Japan has its own mythical elixirs of immortality – rice mochi (the myth as the moon rabbit pounding rice mochi), soma and sake alcohol, homa, hemp, peach and peachwood*; pearl (ground or whole); ningyo mermaid fleshmeat; homa; iris and deer horns, golden cinnabar and zhu (hakuchi), the last, hakuchi also read as okera was a perennial belong to the chrysanthemum family.
Immortality, the Elixir of Life and the Food of the Gods
6 JANUARY, 2014 – John Black
When we look into the accounts of many different mythologies and religions, it becomes clear that the gods are either immortal or live a life of many thousands of years. What is rarely mentioned is the fact that in ancient religious texts there is reference to their immortality or longevity being connected to a specific kind of food that only the gods are allowed to eat. The gods were required to eat this food regularly to maintain immortality, power and strength. Many references also refer to the fact that if mortals ate this food, they would also become immortal like the gods. So let us explore the mythology surrounding this ‘Elixir of Life’
One of the main references to the food of the immortals can be found in Greek mythology. It is written in the stories of the Greek gods that ambrosia and nectar was the food and drink of the immortal gods and this first appears in the Greek mythology relating to the birth of Zeus. Before the ‘invention’ or ‘discovery’ of ambrosia and nectar by the gods, it was written that they would feed by ‘sniffing’ the vapours of their dead enemies, as if they would feed from the energy of the dead souls.
Nectar and Ambrosia
Ambrosia was said to come from the horn of a magical goat named Amalthea, the foster-mother of Zeus. The horns of Amalthea provided a limitless supply of ambrosia but were also capable of producing any kind of food for any kind of living being. White holy doves would carry the ambrosia and a large eagle with shiny wings would fly at an extraordinary speed through the sky where he would get the nectar and then bring it down to the baby Zeus.
When demigod Achilles was born, his mother would pour ambrosia over Achilles and he would become immortal, but because she held him around his heel that was the only part that remained mortal. This allowed Achilles to be killed later on by Paris.
It was said that ambrosia was used by the gods to cure diseases, fix scars, and make the body beautiful again. If dead people would be treated with ambrosia, their bodies would remain in perfect condition forever. In other references, we can see that ambrosia was abundant in the gardens of Hesperides. Hesperides were nymphs who tend to a blissful garden in the far western corner of the world, a place where ambrosia was brought to the God Zeus.
But the immortal food also appears in the Bible where we can see similarity between the gardens of Hesperides and the gardens of Eden, where according to the Old Testament, man was forbidden to eat the fruit from the Tree of Life:
And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Genesis 2:9
When Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge, it appears that God alerted other Gods to be on alert because man should not eat also from the Tree of Life and become immortal like them.
Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever, Genesis 3:22
Soma – Elixir of Life
Moving on to Zoroastrian and Vedic mythologies, we can see reference to a special drink consumed by the gods, known as Soma and Haoma respectively. This special drink was prepared by extracting the juices from the stalks of certain plants, which are unknown to us today. Drinking Soma and Haoma would give immortality. Idra, the leader of the Devas, and the God Agni, are mentioned in the Rig Veda to have been drinking large quantities of the immortal drink.
We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered, Rig Veda 8.48.3
If we now move to Egyptian mythology and the legends of Thoth and Hermes Trismegistus, we will see that there are references to both of them drinking ‘white drops’, also referred to as ‘liquid gold’, which provided them with immortality. References about this can be found in the Quran (Sura 18; the Khidr) and in one of the Nag Hammadi texts.
In Sumerian texts, we have references to the Ninhursag’s milk, one of the seven great deities of Sumer, the goddess of fertility that is associated with a cow (similar to the magic goat Amalthea of the Greek mythology). The gods and the kings of ancient Sumer would drink from this milk to become strong and immortal. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, we also have reference to a thorny plant at the bottom of the ocean that would make someone immortal and this was kept as a secret of the gods.
In the Hindu religion, the gods would harness a milk called Amrita, a nectar that was collected and drunk by the gods to give them immortality, but forbidden for humans to drink. This milk was apparently surrounding the Earth, and the gods would collect it with the help of a serpent.
In Chinese mythology we have the ‘Peaches of Immortality’ as the food of the immortals. Eating this food ensured the everlasting existence of the gods. If humans would eat from this fruit they would also become immortals.
The search for the Elixir of Life has been the supreme quest for many. In medieval times, there are accounts of the alchemists looking for the philosopher’s stone, believed to be required to create the elixir but also to convert lead to gold. Bernard Trevisan, an alchemist of the 15th century said that dropping the philosopher’s stone into mercurial water would create the elixir, and we have multiple cases of alchemists that allegedly found the Elixir of Life including the infamous Cagliostro or Saint Germain.
Nectar and Ambrosia, the Tree of Life, Amrita, Peaches of Immortality, Soma and Haoma – are all these references simply the imagination of our ancient ancestors? Or, like other myths, is there an element of truth to be found in these ancient tales? It is possible that immortality or longevity can really be achieved through the consumption of a ‘special’ food, which has always been held as a privilege reserved for the gods? Perhaps the search for the ‘Elixir of Life’ is a valid and one day it may be found…
By John Black
Sources on Japanese elixirs:
Sake as a drink of immortality, see Why soma and sake are both drinks of the gods
The poem reads: Inexhaustible is / The water of chrysanthemums / From the heavenly Chrysanthemum River.
It praises sake (Japanese rice wine) as a drink of immortality by likening it to the chrysanthemum dews, by drinking which Kikujidô [Chrysanthemum boy], a legendary figure, obtained eternal youth. Shôjô is also a mythical creature that loves sake and is synonymous with a heavy drinker. There is a nô play called Shôjô, in which the creature becomes drunk and begins to dance.
Legend has it that Kikujidô was a servant boy to the emperor Mu of the Zhou dynasty. He was sent in exile to Li County of Nanyang Prefecture [present day Henan Province] where he became immortal by drinking the water of the Chrysanthemum River. It was believed that the river water contained the dew from chrysanthemums growing along its upper stream and very sweet, and that one who drank it gained a long life
Eccentric Spaces, Hidden Histories: Narrative, Ritual, and Royal Authority …
By David T. Bialock, see pp. 75-78
Death and the Afterlife in Japanese Buddhism
edited by Jacqueline Ilyse Stone, Mariko Namba Walter pp. 182-186
* The Queen of the Western Heavens, Western Queen Mother Xiwangmu and mako (magu cult):
Magu is a goddess in Chinese Taoism god system, and “Magu Presenting a Birthday Gift” is one of the leading subjects in auspicious folk pictures. Magu was originally a native of Jianchang (present-day Nancheng Town in Jiangxi Province). To the southwest of the town, there lay a mountain called Magu, which was called Danxia Mountain a long time ago. It is said that the girl cultivated Tao on this mountain and finally became an immortal.
She was able to turn rice grains into pearls by throwing them up in the air, and walk on water in wooden shoes “as easily as Bodhidharma crossing a river on a reed”. She often donated rice to the poor. Whenever people saw her, she always looked like a beautiful girl of 18, always wearing embroidered clothes. When asked how old she was, she replied that she had seen the sea turned into fields three times. So people regarded her as a symbol of longevity. In the old days, when a woman celebrated her birthday, people often gave her a painting of Magu, a symbol of longevity.
Legend has it that the third day of the third lunar month was the birthday anniversary of the Queen Mother of the Western Heavens, and all deities would come from all parts of the world to offer their congratulations to her. On those occasions, the Queen Mother of the Western Heavens would hold a grand party and offer peaches of longevity to the guests. At one such party, Magu brought as a gift some wine made of glossy ganoderma growing by the side of the Jiangzhu River. This is the origin of “Magu Presenting a Birthday Gift.
Other versions have Magu/Mako presenting not peaches, but cannibis, or leaf hemp
Magu, Goddess of Longevity, 18th century hanging scroll (National Museum, Warsaw)
The large red silk ground commemorative hanging of the 19th century above, is embroidered with Magu serving the Longevity Wine to the Queen mother of the West, surrounded by an immortal setting delicately embroidered with floral sprays, archaistic emblems, peaches, and legendary figures, 470cm high and 265cm wide
清 十九世纪 麻姑献寿刺绣
Provenance: Private Italian Collection, Rome.
Alternatively, magu or mako is seen bearing a drink beverage of longevity, seen in the above silk commemorative hangings.
Textile panels, such as the celebratory hangings included in this section, in China were hung in a prominent position. They transformed both domestic and sacred spaces on specific occasions, communicating meanings in many visual forms and thus embodying powerful traditional values held by the Chinese society. The finest commemorative hangings were often commissioned by professional workshops and mainly consisted of figurative images recurring in 18th and 19th century decorative arts. Red ground celebratory textiles, such as those presented here, contrasted with the white ground or “mourning” textiles. The hangings were made in different shapes and sizes and meant to be displayed to commemorate festive occasions such as birthdays and weddings. Some of the panels bore inscriptions relating to the personal qualities of the people involved in a particular anniversary. The theme of the twenty-four filial paragons, a canon of stories which appeared to be codified during the period of the Han dynasty, for example, often seemed adequate to pay homage to an elderly parent or relative. Other popular subjects were the Shou character for immortality and the Eight Immortals, semi-legendary figures originally associated with Daoism and beliefs in immortality. Standard features were employed to portray the characters of these popular stories so they could be instantly recognisable by the viewers. Other popular stories include the Birthday Celebration of General Guo Ziyi of the Tang dynasty, at his estate in Fenyang. Drawn from the legend A Tableful of Honors, Guo Ziyi had many sons and grandsons and the numerous figures dressed in official attire around the general indicated that the family was successful in attaining a high office. By extension therefore, employing the image of general Guo and his family on a panel as a congratulatory gift, was thought to bring good fortune to its recipient. Other popular themes included… the goddess Magu, originating from folk love songs and festivals. Symbolic protector of females, symbol of long life and fertility, Magu prepared a longevity, alcoholic beverage to present as a gift at the birthday banquet of the Queen Mother of the Western Paradise. Exhibiting images that were thought of acting just like their real counterpart and thus provoking benign effects on behalf of the owner, commemorative hangings are a precious testament to the ideological values of Imperial China.