In Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita, there’s a scene of miraculous rejuvenation accomplished by a magical cream. Margarita Nikolaevna, a thirty-year-old woman, is sitting on a bench in Moscow’s Alexander Gardens when a suspicious fang-toothed man (later revealed as an agent of Satan) presents her with a golden casket, heavy and ornate as a reliquary. He tells her to wait until exactly half past eight that evening before opening it and applying the contents to her skin. For reasons too complicated to summarize, she agrees.
At 8:29 P.M., Margarita can’t wait any longer: she lifts the heavy box of gold and opens the lid. The cream is yellowish and oily and gives off the aroma of earth, marshland, and forest. She begins rubbing it into her forehead and cheeks, where it is absorbed quickly and greaselessly, producing a tingling effect over her skin. Then she looks in the mirror and drops the casket in shock.
Her eyes have changed color to green, and her eyebrows have grown from narrow, plucked lines into perfect symmetrical arcs. A worry line between them has vanished. Shadows around her temples and “barely detectable sets of crowsfeet” have disappeared. The skin of her cheeks begins to glow pink, her forehead becomes pale and perfectly smooth, and the artificial waves in her hair are loosened into flowing natural-looking curls. She laughs with glee, throws off her bathrobe, and begins to rub the cream all over her naked body. A tense headache that had bothered her since her meeting in the gardens disappears; her arms and legs grow stronger and firmer. Jumping into the air with joy, she sinks slowly and elegantly back to earth, as if being lowered by angels. The cream has granted her the power of flight.
Bulgakov was trained as a doctor, and his book brims with vivid clinical details: of blood spurting at a beheading, of a gently persuasive psychiatric interrogation, of the grinding crunch of a leg being severed. He brings the same attentiveness to the effects of the cream. As a physician, he must have known that creams in the real world can only slow the inevitable process of aging, never reverse it. To keep skin looking youthful, what you avoid is more important than what you rub on—smoking, unhealthy food, and sun exposure all add years to the skin. Once its natural elasticity has started to fade, there’s no cream on earth that can restore it.
It was an airport, but it could have been a shopping mall, a railway station, or even a hospital concourse anywhere in the rich world: strip lighting, cathedral-high ceilings, gantries of air ducts, wear-resistant carpets, overpriced cafés, gallimaufries of shops, and target demographics idling on uncomfortable chairs. The products for sale vary slightly with the season but not much: magazines, gifts, clothes, and bags; caffeine, electronics, junk food, and alcohol. A solitary chemist’s shop offers a different promise, with illuminated banners of HEALTH and BEAUTY. But what they are really selling is youth.
Medieval alchemists had a thousand different names for youth elixirs, and the contemporary rejuvenation industry is not far behind. The first three creams I picked up blended an appetizing list of ingredients: rosemary, chamomile, cocoa, eucalyptus, borage, avocado, echinacea, aloe vera, hops, cucumber, calendula, and “heavenly fragrance of rose-scented geranium.” On another shelf, an exotic melon from the Kalahari had been rarefied and liquefied and presented for application to heat-damaged hair. There were seductive promises of rejuvenated and radiant-looking skin. One of the creams promised a transformative reduction in the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and another a “firmer, lifted, and youthful-looking complexion.” There were variably blended products customized for hands, nails, feet, face, body, and breast. Some creams were described as “precious serums,” the application of which was not just beneficial but necessary. Each offered to make skin “visibly plumper, smoother and rejuvenated.”
The men’s shelf ran to just four products, which in their own way also promised youth, though their effects were described as calming, softening, and smoothing rather than rejuvenating (as if mollifying male character, not male skin, was their object). The divergent marketing approach for men’s products was replicated on the shelves stocking vitamin supplements, which promised youth and improved complexion for women but strength and potency for men. These were advertised as being necessary not just for health but to confer “vitality.”
The story of Bulgakov’s Margarita is part of a long tradition, from Snow White’s wicked stepmother (who wanted to remain “fairest of them all”) to the Germanic legends that granted vigorous youth to men heroic enough to slay a dragon. There’s a spectacular example of youth enchantment in Ovid’s Metamorphoses when Jason defeats a dragon to get hold of a golden fleece, then implores his wife—the sorceress Medea—to rejuvenate his father, Aeson, using a potion of herbs so exotic they could have been taken from a modern cosmetics catalogue. In her dragon-harnessed chariot, Medea makes a tour of the most glamorous and outlandish sites in the Greek world in order to gather herbs. She fills twinned holes in the earth with the blood of a sacrificed sheep, adds wine and milk, then dips flaming torches in before setting them ablaze. Into a cauldron go roots from Thessaly, sands from Oceanus at the earth’s limit, and powdered rocks from the Far East.
Medea used a desiccated old olive wand to stir the brew; as she did so, it sprouted leaves, then grew heavy with olives. Spatters from the broth caused flowers and grass to spring up on the cold dark earth. At this final sign, Medea felt ready to proceed: she slit Aeson’s jugular veins and poured in her potion. “Quickly his beard and his hair lost their whiteness … New flesh filled out his sagging wrinkles, and his limbs grew young and strong. The old king marveled at the change in himself, recalling that this was the Aeson of forty years ago.”
The earliest known text concerned with the elixirs of youth is an early Chinese commentary on the I Ching, the “Book of Changes,” in which chemical substances and processes are tentatively correlated with the book’s famous hexagrams. The I Ching takes for granted that the universe and all beings in it are caught up in cycles of transformation and suggests that the astute application of mystical and medical knowledge can influence those changes for the better.
In Europe, alchemists were obsessed with generating gold, but in China, they preferred to work on youth elixirs. A string of Chinese alchemists claimed to have created a rejuvenating potion; Joseph Needham, the historian, scientist, and Sinologist, was so struck by the frequency with which Chinese emperors were poisoned by these drugs that he tabulated a list of victims. In around 300 A.D., a Chinese alchemist called Ge Hong collated various recipes. Three centuries later, a more detailed treatise specified the inclusion of obscure, exotic substances such as mercurial salts and compounds of sulfur. There are more than a thousand different names for these potions, most of which carried the same basic mineral ingredients.
One of Ge Hong’s near contemporaries in the West, a Byzantine called Synesius, believed that the physical transformations effected by alchemy were less important than the mental positions adopted by its practitioners. A true alchemy of youth didn’t require a laboratory or precious exotic substances; all that was needed was the right kind of incantation and a change in attitude.
Bulgakov wrote that Margarita felt “anointed” by the magical cream: a glorious sense of freedom ran through her limbs; her body fizzed with giddy pleasure. She had the sudden conviction that she would leave her home and her husband, who she did not love, and begin a new life. After shouting, “Hurray for the cream!” to no one in particular, she flies through the air to her husband’s desk and, without hesitation or deliberation, writes a note asking him to forget her.
A sound disturbs her—a broomstick knocking in the cupboard. Margarita opens its door, jumps onto the broomstick, and zooms naked out of the window. Magic has rendered her invisible to onlookers—it’s understood that this youthful beauty is for her own pleasure, not anyone else’s. After taunting her boring neighbor, taking revenge on an enemy, she takes off on a flight out of Moscow. At first she flies at tremendous speed across the Russian landscape, her toes brushing the tops of trees, the great rivers of Siberia passing beneath her so quickly that a strobe of reflected moonlight flashes beneath her feet. Then she slows to enjoy her new perspective and “savour the thrill of flight.”
Gavin Francis is a physician and the award-winning author of four books, including Adventures in Human Being, Empire Antarctica, and True North. A regular contributor to the London Review of Books, the Guardian, and New York Review of Books, Francis lives in Edinburgh.
Adapted excerpt from Shapeshifters: A Journey Through the Changing Human Body, by Gavin Francis. Copyright © 2018. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.