Ponce’s Honor Lionized by Scholar
St. Augustine, Florida — An unlikely quest to vindicate Ponce de León’s integrity has led a lexicographer of magic words to demystify the Fountain of Youth.
Equipped with a portable camera obscura and a reference tome of alchemical symbols, scholar Craig Conley formally verified De León’s prediction that the spring of healing waters would not be guarded by "shapes of magic.”
"De León may have been a visionary,” Conley said, "but his head wasn’t stuck in the clouds.”
Conley, author of Magic Words: A Dictionary (Weiser Books), explained his use of the camera obscura, an antique photographic instrument.
"Often, magical symbols are only detectable from oblique angles. The camera obscura projects an upside down image inside its darkened chamber. It offers a way of studying something without directly looking at it, to examine from a fresh perspective, without preconceptions.”
Indeed, a popular preconception about De León’s motives is what inspired Conley’s own pursuit for vindication.
Just as facts can become muddied over time, folklore can devolve into "fakelore,” as oral historian Richard Dorson dubbed it.
Hence, De León’s quest for the Fountain of Youth is now popularly regarded as a childish pipe dream—a castle in Spain, if you will—even though evidence points toward a scientific initiative.
De León’s level-headedness is self-evident in a conversation with King Ferdinand, transcribed by Eugene Lee-Hamilton in 1891. De León explained that the Fountain of Youth is a miracle of nature, not of alchemy:
"No shapes of magic guard the potent spring; no circling dragons watch it night and day; no evil angels sit beside its brink, to mirror their dark wings within its waves. It hath nor spell nor supernatural essence, but is mere natural water,” rich in minerals and salts and filtered through highly potent medicinal mosses.
Ferdinand asked what then guarded the Fountain of Youth. In answer, De León described the wilds of Florida:
"The dreadful guard of Nature: inextricable forests and morasses, haunts of the panther and all clawed assassins, in whose pestiferous depths and clueless tangle no white man yet has ventured.”
Granted, De León didn’t become associated with healing waters until after his death. Yet popular legends possess an authenticity independent of cold fact.
For example, the "higher truths” in accounts of Washington’s honesty, Lincoln’s humility, and De León’s derring-do are crucial to American civilization.
Conley affirms that the integrity of folklore calls for preservation, maintenance, and protection.
A scholar of esoterica would seem an unlikely champion of De León’s scientific approach. Conley explains, "Old-school skeptics are open-minded. I came to the Fountain of Youth unsure of whether or not I’d find magical symbols. Frankly, had I found them, it would have been an exciting chapter in the living history of the spring.
"However, I must admit that I’m delighted to vindicate Ponce de León.”