical Places.
10. El Dorado
This South American legend is possibly the most famous city of gold, thanks to the Disney adaptation of the story, and the failed British soap opera that used its name. But it’s also the most misinterpreted myth, as El Dorado was never a place, but a person. It was apparently the name given to the rulers of Muisca society, who would cover themselves in gold every morning, and bathe in a sacred lake to wash it off again (the Muisca people saw gold as spiritually valuable rather than materially valuable). But when this legend reached the ears of greedy Spanish conquistadors, all they noted was the abundance of gold…and the story grew so that it was an entire city made of gold rather than an individual. The Muisca people did have amazingly intricate pieces of gold artwork, so looters would not be disappointed, but there was never a city called El Dorado that fitted the legend.
The name Shangri-La itself is a fairly modern invention, originating in a 1933 novel called “Lost Horizon” by James Hilton. It tells of a mystical valley somewhere in Tibet, in the shadow of a tall mountain, where modern ways are rejected and the Earth is enjoyed in all its natural purity. It is also the place where all the wisdom of the world is kept. But this idea did not originate in 1933 – according to documents from a 16th century Monghul court, the Emperor there told of a mystical kingdom where all religions originated and where communities of Christians lived. This was passed on to a Portuguese missionary named Antonio Andrade, who went in search of this kingdom, found Tibet but did not find the Christians. However, the idea inspired Hilton’s novel, as did a similar idea in Buddhism where the valley is known as Shambala. It’s an appealing idea, but almost certainly a work of fiction.
This next place comes from Norse mythology and is an island that was said to be between Scandinavia and Iceland, around 6 days’ north of Great Britain. As you can imagine, it was fairly cold and they had months without sunlight due to the extreme north latitude, and yet Thule has still taken on the guise of an idyllic place, with a Greek commentator of the 4th century describing it thus: “the people (of Thule) live on millet and other herbs, and on fruits and roots; and where there are grain and honey, the people get their beverage, also, from them”. This land of fruit and honey in the frozen Arctic has continued to fascinate people, with some devoting hours of time to pinpointing exactly where Thule is. Others dismiss it as just an ancient name for Norway. But who knows? The blue-painted people of Thule could be out on their island farming their fruit right now….and we just haven’t found them yet.
But forget the honey of Thule for a second…if you want a mythical land that’s really going to delight your inner gourmet, head for Cockaigne – the land of plenty where food never runs short. There are houses topped with pie, and cheese-trees for all to feast on. The idea comes from medieval mythology – in a Europe that had been swept by war, plague and poverty, the idea of a land where you could lie back and let an entire roast fowl fly into your mouth was inspirational. It probably originates from Islamic mythology originally, as the Muslim idea of Heaven from the Qur’an is luxurious and contains plenty of food, including “the flesh of fowls that they desire.” So it may be less of a mythical land and more of a final destination…for some.
Similar to the El Dorado legend, but a few thousand miles further north, this was a legendary province that was said to contain seven cities of gold. It was around 1540 that Spanish explorers in New Mexico heard of the legend, and set out to find it. Sadly, all they found was some copper and iron. The exact location of Quivira has never been established, with several states claiming it, including Kansas. But that only fuels the legend, and Quivira has appeared in many works of literature and the name has been used for a vineyard, among other things.
A sort of opposite to Shangri-La (a work of fiction based on years of mythology), Utopia was originally a work of fiction, but years of mythology have built up around it. It originally appeared as an island in Thomas More’s 1516 novel “Utopia” and was a simple society that revolved around agriculture and tolerance. The idea took hold and has appeared in several different guises since – from the forced utopic societies of “Brave New World” and “1984? to untouched rainforest civilizations in films like “Avatar”. Utopia is meant to be a perfect place, but even in Thomas More’s original, there were elements that feel uncomfortable to our modern minds (slavery, lack of privacy, wives confessing their sins to their husbands) and every utopic society since then has either had a hidden dark side (e.g. people being euthanized at 30 in “Logan’s Run”) or has been incredibly boring. Goes to show there’s no such thing as a perfect society!
This is a legendary city with a difference – it’s at the Earth’s core. Rumors have abounded throughout history of civilizations below our feet, but science would say that the layers of molten rock probably aren’t very conducive to pleasant living. That doesn’t stop conspiracy theorists trying to find the entrance to the subterranean city of Agartha, which they think might be in Antarctica. The first known use of the name “Agartha” was by 19th Century French occultist Alexandre Saint-Yves, but his account of a Tibetan secret society sounds more like Shambala/Shangri-La than a hidden city below the ground. A more likely source of the myth is from the Buddhist Agharti, which is a subterranean kingdom. It’s all pretty unlikely, but that doesn’t stop people looking for it!
Next, the legendary homeland of the Aztec people, thought to be located somewhere around modern-day Mexico. The Aztecs were supposed to have come from the Chicomoztoc (land of seven caves) and settled in Aztlan, but after that there is some dispute on what Aztlan was like. Some accounts paint it as a kind of paradise, whereas others describe the people as being terrorised by the ruling elite there. In modern times, the name has been adopted by a radical hispanic group known as MECha, who believe that Aztlan covered some of the states of the USA as well (California, Colorado and 7 others). MECha also believes that these states rightfully belong to Mexico and they should be taken back. If they ever do get them back, they may well find it’s not quite the paradise they imagined, as the Aztecs did before them.
The unromantic country of England doesn’t have many mythical places – Milton Keynes and Birmingham are hardly on the same plane of fantasy as Patagonia and Tibet. But there were legends, back before there even was an England to speak of, and many of them concern King Arthur. As with much of the history in this list, there is debate over whether Arthur was real or just a legend, but his court of Camelot continues to fascinate scholars. If there was a Camelot, where was it? If there wasn’t, what was it based on? There have been plenty of contenders for the title of “real Camelot”, including Glastonbury, Winchester and even Colchester. But the romance of the city is in the story, rather than fact and the soaring towers and castles of Camelot exist mainly in the imagination.
And the number one slot goes to the most sought after mythical civilization of all….Atlantis! First described by Plato, Atlantis is a sunken continent, lost when the waters rose around it. It was said to be a great seat of learning and culture and a rival to Athens. The location of Atlantis has never been fully determined, but ideas that it was in the Atlantic (to match its name) have been thoroughly debunked. Recently, one scholar claims to have located it under the South China Sea but the theory hasn’t been verified by any other Atlantis “experts”. Wherever it is, it’s unlikely to be populated by a race of super-intelligent fish people, as the popular imagination has it. But there may just be ruins of an ancient culture somewhere beneath the waters. Then again, it might all just be a myth…