The elixir of life, according to mythology, if consumed will bring its bearer the promise of immortal life. The substance or potion and its origins can be traced back to many different ancient cultures. Some of the first stories of the elixir of life’s powers are found in Egyptian and Greek mythology. The Egyptian god Thoth and the Greek god Thermes were said to have both consumed a magical elixir made from liquid gold and thus achieved immortality. Stories of this magical potion that promised immortality was also found in the Far East. As far back as the third century BC, Emperor Qin Shi Haung (259-210 B.C) is known to have ordered his most famous alchemist Xu Fu on an expedition, with some 1000 men and women, to go in search of the elixir of life. (Legend states that Xu Fu never returned with the elixir or its secrets and instead discovered the island of Japan.)
Xu Fu’s expedition to the Mount of the immortals to retrieve the elixir of immortality.
Alchemists were the first professionals charged with the important task of trying to find or recreate the elixir of life. They initially believed that melting metals (carried out in both Eastern and Western cultures), particularly gold and mercury, was the secret to unearthing the magic powers of the elixir. Their ideas were of course completely unfounded, dangerous and fatal. Several Chinese emperors were known to have died from drinking a cocktail of toxic substances. Therefore, it is of no surprise that this interest in alchemy and the search for immortality, through a special drink or potion (elixir), would decline in China. It would be much later with the rise of Buddhism, that the search for the elixir of life, as a source of immortality would be sort through a spiritual sense instead. In Buddhist traditions, the power of the elixir of life was held by Amitaysus, the Buddhist deity of longevity. Amitaysus powers are said to be able to heal the suffering of people and grant them long life and impunity from illness.
Ming Dynasty Emperor Jiajing (1521-1567) reportedly died due to a mercury overdose believing it to be the elixir of life.
This is an 18th Century embroidered emperor’s robe which shows a dragon and above a medallion of the White Hare of the moon making the elixir of immortality.
Comparably, in India the search for the elixir of life or Amrita, is described in ancient Hindu texts. Hindu scriptures tell us stories of the early days of the Earth and how lesser known gods were once fearful of the strength and rise of evil demons. These fearful gods, in an attempt to regain the upper hand against the evil demons sort the advice of higher Hindu gods, Vishu, Brahma and Shiva. The lesser gods were told that to regain the upper hand over the demons, they would have to find and drink the smallest of amounts of the Armita from the sumundra manthan or the churning of the ocean of milk.
The elixir of life goes by many names including dancing water, the water of life or the fountain of life, the pool of nector and the philosopher’s stone. The actual word elixir was not used until the 7th century and is acquired from the Arabic name for miracle substances, “al iksir.” Many view “the elixir” as a metaphor for the spirit of God rather than an actual potion that heralds immortality. “But whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (The Bible, John 4:14)
Today, it seems the search for immortality or the elixir of life has been replaced by our more modest efforts in physical exercise and diet to gain a longer and healthier life. However, scientists have not given up on the idea of the mythical elixir of life entirely. Microbial and probotics investigation in Kazakstan have stumbled on a yogurt based drink called “nar”. It is currently undergoing clinical tests. In another report, Australian researchers at the University of NSW claim that they may have found the elixir of life in the form of nicotinamide monocleotide which may help in the anti-ageing process. We may yet discover the secrets of immortality ?
The header image is a painting of the Buddhist deity Amitayus holding a vase containing the elixir of long life.