Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés was never one to ignore the possibility of treasure; his lust for gold had already seen the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan fall to his mercenary army. So when he heard tales of a region with a city of extreme wealth in Honduras, his interest was piqued. Fortunately for the occupants, and for us, he never found it, but the myth of the legendary city of La Ciudad Blanca (the White City) was born. Following the conquest of the Inca, people forgot about La Ciudad Blanca until, in 1927, aviator Charles Lindbergh reported seeing a “white city” while flying over eastern Honduras.
In 1939, adventurer Theodore Morde claimed to have found a “City of the Monkey God” in Honduras, which, because of its location, many reasoned to be la Ciudad Blanca. He told tales that would have made even Cortés blush, about there once being temple with a large staircase leading to a statue of a Monkey God. According to what Morde was told by local people, the temple had a long, staired approach, lined with stone effigies of monkeys. The heart of the Temple was a high stone dais on which was the statue of the Monkey God himself. Before it was a place of sacrifice. The steps to the dais were said to have been flanked by immense balustrades. At the beginning of one was the colossal image of a frog; at the beginning of the other a crocodile. Morde also related folk tradition about a monkey who had stolen three women with whom it bred, resulting in half-monkey half-human children. Morde claimed that the native name for monkey is Urus, which translates literally into ‘sons of the hairy men.’ Their fathers, or fore-fathers, are the Ulaks, half-man and half-spirit, who lived on the ground, walked upright, and had the appearance of great hairy ape-men.
Interest in La Ciudad Blanca grew in latter part of the twentieth century as numerous explorers searched for it. News of any archaeological work in the area was chronicled in popular media, which always liked a “lost city” story. Then, at last, the ruins were identified in May 2012, during an aerial survey of a remote valley in La Mosquitia, a vast region of swamps, rivers, and mountains containing some of the last scientifically unexplored places on earth. However, an archaeological discovery isn’t confirmed until it has been seen on the ground. So, a team of American and Honduran archaeologists, a lidar engineer, an anthropologist, an ethnobotanist, National Geographic documentary filmmakers, and support personnel set off to establish the truth. According to a news announcement by National Geographic this week, the team found and surveyed the city. La Ciudad Blanca, the White City, the City of the Monkey God, has now been officially found.
Although no excavation took place (in line with scientific protocol) the archaeologists found evidence of, so-called, were-jaguar carvings. These are half-human, half-animal (supposedly a jaguar) carvings, which probably represent a transformed shaman, shapeshifting into animal form. The first part of the name, were-, comes from the Old English meaning man (human) and also gives rise to the more familiar were-wolf. Were-jaguars first emerged in the Olmec period and appear to be almost universal throughout all cultures that came after.
At La Venta, an archaeological site of the Olmec located in the present-day Mexican state of Tabasco, an altar contained a carved image of two lively were-jaguar babies being carried out from a niche or cave—places often associated with the emergence of human beings— and may relate to the mythic hero twins of Olmec mythology and perhaps the forerunners of the Mayan Hero Twins.
There is no actual consensus that these transformed spirits were jaguars, however, and, even if they were, since La Ciudad Blanca developed almost two thousand years after La Venta, it is possible that the mythology had changed. Going back to the stories of Morde, could the “were-jaguars” at La Ciudad Blanca actually be “were-monkeys”, making sense of what local people remembered about the site. Like the “were-jaguar” babies at La Venta, could the story of were-monkeys born to a woman and a male monkey, relate to the existing tradition of the mythical twins, as revealed on the carving at La Venta?
Perhaps La Ciudad Blanca really was a City of the Monkey God. It is believed that the first “were-jaguar” statues of the Olmec were worshiped as gods, could the same be true of the “were-monkeys” at La Ciudad Blanca, giving credence to Mordes story about a monkey temple with a Monkey God at its heart?
It is anticipated that further excavation will reveal more and I hope archaeologists will not easily dismiss indigenous beliefs, which tell of a great city devoted to the cult of the “were-monkey”. Morde and his local informants may just have been right.
The illustration is by Virgil Finlay for The American Weekly representing the Temple in Morde’s “Lost City of the Monkey God.
The original National Geographic press release can be found here.