According to legend, the elixir of life is a potion created through alchemy that grants immortality and perpetual youthfulness or creates life. The word elixir comes from the transliterated Arabic al-iksir meaning “essence.” The concept of the elixir of life is associated with Eastern traditions, namely, those of China and India; the Western traditions are more closely associated with the concept of the philosopher’s stone.
There is some uncertainty as to where alchemy began, but in China and India the elixir of life was the primary object of alchemical research. Although the focus was on life extension, the transmutation of base metals (mercury and lead) to higher or noble metals (gold and silver) was a by-product in these countries. This was probably due to the culture: Although acquisition of wealth was discouraged, the extension of life was considered a dignified pursuit and could therefore be researched.
Within both the Eastern and Western traditions there are two perspectives: internal (spiritual or philosophical) and external (via elixir, potion, etc.). In China, Taoism influenced both perspectives, and over time the internal perspective became more important. This has been attributed to the rise of Buddhism and the failure to find a less-than- dangerous potion of immortality.
As in all alchemy, metals and other substances were transformed, transfigured, subsumed, and converted into other metals and substances. At this time in China, consuming precious metals or minerals, such as gold, cinnabar, and even jade, was thought to extend one’s life. Other substances were added to these mixtures, some dangerous (like lead, arsenic, or quicklime) and others that are not (such as gold and silver). Owing to its various properties, mercury was a highly prized metal that was added to many elixirs, potions, and other alchemical mixtures. We know today how highly toxic mercury is to the human body, and with large doses sometimes added to potions that were eventually consumed, these elixirs actually had an effect opposite to the intention.
In India, as in China, the quest for the elixir of life combined both the internal and external perspectives. But because many Indian alchemists were also priests, they were familiar with the Vedas (the sacred texts of Hinduism), which describe soma, a sacred drug that was believed to impart divine qualities to those who drank it, including immortality. Because the Vedas discuss soma at length, the external perspective concentrated more on medicinal herbs and mixtures for healing and rejuvenating. Such experimentation eventually led to the modern science of pharmacology and the global pharmaceutical industry. (In recent decades, with the rise of “alternative” medicine, herbs and other natural remedies have become the focus of renewed interest.) It has been suggested that the elixir of life in India was soma, which today is believed to be caffeine, ephedra, ginseng, or one of many other botanical extracts.
The search for the elixir of life declined in these two countries when the focus turned inward, to the spiritual and philosophical, based on a growing belief that the path to immortality was not achievable through an external source but only through an inner transformation.
See also Longevity; Shangri-La, Myth of; Youth, Fountain of
Holmyard, E. J. (1957). Alchemy. Baltimore, MD: Penguin.
Thorndike, L. (1953). A history of magic and experimental science. New York: Columbia University Press.