Fountain of Youth
The Fountain of Youth is a spring that supposedly restores the youth of anyone who drinks or bathes in its waters. Tales of such a fountain have been recounted across the world for thousands of years, appearing in writings by Herodotus (5th century BCE), the Alexander romance (3rd century CE), and the stories of Prester John (early Crusades, 11th/12th centuries CE). Stories of similar waters were also evidently prominent among the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean during the Age of Exploration (early 16th century), who spoke of the restorative powers of the water in the mythical land of Bimini.
The legend became particularly prominent in the 16th century, when it was attached to the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León, first Governor of Puerto Rico. According to an apocryphal combination of New World and Eurasian elements, Ponce de León was searching for the Fountain of Youth when he traveled to what is now Florida in 1513, but this is a myth. The legend says that Ponce de León was told by Native Americans that the Fountain of Youth was in Bimini and it could restore youth to anyone.
The Ichthyophagi then in their turn questioned the king concerning the term of life, and diet of his people, and were told that most of them lived to be a hundred and twenty years old, while some even went beyond that age- they ate boiled flesh, and had for their drink nothing but milk. When the Ichthyophagi showed wonder at the number of the years, he led them to a fountain, wherein when they had washed, they found their flesh all glossy and sleek, as if they had bathed in oil- and a scent came from the spring like that of violets. The water was so weak, they said, that nothing would float in it, neither wood, nor any lighter substance, but all went to the bottom. If the account of this fountain be true, it would be their constant use of the water from it which makes them so long-lived.
A story of the "Water of Life" appears in the Eastern versions of the Alexander romance, which describes Alexander the Great and his servant crossing the Land of Darkness to find the restorative spring. The servant in that story is in turn derived from Middle Eastern legends of Al-Khidr, a sage who appears also in the Qur'an. Arabic and Aljamiado versions of the Alexander Romance were very popular in Spain during and after the period of Moorish rule, and would have been known to the explorers who journeyed to America. These earlier accounts inspired the popular medieval fantasy The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, which also mentions the Fountain of Youth as located at the foot of a mountain outside Polombe (modern Kollam) in India. Due to the influence of these tales, the Fountain of Youth legend was popular in courtly Gothic art, appearing for example on the ivory Casket with Scenes of Romances (Walters 71264) and several ivory mirror-cases, and remained popular through the European Age of Exploration.
European iconography is fairly consistent, as the Cranach painting and mirror-case from 200 years earlier demonstrate: old people, often carried, enter at left, strip, and enter a pool that is as large as space allows. The people in the pool are youthful and naked, and after a while they leave it, and are shown fashionably dressed enjoying a courtly party, sometimes including a meal.
There are countless indirect sources for the tale as well. Eternal youth is a gift frequently sought in myth and legend, and stories of things such as the philosopher's stone, universal panaceas, and the elixir of life are common throughout Eurasia and elsewhere. An additional hint may have been taken from the account of the Pool of Bethesda in the Gospel of John, in which Jesus heals a man at the pool in Jerusalem.
According to legend, the Spanish heard of Bimini from the Arawaks in Hispaniola, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. The Caribbean islanders described a mythical land of Beimeni or Beniny (whence Bimini), a land of wealth and prosperity, which became conflated with the fountain legend. By the time of Ponce de Leon, the land was thought to be located northwest towards the Bahamas (called la Vieja during the Ponce expedition). The natives were probably referring to the area occupied by the Maya. This land also became confused with the Boinca or Boyuca mentioned by Juan de Solis, although Solis's navigational data placed it in the Gulf of Honduras. It was this Boinca that originally held a legendary fountain of youth, rather than Bimini itself. Sequene, an Arawak chief from Cuba, purportedly was unable to resist the lure of Bimini and its restorative fountain. He gathered a troupe of adventurers and sailed north, never to return.
Found within the salt water mangrove swamp that covers 6 kilometres (3.7 mi) of the shoreline of North Bimini is The Healing Hole, a pool that lies at the end of a network of winding underground tunnels. During outgoing tides, these channels pump cool, mineral-laden fresh water into the pool. Because this well was carved out of the limestone rock by ground water thousands of years ago it is especially high in calcium and magnesium. Magnesium, which has been shown to improve longevity and reproductive health, is present in large quantities in the sea water. The legend of Bimini and its curative waters was widespread among the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. The Italian-born chronicler Peter Martyr told of them in a letter to the pope in 1513, though he did not believe the stories and was dismayed that so many others did.
Ponce de León
In the 16th century the story of the Fountain of Youth became attached to the biography of the conquistador Juan Ponce de León. As attested by his royal charter, Ponce de León was charged with discovering the land of Beniny. Although the indigenous peoples were probably describing the land of the Maya in Yucatán, the name—and legends about Boinca's fountain of youth—became associated with the Bahamas instead. However, Ponce de León did not mention the fountain in any of his writings throughout the course of his expedition.
The connection was made in Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo's Historia general y natural de las Indias of 1535, in which he wrote that Ponce de León was looking for the waters of Bimini to regain youthfulness. Some researchers have suggested that Oviedo's account may have been politically inspired to generate favor in the courts. A similar account appears in Francisco López de Gómara's Historia general de las Indias of 1551. In the Memoir of Hernando d'Escalante Fontaneda in 1575, the author places the restorative waters in Florida and mentions de León looking for them there; his account influenced Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas' unreliable history of the Spanish in the New World. Fontaneda had spent seventeen years as an Indian captive after being shipwrecked in Florida as a boy. In his Memoir he tells of the curative waters of a lost river he calls "Jordan" and refers to de León looking for it. However, Fontaneda makes it clear he is skeptical about these stories he includes, and says he doubts de León was actually looking for the fabled stream when he came to Florida.
Herrera makes that connection definite in the romanticized version of Fontaneda's story included in his Historia general de los hechos de los Castellanos en las islas y tierra firme del Mar Oceano. Herrera states that local caciques paid regular visits to the fountain. A frail old man could become so completely restored that he could resume "all manly exercises… take a new wife and beget more children." Herrera adds that the Spaniards had unsuccessfully searched every "river, brook, lagoon or pool" along the Florida coast for the legendary fountain.
Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park
The city of St. Augustine, Florida is home to the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, a tribute to the spot where Ponce de León is traditionally said to have landed. Although there were several instances of the property being used as an attraction as early as the 1860s, the tourist attraction in its present form was created by Luella Day McConnell in 1904. Because she supposedly purchased the Park property from Mr. H.H. Williams using diamonds and cash, she was also known as "Diamond Lil". It is said that Dr. McConnell had a diamond mounted in her front tooth, but this may be a myth. Luella Day McConnell fabricated stories to amuse and appall the city’s residents and tourists until her death in a car accident in 1927. The first archaeological digs at the Fountain of Youth in 1934 were performed by the Smithsonian Institution. These digs produced a large number of Christianized Timucua burials. These burials eventually pointed to the Park as the location of the first Christian Mission in the United States. Called the Mission of Nombre de Dios, this mission was begun by Franciscan friars in 1587. Succeeding decades have seen the unearthing of items which positively identify the Park as the location of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés' 1565 settlement of St. Augustine, the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in North America. The park currently exhibits native and colonial artifacts to celebrate St. Augustine's Timucua and Spanish heritage.
- Herodotus, Book III: 23
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- Mandeville, John. The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. Accessed 24 Sept 2011.
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- EPIDEMIOLOGY OF WATER MAGNESIUM;EVIDENCE OF CONTRIBUTIONS TO HEALTH Mildred S. Seelig, M.D., M.P.H., Master of American College of Nutrition; Adjunct Professor of Nutrition, School of Public Health, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (in Press: Proceedings of Mg Symposium, Vichy, France 2000)
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- Pedro Mártir de Angleria. Decadas de Nuevo Mundo, Decada 2, chapter X.
- Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo. Historia general y natural de las Indias, book 16, chapter XI.
- Francisco López de Gómara. Historia general de las Indias, second part.
- "Fontaneda's Memoir". Translation by Buckingham Smith, 1854. From keyshistory.org. Retrieved July 14, 2006.
- Samuel Eliot Morison, The European Discovery of America: The Southern Voyages 1492-1616 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), p. 504.
- Great Floridians 2000 Program-St. Augustine/Dr. Luella Day McConnell
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