4 Bizarre Ancient Attempts at Immortality

The Philosopher's Stone

Reports of having created a "philosopher's stone" span back to tales of Albertus Magnus, a polymath in the 13th century who was rumored to have passed on the stone to Thomas Aquinas shortly before passing on. 

Nicholas Flamel, a French bookseller who lived from 1330 to 1418, was separately rumored to have discovered a stone. Almost two hundred years after his death, books began to appear that were attributed to Flamel, recounting tales of Flamel's journey into Spain and consequential discovery of the "Book of Abramelin the Mage". According to the texts, Flamel had learned the secrets of immortality and was still alive to that day. Many, however, attributed the books and rumors to 17th-century booksellers looking to sell more product.

Ingestion of Stones

Alchemy, the millennia-old art dedicated to purification, maturation, and perfection of specific objects, was a broad practice including the transmutation of various metals into gold and the creation of elixirs. It spanned Europe, Asia, and Egypt, gathering a plethora of methods and stories.

In ancient China, substances such as jade, hematite, and cinnabar were ingested in the belief that they would bestow some of their longevity unto the consumer. This thinking was borne of the thought that these substances were pure, and had some quality of long-lastingness that could be absorbed through the digestional tract. Gold was also believed to be one of these pure, hardy substances later on, and many attempted to find a liquid version to drink. This practice had mixed consequences, death among them.

Poisonous Elixirs

But alchemy did not stop there. 

The Danjing yaojue, the most famous Chinese alchemical book, details many recipes for an “elixir of life” – the ingredients for which often included toxic substances such as mercury, sulfur, arsenic salt and mercury salt. One popular recipe used a combination of gunpowder, sulfur, saltpeter and carbon. Chinese emperors Jiajing and Yongzheng consumed these regularly at the advice of their alchemists (Zelin 2002: 229). Inevitably, the use of the toxins in these frequently resulted in a group of illnesses known as “Chinese alchemical elixir poisoning”. Many famous Chinese ancients died to this cause, emperors just a few among them.

Ancient India also had its own elixer, in the form of a substance known as soma, though soma was reportedly less toxic. Called the "lost drink of gods", soma is an unknown plant only known to grow near water. Rumored to possibly be Ephedra, ginseng, or even cannabis, the secretive brew could reportedly heal any disease.

Mushrooms of Life

The lingzhi mushroom, which translates to "supernatural mushroom" in Chinese, is the oldest mushroom still used medicinally. It gained popularity as a path to immortality in ancient times, with references to a "Mushroom of Immortality" appearing as early as 475 BCE, and is still used today - despite there being no historical accounts of anyone achieving immortality from the fungi.

Unlinked references:
Zelin Madeleine (2002), "The Yung-cheng Reign", in The Cambridge History of China, Volume 9, Part One: The Ch’ing Empire to 1800, ed. by Willard J. Peterson, 183-229, Cambridge.

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