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Painting: the Fountain of Youth by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Florida and the Fountain of Eternal Youth


The mythical association of the Fountain of Eternal Youth with Florida was a cultural event with real foundations but, is it not also a metaphor for the way we choose to inhabit the world?

Comparing the different stages in man’s life has always been culturally inevitable, we feel the need to establish hierarchies and make appraisals; since each one, childhood, youth, adulthood and old age, have specific qualities, they are associated with metaphors that seek to express their singularities.

Childhood is at once a time for blossoming, for spring and for Eden; youth is incandescence and old age is like a calm and demure river. If we think about it, sometimes one is better than the other, or at least it would seem that anything is better than old age, when our body no longer follows the commands of our mind and will. Being old, for some, represents an unavoidable decadence they wish to avoid at any cost —and to no avail.

Many of the fantasies that bring time to a halt are born from this urge: spells and enchantments, blood pacts with dark forces, cosmetics and secret recipes, all try to satisfy a somewhat naïve desire to remain young forever. Among these, the legendary Fountain of Eternal Youth deserves a special mention; that mythical spring that gives youth to anybody who drinks or bathes in its water.

Of the many tales that mention this place, and probably the most influential, is that of Juan Ponce de León, Adelantado. He was a conquistador and explorer of the Spanish Crown, who arrived in the Florida Peninsula never having set foot before, in search of the coveted fountain.

It seems that Ponce de León and other Spaniards made the fountain their goal after learning of a similar legend told by the Arahuacos: Cuban and Puerto Rican natives who spoke of “Beimeni”. They described a land of enormous wealth and pleasure, which the Europeans immediately associated with the Fountain of Eternal Youth and its promise of renewal.

Ponce de León paid attention to the story, left Cuba with an imaginary destination, and reached land the 2nd of April 1513. Six days later he declared the discovery in the name of Spain and baptized the land as “Florida”. It is unknown whether the name was chosen because of the abundant vegetation of the place or because the day they arrived there was the day of Pascua Florida (Easter).

Regardless of the reason, since that day, Florida and the Fountain of Eternal Youth are paired together in Western historical and cultural cannons, a correspondence which may not appear to be casual in light of the somewhat paradisiacal atmosphere that has always characterized this peninsula.

After all, the legends of universal folklore, the myths and stories that have been passed down from generation to generation become a part of our genetic collective code which must always mention one thing in order to refer to the other, in a rhetorical and symbolic game that reveals the multifaceted character of reality.

Which is the real Fountain of Youth? Which is the Garden of Delights full of ceaseless pleasures? Are they to be found on maps or solely in our minds?

To this end, a few of lines from “The Rose of Paracelsus”, one of Jorge Luis Borges’ last stories:

“Where are we, then, if not in paradise?” he asked. “Do you believe that the deity is able to create a place that is not paradise? Do you believe that the Fall is something other than not realizing that we are in paradise?”

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