REJUVENATION myths are found all over the world and in varied forms. A concern with being made young and healthy again is found not only in ancient cultures but also in contemporary society. The rejuvenation slogans of the advertising industry have an ancient heritage, as, for example, in the account of beer brewing in the Finnish epic, the Kalevala, which says, "The beer of Kalevala strengthens the weak, cheers the sick, and makes the old young again." Myths of rejuvenation are a part of the way humankind has responded to the fear of death and the love of life. To undo the ravages of time, to turn the clock back, has been an age-old longing.
Imitation of Nature
The earliest human cultures were close to nature, experiencing both hardship and joy in the annual change of seasons, lamenting the death of vegetation as it grew old and withered, and rejoicing at the return of spring. The waning of the sun in the west at the close of each day and its rising again to new strength the next day also suggested a rejuvenating power in nature. The Greeks and Celts had stories of a "western paradise" where the aged could obtain youth. Changing Woman, in the Navajo pantheon, transforms herself into a young girl when she becomes old; as wife of the Sun Carrier, her home is in the west. From the idea that the land of the world is surrounded by water, water became associated with the renewal of the sun, as well as with that from which life itself came.
Myths of rejuvenation that focus on the role of sleep reflect an imitation of nature. A myth of the Selkʾnam of Tierra del Fuego tells of a culture hero, Kénos, and three of the ancestors who, in old age, tried to fall into a long sleep so as to be rejuvenated. Finally, after several efforts, they went north and there were wrapped in mantles and put in the ground. After a few days they began to stir and whisper, and then, upon rising, they saw that they were young again. They had succeeded in a transformation sleep.
The snake's shedding of its skin has led it to be associated with the power of rejuvenation as well as with healing and transformation. An Icelandic saga describes a man who shed his skin every few centuries and always emerged thirty years old. The Ṛgveda, an ancient scripture of India, describes a priest who in old age had been exposed to die but who was rejuvenated by two physician gods who took off his skin as one would a mantle, prolonging his life and making him the "husband of maidens." Depth psychologists report that the association of snakes with the development of a new perspective, one that is presenting itself to consciousness for the first time, is a frequent motif in contemporary dreams.
The Special Elixir
There are many accounts of special fruits, herbs, or waters that rejuvenate or provide everlasting life. Usually these stories are about foods of the gods, or foods in distant lands that, if humans could only obtain them, would assure the desired result. An old Norse story tells of a king grown old who heard of a distant land where there was a special water and a priceless apple that would make one young again. He sent his eldest son in quest of them, but the son was distracted by the pleasures of a strange city. So also with the king's second son. Finally, the third and youngest son, after numerous difficulties, succeeded. However, on his return journey the older brothers took from him his treasures and rejuvenated the king themselves. In a German version it is the "water of life" for which the king sent. In Japanese mythology is the story of Ningyo, the Fisherwoman, a mermaidlike creature who lives in the sea; it is said that women who were fortunate enough to eat of her flesh gained perpetual youth and beauty. In Eddic mythology, the goddess Iðunn guarded the apples that the gods tasted when they began to grow old lest the giants steal them. In Celtic mythology Fraoch went in search of a tree that grew on an island in a lake. Every month it produced sweet fruit that prolonged life for a year and healed sickness. In ancient China it was believed that gold, the metal that never "grows old" (that is, never tarnishes), not only would preserve a dead body from decay but would also, when ingested in the proper way, promote longevity.
E. Washburn Hopkins sought to demonstrate in "The Fountain of Youth" (Journal of the American Oriental Society 26, 1905) that all the many European stories of magic springs or fountains of youth were descended originally from a story in the Mahābhārata, an Indian epic. In this story an old man who had married a young woman made an agreement with the Aśvins (twin physician gods) that he would make them drinkers of soma, the divine ambrosia, if they would rejuvenate him. They took him to the "youth place," and when he emerged from its water, he had indeed been restored to youthful vigor and appearance. In the European stories the mysterious and miraculous fount is located, usually rather vaguely, in Asia. Hopkins suggested that the Spanish explorer Ponce de León would have been aware of those stories when in the early sixteenth century he set out for India by way of the West Indies, and thus, when he heard stories in Florida of a medicinal and healing spring, he naturally interpreted it as being the famed fountain of youth. Furthermore, Hopkins disagreed with Brinton (Myths of the New World, New York, 1896), who contended that the fountain of youth was a universal myth that had emerged from the veneration of water as the female element.
The Reversal of Time
Mircea Eliade described in Myth and Reality (New York, 1963) and elsewhere how health and youthfulness are obtained by a "return to the origins," by abolishing the work of time—time "the destroyer," as the Roman poet Ovid called it. The therapies for reversing time usually included a ritual reiteration of the creation of the world, thereby permitting a sick person to be born anew and to recommence existence with the health of earlier years. The ancient Daoist and other Chinese alchemists took up these traditional healing methods and applied them to the cure of the illness that results from the ravages of time, that is, from old age and death. Eliade has pointed out that there is a continuity between the early concern with health and rejuvenation and the alchemical traditions of both the East and the West. All the symbols, rituals, and techniques of these traditions emphasized a basic idea: in order to obtain rejuvenation or long life, it is necessary to return to the origin of life and recommence with the vitality that was then present.
Initiatory rituals often enact a "return to the womb" in which the initiate is placed in isolation for a period and then greeted as a newborn upon his delivery. In ancient China the Daoists had a technique of "embryonic respiration" in which the adept tried to imitate respiration within a closed circuit, in the manner of a fetus. This was believed to drive away old age. Myths concerning a "return to the origin" are on different levels, some more physical, some more spiritual. Eliade has pointed out a similar motif in the psychoanalytic system of Sigmund Freud that involves a "return to the beginning" in its method of healing.
A caution about tampering with time is expressed in the Japanese story of an old woodcutter who, becoming thirsty one day, drank from a stream he had not drunk from before. The water was unusually delicious, flowing clear and swiftly. He went to the pool from which the stream flowed, and as he knelt to drink some more, he saw his reflection in the pool, but his face was that of his youth. Realizing that he had drunk from a fountain of youth, he ran (which he had been unable to do for years) to tell his wife. With difficulty he persuaded her of his identity. She insisted that she must drink of the same water, for he would not want an old wife, and she hurried away. When she did not return, he went in search of her. At the pool he found a baby girl lying on the bank. In her eagerness the old woman had drunk too much from the fountain of youth.
The Realm of the Divine
Many stories of rejuvenation take place in the realm of the divine or involve gifts or rewards from the gods. In a Scandinavian legend the age of Olger the Dane is changed from one hundred years to thirty by means of a ring provided by the fairy Morgana. In Greek mythology, when Zeus heard that Prometheus had stolen fire from him and had given it to humanity, he became indignant and so gave to those who informed him about the theft a drug that was an antidote to old age. And on the return of the Argonauts, the enchantress Medea made Aeson, Jason's father, young again with herbs and incantations.
In a Navajo myth, the two sons of Changing Woman are warned by Old Age not to walk on her path, but, rather, to keep to the left of it. They forgot this counsel, however, and walked on the path. Then they began to feel heavy; they stooped, and their steps became shorter; and finally they could not move, even with the help of canes. Old Age rebuked them and, in a Navajo pattern of creating, sang a song so that in future, she said, everything should reach old age. Then, however, she made them young again and sent them on their way. In some stories continual rejuvenation is the reward for living in an especially holy place or on a blessed island. In Aztec mythology there is a holy mountain, the residence of the great mother of the gods, that one can never entirely climb, for the upper half consists of fine, slippery sand. However, whoever climbs part way, no matter how old, grows young again in proportion to the distance climbed.
Some myths explain why old age and death are inevitable. In Mesopotamian mythology, Gilgamesh is told at the end of a long journey in search of a means of avoiding death that the gods have reserved immortality for themselves. Disappointed, he is told, as a parting gift, of a plant that makes one young again. He dives to the bottom of the sea to get the plant; but on his return journey, when he stops to bathe in a pool, a snake steals the plant, sloughing its skin as it goes—thus obtaining immortality for snakes. In the Hebrew scriptures, eating of the fruit of the Tree of Life, which stood in the midst of the Garden of Eden, enabled one to live forever. After Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil they were driven from the garden, and a guard was placed there to protect the path to the tree of life.
Spiritualization of the Quest
Mesopotamian and Egyptian mythologies tended to focus on the quest for immortality or life after death, while in ancient China and Vedic India the quest was much more for rejuvenation and the recovery of youthfulness in this life. In later Indian thought, beginning in the sixth century bce, for both Hinduism and Buddhism the aim of life was not rejuvenation but liberation from earthly existence. Similarly, beginning in the sixth century bce, the mystery religions of the Mediterranean world responded to a longing for cleansing and renovating the human spirit and found in nature a model for that renewal; thus their professed aim was to assure eternal life. Christianity then turned the emphasis to an inner, spiritual renewal: "Unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (Jn. 3:3). The water in the baptismal font assured the possibility of life eternal. In one eucharistic liturgy the words of the priest at the moment of delivering the bread and wine indicate their life-giving power: "Preserve thy body and soul to everlasting life."
The desire for rejuvenation in this life, however, is still present. In the secular culture of the modern world, with its loss to a large extent of any sense of the sacred, there has been a new interest in rejuvenation, not as a gift from the realm of the divine, but as a goal for human endeavor. According to early records, priests and elders in ancient India and China consumed the sexual organs of wild animals in order to resist the effects of old age and restore their youthful vigor; similar attempts at rejuvenation have continued throughout history. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a few surgeons in Europe and North America claimed to have achieved rejuvenation by transplanting reproductive glands from animals. The medical community in general rejected the technique and attributed to other factors the apparent results, which were, at best, temporary. Vitamins are now advocated as a means of postponing the consequences of old age.
When the present lacks meaning, discontent expresses itself in a longing for the past. The thirst for rejuvenation may occur precisely at the point in human development when either the culture as a whole or an individual is ready to move on to a new level of understanding but is reluctant to undertake the journey and seeks instead to find meaning in the way life was before. The contemporary developmental understanding of human life as moving from stage to stage, with each stage having its own maturation task to be accomplished or wisdom to be achieved, suggests that the thirst for rejuvenation may stem from a failure to move on to the next level of development. The investigations of the history of religions as well as contemporary psychotherapy demonstrate that humans cannot stand a meaningless life. How this dilemma is to be faced, expressed, and lived out by individuals is the challenge that faces contemporary civilization, with its expanding population of old people.
Among the numerous anthologies of myths, one that includes numerous myths of rejuvenation is The Mythology of All Races, 13 vols., edited by Louis Herbert Gray et al. (Boston, 1916–1932). A short essay by Mircea Eliade, "Rejuvenation and Immortality," in Patterns in Comparative Religion (New York, 1958), contrasts and discusses the implications of mythologies that focus on rejuvenation. In the Forge and the Crucible: The Origins and Structures of Alchemy, 2d ed. (Chicago, 1978), Eliade illuminates the attempts of the Chinese and Indian alchemists to accelerate the work of nature and thereby conquer time. A comprehensive collection of legends about the fountain of youth and related stories of rejuvenation is to be found in E. Washburn Hopkins's article titled "The Fountain of Youth," Journal of the American Oriental Society 26 (1905): 1–67.
Wallace B. Clift (1987)
The most literal restorative was that devised by Hermippus Redivivus, who allegedly lived for 150 years and five days using the breath of young women. Pliny insisted that he would have lived even longer had he inhaled the breath of young men. Even less probable than Redivivus' longevity is the claim that he had in fact existed. It is likely that he was a product of the 1740s (invented by either John Henry Cohausen or John Campbell). The anarchistic philosopher, William Godwin was inspired by Campbell's history of Redivivus to write St Leon (1799), about an immortal, who drinks the legendary elixir of life. While Godwin drew upon the arcana of the Rosicrucian and Hermetic traditions for his novel, which was imitated by P. B. Shelley in St Irvyne (1801), his belief in prolongevity was grounded in Enlightenment rationalism. The laicization and secularizing of death stemming from the Scientific Revolution led to sublimation of the belief in a divine afterlife into the prospect of a sublunary life extension. Philosophers such as Descartes, Bacon, Franklin, and Condorcet embraced this secular eschatology. For Godwin, an improved intellect as part of the amelioration of the human race would lead to the prolongation of life.
Three years before the publication of St Leon, Christopher Hufeland, a disciple of the major exponent of longevity, Conaro, published The Art of Prolonging Life. Hufeland claimed that the human lifespan could be extended to 200 years if individuals kept within the limits of a macrobiotic lifestyle. This is in keeping with the commonly-held view that prolongevity is a consumerist rather than a cerebral matter. Plants, such as the mandrake, orchid, and sweet potato, have, as the history of folk medicine reveals, been credited with rejuvenating properties. Individuals deficient in minerals and vitamins could derive a sense of well-being or sense of rejuvenation after eating certain plants and herbs. Such may have been the case with the herb fenugreek, which is rich in vitamin A and D — although the trimethylamine it contains works as a sex hormone only in frogs.
aphrodisiacs have been used as an aid to rejuvenation, mainly because the diminution of sexual or reproductive powers has often been regarded as the least desirable effect of ageing. More aphrodisiac effects have been attributed to animal products than to plant remedies. The occultist Doctrine of Signatures and use of sympathetic magic, both of which are grounded in a science of cosmic correspondences, partly explain, for example, why an increase in male potency could be attributed to consuming powdered rhinoceros horn or the blood and internal organs of a snake. According to Nicholas Culpepper's London Dispensatory of 1679, the brains of sparrows were thought to increase lust. The most famous male aphrodisiac is the common blistering beetle or Spanish Fly, Cantharis vesicatoria, which is prepared using the soft part of the insect. John Quincy in The Compleat English Dispensary (1722) cites a case of a man who on taking a large dose so inflamed himself that he nearly killed his wife ‘yet he continued even in distraction with fresh rage until he dy'd delirious.’ The notorious trial of 1772 held at Marseilles involved the Marquise de Sade, who gave chocolates laced with Spanish Fly to prostitutes, causing them to suffer lumbar pain, cysto-urethritis, and vomiting.
The gendering of rejuvenation identifies increased sexual potency primarily with men. Even seminal fluid has been treated as a love philtre or prophylactic in witchcraft, and administered by Aborigines to dying or enfeebled members of their community. For women, the pressure to rejuvenate is greater, as ageing is socially constructed as ‘defeminizing’ and undesirable in every sense. Cosmetics are often marketed not just as an enhancement of female beauty but also as containing rejuvenatory substances. The youth cult has been an effective way of undermining the power, sexual and otherwise, of post-menopausal women, and has been a potent weapon in the battle of the sexes.
Men and women were brought together in James Graham's Temple of Health and Hymen of 1780, where electric currents passed through his celestial bed, promising sexual rejuvenation for a nightly fee of fifty pounds. The high priest of health and prophet of prolongation also recommended earth bathing, which stipulated fasting and being buried up to one's neck in mud. Those unwilling to immerse themselves in the earth could strap to their chest a piece of Hampstead Hill turf in the hope of extending their lifespan far beyond a hundred years.
More familiar forms of bathing were popular with the Romans, who were predated by the Vedic physicians of the gods, whose knowledge of rejuvenation by water is recorded in Sanskrit literature. Spas and hydras flourished in Georgian England and nineteenth-century Germany, mainly due to Vincent Priessnitz, who made a fortune out of hydrotherapy.
Cashing in on life extension became a secular version of the medieval practice of buying plenary indulgences. Instead of sacred relics dispensed by a priest, the rejuvenating quack would supply potions and phials, while the Fountain of Youth and hydrotherapy served as a substitute for Holy Water. Hawkers of such chicanery have made claims that youth and restored body functions could be brought about through nerve tonics and elixirs of life. The twentieth-century ‘Sanatogen’, for instance, which was merely powdered casein (the protein of milk), was advertised in the London Graphic and endorsed by members of the establishment as ‘The Life tonic and nerve tonic, Rejuvenates and Revitalises’. A more exotic product was El Zair. Advertised as having been harvested under specific phases of the moon, it was claimed that the ingredients could only be procured from ‘almost inaccessible mountain ranges in Africa’. Not only was El Zair alleged to make hair grow on bald heads, but it could clear away the deeper-seated waste matter that was claimed to be responsible for old age. American medical scientists from Chicago found that they could reproduce the product a lot nearer home by dissolving 2½ ounces of Epsom salt in a pint of distilled vinegar.
More sophisticated medical interventions have appeared since, which range from cellular therapy involving the injections of fresh cells, the Romanian practice of rejuvenation by novacaine, transplanting sex glands, monkey gland therapy, and forays into genetic engineering to produce the ultimate youth drug. The most effective route for prolongevity would still seem to be diet and lifestyle, while the cosmetic surgeon has become the modern guru of rejuvenation. Medical researchers and biochemists are still looking for the genetic key to slow down the countdown towards death. While the fascination with rejuvenation continues to span the centuries, maybe only when we can travel at the speed of light, and possibly then through time, will the ageing process be significantly slowed down.
See also ageing; aphrodisiac; cosmetic surgery; lifespan.
- Aeson in extreme old age, restored to youth by Medea. [Rom. Myth.: LLEI, I: 322]
- apples of perpetual youth by tasting the golden apples kept by Idhunn, the gods preserved their youth. [Scand. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 41]
- Bimini Bahamas island whose fountain conferred eternal youth. [Western Folklore: Brewer Dictionary, 373]
- Dithyrambus epithet of Dionysus, in allusion to his double birth. [Gk. Myth.: Zimmerman, 88]
- Faust rejuvenated by Mephistopheles at the price of his soul. [Ger. Lit.: Goethe Faust ]
- Fountain of Youth fabulous fountain believed to restore youth to the aged. [Western Folklore: Brewer Handbook, 389]
- Heidegger, Dr. gives his aged friends water drawn from the Fountain of Youth, but its effects are temporary. [Am. Lit.: Hawthorne “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” in Hart, 229]
- Ogier the Dane hero at the age of 100 restored to ripe manhood by Morgan le Fay. [Medieval Romance: Brewer Dictionary, 656]
- sage a rejuvenator; said to stop gray hair. [Herb Symbolism: Flora Symbolica, 165]
re·ju·ve·nate / riˈjoōvəˌnāt/ • v. [tr.] make (someone or something) look or feel younger, fresher, or more lively: a bid to rejuvenate the town center| [as adj.] (rejuvenating) the rejuvenating effects of therapeutic clay. ∎ [often as adj.] (rejuvenated) restore (a river or stream) to a condition characteristic of a younger landscape. DERIVATIVES: re·ju·ve·na·tion / riˌjoōvəˈnāshən/ n. re·ju·ve·na·tor / -ˌnātər/ n.