What have we not done to live forever? My research into the endless ways we’ve tried to avoid the unavoidable is released today as The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever (Scribner). Every Monday for the next six weeks, this chronological crash course will examine how humankind has striven for, grappled with, and dreamed about immortality in different eras throughout history.
We’ve always had a thing for sequels. The suggestion of a second act is built into the fossil record. Tens of thousands of years ago, Neanderthals were already digging premeditated grave sites. They intentionally buried dead kin in fetal positions, indicating some hunch about posthumous rebirth. By Neolithic times, when we’d gotten the hang of agriculture, food started being placed alongside entombed bodies—presumably so they’d have snacks for their journey to the spirit realm.
Our terror and awe of mortality can be traced back to prehistoric nothingness. Every story about immortality since then has been a story about the meaning of death, an attempt at warding off our innate fear of finality. As soon as we figured out how to write, we started jotting down consolatory tales about living forever.
The cuneiform tablets of Nineveh, among the earliest written documents, tell of King Gilgamesh, whose best friend dies. He is stricken with grief. But he is the omnipotent king of Uruk, the one who gazed into the depths—the one who slayed the Bull of Heaven!—surely he’s almighty enough to bring dead loved ones back from the grave. Mute with sorrow and pride, he buries his friend beneath a river and sets out to find eternal life. The scorpion people, whose knowledge is fathomless and whose glance is death, warn him about dangers ahead. A lady of the vines tries to console him, telling him that love is the closest mortals can come to immortality. Crossing the Waters of Death, he discovers a marvelous underwater plant that contains the secret of perpetual youth—the watercress of immortality, as the clay etchings call it, or the “never-grow-old”—but, alas, a serpent promptly steals it away. History’s prototypical protagonist fails, yet his story ends the only way it can: with acceptance of reality. Of mortality.
But mustn’t there be a way around the inevitable? When the four-thousand-year-old Edwin Smith Papyrus first resurfaced, it seemed to contain ancient methods of rejuvenation. The Egyptian scroll commences with a tantalizing promise: “The beginning of the book for making an old man into a youth …” Once the hieratic scribbles were fully decrypted, however, the directives turned out to be a base recipe for fenugreek oil—used to mask liver spots and as a hair restorative for balding men.
The truth is bald: we all get old and die. And we all wish there were a shampoo of infinite health. In our desperation, we’ve eaten Egyptian mummies. Entwined and embalmed, preserved for millennia, they seemed connected to the beyond. For hundreds of years, until World War II, scraps and powders of shredded or ground mummified corpses were prescribed as medicine (Mumia vera aegyptia) by European medics. Sixteenth-century physicians claimed that our vitality is nothing more than “a certain embalsamed Mumia,” a self-generated healing balm that prevents us from rotting alive. Early chemists described it as “the liquor of an interior salt most carefully and naturally preserving its body from corruption.” This corporeal potion could also be manufactured chemically, they argued, with mercury, or as a saline solution incorporating the smoked flesh of dead youths mixed with myrrh, agarwood resin, turpentine, and other distillates. Alas.
For the ancient Egyptians, death wasn’t the end; it was a transition into the immortal afterlife. Just as Ra is extinguished with every sunset and descends into the underworld only to return with each new dawn, each person’s life goes on after death. “You sleep that you may wake; you die that you may live,” explain the Pyramid Texts, a collection of magical spells from the third millennium B.C.E (and one of the oldest religious texts in existence). After dying, souls were ferried through the Nurse Canal, along a winding waterway, and over inundated fields to the place they originally came from, where they were “born again, new and young.”
The hieroglyphic canon makes it clear that Egyptians saw death as a gateway. Destinations abounded. Souls didn’t just float down paths of water to the land of the blessed; they could also waft heavenward on plumes of incense, or get sucked into the infernal regions, or trek silently “to the house of darkness, where dust lies on door and bolt.”
In the Hall of Double Truth, disembodied spirits would encounter Osiris, “he who springs from the returning waters.” The foremost god of resurrection, Osiris blesses properly mummified souls with his draught of immortality, the cold water of everlasting life. This precipitates an apotheosis known as Osirification. “I am Osiris, Lord of Eternity!” declares each dead soul, wetly aware of its own immortality. Having become Osiris, souls enter a silent boundlessness, where they remain until everything reverts back to its original state of primal floodwaters and starts all over again.
In time, other Mediterranean cultures came to worship the Osiris-like Dionysus—a suffering god who dies, disappears beneath the waves of the sea, and then returns to life. They believed that the god’s fate was their fate, that they, too, would find another life in death, that each of them was Dionysus: the one who dies yet does not die. The veneration of Dionysus began roughly around 1,500 B.C.E., which is the same time that the Indian Vedas started describing a mysterious immortalizing liquid called soma. As one famous passage in the Rig Veda states, “We have drunk the soma; we have become immortal; we have gone to the light; we have found the gods.” Was it real, or just a symbolic cocktail? A beverage of immortality was also spoken of by Zarathustra, the Persian prophet whose teachings formed the core religion of Iran (Zoroastrianism) until Islam arrived in the seventh century C.E.. Their elixir is haoma, best drunk at the end of time near the junction of the great gathering place of all the waters. Dionysus, too, dispensed the water of life. He wasn’t just the god of wine and intoxication: he was the “lord of all moist nature,” the infinite mystery of liquidity itself.
Adam Leith Gollner’s The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever (Scribner) is out now.