The Elixir of Life: A Historical Quest for Immortality

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The Elixir of Life is a liquid that supposedly grants the drinker eternal life and eternal youth. It is also called the elixir of immortality. The elixir was said to cure all diseases, and alchemists in many ages tried to prepare the elixir.

The earliest mention of the elixir is found in the Epic of Gilgamesh in Mesopotamia. The hero Gilgamesh became perturbed after the death of his companion Enkidu. Gilgamesh tried to become immortal. He was directed by an alchemist to find a plant at the bottom of the sea. But unfortunately, it became toxic before he could consume it to become immortal.

In China, many rulers also sought the elixir to become eternal. Emperor Qin Shi Huang sent the alchemist Xu Fu to the eastern seas with five hundred young men and five hundred young women to find the elixir in the Penglai Mountain. But the mission failed. They tried for the second time, but all of them never returned. The ancient Chinese believed some mineral substances like jade, cinnabar, and hematite, when consumed, would prolong life.

The drinkable gold is found in China by the end of the third century BC.

In India, Amrit was the elixir of life. At the time of Samudra Manthan, Mohini, the female form of Vishnu, distributed Amrit (Nectar) amongst all the Devas, leaving the Asuras without it.

In Europe, the elixir of life is closely related to the creation of the philosopher’s stone. Michael Scot speaks of gold as an elixir of life.

The elixir has hundreds of names – Kimia, Amrita, Aab–Hayat, Maha Ras, Aab Haawat, Chasma-i-Kausar, Mansarovar, Philosopher’s Stone, Soma Rasa, etc. The elixir word was not used until the 7th century AD. The word elixir was derived from the Arabic word Al iksir (miracle of substances). Jesus Christ referred to the water of life as the fountain of life. He said, “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.”

Kimia is a Greek word used in Persian literature. It means something that transforms and brings life. Aab-I-Hayat is a Persian word which means water of life.

Chasma-i-Kauser is the Fountain of Bounty and is said to be located in paradise.

In pharmacy, an elixir is usually defined as a hydroalcoholic solution containing flavoring materials and medicinal substances. The philosopher’s stone is an unknown substance also called tincture or powder, which has the ability to transform base metals into precious stones, especially gold and silver. Alchemists believed that an elixir of life could be derived from it. It is believed that the philosopher’s stone can perfect the human soul. It can cure illnesses, prolong life, and bring about spiritual revitalization. The quest for the stone encouraged alchemists from the Middle Ages to the end of the seventeenth century to examine numerous substances and their influences in their laboratories.

In literature, elixir is used as a metaphor. In the World Cup Soccer 1994, in the match between Germany and Bulgaria, Bulgarian striker Stoichkov made an outstanding free kick, which resulted in a goal in the German goalpost. Critics said it was an elixir of life for Bulgaria.

(The views expressed are the writer’s own.)

Radhakanta Seth is an Income tax officer in Sambalpur.  He is a Freelance writer and his articles have been published in some Oriya dailies like Sambad, Samaj, Dharitri and English dailies like The Telegraph and in a sociological journal ‘Folklore’ published from Kolkata.