Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Allure of Forbidden Treasures

The Allure of Forbidden Treasures
By Scott Corrales © 2017

Anyone who ever read Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, or was otherwise entranced by stories of daring pirates and corsairs burying chests of plunder on desert islands, or even brave explorers recovering the wealth of the ancient world from forgotten tombs, has felt the allure of treasure. The word alone elicits mental images of wooden chests brimming over with gold coins, hoards of bullion and jewels on the stone floor of a crypt, perhaps even brazen thieves removing a prized stone from the uncaring head of a graven image.

The unforgiving twenty-four hour news cycle in which we live makes us overlook - and promptly forget - items that appear one minute on the evening news or in the back pages of newspapers. The discovery of a fabulous treasure trove in 2015 at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in southern Indian state of Kerala was big news, but as ephemeral as a shooting star. In our fake news-ridden times it was refreshing to learn that the story was in fact true, and that experts had estimated the hoard's value at over one trillion U.S. dollars, conceivably making it the most prized treasure on our planet (as an aside, the value of the diamond planet orbiting 55 Cancri, discovered in 2004 by our telescopes, has been calculated at 384 quadrillion times more than our world's entire GDP of seventy trillion).

Indian auditors opened some of the temple's vaults and were bedazzled by the splendid array of gold, silver and gems contained within. There was initial hesitation about penetrating one of the chambers - one supposedly guarded by terrible reptiles, perhaps even the mighty Nagas of the Sansrcrit texts. A year later the India Times reported that the inner sanctum appeared to have been looted in the past and that hundreds of vessels containing gold and silver were now missing. The supernatural guardians must have fallen asleep on the job.

Temple authorities noted that the structure contains a further vault - one with walls supposedly made of solid gold - which was never been profaned. It has no visible means of access, and the 'hidden door' can only be opened by holy men able to chant an obscure mantra. The Illuminations blog (http://illuminations2012.wordpress.com/2016/08/01) calls this the Garuda Mantra and adds the following admonition: "At present NO WHERE IN INDIA or in the WORLD such a highly sacred and powerful ‘SIDDHAPURSHAS’ or ‘YOGIS’ or ‘MANTRIKAS’ who does know how to execute highly sacred ‘GARUDA MANTRA’ are EXISTING. If any human attempts are made with man-made technology to open the mysterious Chamber-B other than by chanting highly sacred and powerful ‘GARUDA MANTRAS’ by a highly sacred ‘SADHUS’ or ‘MANTRIKAS’, catastrophes are likely to occur in and around the Temple premises or throughout India or even throughout the world according to VEDIC ASTROLOGERS OF INDIA." (Quoted verbatim with our thanks to the author).

Seeing the amount of trouble that bedevils the modern world, perhaps it is wiser not to make a clumsy effort that dooms us to more trouble...

The Wrath of Phantom Sentinels

The belief that otherworldly forces are at work in the safeguarding of treasure troves is widespread. Curses laid by holy men - whether Inca or Egyptian - are as common a belief as the presence of genies or ifrits guarding Eastern treasure hoards. South America gives us a tradition in which the supernatural clasps its hands with the erotic.

Mexican folklorist Rafael Olivares has carefully compiled the legends and traditions of the state of Nuevo Leon and published extensively on the subject. His works include an observation on the methods employed by treasure hunters in his country, and other Latin American nations, when approaching buried caches supposedly defended by an otherworldly guardian.

"This is a custom," he writes, "that ranges from Colombia to Argentina. When an evil spirit has a treasure site in its custody, it is necessary to hire a woman to accompany the explorers. Upon reaching the place in question, she must strip naked and stand a few meters away from the dig. Once the pit has been opened, the woman will drop to the ground and shake, thrusting her pelvis in the air as if simulating a sexual attack."

While this is scandalous to our understanding, the firmly held belief is that the paranormal guardian, having abstained from flesh for centuries, will ignore the diggers and busy itself in a carnal relationship with the female. "The men will seize the treasure and take the woman with them," Olivares observes. "She will neither remember what happened, nor who or what with."

There is a gruesome consequence to securing treasure by this means. The hapless woman offered to the spirit in exchange for a pittance will be tormented by the evil entity for the rest of her days.

Treasures of the Andes

In his Leyendas Populares Colombianas, author Javier Ocampo expands on the Colombian belief that those who seek and find lost treasure also inherit the curse that goes with it. It is necessary to recite certain prayers and carry out certain rituals to undo the malediction. The Andean nation apparently has several lost and enchanted hoards: the treasure of Buzagá, the treasure of Cariababare and the treasure of Hualcala, the Golden Mountain.

The desert peninsula known as La Guajira contains a not fully explored cave (Cueva de la Perrita, in honor of the little dog that allegedly made humans aware of its existence) containing not only petroglyphs of considerable anthropological value, but lost treasure safeguarded by a supernatural sentry. Carolina Parra interviewed the cave's discoverer and explorer - Jorge Solano - confessed that he was more fearful of the living than the dead, but that the ancients "buried their belongings and the treasure right there where you're standing. I once tried digging for them but soon regretted it." As an intriguing aside, Solano adds that going after the treasure would have entailed making a deal with the guardian spirit, and that lights resembling tiny bells and stars would entice him toward the spot under which the treasure lay hidden.

There are other explanations for paranormal burden that weighs heavily on these forgotten caches of wealth. Rich landlords would have a farmhand dig a pit in which to conceal the treasure, then murder the worker to keep anyone else from knowing the location. Conversely, the hapless peasant's soul would be bound to the trove, becoming its unwilling keeper, although in some instances, it is the greedy landlord's own spirit that is bound to amassed gold and jewels.

Other traditions posit the capricious nature of the treasure spirits. The lucky explorer or adventurer may find the hoard, and in so doing, prompting the manifestation of the guardian entity, which issues a severe admonition: the treasure hunter must take it all or not a single coin or gem. The sheer size and weight of these forbidden holdings makes it impossible, so the hunter is forced to withdraw lest the cave collapse. This, according to folklorists, is the reason why skeletons are often found upon the heaps of gold - the remains of prospector who ignored the warning.

The Colombian government's Sistema Nacional de Información Cultural (www.sinic.gov.co) includes narratives about lost treasure. The town of Salazar de las Palmas in the Department of Santander is reputedly the home of the Cueva de los Mil Pesos (The Thousand Peso Cave) and local tradition holds that "an immense treasure" emerges from the bowels of the cave every Good Friday at three in the afternoon to dazzle the local residents. A 1908 expedition - well equipped and armed - ventured into the cave, supposedly finding stone chambers crafted by an unknown culture, their walls festooned with undecipherable signs and symbols. The website states that historian Luis Miguel Marciales is of the opinion that the cave is actually an opening to a gold mine that was discovered in the early centuries of the colonial era.

As we travel down the Andean Range, we find that similar beliefs in Peru. Burial sites of containing the bones of forgotten chieftains and their gold finery are guarded by the Apus, the mountain deities of the Inca and Aymara lore. Profaning any such burial to retrieve these riches must be done at a prescribed time and date, wearing amulets that will ward off the supernatural guardians. Not doing so exposes the grave robber (to speak plainly) to the wrath of the protecting spirits.

There is a very real fear of this supernatural wrath, and not always involving buried treasure. The now world-famous "Ice Princess", the mummy of an Inca maiden sacrificed at the summit of the Peruvian mountain known as Nevado de Ampato, near the city of Arequipa, has also attracted considerable controversy due to the supernatural forces apparently surrounding it. Her remains were found by U.S. archaeologist Johan Reinhard and taken out of Peru for research purposes.

The city of Arequipa, however, began to experience a string of calamities shortly after she was taken out of the country: two air traffic accidents, one of which made headlines around the world and left nearly two hundred dead, a mid-air collision between two helicopters and the collapse of a high-voltage cable during a fireworks display, killing thirty onlookers. The word spread around southern Peru that the "wrath of the gods" had been unleashed due to the maiden's removal, and local brujos hastily convened to pray for divine forbearance. Despite their fervent orisons, local authorities were advised to seek the return of the "Ice Princess" post haste.

But rather than risk public ridicule by citing the reasons given by the brujos, local leaders chose to cite financial reasons. "If the mummy were here, we might get some tourists," said Antonio Jiménez, mayor of Cabanaconde, a hamlet in the foothills of the massive Nevado de Ampato. Others cited the fact that museums around the world were charging an admission to see their "ancestor" and that the mountain people were not benefitting from it at all.

Neither were the museums. Perhaps Mayor Jiménez would have been startled to read that the "Ice Princess" had been de-accessioned (removed from display) from the Everhart Museum. Museum authorities cited the need to comply with the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act of 1992, which mandates the immediate return of Native American human remains to their respective tribes for immediate burial. Thus, the Everhart collection had a mummy that could neither be photographed nor displayed, and which further had to be repatriated: what greater curse than that of bureaucratic entanglements?

The Wages of Plunder

A treasure hunter fell to his death from the top floor of a hotel in the Moroccan city of Tangiers in April of 1968. An instantaneous death, according to the coroner.

The victim's name was Sven Bornholm.

The matter would have probably ended there, with the corresponding transactions between local authorities and the embassy involved for repatriating the corpse. But the coroner received a visit from Mr. Bornholm's widow, who had a story to tell. Years earlier, her late husband had gained access to some old sea charts that pointed to the existence of a sunken treasure ship in the waters of Libya's Gulf of Sidra - a body of water better known as a trouble spot during the years of the Qaddafi regime.

Bornholm went on to tell his spouse that the treasure - while worth millions - had been given a wide berth by most divers not on account of hazardous diving conditions, sharks or other perils of the deep, but due to the curse laid upon the treasure by its owner...a notion he dismissed as fanciful. Following the charts, he located the ship in March 1968 and went ahead with the salvage operations, successfully retrieving the salt-encrusted riches.

It wasn't long, said the late Mrs. Bornholm, that the treasure hunter began showing signs of being disturbed by an invisible presence that made him distracted, forgetful and frightened. Worse yet, the "thing" appeared to beckon him toward it, and resisting it was becoming increasingly difficult. Thinking that a vacation in sunny Tangiers might be just the tonic, the couple flew to Morocco, where Bornholm was set upon by the "thing", grappling with it in broad daylight on the hotel's rooftop solarium. During the struggle, the treasure hunter fell backward into the void.

His struggles with the unknown had come to an end, and Bornholm had become another victim of the curse that Ahmed Musa, the Bey of Tripoli, had set upon his own riches.

Today's war-torn city of Tripoli had been the splendid capital of the Turkish bey, or governor, whose ships raided European vessels without compunction, filling the ruler's treasury with ill-gotten gains. An Italian raid on the city, led by a Genoese admiral, managed to penetrate the city and seize fantastic wealth accumulated by the tyrant over the years, but not before the bey stabbed himself with a bejeweled dagger and cursing the treasure. The conquering admiral became the first victim of the curse, dying during the return voyage.

So what became of the treasure? It was reportedly returned to Libya and deposited in a mosque in the late 1960s. What has become of it during the upheaval following the fall of Qadaffi is anybody's guess.

[Note: Efforts at corroborating this otherwise compelling story have been unsuccessful. It is possible that the original source (Revista Duda Vol. 1. #24, December 1971, researched by Jaime Reyes) gave the protagonist a pseudonym, but there is no evidence of military action by any of the Italian states at the time against Barbary, or the existence of “Ahmed Musa.”]

A cache of lost wealth more compatible with the swashbuckling era is said to lie at the bottom of an estuary in Northwestern Spain. In the early 1700s during the War of the Spanish Succession, an Anglo-Dutch fleet managed to engage Spanish galleons at anchor in the Ría de Vigo in a situation worthy of Horatio Hornblower. The galleons went to the bottom, their holds reportedly containing gold and jewels from the viceroyalties of the Americas. No curse or supernatural mystery lies upon it, however.