Curing Ageing Part One: Myths and Legends

Aubrey de Grey’s claims regarding the defeat, or cure, of ageing fascinate me. In my most recent short story, “Blind Control“, I explored the idea of someone obsessed with the idea of extending his life, but I’ve started thinking more about the subject. In particular, I’m trying to imagine such a scenario where it is possible for people to live until they were 1000 years old or more, as de Grey claims is possible.

So I began to look at some of the myths and legends about immortality and longevity (to give a sense of historical perspective) in order to understand the origins of our fascination, and then look at how the focus of immortality shifted from being one closely related to religion, to one linked with science. Ultimately, what I really wanted to do is speculate on the kind of impact such a change would have on our world, how people would see it, how it would affect them, directly or indirectly.

I initially set out a single post on the subject, but it quickly ballooned into something else, so consider this the first part of what will likely be a two or three part series (hey, who knows, maybe more).

Legends of Longevity
History is littered with myths and legends regarding eternal youth or eternal life. Initially, immortality was closely linked to Gods and deities, either bestowed as gifts from them, or (in some cases) as a curse.

Possibly the oldest legend about longevity is that of Gilgamesh, the Sumerian king who ruled around 2600BC. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, after his friend, Enkidu, died and “turned to clay”, Gilgamesh “began to fear death”, and travels to an island where a man named Utnapishtim and his wife live. As Gilgamesh explains to a scorpion-being:

“I have come on account of my ancestor Utanapishtim, who joined the Assembly of the Gods, and was given eternal life. About Death and Life I must ask him!”

After a hazardous journey, Gilgamesh finally reaches his destination filled with sadness and fear, where Utnapishtim tells him:

“Through toil you wear yourself out, you fill your body with grief, your long lifetime you are bringing near (to a premature end)!”

Nevertheless, Utanapishtim reveals his story to Gilgamesh, and agrees to grant him eternal life, but he fails to pass a test that Utnapishtim sets him, which is to stay awake for six days and seven nights. Devastated, Gilgamesh proclaims:

“The Snatcher has taken hold of my flesh, in my bedroom Death dwells, and wherever I set foot there too is Death!”

In the Bible, Adam and Eve had the gift of eternal life, but it was taken from them when they sinned by eating the apple from the Tree of Knowledge. And, in the Book of Genesis, “Methuselah lived 969 years, and then he died”, although it could be possible that this is down to a translation error.

Religion has a very close connection with early longevity myths. In Greek lore, the Apotheothenai were mortal men and women granted immortality, normally by the Gods, or by consuming ambrosia or nectar, which was considered the food or drink of the Gods. Notable examples from Greek legend are: Helen, the Queen of Sparta, who (along with her husband) was granted immortality and allowed to live in the paradise of Elysium; and Heracles (otherwise known as Hercules), who was taken to live amongst the Gods by the Goddess Athena. (A full list can be found here.)

Not all of these legends had happy endings, of course. Probably the most famous of these is the story of Sisyphus, who tried to cheat Death by escaping from the Underworld, and then by capturing Death himself. As a result, he was sentenced to eternal torture, but appears to have attained his goal of eternal life anyway.

Hinduism also has a similar drink to ambrosia, called Amrita, which is also associated to granting eternal life to the gods. The literal translation means “non-dead”. It was believed to have been found “at the Churning of the Ocean, when Rahu, the demon, succeeded in obtaining a sip, forcing Vishnu to cut off his head in order to prevent him from gaining complete impregnability”.

What is interesting for me from this small selection of legends is this idea that cheating death bestowed a God-like status on the individual in question. I also find it quite obvious that quite a few of the stories involved individuals in positions of power: kings, queens and rulers seeking to prolong their lives. Despite those mentioned here, there are others, even one about Alexander the Great (in the Alexander Romance) trying to find a river that granted immortality.

In addition, the consequences of achieving long life, or immortality, resulted in being able to live in some form of eternal paradise; or, in the case of Sisyphus, eternal damnation. This utopia vs. dystopia theme is, I think, a strong one, even today, in discussions around immortality, and even curing ageing.

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August 2, 2008