The very earliest written histories reveal that humanity has had the universal desire to live forever, and has sought countless ways in which to defeat the utterly relentless inevitabilities of time and mortality.
Whether bestowed by deities, attained through acts of extreme good, conjured through magical objects or potions, received as a form of punishment, or acquired through a mishap of science, tales of eternal human life exist in numerous legends, myths, religions, ancient historical texts, and they even present themselves in the modern era through life-extension and cryogenic sciences.
The most ancient writings, such as the 4000-year-old Sumerian King’s List, speak of Kings who ruled for tens of thousands of years. Biblical stories tell of people living hundreds of years at least. Cultures from around the globe refer to individuals who beat death and gained immortality. How did they do it?
References to immortality can be traced back thousands of years, and each culture has its own legends and lessons as to how to acquire it. Many found eternal life through magical artifacts, mystical foods or potent elixirs.
Magical Artifacts that Grant Eternal Life
“The Alchymist, in Search of the Philosopher's Stone” by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1771. (Public Domain)
The Philosopher’s Stone, a legendary substance long sought-after by masters of Western alchemy, was said to be used in rejuvenation, and even in achieving immortality. Not only that, but it was thought to be capable of turning metals like lead and mercury into gold or silver, and common crystals into diamonds.
It was felt the red stone turned items into gold, and the white, into silver.
Philosopher Stone: Prop as made for the film “Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone”. (CC BY 2.0)
Called by many names: Materia Prima, the White Stone, the Sorcerer’s Stone, the alchemical substance symbolized enlightenment, perfection, and divine bliss. Endeavoring to create this substance was referred to as the Magnum Opus, or the Great Work.
The Philosopher’s stone was felt to contain mystical properties, the most famous its ability to grant immortality. It was also believed that even if a small part was ingested it could heal all illnesses, revive dead plants, or even spawn a living human clone, or homunculus.
In Buddhism and Hinduism, the stone is referred to as Cintamani, and is sometimes depicted as lustrous pearls. In Tirumandhiram, the seventh century Indian sage Thirumoolar wrote the name of god, Shiva, itself is an alchemical term that turns the body into immortal gold.
Artist’s interpretation of the holy grail. (CC BY 2.0 )
The Holy Grail, a notable Christian symbol, was, according to Medieval legend, believed to be the cup that Jesus drank from during the Last Supper, and was also attributed as the vessel used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch Jesus’ blood as he was crucified. As such, the mythological chalice took on divine attributes. It was said that if you drank the holy grail, or even just touched it, its power would enter you and heal you, enlighten you, and possibly even make you live forever.
Sir Galahad as depicted by George Frederick Watts (1817–1904). (Public Domain)
Countless works of literature describe the cup, and in the famous grail legends concerning legendary King Arthur of Britain and his Knights of the Round Table, it is the purest and most chaste of knights, Sir Galahad, who eventually found the grail. However, whatever the true powers of the grail, Galahad dies shortly thereafter on the way back to Arthur’s court, the “glorious rapture” being too much for him.
The Fountain of Youth, in tales often sought by the old and sick to cure their illnesses and restore their vitality, is often associated with eternal life.
The Fountain of Youth, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1546. On the left, the elderly and infirm are brought to the fountain. They enter the curative waters, and are rejuvenated. They exit the pool on the right, and rejoin life with renewed youth and wellness. (Public Domain)
In legend it is said to be a magical spring that returns to youth anyone who drinks or bathes in the waters. The idea of the mystical restorative waters is thousands of years old, and features in indigenous tales and many ancient writings, (such as by Herodotus in fifth century BC), all the way up through the middle ages, and into the early 16th century, when explorers allegedly sought the object that brought eternal life.
Notable Spanish explorer Ponce de León famously quested for the mythical land of Bimini, thought to be the location of the Fountain of Youth—although this may have been merely a legend. Even though he was one of the first Europeans known to have set foot on what is today the United States of America in 1513, and discovered the Bahama Channel, and colonized Puerto Rico—he is best known for a story of the search for eternal youth and endless life.
Juan Ponce de León and Native Americans (Flickr/CC BY 2.0)
He did not meet with success as the Fountain of Youth was seemingly never found, although the spot where Spanish conquistadores came ashore at St Augustine, Florida is still frequented by visitors who drink from the waters in hopes that it possesses medicinal or restorative powers, like the legendary Fountain of Youth.
Bottle of medicinal water from the 'Fountain of Youth' in Florida, USA, dated to February 1936. (Wellcome/CC BY 4.0)
Early Eastern tales called the Alexander Romance tell of Alexander the Great, including his travels with a guide, Persian sage al-Khizr, to the Land of Darkness, and his discovery of a healing spring, the Fountain of Life. The legends have it that Alexander found the restorative waters, as proven when a dead fish made contact with the water and returned to life.
Detail; Persian Prophet al-Khadir and Alexander the Great at the fountain of life. (Acquired by Henry Walters /Public Domain)
The Fountain of Youth remains a metaphor of longevity, as well as the fruitless struggles to attain it.
Mystical Food of the Gods, Recipes for Long Life
Many cultures share legends of special foods which grant healthful longevity, or even eternal life. These were usually reserved for the gods, and it was often the source of their own immortality.
The Golden Apples of Norse mythology were cherished by the gods to maintain their supernatural immortality and eternal youth, beauty, and strength. It was believed Idun, goddess of Spring kept the special orchards in which the apples grew.
Idun and the Apples (Public Domain)
Trickster Loki made a deal with the giant Thiassi, who captured both Idun and the precious apples. This caused the other gods to grow old and lose their powers. With waning strength, they threatened Loki and forced him to retrieve Idun and her life-extending fruit, returning them all their divine powers.
Magical golden apples are legendary in many cultures, with heroes questing to obtain them or protect them.
Hero of Russian folklore, Ivan Tsarevich catches the Firebird who tries to steal golden apples. (Public Domain)
Mermaids have the power to grant immortality in Japanese myth – especially if you eat them. However, eternal life is not a reward, but a punishment in many stories. The mermaid-like mythical creature called the Ningyo is a cross between a monkey and a fish. Thought to portend war or violent storms if ever caught, they were seen as bad luck. In the Japanese tale Yao Bikuni, (Eight Hundred Year Priestess), a girl unknowingly ate Ningyo meat which her father had caught in the sea. She was thus ‘cursed’ with immortality, as she didn’t age, but was forced to live on as her many husbands and children died of old age. To avoid this endless torture, she became a nun and devoted herself to Buddha. It is said she was eventually allowed to die when she turned 800 years old due to her piety.
In legend, eating the mermaid-like ningyo will curse you with immortality. (Public Domain)
Ambrosia of Greek legend is a powerful food or drink which, when consumed, grants immortality. Like the Golden Apples, it was reserved for deities, and was much sought after by those seeking eternal youth and life. Fragrant and delicious beyond any other sustenance, it was believed ambrosia was flown to Mount Olympus on the backs of doves. Ambrosia is often associated with nectar, thought to be a drink with the same magical properties. Ancient writers name these food or drink interchangeably, but the legendary results were the same.
Many Greek heroes and villains have quested for ambrosia in stories. Heracles was permitted to eat it, but Tantalus stole the magical food and was punished. He attained immortality, but had to suffer through it, imprisoned in a pool of water with food always just out of reach.
Tantalus’s fate is where we get the word ‘tantalize’. His life (and torture) is never-ending. (Public Domain)
Modern ethnomycologist Danny Staples theorizes the mythical Ambrosia was actually the hallucinogenic mushroom Amanita muscaria. He says, “it was the food of the gods, their ambrosia, and nectar was the pressed sap of its juices.”
The mushroom Amanita muscaria. (Public Domain)
Other researchers believe that ambrosia and nectar were honey, as it is known to possess real healing and anti-septic attributes. In addition, fermented honey, or mead, was used as a mild entheogen in the Aegean world.
Peaches of Immortality are a common symbol in Chinese mythology, featuring in fine art and fables. Peaches symbolize longevity or the desire for a long and healthy life, and are said to grant this to those who eat them. Like in other culture’s beliefs, the magical peaches are eaten by deities, The Eight Immortals (celestial beings). The gods were believed to celebrate with a banquet called the "Feast of Peaches” when the special peach trees bore fruit—only once every 3,000 years! Due to its reputation, the peach remains a popular decoration or ingredient in pastries and desserts in China.
In Chinese myth, peaches symbolize immortality. This art installation of pretty lantern peaches highlights the significance of the Immortal Peach—that if you eat these peaches you will live a very long and healthy life. (Flickr/CC BY 2.0)
A mysterious Mesopotamian plant might be behind many tales of immortality. Gilgamesh, in the Sumerian epic tale, sought immortality after the death of his companion Enkidu. Gilgamesh met Utnapishtim, an ancient mortal who was given immortality by the gods when, like Noah, he constructed a boat to survive a great flood. Utnapishtim revealed there was a mystical plant that might also grant eternal life when eaten. Gilgamesh came close to attaining immortality, but a quick snake stole the plant from him. Researchers suggest the plant’s description closely resembles buckthorn or boxthorn.
The buckthorn. Does this plant hold the ancient secret of immortality? (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The 4,000-year-old tale of Gilgamesh has influenced many legends and religious tales.
Clay tablet is a surviving fragment of tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Old-Babylonian period, 2003-1595 BCE. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Nectar of the Gods: Potions and Elixirs of Longevity
There are many ancient references to special drinks or liquids which were believed to grant immortality. These special concoctions, like the ancient foods of the gods, were often forbidden to mortals who often had to win or steal them, or complete arduous quests to combine the necessary ingredients.
The mythological White Hare making the elixir of life on the Moon, from East Asian mythology. (Public Domain)
Soma, and Haoma, Zoroastrian and Vedic mythological and ritual drinks were reserved for the gods. These important concoctions were made by extracting juices from certain plant stalks. The Hindu god Indra, King of the Gods, and Agni, god of Fire, are written to have consumed large quantities of such drinks. A similar milk called Amrita was a divine nectar collected and imbibed by gods, but forbidden to humans. The contents of these drinks remain a mystery, as there is no consensus as to what the ingredients might have been.
Ancient texts cite Ninhursag’s milk, the goddess of fertility, as the drink which granted he kings of Sumer immortality.
Milk, surely, especially divinely given, was less problematic than the ‘White Drops’ said to be consumed by the deity Thoth in Egyptian mythology. Lending the gods immortality, the White Drops were interpreted later to be mercury, or a mix of mercury and liquid gold. This proved disastrous for many ancient and medieval alchemists who experimented with the highly toxic liquid.
Many ancient Chinese emperors sought immortality and drank such elixirs—including ingredients with ‘long lasting’ qualities such as jade, cinnabar, hematite, sulfur and even arsenic—with ironically fatal results.
Cinnabar, a highly toxic brick-red sulfide mineral, was used in ancient elixirs in hopes of bringing eternal life. Interestingly, it resembles the ideal red ‘Philosopher’s Stone’. (Rob Lavinsky, iRocks.com – CC-BY-SA-3.0)
It is believed Jaijing Emperor died from a lethal poisoning dose of mercury in his longevity potion, during the Ming Dynasty.
15th century alchemist Bernard Trevisan believed that the addition of the coveted Philosopher’s Stone into a portion of mercurial water would create the ultimate Elixir of Life, and a few alchemists thereafter claimed to have achieved this combination, including the infamous Cagliostro or Saint Germain.
Recipes of elixirs with supposed life-sparing qualities were passed through time, and even today drinks that promise to lead to healthful, longer lives are promoted (though perhaps not with claims of immortality, nor including toxins like mercury or cinnabar).
The Neapolitan friar Donato d’Eremita presented his “Elixir of Life” to distinguished visitors, including natural philosophers and royal officials. (Public Domain)
While there are many tales of immortality, it has yet to be proven that such artifacts, foods or drinks have caused endless life. Immortality, of a sort, has instead been achieved through the long lived legends and stories that have passed down over the eons and survive to this day. Mummified remains or prehistoric fossils present a glimpse into the very lives that came before. Indeed, even the genetic lineages found in all of us tell the story of an unbroken chain of ancestors and descendants, parent and child, that lives on in us today. Without a magical artifact, potent potion or food of the gods, these things may be our only means for eternal life—until science of the future brings us closer to breakthroughs in the supreme quest for immortality.
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