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Although mankind’s quest for longevity has been successful to a point (life expectancy worldwide has doubled over the past century), we have not yet been able to sidestep death’s clutches in the end. This is not for lack of trying. Throughout history, from the legendary ambrosia of the gods of Ancient Greece to the sought-after Philosopher’s Stone among European alchemists in the Middle Ages to the modern-day believers in such mythical substances, the idea of an “elixir of life” has been a constant illustration of our human desire to defeat mortality.
Elixirs of life have assumed many forms throughout history, but in most legends they take the form of food or drink that grants the consumer immortal life. Some of the most popular ingredients used in ancient recipes include mercury, sulphur, iron, copper, and honey. Of course, in modern times we’ve discovered — rather ironically — that many of the chemicals used by alchemists (particularly mercury) are actually highly poisonous. A 2014 unearthing of a buried nineteenth-century “elixir of life” on New York’s Lower East Side found that it contained primarily aloe, gentian (a root that aids digestion and a common ingredient in bitters and some liqueurs), and a mixture of alcohols. Such concoctions were frequently hawked by Victorian-era quacks, of course, but you can still find pseudo-scientists today who promote one magical cure for death or another.
“Why do people believe in things they can't prove or that seem illogical? We may never know,” Dr. Dagmar Wujastyk, a professor at the University of Vienna and expert in the history of classical medicines said. He adds, stating the obvious, that “Claims of immortality have never been proven to be true.”
Among the many mythologies of the ancient Greeks, perhaps one of the most famous is that around ambrosia, the so-called ectar of the gods. The ancient Greeks believed that what the gods ate and drank gave them immortality. The ambrosia came from the horns of Amalthea, the goat (or goatherd) foster mother of Zeus. It was believed that ambrosia could heal scars, cure diseases, raise people from the dead, and banish death completely. Historians believe that the ancient idea of ambrosia would have been based on honey, although the Ancient Greek poet Ibycus called it “nine times sweeter than honey.”
The earliest known attempts to create an elixir of life rather than just refer to it in mythology took place in ancient China during the Qin dynasty (during the first and second centuries BCE), according to Dagmar Wujastyk. In ancient China, Taoists believed that certain chemicals and minerals like mercury and cinnabar (an ore of mercury, bright red in color) had miraculous qualities. Ancient Chinese chemists believed that the demonstrated instability of mercury indicated “spiritual significance.”
“Although historical accounts referring to ‘rivers of mercury’ flowing through the tomb of the first Qin emperor may have been exaggerated, archaeological surveys have confirmed the presence of elevated levels of mercury in the soil around the tomb site,” said Wujastyk.
Chinese mythology is also rife with images of Ling Zhi, a species of mushroom found throughout much of Asia. It is still referred to as the “mushroom of immortality” and has been used in Chinese medicinal practices as a potent hot water extract for nearly 2,000 years.
Early cultures in India, starting around 400 BCE and continuing on to 800 AD, practiced ayurvedic rasayana, an early version of alchemy. The phrase loosely translates to mean “the science of mercury,” according to Wujastyk. Mercury was not the only substance used to promote longevity of life; amla (a fruit similar to a gooseberry) was also a common ingredient. Other tales from ancient Indian folklore speak of soma, a fermented drink that was said to grant the drinker immortality. The recipe has been lost to time, but historians believe it may have been made with the fermented milky sap of Asclepias acida, a kind of milkweed.
Ancient Indian alchemy may have sought a more spiritual goal than our modern ideas of immortality. “Indian traditions at least did not necessarily mean keeping one's body alive forever,” professor Wujastyk said. “Rather, it was about attaining a state of spiritual liberation or enlightenment (moksha) without having to die. But the body would have been transformed, the outer layers of gross matter having been shed.”