Elixirs of Life: A History

From 1500s to the modern day, we’ve sought for a recipe for immortality

<strong>We have always had an obsession with cheating death.</strong>
We have always had an obsession with cheating death.

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.”

Ancient Greece

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.”

Ancient China

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.

Ancient India

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.”

From 1500s to the modern day, we’ve sought for a recipe for immortalityChristianity

Immortality comes into play in the story of the Garden of Eden. According to Genesis, the garden contained two trees: the Tree of Knowledge, from which grew the forbidden fruit, and the Tree of Life: “And the Lord God brought forth of the ground all manner of trees, fair to behold, and pleasant to eat of: the tree of life also in the midst of paradise...” (Gen. 2:9). The Tree of Life, most religious scholars agree, conferred immortality and incorruption upon the one who ate from it. Of course, as we know, Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden of Eden for instead eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.

The mythical Holy Grail was also said to confer immortality. Said to be a cup of “mysterious power,” it was said to have held the blood and sweat of Jesus Christ (or to have been the cup from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper), and some believed that drinking from it could heal the body, enlighten the mind, and make the drinker’s entire being immortal.

Medieval Alchemy

Most modern readers only know of the alchemist Nicolas Flamel thanks to the Harry Potter series, but such pseudoscientists thrived in the Middle Ages and even developed some of the foundations of modern experimental science. The primary function of alchemy was to find the legendary substance, process, or object that could turn base metals into gold. Known by many names — the Philosopher’s Stone, the Stone of the Wise, the Diamond of Perfection, the Universal Medicine, the Forbidden Fruit — the substance was also closely associated with the elixir of life. The Philosopher’s Stone was variously said to be made of red powder, liquid gold, golden seeds, and many more thousands of descriptors throughout history, and alchemists performed countless unsuccessful experiments seeking to identify it. Some have taken their quest for immortality less literally; some historians believe that the Philosopher’s Stone could signify immortality of the soul, or a symbolic wellness, much like some concepts in ayurvedic alchemy, according to the University of Delaware Special Collections.

In 2016, one recipe for the Philosopher’s Stone, copied by hand by none other than Isaac Newton, was found in a seventeenth-century document purchased by the United States Chemical Heritage Foundation. The paper, originally written by Eirenaeus Philalethes (who was a prominent alchemist widely read among Newton and his contemporaries), talks about “sophick mercury” (short for philosophical mercury), which is a synonym for the elixir of life. The recipe calls for distilling ore and purifying other metals to make a substance that can turn base metal into gold.

Modern Times

Although the practice of alchemy and the quest for an elixir of immortality have largely faded, there remain some who still believe that miraculous longevity can be achieved by ingesting certain substances. In 2009, the staff at a fourteenth-century Carthusian priory in Yorkshire, England, attempted to recreate a centuries-old recipe for Chartreuse liqueur that was once used as a miracle medicine. The monks were evicted in the sixteenth century during the course of the Reformation (decades before Carthusian monks in France began formulating the spirit, according to tradition), but the modern-day staff at the historical site has nonetheless established a special herb garden in an attempt to match the formula called “the Elixir of Long Life.”

In 2015, Russian scientists began injecting mice with 3.5 million-year-old bacteria found frozen in Siberian permafrost, which they claimed were able to successfully prolong life. The scientists reported that after being injected, “mice grannies not only began to dance, but also produced offspring.” One of the scientists admits to injecting himself with the bacteria and reported positive effects; needless to say, these claims have not been verified by mainstream science.

Even alchemy itself lives on, to an extent; author Robert Cox, who bills himself as a modern-day alchemist, claims to have discovered a mysterious white material that he identifies as the Philosopher’s Stone in his Arizona backyard. Check on him in, say, 100 years and see how he’s doing.

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