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Some History of Philosophical
and Scientific Approaches to Aging


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The problem of mortality has long been the dark counterpoint to the wonder of human existence, a black mark punctuating the end of each individual life. Most people instinctively cherish life and therefore naturally abhor death. Nations would, for instance, call their militias to arms, even activate powerful weapons, to protect the lives of loved ones at risk. However, in regard to most universal and inevitable risks, that of aging and age-related mortality, the human response is generally acquiescence.

There is a well-known psychological response humans have in the face of life-threatening danger known as the “Stockholm syndrome”. This phenomenon was named after an actual hostage crisis that occurred in a bank in Stockholm in 1973. The hostages irrationally sided with the robber, even defending his actions. Psychologists speculate that this human response to life-threatening situations may have evolved as a survival mechanism when neighboring tribes captured women or children. The FBI describes the nature of the problem, stating that approximately 27% of crime victims show evidence of the irrational response.

It seems logical therefore that a similar segment of our society would present with Stockholm syndrome-like symptoms when confronted with the stark reality of their own mortality and death. Historically, people approach this peace pact with death by taking one of two paths.

1) In essence, they say “we owe god a death”, and align themselves with an established religious system that assures them a reliable path to immortality and well-being of the soul in the afterlife.
2) They deny the problem of otherwise put it out of their mind.
 

For many of those not bitten by the Stockholm syndrome bug, the problem of human mortality is viewed rationally and for what it is, a problem we should do something about, if we can. In my opinion, the religious and practical approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive. You could seek both at the same time without contradiction. One can bring to mind the statement by the Apostle Paul in the New Testament, for instance, where he states that “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death (I Corinthians 15:26)” or his admonition to Timothy “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities (I Timothy 5:23)” as practical Biblical examples of the value of health and life over disease and death.

My goal here is not to delve into a debate about religious belief. But, by necessity, being a cellular gerontologist means that I am confronted with these philosophical and religious issues every day in conversations with colleagues about mortal and immortal cells, and efforts to intervene in the basic biology of aging. Furthermore, I believe there are some concepts we can trace in the ancient origins of religion that actually color our view of the scientific concept of the immortal renewal of life, and may end up being part of the philosophical analysis of the role of science and medicine in human affairs.

The word “immortality”

First, let me begin by considering the use of the word immortality itself. Immortality is, in my mind, the noblest of words. It stands at the pinnacle of human thought. The claim itself is immense, sophisticated, and audacious. The ability to conceive of immortality uniquely distinguishes Homo sapiens from all that has come before. After all, what mere sparrow ever imagined it would outlive the stars? Or what primate ever comprehended the inevitability of its own death and then analyzed the problem to discover a path of escape? I would therefore conclude that the concept of immortality is central to what we are and is unique to our species.

But this is not how I use the term “immortal.” I will use the word to refer to a biological principle; namely, that there is a progression of life (human or otherwise) that has the potential to continue indefinitely. So, let me give you an example of how I use the term. Petunias can be purchased from the local greenhouse year after year. The individual petunia dies each season. So, biologists would say that the petunia, as a species, displays an immortal renewal of life. But, if planet earth ended up the target of a massive asteroid and all life ended in a fireball, then that immortal perpetuation of the petunia species would suddenly come to an absolute end like the individual pentunia. So, unlike the religious concept of immortality in the afterlife that in most world religions is guaranteed to continue forever, the immortality of species has no guarantee for the future, just the potential.

It is natural for people in ancient times who sought spiritual paths to immortality for the individual to take note the immortal nature of the biological life cycle and to incorporate those observations into their religion. I will now relate some specific examples to illustrate my point.

Ancient perspectives on life and death:

Many religious scholars attribute the interest of ancient peoples in the immortal renewal of life to their desire to raise an abundant crop. These scholars propose that the ancient world had “fertility gods” who were seen as the “behind-the-scenes” force imparting the immortal renewal of life to wheat, rice, and beef. The thesis I am pursuing here is that while ancient peoples may have looked to these gods for a good crop, their primary interest in them went far deeper. I believe they looked to these immortality gods for a solution to their loved ones mortality. So whether it be the reference to the apparent immortality of the cycling moon that slowly died, and then was resurrected in its full body and glory, or the immortal germination of seed, ancient people saw within these phenomenon a mystery, that is to say, a hidden message from the gods, that there was hope that people too could transcended the cyclic pattern of birth and death. The name of the gods changed from country to country, but the common hope that there may be a means to save the lives of our loved ones by appealing to this source of immortal life persisted.

These thoughts even influenced recent Christian thought. As late as the 19th century we read of the second President of the United States John Adams, who early in his career considered a career as a minister in the Congregational Church stating:

  “What now can preserve this prodigious variety of species and this inflexible uniformity among the individuals but the continual and vigilant providence of God?”  

The early Christians provided clear examples of the basis for their hope in immortal life. An early Christian named Clement of Rome (AD 30-100) lived in the times of the Apostles and is mentioned by name by the apostle Paul in the Bible as being a true follower of the gospel (Phil 4:3). In a letter entitled The First Epistle of Clement written toward the end of the first century we have a record of an Apostolic-age explanation of the reasons the first Christians believed in the reality of immortality:

  “Let us consider, beloved, how the Lord continually proves to us that there shall be a future resurrection, of which He has rendered the Lord Jesus Christ the first-fruits buy raising him from the dead. Let us contemplate, beloved, the resurrection which is at all times taking place. Day and night declare to us a resurrection. The night sinks to sleep, and the day arises; the day [again] departs, and the night comes on. Let us behold the fruits [of the earth], how the sowing of grain takes place. The sower goes forth, and casts it into the ground; and the seed being thus scattered, though dry and naked when it fell upon the earth, is gradually dissolved. Then out of its dissolution the mighty power of the providence of the Lord raises it up again, and from one seed many arise and bring forth fruit.” (Clement, p11-12)  

I find this quote from a friend of the Apostles highly illuminating. As I will discuss, his reference to the immortal cycling of the sun and germinating of grain supports a thesis which I will try to develop here, namely that many ancient religions saw the immortal renewal of life as a basis of hope that the entire individual could somehow be reborn in the same manner.

I find mankind’s aspirations for life after death fascinating. By looking closely at the way we have historically viewed the problem, we can learn a lot about the universality of human views of life and death, as well as some clues along the way that harmonize well with the modern scientific pursuit of the problem. I will therefore now discuss a few examples beginning with the people of ancient Egypt.

The Egyptian Explanation:

Earlier, I mentioned Clement, an early Christian living in the time of the Apostles, who suggested that proof of the promise of immortality could be found in the repeated cycling of the sun, and the immortal renewal of plant life. This was certainly not his idea. It was fundamental to the hopes of the ancient Egyptians for thousands of years before Clement.

The Egyptians were immortalists par excellence. Some say they were completely preoccupied with the problem of death and spent the majority of their lives in morbid preparation. This is a misconception. In reality, the ancient Egyptians, like us today, were very much in love with life. Their preoccupation with death merely reflects their earnest desire to conquer it. As a result, the ancient Egyptians transmit to us one of the clearest expositions of the basis of a religious hope of immortality in the ancient world.

The story of the ancient Egyptians begins like that of the primitive folklore we discussed earlier, focused on the immortal renewal of life in spring. There was an awareness of the power of water to give life, a belief in a father god and mother earth, and a belief that love conquers death. But the land, the agriculture, and therefore the symbols used to communicate Egyptian belief were unique to that region.

Egypt, for the most part, was an inhospitable barren desert symbolic of death. And flowing through the desert sand was one of the world’s great rivers, the Nile. The river was anything but a static entity, as it ebbed and flowed each year, the fresh water and sediment carried downstream provided the conditions for abundant plant life along its banks. So whereas a mere mile walk away from the river lay arid desert and death, along this river itself grew abundant plant and animal life. So it is easy to see why the Nile became a symbol of the power of living water and immortal life.

The Egyptian religion was organized and unified somewhere about the years of 3100 to 2900 BC. The Egyptian word for god was neter. As was characteristic of many primitive agrarian societies, the concept of god became associated with the source of immortal life. The Egyptologist E. de Rouge linked the word neter with the word for “renewal”. So god was the source of immortal life, and was himself capable of perpetual self-renewal. The German Egyptologist Dr. Heinrich Brugsch described neter as:

  “the active power which produces and creates things in regular recurrence; which bestows new life upon them, and gives back to them their youthful vigour.”  

The Egyptians saw symbols of neter and his power of immortal life in the scarab, the beetle Scarabaeus sacer that rolled its eggs in a ball of earth. The eggs, of course, were symbols of an eternal renewal. And in the same way, neter (god) was the source of this power that pushed along this immortal life cycle. The scarab’s ball was also like the sun rolling across the heavens, dying each day, but forever reemerging, warming our day, and lovingly giving life to the earth, and so they also used the symbol of the sun in this regard.

  The scarab and the immortality of the sun. The sun and moon were observed to be renewed daily. The scarab that was seen to roll its ball of eggs was often depicted as rolling the sun in the sky as well.  

Some people make the mistake of believing that the ancient Egyptians simply practiced a barbaric idol worship and their focus was their sun god Ra. But the Egyptian beliefs were much more sophisticated. They didn’t worship the sun as much as they did the god represented by the sun, he source of immortal renewal.

The Egyptian word for the scarab beetle sounded very similar to the name of the god “Khepera” which literally meant “he who rolls”, again referring to the scarab rolling a ball filled with eggs. An English equivalent is the word “evolution” which means to “roll”. In the papyrus of Nesi Amsu we read:

  “I evolved the evolving of evolutions. I evolved myself under the form of the evolutions of the god Khepera, which were evolved at the beginning of all time. I evolved with the evolutions of the god Khepera… I developed myself out of the primeval. My name is Ausares (Osiris), the germ of primeval matter… Nothing existed on this earth then, and I made all things… I created multitudes of things which evolved themselves like unto the evolutions of the god Khepera, and their offspring came into being from the evolutions of their births. (Budge, 1959, p41-42)  

So the scarab, the image of Khepera, was seen as not just moving the sun in its eternal parade, but also as a symbol of the evolution of primeval life, and its immortal renewal in the cycle of life.

  The scarab as a symbol of the force behind the immortal renewal of life. The scarab on the left emerges from its egg, lays its own eggs, and then dies on the right. The egg then leads to new life in an eternal cycle, like the dying and reborn sun.  

With time Osiris himself took the center of the mythological stage, and he (or arguably his wife Isis) became the greatest of immortality gods in the ancient world. According to legend, Osiris was a Pharaoh who was a good king and taught his people the art of agriculture, in particular the cultivation of grain. Nevertheless, a jealous rival named Set plotted his murder. With the help of accomplices, Set tricked Osiris into laying in a coffin, whereupon, they nailed it shut and plunged it into the Nile. According to Plutarch, the coffin floated across the Mediterranean, and was eventually carried to Byblus, in Syria. Isis the wife of Osiris, heard of these events and traveled to the city in search of her beloved husband. As she sat by a well weeping for Osiris, the Queen of Byblus took pity on her, and gave her employment to nurse the child prince. Isis consented and allowed the child to suck from her finger, rather from her breasts, and laid him in the fireplace to burn off his mortality with the goal of making him immortal, in the same way immortal gold is purified by burning off the dross. The Queen, not understanding Isis’ true motivations or identity, ejected her from the palace.

The story continues as Isis finally obtains Osiris’s body, hiding him in the reeds of the Nile river. Set finds him again and cuts him up into 14 pieces, lest she bring him back from the dead, and scattered his body throughout Egypt. Osiris’ soul meanwhile descends into Hell, the abode of the dead. Isis diligently searches for the pieces, and with the help of the gods, she puts them together, and bandaged him up with strips of linen. To her delight, Osiris tosses off his grave clothes and is resurrected. He is therefore, according the Egyptian custom, the first human being to be resurrected, and is destined to reign over the realm of the dead, and control the fate of all the departed.

This myth profoundly influenced the people of the Middle East. The people of Egypt believed that he really rose from the dead. Osiris represented a new mixture of man and god, for while once a man, he was in many ways equated with Ra, God, symbolized by the sun. He was pictured as enthroned with God in heaven. Osiris was seen as the father god we discussed earlier that died and was resurrected like the germinating crops that sprouted from the dying seed in the grave of the earth. Isis, was his loving wife that brought him back from the dead. One ancient depiction of this is shown below where Osiris is symbolized by the moon in its fourteen phases from the new to full moon (note the fourteen phases depicted across the top). The message communicated here is that just as the moon is “cut up” into 14 pieces as it wanes smaller and smaller and inevitably returns 14 days later regenerating in an immortal fashion, so Osiris found immortality. Set cut him up into 14 pieces, but through the love of Isis, those fourteen pieces were reassembled and he was re-born. To make the point even more clear, Osiris is said to have lived 28 years, corresponding to the 28 days in the repeating cycle of the moon. The phases of the moon were the timekeeping device in the age before clocks and calendars. So the moon was the symbol for time, and in the dark despair of night and death, people projected on the immortal regenerating moon the hope of human immortality.

But other themes of immortality can also be seen in this image. For example, Osiris is shown laying on the back of an crocodile with plants and flowers sprouting up from his body, as a visual image of the immortal life and resurrection power emanating from his body, a power that also gives life to germinating vegetation.

  Osiris as a Personification of Immortal Life. Osiris is shown on the back of a crocodile with plants sprouting from him to communicate that he is the life, and the promise of the resurrection of life after death. He is also shown with raised arm as the “man in the moon”as a reminder of the lesson learned from the immortal rebirth of the moon every month. Isis, the lover that brought him back from the dead stands at the left. (Budge, 1973, Vol I, p. 21)  

So, Osiris was a symbol of immortal life. His image embodied the concept of the power of life to be immortal – for life to emerge from death over and again in an eternal fugue. This is seen again below in what are called “Osiris beds.” These were wooden frames in the profile of Osiris containing earth and seed placed in the tomb just as the seeds were in the process of germinating. It was a visual representation of immortal life emerging from what they believed to be the death of the seed in its grave. It was placed in the tomb in the hope that the deceased would also rise from the earth in a resurrected body possessing immortal life.

  Osiris bed found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. A) This small garden was fashioned in the image of Osiris, filled with soil from the Nile and seeds of barley, wrapped in linen, and placed in the tomb of the deceased just as the seeds of the garden were in the process of germinating. They represented the Egyptian faith that just as Osiris was raised from the dead, and just as he raises the crops from the earth, so the beloved dead may share in the hope of an immortal regeneration of life. B) The Image of Osiris. Osiris is typically shown still wrapped in his grave clothes and with his face painted green to symbolize the power of regenerating plant life. Image B. is from The Egypt Story, Maroon & Newby, p21, tomb of Sennedjem)  

Below, Osiris is shown in another image of the afterlife, along with Isis, as he judges the dead and determines who will share in the reward of immortal life. In this image, the heart of the deceased is weighed in a balance. If found righteous, the individual will make his way to the Elysian Fields, the Kingdom of Osiris.

The Elysian Fields were the home of Osiris, and consequently were overflowing with immortal life. They were variously imagined as being in the sky, and the Pharaoh depicted as climbing the rays of sunshine to get there, or on a far off island, requiring a boat ride. The Egyptian view of paradise was a place so intense in life energy that everything was alive, even the oars of the boat that carried you there can answer back to you. The crops were super-abundant. We read in the 18th Dynasty papyrus of Nu that wheat in the Elysian Fields grew nearly eight feet tall with three-foot ears. Similarly, barley grew nearly eleven feet tall with ears ever four feet in length. And, of course, the people who lived there never knew of disease or old age again.

  “You live again, you revive always, you have become young again, you are young again, and forever.” (Ancient Egyptian Funerary Text)

This hope of an afterlife was seen as a “second birth”. Osiris was said to: “giveth birth unto men and women a second time,” i.e., “who maketh mortals to be born again.” (Budge, 1959. P93-94)
 

As the judge of the dead, Osiris was the source of immortal life. His skin is frequently painted green or black to symbolize either this association with germinating crops, or the dark soil of the lands along the Nile. From under his throne shown below, germinates the spring lilly, used to this day in Easter celebrations of spring.

  Osiris seated on his throne judging the dead. From beneath his throne which floats on the Nile, sprouts the spring lilly upon which stand Osiris’ four children. (Papyrus of Hunefer, British Museum No. 9901)  

So Osiris was the doorway to immortality, for the Pharaoh as well as for the masses. In the Osirian view, anyone who led a good life, and was embalmed so as to share in the death of Osiris, could hope that he would also share in his resurrection. As Frazer says in the Golden Bough:

  “[T]he Egyptians saw the pledge of a life everlasting for themselves beyond the grave. They believed that every man would live eternally in the other world if only his surviving friends did for his body what the gods had done for the body of Osiris. Hence the ceremonies observed by the Egyptians over the human dead were an exact copy of those… performed by the Egyptians over the dead god… In this way every dead Egyptian was identified with Osiris and bore his name.”  

The Book of the Dead was often buried with the Pharaohs as a kind of a “guidebook” to help the dead in his travels through the afterlife. In it we read:

 

“Homage to thee, O my divine father Osiris. I came to embalm thee, do thou embalm these my members, for I would not perish and come to an end…

Let not my body become worms, but deliver me as thou didst thyself. I pray thee, let me not fall into rottenness even as thou dost permit every god, and every goddess, and every animal, and every reptile to see corruption when the soul hath gone forth from them after their death. And when the soul departeth (or perisheth), a man seeth corruption and the bones of his body rot and become wholly stinkingness, the members decay piecemeal, the bones crumble into a helpless mass, and the flesh becometh foetid liquid, and he becometh a brother unto the decay which cometh upon him, and he turneth into multitides of worms, and he becometh altogether worms, and an end is made of him…

Homage to thee, O my divine father Osiris, thou hast thy being with thy members. Thou didst not decay, thou didst not become worms, thou didst not diminish, thou didst not become corruption, thou didst not putrify, and thou didst not turn into worms. I am the god Khepera, and my members shall have an everlasting existence. I shall not decay, I shall not rot, I shall not putrify, I shall not turn into worms, and I shall not see corruption before the eye of the god Shu. I shall have my being; I shall have my being; I shall live, I shall live; I shall germinate, I shall germinate…” (Budge, 1923, p518-20)

 

It should be understood that I am not attempting here to give in any way a complete description of the ancient Egyptian, or any religion. My goal is merely to point out in a rudimentary fashion how ancient peoples took note of the natural immortal renewal of life and based many of their hopes on it. In addition, I would like to point out that the Egyptians developed one of the most sophisticated systems of belief regarding the afterlife, with a beautiful and coherent myth of a resurrected king Osiris and his lover Isis, based on the observation of the renewal of life observed in the immortality of species. And I would like to point out that their powerful metaphors impacted much of the Mediterranean world.

We know that belief in Osiris lived on well into the Christian era and was represented in “mystery” plays that are related to us by ancient Greek and Roman writers (Rhys, 1924, p53-54). These plays were performed each vernal equinox, (March 21). In the ceremony, a cross was raised, and the people mourned the suffering of Osiris. For three days the Priests looked for the dismembered body of Osiris not being able to find it. After three days they celebrated his resurrection and the advent of spring. The parallel with Christianity has been the subject of many studies, and it appears that a version of the Osiris celebration lived on until recently in some Russian Orthodox Easter services.

The Mesopotamian Explanation

A second river culture was to the north and east of Egypt in a region called Mesopotamia. The word “mesos” literally means “between” and “potomas” “river”. Mesopotamia is the land traversed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers what today we would call Iran and Iraq. It held a civilization as old as the Egyptian one, and in the same way, its people cherished the life-giving power of its great rivers.

Mesopotamia has also been called the “cradle of civilization” because it so profoundly influenced the course of human life worldwide. For instance, writing began there as early as 8000 BC, and a coherent language originated as early as 3500 BC.

The Ancient Babylonians were one of the peoples inhabiting this fertile region. They, like the Egyptians, saw the periodic renewal of life each spring and attributed this, supposedly supernatural creative activity, to the god “Tammuz”, the god of vegetation and fertility, in particular, a god of grain. Like Osiris, he was believed to have died, and was brought back from the dead with the help of “Ishtar” his wife. The red leaves of autumn were his blood in a world of dying life. Every year they mourned his death with wailing and crying and then days later, they would celebrate his resurrection to new life. This is recounted in the Old Testament of the Bible in the book of Ezekiel:

  “Then he brought me to the door of the gate of the Lord’s house which was toward the north; and, behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz.” (Ezek: 8:14)  

There are a remarkable number of parallels between the Egyptian god Osiris and the Babylonian counterpart Tammuz. Like Isis, Ishtar was the mother goddess and Tammuz was the love of her youth. In what is often called “Ishtar’s descent” she descended into the underworld of Aralu, (the Babylonian hell), at great personal expense, to save her lover by bringing him the water of life.

  “Unto the land of No-return, the land of darkness, Ishtar, the daughter of Sin, determined to go, The daughter of Sin, determined to go, Unto the house of darkness, the dwelling of Irkalla, Unto the house whose enterer never comes out, Along the way whose going has no return, Unto the house whose enterer is deprived of light, Where dust is their food, their sustenance, clay, Light they do not see, in darkness they dwell; They are clothed like birds, with a covering of wings. Over door and bolt the dust is spread.” (Rawlinson, Cunieform Inscriptions of Western Asia, Vol. IV, p31)  

While she was in hell, all reproductive activity on earth ceases. As we read:

  “No bull mounted a cow, no donkey impregnated a jenny, No young man impregnated a girl in the street, The young man slept in his private room, The girl slept in the company of her friends.” (McCall, 1990, p70)  

So the myth of Ishtar and Tammuz explained the cycle of the seasons and the regeneration of life in spring in the following manner. The death of Tammuz and Ishtar’s descent into hell led to fall and winter, and the resurrection of Tammuz and ascent of Ishtar from Aralu led to spring and immortal life. Again, as before, it is love that conquers death.

The geographic focus of this faith came to be centered in Byblus, Syria. Earlier in discussing the Egyptian myth of Osiris, we mentioned that Osiris’s coffin was said to float and be carried to Byblus. This is likely because the people of the ancient world knew that the same deity was worshiped in these different places. In Byblus, Tammuz came to be called simply Adon, or Adonis, related to the Semitic word Adonai. Adonai simply means “Lord”. It is clear that different cultures were telling the same myth in slightly different ways. The association of Egypt’s Osiris with the Syrian Adonis in the ancient world is seen in the following story:

  “It is said that every year the people beyond the rivers of Ethiopia (Egypt) used to write a letter to the women of Byblus informing them that the lost and lamented Adonis was found. This letter they enclosed in an earthen pot, which they sealed and sent floating down the river to the sea. The waves carried the pot to Byblus, where every year it arrived at the time when the Syrian women were weeping for their dead Lord. The pot was taken up from the water and opened: the letter was read; and the weeping women dried their tears, because the lost Adonis was found.” (Frazer, 1935, Vol. II, p23)  

Adonis, like Osiris, was a corn (grain) god. In the spring of each year, he was often depicted as an effigy surrounded by flowers and plants, not unlike a Christian altar at Easter. His disciples would lament for the death of their Lord:

  “Her lament is the lament for a herb that grows not in the bed, Her lament is the lament for the corn that grows not in the ear,… Her lament is for meadows, where no plants grow. Her lament is for a palace, where length of life grows not.” (Frazer, 1935, Vol. I, p10)  

The same myth of a dying and resurrected god of vegetation was told in Phrygia, and in this case the god was named “Attis.” He was said to be born of the virgin Cybele, and on March 25 was resurrected from the dead. Every year an effigy of Attis was bound to a tree, burned, and three days later, a festival was celebrated to honor his resurrection from the dead. He was popular in Rome where the celebration was called the Festival of Joy (Hilaria). The center of his worship where blood was spilled to remove the sins of mankind was on Vatican Hill. When the Vatican was enlarged around 1608, the archaeological remains of the previous site of the worship of Attis was discovered (Frazer, 1935, Vol 1, p275). It is likely not a coincidence that the Christians in Rome built their first center of worship of Jesus on the site where Attis was previously worshiped.

Other nations had similar stories as well. In Persia a similar god was trusted named Mithra. Collectively, these stories about Osiris, Adonis, Mithra, Tammuz, and Attis had many characteristics in common. The first to see the risen gods were women, and women played a prominent role in mourning their deaths, and in some cases, in raising their lover from the grave. All these deities were “the savior” as well, for their role in bringing new life each spring. As resurrected gods they were known as “the Third One” referring to the third stage of life. Birth was the first day, or stage, death the second day, and then resurrection the third day.

Before we leave our discussion of Mesopotamian myths of immortality, I would like to point out that even in ancient times, some people sought a practical approach to immortality. Like the Egyptians, most Babylonians loved life and despised death. They described death as a “Day that lets no one go”, and a “Day of Distress”. Some people, even in ancient times, had less confidence in the ability of the gods to save them from death, than in what they could accomplish with their own hands. One of the earliest and clearest of stories of the humanistic quest to conquer death originated in with these people. It is a story called the Epic of Gilgamesh that was written around 2500 BC.

  The Babylonian cuneiform tablet telling the story of Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality.  

Gilgamesh was said to have been a mighty King so powerful of body and mind that he intimidated even the gods themselves. To bring him down to size, they created a foe that would be his equal named Enkidu. Upon meeting the men fell into bitter combat day and night but neither prevailed. Finally, Enkidu and Gilgamesh realized that they really had no animosity toward each other, and they became friends, and joined together to conquer the world. The gods on seeing that their plot backfired, decided to kill Enkidu. When Gilgamesh saw the fate of his equal he was mortified, and he realized for the first time that he too must face the “Day that lets no one go”. In his despair he decided to combat this sentence of death facing all human beings. He decided to find a means of obtaining immortality with his own hands. He sought his ancestor Uta-Napishtim who had escaped the great flood in a boat in which he carried many animals. Because of his righteousness, the gods had granted Uta-Napishtim immortality. Gilgamesh decided to seek him out and find the secret of immortality.

Eventually, Gilgamesh meets Uta-Napishtim who tells him to seek a plant at the bottom of the ocean. Gilgamesh ties rocks to his feet searches the ocean floor until he finds the plant. It has the name “Shibu issahir amelu” which is translated “The old man becometh young [again]:

  The text of the Eleventh Tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh describing the plant named “The old man becometh young [again].  

On his way back home to share his discovery with his people, he stopped to take a drink from a pool of water and a serpent came by, and seeing the plant, and that it was beautiful in appearance, ate it. As a result, snakes shed their old wrinkled skin, like a tree shedding its brown and wrinkled leaves, and are regenerated in an immortal fashion even to this day. Mankind, on the other hand, is left without remedy, and therefore ages and dies.

So in Mesopotamia, like many other regions in the Middle East, shared the belief that mankind had little hope of achieving immortality with his own hands, that is, a humanistic approach (the serpent had stolen that option). The best hope for salvation was thought to be to seek immortality in the source of immortal life, the father god imparting life to germinating plant life. For those inhabiting Mesopotamia, this hope was placed in Tammuz. According to the Babylonian practice of Puhu, a sick individual could by symbolically associated with Tammuz in his death and resurrection, and as a result be freed from sickness (Hooke, 1967, p2-3).

The Greek Explanation:

Earlier in our discussion of Mesopotamian myths we mentioned the story of Adonis, the dying and resurrected god of corn. The myth of Adonis was so prominent throughout the eastern Mediterranean that he was incorporated into Greek Mythology largely intact. The Greeks even kept the semitic name Adonis, rather than changing the name as was often the custom. In the Greek version of the story, Aphrodite the goddess of love, the counterpart to Isis and Ishtar, fell in love with Adonis even as a babe. While Adonis was still an infant, Aphrodite placed him in a chest, and placed him in the hands of Persephone, queen of the underworld, or Hades. Persephone also admired the young Adonis and she decided to keep him. Aphrodite struggled to get him back in a battle of love and death. Zeus settled the squabble, and in the settlement Adonis was on earth with Aphrodite in the spring of the year, and the rest of the year he spent in Hades with Persephone. Of course, while Adonis was with Aphrodite, the flowers bloom and spring brings forth abundant life.

The Greeks also had their own gods of the harvest. These were Demeter (which in Latin was called Ceres, from which we get the word cereal), and Dionysus (the Latin equivalent of Bacchus). Demeter was the goddess of corn while Bacchus was the god of wine. Unlike the other Olympian gods, these alone were the suffering ones. They were thought to die each year, or at least descend into Hades, and then be reborn. Demeter’s story was similar to Osiris and Isis, Attis and Cybele, Astarte and Adonis. But instead of a loving wife seeking to save her dead husband, the Greek myth was one of a mother seeking to save the life of her dead daughter. The story ran as follows: Demeter had only one daughter named Persephone, the goddess of spring and corn. One day she was collecting hyacinths and narcissuses when the earth opened up in front of her and from the dark depths Hades emerged on his chariot. He whisked her off her feet, and took her as a bride in the dark realm of Hades, the underworld and home of the dead. Not knowing where her beloved daughter was, Demeter set out to look for her. In her wanderings Demeter came to Eleusis and sat by a well. A family felt her grief and took her into their home. She nursed the child of the family and in her typical compassion placed him in the fire to burn off his mortality. The mother saw this, and in horror screamed for Demeter to put him down. At this point, Demeter revealed her true identity, and left the city in search for Persephone.

Due to Demeter’s anguish and Persephone’s absence, no seed germinated and no crops grew on the earth. All was barrenness and death. Zeus was therefore forced to intervene in the crisis. He ordered Hades to release Persephone for a season each year. In turn, he appealed to Demeter to restore life on earth:

  “As each year is accomplished and bitter winter ended. For a third part only the kingdom of darkness shall hold her. For the rest you will keep her, you and the happy immortals. Peace now, Give men life which comes alone from your giving.” (Hamilton, 1940, 953)  

On seeing her beloved daughter again, Demeter decided that she had over-reacted and taught the people in Eleusis, the same city that had taken her in during her travels, the “mysteries that no one may utter.” These “mysteries” became known as the “Eleusian Mysteries” and became a widespread religious cult centered in Eleusis that taught a view of life based on the renewal of life in spring. In essence, it was based on the belief that since life displayed every year the ability to renew itself in an immortal cycle of resurrection, so we too, through appealing to the gods, could hope for a resurrection into immortality. Isocrates writing in the fourth century BC tells of how Demeter gave the Athenians the two greatest gifts, the gift of corn and the gift of the mysteries, the former saving mankind from the beast, the latter imparting a hope for life beyond the grave. Later, many Romans were to become converts including such prominent people as Antony, Augustus, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, and Cicero. Concerning the Mysteries Cicero says:

  “Nothing is higher than these mysteries. They have sweetened our characters and softened our customs; they have made us pass from the condition of savages to true humanity. They have not only shown us the way to live life joyfully, but they have taught us how to die with a better hope.” (Hamilton, 1940, p48)  

Little is known about the details of the Mysteries, as the followers promised to keep the ceremony secret. But it appears that during the service worshippers looked up into the sky and cried “Rain!“ and then to the earth and cried “Conceive!” (Frazer, 1935, Spirits of Corn, V1, p69). In addition, both Demeter (goddess of grain) and Dionysus (the god of wine) were part of the ceremony, and the breaking of bread and drinking of wine played an important part in communicating the hope that the immortality of germinating life could somehow translate into human immortality. As Barrett says in his book New Testament Background:

  “The object of the mystery cults was to secure salvation for men who were subject to moral and physical evil, dominated by Destiny, and unable by themselves to escape from the corruption that beset the material side of their nature. Salvation accordingly meant escape from Destiny, release from corruption and a renewed moral life. It was affected by what may broadly be called sacramental means. By taking part in prescribed rites the worshiper became united with God, was enabled in this life to enjoy mystical communion with him, and further was assured of immortality beyond death. This process rested upon the experiences (generally including the death and resurrection of a Savior-God, the Lord (kurios)) of his devotees. The myth, which seems often to have been cultically represented, rested in many of these religions upon the fundamental annual cycle of agriculture fertility; but rites which probably were in earlier days intended to secure productiveness in field and flock were now given an individual application and effect.” (Barrett, New Testament Background, p92-93)  

The shrine was finally destroyed in AD 396, and the “Mother of the Gods” became a title applied to Mary, mother of Jesus. The worship of Demeter was such a powerful and long-lasting myth that as late as 1802 when the statue of Demeter was taken from Eleusis to the University of Cambridge the people of Greece complained that the loss of Demeter, like the exile of Persephone to Hades, caused a marked downturn in the productivity of their fields.

  Portrayals of Demeter and Persephone. A. Demeter rising from the earth as the Goddess of immortal life, her wrists encircled with serpents. Terra-cotta, Museo delle Terme, Rome. B. Persephone is shown in the act of rising from the earth. As such she is the spirit of corn and wine growing as she emerges from the depths of the earth. (From Percy Gardner, Types of Greek Coins (Cambridge, 1883, p174 plate X, No. 25)  

The myth of Dionysus was similar to that of Demeter. According to the story, Dionysis was given his throne by his father Zeus. Subsequent to his installment, he was given a scepter to be king of all gods on earth. Soon thereafter, however, he was tragically torn limb from limb by 14 Titans. He was literally chopped to pieces in a manner similar to the way a grape vine is pruned. Out of love for her lost love, his mother through the help of fourteen Sacred Women at fourteen alters put him together again. Like Osiris, this was clearly a symbol for the fourteen days the moon is cut apart and then the fourteen days it is reassembled to cycle in an immortal fashion. So Dionysus rose from the dead and ascended unto heaven.

On Crete his passion was reenacted in detail with his resurrection occurring in spring. Many have pointed out close parallel with Osiris and the other dying and resurrected gods of agriculture. He had titles of “teeming” and “bursting” signifying the resurrection power he carried within his body. With time he became the prominent immortality myth of the northern Mediterranean. In 80AD the Greek Plutarch wrote to his wife after hearing his gentle daughter had died:

  “About that which you have heard, dear heart, that the soul once departed from the body vanishes and feels nothing, I know that you give no belief to such assertions because of those sacred and faithful promises given in the mysteries of Bacchus which we who are of that religious brotherhood know. We hold it firmly for an undoubted truth that our soul is incorruptible and immortal. We are to think (of the dead) that they pass into a better place and a happier condition.” (Hamilton, 1940, p62)  

So for the most part, the people of ancient Greece held onto a hope of attaining everlasting life, for themselves, and their loved ones, by following the lesson of the rebirth of vegetable life in the spring. Like the cultures that came before them in many lands, they put their trust in the same gods that brought them the miracle of germinating crops.

  “But drowning men clutch at straws, and we need not wonder that the Greeks, like ourselves, with death before them and a great love of life in the hearts, should not have stopped to weigh with too nice a hand the arguments that told for and against the prospect of human immortality.” (Frazer, 1935, Spirits of the Corn, Vol 1, p91))  

And of course, many of these ancient ideas live on even in Christian cultures. To defend the resurrection myths, the early Christians took lessons from the immortality of species. Like many others before them, they used the evidence of the reappearance of life each spring from the dead earth as evidence to the reasonableness of human resurrection.

  “The promise of the resurrection is written, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime.” (Martin Luther)  

An ancient example would be Tertullian (145-220 AD) who wrote a defense of the resurrection by pointing out the immortality of the phases of the moon “Readorned also are the mirrors of the moon, which her monthly course had worn away,” and he, like many early Christians, pointed to the mythical phoenix, a bird that was believed to be resurrected from the dead. We read:

  “Winters and summers return, as do the springtide and autumn, with their resources, their routines, their fruits. Forasmuch as earth receives its instruction from heaven to clothe the trees which had been stripped, to colour the flowers afresh, to spread the grass again, to reproduce the seed which had been consumed, and not to reproduce them until consumed. Wondrous method! From a defrauder to be a preserver, in order to restore, it takes away; in order to guard, it destroys; that it may make whole, it injures; and that it may enlarge, it first lessens. (This process) indeed, renders back to us richer and fuller blessings than it deprived us of – by a destruction which is profit, by an injury which is advantage, and by a loss which is gain. In a word, I would say, all creation is instinct with renewal. Whatever you may chance upon, has already existed; whatever you have lost, returns again without fail. All things return to their former state, after having gone out of sight; all things begin after they have ended; they come to an end for the very purpose of coming into existence again. Nothing perishes but with a view of salvation. The whole, therefore, of the revolving order of things bears witness to the resurrection of the dead. In His works did God write it, before He wrote it in the Scriptures; He proclaimed it in His mighty deeds earlier than in His inspired words. He first sent Nature to you as a teacher, meaning to send Prophesy, and without hesitation accept (its testimony) when you come to hear what you have seen already on every side; nor doubt that God, whom you have discovered to be the restorer of all things, is likewise the reviver of the flesh.” (Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, Chap. XII, p553-554)  

The close parallel of Jesus with the earlier myths of Osiris and Adonis have long been noted by scholars. One of the greatest of students of comparative folklore Sir James G. Frazer noted:

  “In the long history of religion no two divine figures resemble each other more closely in the fervour of personal devotion which they have kindled and in the high hopes which they have inspired than Osiris and Christ. The sad figure of Buddha indeed has been as deeply loved and revered by countless millions; but he had no glad tidings of immortality for men, nothing but the promise of a final release from the burden of mortality.” (Frazer, 1935, Vol. II, p159)  

Ignatius was another early church father. In the Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians he admonishes them in words reminicent of the Mystery religions:

  "Come together in common… and break one bread which is the medicine of immortality and the antidote against death, enabling us to live forever."  

This medicine of immortality, or pharmacon (drug) athanasiou (“a” meaning not, thanatos meaning death), continues to be literally described as a “mystery” to this day.

Early on I explained how cellular gerontologists use the term “immortality.” On a cellular level, this is now less of a mystery. Beginning with the dawn of cell biology in the 19th century, scientists like August Weismann explained the mystery of the immortal renewal of life as being the result of rare cells capable of replicating indefinitely. Therefore, the seed buried in the ground in reality did not die followed by supernatural resurrection. Instead, there were microscopic cells that could replicate forever that perpetuated the species. To contrast this capacity of the reproductive lineage for indefinite reproduction with the finite lifespan of cells in the body that ages and dies, Weismann coined the terms cellular “immortality” and “mortality.” His terminology was the subject of some heated debate in the journal Nature in the 1800s, in part because of all the potential confusion with the religious use of the term as we have just discussed. But the terminology won out. So today, scientists use these terms in a scientific sense, and people like myself are left with the thankless task of trying to explain it all.

We will now turn to a discussion of those cells and the modern pursuit of life extension.

 

References

Gardner J & Maier J (1984) Gilgamesh: Translated from the Sin-Leqi-Unninni Version. Vintage Books, Random House, New YorkRossen.

Brugsch, Heinrich K. 1887. Religion und Mythologie der Aegypter (Religion and Mythology of the Egyptians) (Leipzig, p27)

West, M.D. 2003. The Immortal Cell. Doubleday (ISBN 0-385-80928-6).

 

© Copyright 2013 Michael D. West, All Rights Reserved

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