Not a week goes by without us stumbling upon some news telling us we’re so close to attaining eternal life. Doctors promising to find a way to stop and reverse the aging process or scientists with futuristic plans of downloading human consciousness into a computer or, even better, into holographic avatars. We’re obsessed with immortality or, at the very least, a really long life, hundreds of years, if possible.
However, this obsession is not new and throughout history there have been many others searching for eternal life.
One of the first people to use his power and wealth to search for eternal life was the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, the one with the terracotta army.
Born in 259 BC, Qin Shi Huang conquered the six warring states of China to create a unified empire, proclaiming himself as emperor. He ordered fortifications between the conquered lands to be destroyed and had the remaining portions united and fortified in the Great Wall, although much of what was built during his reign was eroded by the elements and replaced by stronger walls centuries later.
He was a great political figure and his legacy would endure, but cared most about his personal survival. Chinese archaeologists have discovered in the Hunan province 36,000 bamboo slips from the Qin dynasty, some of them containing the emperor’s orders that local authorities and the few doctors of the time all search for an eternal life remedy. And they did, because you wouldn’t want to cross such a powerful emperor. They didn’t have much luck, though, and one poor official from a village called Duxiang, informed the emperor he had been unable to locate such a miraculous potion, but gave assurances the quest will continue. Another slip written by someone in Langya, in today's eastern Shandong province, contains references to a plant growing on "auspicious local mountain", which seemed promising.
The sad part is that somehow Qin Shi Huang was convinced the secret to eternal life lay in cinnabar, a mineral containing mercury sulfide. For a long time, cinnabar was used to obtain red pigment, widely used by artists and cloth-makers. Nobody knew back then the mercury in the mineral is extremely toxic. It seems that, in his quest for immortality, the emperor managed to poison himself with mercury pills, which might explain why he died at the relatively young age of 49.
However, Qin Shi Huang had contingency plans and was well prepared for the afterlife. His mausoleum contained numerous riches, besides the famous army of terracotta warriors. To entertain himself in the after life, many of his concubines were buried with him. Not to mention the beautiful scenery in the giant tomb, which included replicas of China’s main rivers, also made out of mercury.
Several other Chinese emperors carried on the quest for immortality, and mercury remained quite popular.
Sometime in the 9th century, Chinese monks working on an elixir of life managed to discover gunpowder, which, as we all now, has a rather devastating effect on human life.
As mentioned in a previous post, the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh also mentions the idea of immortality. The hero, Gilgamesh, goes on a quest to find the local equivalent of the Biblical Noah, although this man could not help him. He did not have a miracle potion for eternal life, as he had been granted immortality by the Gods - sort of a one-time deal.
Ancient Hindu texts contain references to a mysterious elixir of life, called Amrit, which could be obtained by "churning of the ocean". As you can guess such a process implied great force and mythical powers, only the Gods had. And they did manage to produce this Amrit and became immortal. Needles to say, regular people could not "churn the ocean".
Something even mere mortals could try, though, was alchemy and for thousands of years people were convinced there’s a connection between gold and eternal life.
Flamel's house still stands in Paris
If the name Nicholas Flamel sounds familiar to you, it is probably from the Harry Potter books. However, Flamel was a French scribe and manuscript seller, who, after his death in 1418 acquired a reputation as an alchemist and was widely believed to have come up with the formula for the ‘Philosopher’s stone’, which grants immortality. Legend has it he found the secret recipe in an old manuscript and gained immortality both for himself and his wife, Perenelle. Yes, I am aware I just mentioned his death in 1418, I guess that only refers to the historical character, whereas the legend lives on.
Actually, the Europeans’ fascination with eternal life dates back to the 12th century, when tales about Prester John and his hidden Christian kingdom began to spread. It was rumored that his kingdom was rich beyond measure, full of marvels and its inhabitants enjoyed eternal life. Most of the details about this place came from a so-called Letter of Prester John, almost certainly a forged document. However, the rumors spread like wildfire, the letter was translated in several languages and many left in search of the lost kingdom, rumored to be in Asia or maybe in Northern Africa.The legend was put to rest in the 17th century by a German academic who managed to prove there was no truth to the story. However, Prester John din manage do obtain immortality for himself, as even today he appears as a character in comic books and was featured prominently in Umberto Eco’s 2000 novel ‘Baudolino’.
Among those thought to have been in search of eternal life there’s also the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon who went to the territory of modern Florida to look for the fountain of youth. He got that idea from a tale he had heard among Caribbean islanders, which mentioned a fountain capable of restoring the vitality of anyone who swam in its waters. Maybe this is the reason why many Americans choose to retire to Florida to this day. Hard to say how much of this Ponce de Leon story is true, but fact is a fountain of youth does exist in Florida, although the only benefit it provides is a nice background for the tourists flocking to take pictures there.
There is no conclusion to this post, the quest for eternal life goes on, but, I’m curious, would you like to be immortal?