The Elixir of Life or the Immortality Elixir (in Arabic: الإكسير, al-Iksīr) is a legendary potion or elixir capable of giving immortality to anyone who drinks it, bringing him back to his youth, or simply strengthening and prolonging his vitality, healing his diseases.
It represents one of the primary objectives of the alchemists, together with the search for the philosopher’s stone, to which it can be assimilated due to its characteristics of bringing the corrupted matter back to the original purity of gold. Unlike the latter, however, the elixir of long life can be conceived in liquid form, resulting therefore governed by the archetype of femininity, in particular by the Moon which presides over the humid processes of regeneration of life.
Its fluid aspect was also related to mercury, called for its color “quicksilver”, aimed above all at the creation of silver, and therefore associated with the second phase of the alchemical opus, that is the albedo or “white work”. The chalice or ampoule is the most suitable female receptacle to contain its transmutative (ability to change from one form, nature, substance, or state into another) properties.
But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life(John 4: 13-14)
The creation of the elixir of life throughout human history is intertwined with the flourishing of mythological, spiritual, and religious traditions.
In ancient China, the search for an elixir capable of conferring eternal life took place during the Qin dynasty. Emperor Qin Shi Huang would have sent the physician alchemist Xu Fu to the eastern seas to track down the elixir, but he would have never returned.
Chinese alchemy has a history of more than 2000 years. It is divided into two main branches, known as Waidan 外丹, or External Alchemy, and Neidan 內丹, or Internal Alchemy. Waidan (lit., “external elixir”) arose by the second century BCE; it is based on compounding elixirs through the manipulation of natural substances – primarily minerals and metals – which release their essences when they are submitted to the action of fire.
In the Chinese court, it was believed that some minerals, such as cinnabar, hematite, and jade, could extend earthly life longer than normal, despite the high mercury content in cinnabar. Gold was also given a particular power to use for this purpose, although the spread of “drinking gold” (金 液, jinyi), combined with mercury, could be a metaphorical term for universal panacea. The fame of these elixirs in any case faded with the spread of Buddhism, rather a proponent of the immortality of the soul.
A famous treatise on Chinese alchemy, Tan Ching Yao Ch’eh (丹 經 要訣, Great Secrets of Alchemy, dating back to 650 AD), attributed to Sun Simiao, discusses in detail the production of elixirs and immortality pills, combined with mercury, sulfur and arsenic salts, also proposed for the treatment of some diseases and the production of precious stones.
In Indian mythology, the equivalent of the elixir of life is amrita, that is water of life capable of conferring strength and invulnerability, which both the gods (Deva) and the demons (Asura) aspired to. According to the legend, it would flow from the sea thanks to an expedient of Vishnu, to be then kept inside Soma, a lunar deity who also gives its name to the nectar of a sacred plant.
Similar to the doctrines in vogue in ancient China, the Vedas relate the possibility of obtaining a long life to the power of gold, while mercury, also recurrent in various alchemical traditions, is mentioned for the first time in the Arthashastra treatise, written between the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. Achieving earthly immortality, however, was of lesser importance in India, where elixirs were more often regarded as remedies for disease.
Similar to amrita in the Greco-Roman world is ragweed, a term composed of alpha privative, which means negation, and (μ)βρότος, (m)brotos, that is “mortal”, to indicate food or a drink “which renders immortal”, or “which only immortals can consume”.
In the Hellenistic period, which saw the spread of hermeticism from which the Western alchemical tradition was born, the elixir of the philosophers is connected to the myths of Enoch, Thoth, and Hermes Trismegistus, of whom it is said that they drank only one drop of this potion to become immortal. A further source is some Nag Hammadi texts, which speak of the potion and the adventures of Al-Khidr.
The highest representative of Hellenistic alchemy, Zosimus of Panopolis (about 3rd or 4th century AD), describes alchemical ennobling as an inner process by which the body, freed from the flesh, becomes spirit and gradually merges with the soul of God.
Alchemy received new impulses after the conquest of Egypt by the Arabs (8th century), who, particularly interested in its practical implications, improved the laboratory techniques, such as the distillation process, using it for the production of essential oils. Their knowledge was passed on in a compendium of works dating back to Jabir ibn Hayyan, whose name means “donor” or “transmitter”.
The use of the atanor as a distillation vessel that accompanied the mysterious operations led to the obtaining of medicinal liqueurs and the famous water of life known as “aqua vitae“. Most of these preparations were used as a panacea for diseases, giving rise to the terminologies still used today, in which the same etymology of “elixir” can be traced.
The Arab techniques, spreading in Christian Europe, increased the herbal activities of convents and monasteries, with their production of essences and elixirs, at the origin of numerous Benedictine and Carthusian liqueurs, beers, and other local varieties of distilled alcohol.
In the context of medieval schools, Roger Bacon argued that the dust of the philosopher’s stone dissolved in water was a powerful elixir of life. Several other alchemists, including Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Raimondo Llull, and Basilio Valentino, devoted themselves under the Arab influence to the study of the elixir of philosophers, discovering the use of antimony, manufacturing amalgams, or managing to isolate the “spirit” of wine by obtaining ethyl alcohol.
At the time, the search for the elixir of long life also merged with the legend of the Holy Grail, considered to be the dispensing chalice of that “living water” mentioned by Jesus in his sermon to the Samaritan woman at the well.
A prominent place in the history of the elixir of life is occupied by Paracelsus, an alchemist of the Renaissance age, for whom the four elements of the alchemical tradition, components of all reality, were nothing more than forms derived from a single primeval substance, common to each of them. He called it alkahest, arguing that once obtained it could be the philosopher’s stone, the universal medicine, and the miraculous solvent.
Interested in the medical and therapeutic implications of alchemy, rather than in the transmutation of metals, Paracelsus created various spagyric preparations including a pharmaceutical potion called aurum potabile, based on an aqueous solution of colloidal gold.
Among others, in 17th century Europe the alchemist Nicolas Flamel was reputed to have discovered the elixir of youth and to have used it on himself and his wife Pernelle.
In 1605, François-Annibal d’Estrées allegedly presented to the monks of the Charterhouse of Vauvert, in Paris, a manuscript that revealed the formula of an elixir of a long life of which no one knew the recipe: the episode is at the origin of the liqueur called chartreuse.
Even the Comte de Saint-Germain, an 18th-century French adventurer, was the subject of many rumors that he discovered the elixir of youth, by virtue of which he claimed to have lived for several centuries. Similarly, Cagliostro would have been in possession of it.
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