How did the inhabitants of ancient civilizations feel about Immortality?
How did the inhabitants of ancient civilizations feel about Immortality?

Several years ago, sociologists of the Levada Center asked passers-by with an unusual question: "Do you want to live forever?" It would seem, who is not tempted by eternal life? But the results of the poll surprised: 62% of Russians do not want such a fate for themselves. The question of immortality was asked to atheists, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and representatives of other confessions. I wonder what people who lived in antiquity would have answered the sociologists' question?


Giulio Romano (1492-1546). Allegory of Immortality. Around 1540 / © Getty Images

The ancient Greeks were obsessed with the idea of ​​eternal youth and eternal life. In myth, poetry, and philosophy, they have placed considerable emphasis on the desire to stay young and live forever. To have immortality like the gods would have been the highest achievement, but the Greeks were also well aware of the sobering consequences of such benefits.

For the ancient Hellenes, the lives of men and women were measured by chronos - time divided into past, present and future. But if people drifted in endless time, an eon, what would happen to memories or love? How can a human brain, which has stored 70 or 80 years of memories, cope with the storage of centuries or millennia?

The links connecting memory, love and mortality are found in Homer's Odyssey. In an epic ten-year attempt by Odysseus to get to his home in Ithaca after the Trojan War, he was detained against the wishes of the nymph Calypso. She has kept Odysseus as her lover for seven years.

The adorable nymph offers him eternal youth and immortality if a man stays with her on the island forever. Calypso cannot believe when Odysseus refuses such a generous gift.

Other gods insist that Calypso should respect Odysseus's desire to build a raft in order to try to return to his wife, family, friends and live the rest of his days on his native land. As Odysseus Calypso explains: “Don't be angry with me, mistress goddess! I myself know well how pitiful the reasonable Penelopeia is in comparison with your height and appearance.

She is mortal - you are not subject to death or old age. All the same, and at the same time I wish and I strive all the days to continuously return home again”(“The Odyssey”, translated by V. Veresaev).

Chronos (Cronus, Saturn)

Chronos (Cronus, Saturn). Jean-Baptiste Moses / ©

The immortal Calypso cannot understand Odysseus's longing for his wife and nostalgia for home. In the words of Odysseus, the ancient poem expresses one of the most important differences between gods and mortals: people are connected with each other and with their homeland. The hero of the poem knows that he will lose his personality, precious not only to him, but also to his family and friends, if he decides to get immortality.

The pursuit of immortality raises other concerns as well. Unlike humans, immortal gods do not change or learn.

Without the threat of danger to life, would self-sacrifice become a heroic feat and glory? Like empathy, these ideals are purely human, and they are especially noticeable in the military culture, the culture of ancient Greece and ancient Rome. The immortal gods and goddesses of Greek mythology are powerful, but no one calls them courageous. Immortal gods, by their very nature, can never gamble high or risk their lives.

Odysseus and Calypso, still from the film "Odyssey's Wanderings" (1954)

Odysseus and Calypso, still from the film "Odyssey's Wanderings" (1954).

According to Herodotus, the elite infantry of ten thousand soldiers in the Persian Empire in the 6th and 5th centuries BC called themselves "immortals", but not because they wanted to live forever, but because they knew that their number would always remain unchanged.The confidence that an equally valiant warrior would immediately take the place of a killed or wounded soldier, thereby ensuring the "immortality" of the unit, strengthened a sense of cohesion and pride.

The enduring appeal of this concept is evident in the name "immortals", which was adopted by the Sassanian and Byzantine cavalry, Napoleon's imperial guard and the Iranian army of 1941-1979.

In the Mesopotamian epic "Gilgamesh" comrades Enkidu and Gilgamesh heroically meet death, consoling themselves that at least their glory will be eternal. This idea is embodied in the ancient Greek ideal of "imperishable glory."

Cuneiform tablet with the text of the epic about Gilgamesh / ©

Cuneiform tablet with the text of the epic about Gilgamesh / ©

In Greek mythology, real heroes and heroines do not strive for physical immortality. No real hero wants to die of old age. To die young and handsome in a noble battle with a worthy adversary is the very definition of mythical heroism. Even the barbarian Amazons of Greek legend achieve this vaunted heroic status by dying bravely in battle.

This choice is also contained in the legends about the Caucasian sledges, men and women who lived in the Golden Age of Heroes. The Nart sagas combine ancient Indo-European myths and Eurasian folklore. In one saga, the Creator asks: “Do you want to be a small tribe and live a short century, but gain great glory?

Or do you prefer that your number was large and that they have a lot of food and drink and live a long life, never knowing either battle or glory? " The Narts' answer sounds like the later Vikings who yearned for Valhalla: "Live fast." They prefer to remain small in number and perform great feats: “We do not want to be like cattle. We want to live with human dignity."

They are echoed in his reflections by the Roman emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, who linked the acceptance of death with the obligation to live his short fragile life with dignity and honor.

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius. Roman sculpture

Many ancient travel stories revel in descriptions of fabulous utopias, where people are happy, healthy, free and immortal. An early example of the idea that a source of youth or a source of longevity can be found in some exotic country of the East appears in the writings of Ctesias, a Greek physician who lived in Babylon and wrote about the wonders of India in the 5th century BC.

Around the same time, the story of long-livers Ethiopians, who owe their 120-year lifespan to a diet of milk and meat. Later, an anonymous Greek geographer who lived in Antioch or Alexandria (IV century AD) wrote about an eastern country where they eat wild honey and pepper and live up to 120 years. Curiously, 120 years is the maximum human life span suggested by some modern scientists.

Pliny the Elder mentioned a group of people in India who have lived for millennia. India also figures in many legends that arose after the death of Alexander the Great, collected in Arabic, Greek, Armenian and other versions of the Alexandrian novel (3rd century BC - 6th century AD).

It was said that the young conqueror of the world longed for immortality. At some point, Alexander enters into a philosophical dialogue with Indian sages. He asks: "How long should a person live?" They answer: "Until he considers death better than life." In his campaigns, Alexander constantly encounters obstacles in his search for the water of eternal life and meets fantastic sages who warn him against such searches. The dream of finding the magical waters of immortality has survived in medieval European folklore.

The legendary traveler and storyteller Presbyter John, for example, argued that bathing in the fountain of youth would return a person to the ideal age of 32 and that rejuvenation could be repeated as many times as desired.

Fountain of youth

On the other side of the world, in China, several emperors dreamed of discovering the elixir of immortality. The most famous seeker was Qin Shi Huang Ti, born in 259 BC, about a century after Alexander the Great.

Taoist legends told of people who never grew old or died, because they grew a special herb on the legendary mountains or islands. In 219 BC, Qin Shi Huang sent an alchemist and three thousand young men to try to find the elixir. Nobody saw them again.

The emperor sought out magicians and other alchemists who mixed various broths containing ingredients believed to artificially give longevity, from centuries-old turtle shells to heavy metals.

However, all searches ended in failure: Qin Shi Huang died at the "advanced" age - at 49 years old, in 210 BC. But we still remember this emperor, his immortality was manifested in the fact that Qin Shi Huang Ti became the first emperor of a united China: he was the builder of the Great Wall, the Great Linqiu Canal and a magnificent mausoleum guarded by six thousand terracotta warriors.

The flaws inherent in the pursuit of immortality are found in the myths of fearless mortal heroes. Take the case of Achilles. When he was born, his mother, Nereis Thetis, sought to make him invulnerable. And she dipped the baby into the river Styx so that he would be immortal.

Thetis was holding Achilles by the heel, which became his weak point. Many years later, on the battlefield of Troy, despite all his prowess, the Greek warrior died in the honorable duel he hoped for face to face. Achilles died ingloriously, because an arrow fired by an archer hit him in the heel.

Achilles and Penthesilea

Achilles and Penthesilea. Drawing on an ancient Greek amphora

Many ancient myths also ask the question: can immortality guarantee freedom from suffering and grief? For example, in the Mesopotamian epic, Gilgamesh is outraged that only the gods live forever, and goes in search of immortality. But if Gilgamesh had achieved the dream of eternal life, he would have had to mourn forever the loss of his dear mortal companion, Enkidu.

Some ancient Greek myths warn that the deception of death is causing chaos on earth and entails great suffering. Sisyphean labor is a cliché denoting useless work, but few remember why Sisyphus has to drag a boulder to the top of a hill forever. Sisyphus, the legendary tyrant of Corinth, was known for cruelty, cunning and deceit. According to the myth, he cunningly captured and bound Thanatos (death) with chains.

Now no living thing on earth could die. This act not only disrupted the natural order of things and threatened overpopulation, but also prevented anyone from sacrificing animals to the gods or eating meat. What will happen to politics and society if tyrants live forever?

Moreover, men and women who were old, sick, or injured were doomed to endless suffering. The god of war, Ares, is the most furious over Sisyphus's antics, because if no one could die, war is no longer a serious undertaking.

In one version of the myth, Ares freed Thanatos and put Sisyphus into the hands of death. But then, finding himself in the underworld, the cunning Sisyphus was able to convince the gods to let him go in order to temporarily return to the living and do some unfinished business. So he slipped out of death again.

In the end, Sisyphus died of old age, but he was never counted among the shadows of the dead, fluttering uselessly around Hades. Instead, he spends eternity in hard labor. The story of Sisyphus was the theme of the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

Tantalus was another figure who was eternally punished for wrongdoing against the gods. One of his crimes was trying to steal divine ambrosia and nectar in order to make people immortal with the help of these elixirs.

It is interesting that the mythical key to eternal youth and life was food: the gods had a special diet of life-giving food and drink. It is noteworthy that nutrition is the common denominator that distinguishes living from non-living in the biological system of Aristotle. Hoping to unravel the secrets of longevity, Aristotle investigated aging, withering and death in his treatises On the Longitude and Shortness of Life.

"About youth and old age, about life and death and about breathing." Aristotle's scientific theories concluded that aging is controlled by reproduction, regeneration and nutrition. As the philosopher noted, sterile beings live longer than those that drain energy in sexual activity.

Aristotle, painting by Francesco Ayets

Aristotle, painting by Francesco Ayets

The myth of Eos and Titon is a dramatic illustration of the curses that lie in the desire to transcend the natural duration of human life.

The legend of Titon is rather ancient, first set forth in the Homeric hymns, compiled around the 7th-6th centuries BC. The story tells of how Eos (or Aurora, the goddess of the morning dawn) fell in love with a handsome young singer-musician of Troy named Teton. Eos took Titon to the heavenly abode at the end of the earth to become her lover.

Unable to come to terms with the inevitable death of her beloved, Eos fervently asked for eternal life for Titon. According to some versions, Titon himself strove to become immortal. In any case, the gods complied with the request. However, according to typical fairy tale logic, the devil is in the details:

Eos forgot to indicate eternal youth for Titon. When disgusting old age begins to weigh on him, Eos falls into despair. Sadly, she places her aged lover in a room behind golden doors, where he remains forever. There, deprived of memory and even the strength to move, Typhon mutters something endless. In some versions, it shrinks into a cicada whose monotonous chant is an endless plea for death.

Teton embodies a harsh story: for humans, an excessive life can become more terrible and tragic than an early death. The story of Titon and similar myths say that immortal and eternally young creatures are lost, wandering souls, who with each millennium become more tired of the world, satiated and bored.

Titon and Eos

Titon and Eos

Thus, the thirst for eternal life and the desire to never grow old, which at first evoke an enthusiastic response in the soul, upon close examination no longer seem like a rosy prospect. Therefore, we can say with complete confidence that polls of sociologists, if they were conducted in the ancient world, would show approximately the same result as in modern Russia.

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