ELIXIR , a Latinized form of the Arabic word al-iksīr, is related to the Greek word xerion, denoting a dry powder used for medicine and alchemical transmutation. Elixirs are potions believed to have restorative and curative powers. The term was first used by alchemists to describe the substance (also known as the philosophers' stone) that was believed to transmute base metal into gold, cure disease, and promise immortality. The term is also used in medical pharmacy to mean "a sweetened hydroalcoholic solution containing flavoring materials and usually medicinal substances" (Encyclopædia Britannica, 1964, vol. 8, p. 288). Ambrosia and nectar are related terms, especially in classical Western religion and mythology, where all three are sometimes used interchangeably for the divine drink and food of the gods. In some senses they relate to the concept of a substance that confers immortality. There is the possibility, too, that the idea of an ingestible substance of divine origin or potency may have grown out of the early sense of wonder induced by the seemingly miraculous ability of the bee to produce honey. Honey is symbolically linked to divine power in Deuteronomy 32:13, "he [God] made him to suck honey out of the rock and oil out of the flinty rock."
Characteristics and Significance
In religions, myths, and fairy tales, the hope has prevailed that there exists, somewhere, a plant, fountain, stone, or intoxicating beverage that rejuvenates the old, cures the sick, and confers wealth and eternal life on those wise, lucky, or cunning enough to snatch a bite, a sip, or a sniff. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the mighty king of Uruk, Gilgamesh, sets out to discover the secret of eternal life and is fortunate enough to find the miraculous plant of immortality growing at the bottom of the sea. He plucks it, but carelessly leaves it unguarded, and it is stolen by a water snake.
The belief that humanity was once immortal, and should be still, is enshrined in the many myths that tell the disastrous tale of how death entered the world. Stories such as the one from the Epic of Gilgamesh mentioned above appear throughout the world; all are variations on a basic myth in which a serpent or sea monster guards the source of immortality, which can be represented as a sacred spring, a tree of life, a fountain of youth, golden apples, and so on. Behind these stories lies the fear that the gods themselves are jealous and wish to keep the elixir of immortality beyond the reach of mortal hands (see Gen. 3:22).
The Water of Life
In Egyptian, Hindu, Greek, Babylonian, and Hebrew creation myths, life emerges from the waters, the primal substance containing the seeds of all things. In deluge myths, life returns to the waters (undifferentiated form), from which it can reemerge in new forms. As such, water becomes the supreme magical and medicinal substance. It purifies, restores youth, and ensures eternal life in this world or the next. This magical "water of life" has taken many different forms—soma, haoma, ambrosia, wine—each one a sacred beverage.
Ancient and Tribal Religions
In ancient and tribal religions characterized by shamanism, elixirs are available to the community in the form of drugs. The use of hallucinogens, intoxicants, and narcotics is important for inducing the ecstatic visions that are regarded as being able to bring shamans and their followers into contact with a spiritual world more perfect and real than that in which they live. The soma ritual described in the Ṛgveda is the oldest recorded religious ritual involving the preparation and use of an elixir. Opinion varies as to what soma actually was. From the research of R. Gordon Wasson (1968), however, it now seems likely that soma was originally extracted from the mushroom Amanita muscaria, the juices of which are lethal at full strength but hallucinogenic when diluted. In the case of soma, the visions of immortality inspired by the drink became identified with the drink itself. Soma was deified and the men who drank it became immortal gods.
The use of soma disappeared by the end of the Vedic period. Some scholars attribute this development to the migration of the Indo-Aryans away from sites where the mushrooms grew.
Nevertheless, a remarkable use of a nonpsychedelic, mildly narcotic, soporific muscle-relaxant drug is notable throughout many Pacific islands up until today. In its imbibable form, this drug is referred to generically as kava, and is derived from a shrub, Piper methysticum, cultivated specifically for the preparation of the drink or "elixir." "Its active principles, a series of kavalactones, are concentrated in the rootstock and roots. Islanders ingest these psychoactive chemicals by drinking cold-water infusions of chewed, ground, pounded, or otherwise macerated kava stumps and roots" (Lebot et al., 1997, p. 1). In all the different regions of its use, local mythologies commonly link kava to female sexuality and death. Although the drinking of kava is generally—but now not exclusively—limited to sexually mature males in traditional societies, it is believed to give its drinkers access to the other world and to enable them to communicate with the dead. In fact, the location of traditional kava drinking areas in the community is sometimes associated with burial grounds to facilitate such communication with departed ancestors (Lebot et al., 1997).
As shamanism gave way to more organized religious worship, the ritual use of elixirs in the form of mind-altering drugs was gradually discontinued or replaced by symbolic rituals that were the province of the priestly hierarchy or other religious specialists. The ritual consumption of the sacred drink kukeon in the Eleusinian mysteries provides an example of the way organized religion created a communal event mediated by an ordained priest. Reference to this mediation does not completely explain the experience of the initiates at Eleusis, however, since the central secret of the Mystery is still unknown and may have been of a paranormal nature.
From the classical period onward (after c. 600 bce), Hinduism, perhaps under the influence of Jainism, Buddhism, and other movements originated by ascetics such as Mahāvīra or Gautama Buddha, focused more on the mystical and psychological possibilities of human consciousness in its pursuit of elevated spiritual states. The complexity of this development defies a simple elucidation, but two examples are suggestive. In the first case, the practice of yoga in its different forms, but primarily rāja yoga, complemented by haṭha yoga, required a strict ascetic discipline so that the practitioner could realize in an internal state the identity of ātman or puruṣa with the highest transcendent state beyond all physical forms. To attain this identification, the male practitioner, according to the further example of Tantra yoga, might have to learn to transform the semen virile into the elixir of immortality by retaining it during coitus and forcing its power or śakti to ascend to the highest cakra of the mystical physiology. The various techniques of physical yoga, whether through sexual practices or otherwise, led to internal states of bliss and spiritual intoxication that were of a nearly ineffable nature, although the nineteenth century Bengali mystic Sri Ramakrishna attempted to describe them.
The second example, among many possibilities in what is called the bhakti yoga tradition, is drawn from the cult of the deities Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa in medieval north-Indian Vaiṣṇavism. Their relationship is set forth in a story meant to evoke the ultimate beauty of paradise, which becomes accessible to the devotee through contemplation of the story's poetic descriptions and subsequently through rebirth in the company of the deities. Both on earth and in heaven, the goal of the devotees is to drink with their eyes the rasa, or elixir, as a spiritual intoxicant that fills them with unspeakable bliss in the contemplation of the divine union (White, 1977).
In the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist the promise of immortality implicit in the concept of an elixir is at the very heart of the ritual. According to the Gospel of John (6:51ff.) and other sections of the New Testament, the bread and wine—the matter of the sacrament—become the body and blood of Christ through the power of the ordained priesthood pronouncing the words of Christ recorded at the last supper. The communicant receiving the consecrated bread and wine under the right conditions is ensured eternal life. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35–c. 107) described the Eucharist as the medicine of immortality and the antidote against death. Even though by a miracle the outward forms of the Eucharist—that is, bread and wine—remain sensible, the "substance," according to St. Thomas Aquinas and others, changes completely into the true Body and Blood of Christ. This is sometimes referred to as the Real Presence. The rite of the Eucharist may also be thought of as a reenactment of Christ's sacrifice upon the cross. Protestant Christians often interpret the Eucharist as being a memorial of the last supper, but much of the symbolism of the Eucharistic elixir is, notwithstanding, understood.
Chinese Religions and Alchemy
Eastern and Western alchemists alike claimed to have produced elixirs that rendered men immortal. But Chinese alchemists were more single-minded in their quest for physical immortality than Indian, Greek, or Western alchemists. Hence, Chinese religion is the sine qua non among religions with an alchemical dimension. The Chinese never made the invidious distinction between this world and the next so characteristic of Western thought, nor did they seek eventual liberation from the cosmos like Greek and Indian alchemists. For the Chinese, matter and spirit were part of an organic continuum, and the function of elixirs was to act as a kind of permanent glue, keeping body and soul eternally united, and thus preserving "spirit" (shen).
The Chinese were always interested in prolonging life, but the idea of an elixir of immortality appears to have first emerged in the fourth century bce as a result of a literal interpretation of early Daoist philosophy. The term dao originally stood for the life force that makes material bodies develop and function. Over time, Daoist alchemists transformed this abstract principle into an edible elixir. The only difficulty lay in determining the material constituents of the dao and putting them in a digestible form.
The claim that the ore known as cinnabar was the ideal substance for the elixir rested on its color and chemical composition. Cinnabar is red, the color of blood, and, since cinnabar is mercuric sulfide, it can be transformed into mercury (quicksilver), the most "alive" of all the metals. The problem, of course, was that cinnabar is poisonous; but immortality was a powerful vision, and alchemists, like many others, accepted suffering as the necessary price. Between 820 and 859 ce, no fewer than six emperors were poisoned by the elixirs they took in the confident expectation that they would live forever. Joseph Needham (1947/1983) suggests that elixir poisoning was an important factor in the decline of Chinese alchemy after the ninth century. Mircea Eliade (1984), however, points out that the Chinese alchemical theories relating to the transformation of base metal into gold provide a three-part sequence: (1) the transmutation into gold; (2) the transmutation of gold into the elixir of immortality; (3) the materialization of the "immortals" who have attained the final transmutation. Access to the "immortals" on the mystical level remained a possibility throughout Daoist religious history.
In the related cultural area of Mongolia, the mysterious power of the world conqueror Chinggis Khan (1162?–1227) was attributed to the divine elixir that miraculously descended from the "Powerful God Khormusda" into Chinggis Khan's hands, as he sat alone in his tent-palace. The Mongolian chronicle states that he had earned the right to the elixir because of his intrepid pursuit of victory against his enemies (Bawden, 2000, p. 37).
Islam and the European Middle Ages
In the Holy Qurʾān, the state of the blessed in heaven is linked to an elixir: "In the Gardens of delight. / On couches, facing one another; / A cup from a gushing spring is brought round for them. / White, delicious to the drinkers. / Wherein there is no headache nor are they made mad thereby." (XXXVII, 43–47; see Pickthall, 1977).
The idea of an alchemical elixir came to the West via Islam in the early Middle Ages. The story of its permutations is linked to the medieval literature of Europe. One of the most beautiful expressions of the idea of the elixir is the story of the Grail or Gral, most strikingly rendered in the German version of Wolfram von Eschenbach. In Eschenbach's early-thirteenth-century epic poem Parzifal, the Grail or Gral is not the chalice of the Last Supper but a magical stone:
It is called "Lapsit exillis." By virtue of the Stone the Phoenix is burned to ashes, in which he is reborn.—Thus does the Phoenix moult its feathers! Which done, it shines dazzling bright and lovely as before! Further: however ill a mortal may be, from the day on which he sees the Stone he cannot die for that week, nor does he lose his colour … if anyone, maid or man, were to look at the Gral for two hundred years, you would have to admit that his colour was as fresh as in his early prime …—Such powers does the Stone confer on mortal men that their flesh and bones are soon made young again. This Stone is called "The Gral." (White et al., 1990, p. 463)
The Comte de Saint-Germain
The story of the Comte de Saint-Germain, also called Master Rakoczi, allegedly commences in the early eighteenth century, when Saint-Germain began to be noticed in different royal courts and countries of Europe; from that time onwards, the tales of his longevity and paranormal powers proliferated. In Isabel Cooper-Oakley's biography, The Count of Saint-Germain, which is based on eighteenth-century sources, a couple of incidents are mentioned: In the Court of France a friend of Madame de Pompadour claimed that "during her first stay in Venice, she received from him [Saint-Germain] an Elixir which for fully a quarter of a century preserved unaltered the youthful charms she possessed at 25" (p. 31). Another person reported, "Among a number of his accomplishments, he made, under my own eyes some experiments, of which the most important were the transmutation of iron into a metal as beautiful as gold, and at least as good for all goldsmith's work" (p. 43).
In time, the roles of the "masters," who included Saint-Germain in their ranks, were extensively developed in the literature of the Theosophical Society. Other "New Age" movements were influenced by Theosophy or independently acknowledged Saint-Germain as their principal "Guide." One of the groups of this type, perhaps the most significant, bears as one of its titles the name "The Saint Germain Foundation." It is also referred to as the "'I AM' Activity,"and informally as the "'I Am' movement." The founders of this religious organization, Mr. and Mrs. Guy W. Ballard, began their work in the early 1930s under the direction of Ascended Master Saint-Germain. During their lifetimes the Ballards received numerous communications from various masters, but the originating documents of the movement, Unveiled Mysteries and The Magic Presence, discuss in detail the plan of Saint-Germain for the new age, presented to Mr. Ballard in encounters in the western mountains of the United States. These writings further report that Saint-Germain gave an elixir and a kind of energy-charged food to Mr. Ballard—who was at times in an out-of-body state—as part of Mr. Ballard's initiation into the leadership.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the idea of the Elixir of Immortality is very much alive. There are thousands of links on the internet to consult, including links to individuals claiming either to have drunk the elixir themselves and to be hundreds of years old or to know someone else in that condition. Along with these are listed various scientific approaches to the indefinite prolongation of human life.
For an excellent discussion of rebirth and regeneration and the part played in both by sun, moon, and water symbolism, see Mircea Eliade's Patterns in Comparative Religion, translated by Rosemary Sheed (New York, 1958). On shamanism, see Eliade's Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, translated by Willard R. Trask, rev. and enl. ed. (New York, 1964); Weston La Barre's The Peyote Cult, enl. ed. (New York, 1969); and Hallucinogens and Shamanism, edited by Michael J. Harner (Oxford, 1973). R. Gordon Wasson identifies soma and describes its effects in Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality (New York, 1968), and Joseph Needham gives a full account of Daoist elixir addicts in Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 5 (1947; reprint, Cambridge, U.K., 1983). Elixirs in Eastern and Western alchemy are disussed in Allison Coudert's Alchemy: The Philosopher's Stone (Boulder, Colo., 1980). The amazing complexity of bee life and honey production is discussed in Thomas D. Seeley's The Wisdom of the Hive: The Social Physiology of Honey Bee Colonies (Cambridge, Mass., 1995). For the full story on kava, including ample scientific documentation, see Vincent Lebot, Mark Merlin, and Lamont Lindstrom's Kava—The Pacific Elixir: The Definitive Guide to Its Ethnobotany, History, and Chemistry (New Haven, Conn., 1997). Two classic authors discuss various aspects of yoga, including the conversion of semen virile into elixir: Mircea Eliade in his Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, translated by Willard R. Trask (New York, 1958), and Swami Agehananda Bharati (a European convert to Hinduism) in The Ochre Robe: An Autobiography (London, 1961; reprint, Santa Barbara, Calif., 1980) and The Tantric Tradition (London, 1965); also, see Benjamin Walker's The Hindu World (London, 1968). On Sri Ramakrishna's experiences (from 1836 to 1886), see The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, translated by Swami Nikhilananda (New York, 1942). For the bhakti experience of rasa as the elixir of divine contemplation, see Charles S. J. White's The Caurasi Pad of Sri Hit Harivams (Honolulu, 1977) and his "The Remaining Hindi Works of Śrī Hit Harivaṃś," Journal of Vaiṣṇava Studies 4, no.4 (1996): 87–104. Discussions of Chinese alchemy are contained in Mircea Eliade's A History of Religious Ideas, vol. 2, From Gautama Buddha to the Triumph of Christianity, translated by Willard R. Trask (Chicago, 1984). Discussion of Chinggis Khan's receiving the divine elixir is found in Charles R. Bawden's Mongolian Traditional Literature: An Anthology (London, 2000). An excerpt from Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzifal is found in Transformations of Myth through Time: An Anthology of Readings (San Diego, Calif., 1990), prepared by Charles S. J. White et al. to accompany a PBS television course on Joseph Campbell. Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, a convert to Islam, produced The Glorious Qurʾān: Text and Explanatory Translation (Mecca al-Mukarramah, Saudi Arabia, 1977). This translation is much admired by English-speaking Muslims. Isabel Cooper-Oakley produced a biography of The Count of Saint-Germain (Milan, 1912; reprint, New York, 1970). The basic teaching of the "I AM" Activity is found in two books by Godfré Ray King [Guy W. Ballard], Unveiled Mysteries, 3d ed. (Santa Fe, N.Mex., 1939), and The Magic Presence, 4th ed. (Santa Fe, N.Mex., 1974). An official history by the Saint Germain Foundation is found in The History of the "I AM" Activity and Saint Germain Foundation (Schaumburg, Ill., 2003).
Allison Coudert (1987)
Charles S. J. White (2005)
e·lix·ir / iˈliksər/ • n. a magical or medicinal potion: an elixir guaranteed to induce love. ∎ a preparation that was supposedly able to change metals into gold, sought by alchemists. ∎ (also elixir of life) a preparation supposedly able to prolong life indefinitely. ∎ a medicinal solution of a specified type: a natural herbal cough elixir.
elixir of life an alchemical preparation supposedly able to prolong life indefinitely; the phrase is a translation of medieval Latin elixir vitae.