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The Fountain of Youth is a legendary 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, the Alexander romance, and the stories of Prester John. Stories of similar waters were also evidently prominent among the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean during the Age of Exploration, 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 became 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.
Herodotus mentions a fountain containing a special kind of water in the land of the Macrobians, which gives the Macrobians their exceptional longevity. 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 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.
Bimini and its curative waters were widespread subjects in 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.
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 Yucatan, 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. While he may well have heard of the Fountain and believed in it, his name was not associated with the legend in writing until after his death.
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' 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 them. 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. It would appear the Sequene story is likewise based on a garbling of Fontaneda.
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, she was also known as "Diamond Lil". There is an unfounded myth that Dr. McConnell had a diamond mounted in her front tooth. Luella Day McConnell fabricated stories to amuse and appall the city’s residents and tourists until her accidental 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 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 Menendez de Aviles' 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.
Author Charlie Carlson claims to have spoken with a supposed St. Augustine-based secret society claiming to be the protectors of the Fountain of Youth, which has granted them extraordinary longevity. They claimed Old John Gomez, a protagonist in the Gasparilla legend from Florida folklore, had been one of their members.
The Fountain of Youth serves a metaphor for anything that potentially increases longevity. Nathaniel Hawthorne used the Fountain in "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment"; Orson Welles directed and starred in a 1958 TV program based on the legend; and Tim Powers featured it in On Stranger Tides. The novel The Well at the World's End by William Morris is the story of a quest for a legendary well which has many of the same properties of the Fountain of Youth.
In 1953, The Walt Disney Company released a cartoon entitled "Don's Fountain of Youth", in which Donald Duck supposedly discovers the famous fountain. Seven years later, in "That's no fable!" Carl Barks revisited the myth. "Sweet Duck of Youth", an episode of the later animated series Duck Tales, also features this plot.
In 1974, Marvel Comics featured the Fountain (which works if bathed in, but cripples if drunk from) in Man-Thing and later The Savage She-Hulk. In the 1976 comedy series Big John, Little John, a middle-aged man drinks from the Fountain of Youth and then switches back and forth from 12 years old to 43 years old throughout the series. The fountain and its waters form the main plot device in Microsoft and Ensemble Studio's Age of Empires III campaign "Blood, Ice and Steel". Recently, characters in the 2006 Darren Aronofsky film The Fountain search for the Tree of Life to cure a brain tumor. Jorge Luis Borges refers to the Fountain of Life in a short story in the book The Aleph. In Terry Pratchett's Eric, Ponce da Quirm finds and drinks from the Fountain of Youth but dies, wishing they had put up a sign saying "Boil first." The novel, Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt and two film adaptions tell of a family that was given eternal youth after drinking from a spring.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the fourth installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean film series, depicts a quest for the Fountain of Youth. It was alluded to at the end of the previous film, where Captain Jack Sparrow had taken the map from Captain Hector Barbossa. In the film, the Fountain requires two people to drink from two silver chalices found on Ponce de León's ship; whoever drinks from the chalice containing a mermaid's tear will take the remaining and lived years of the other drinker's life and add it to their own, curing them of any existing injuries, while the other person instantly dies.
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