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The Deadly Elixir of Life – Was a Shot at Immortality Worth the Risk?

The Deadly Elixir of Life – Was a Shot at Immortality Worth the Risk?

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The elixir of immortality (known also as the elixir of life) is a mythical substance believed to grant those who consume it eternal life. Various civilizations throughout human history have their own version of the elixir of immortality. Nevertheless, they are, for the most part, limited to the realm of myth and legend.

In the history of China, however, many emperors, nobles, and officials are recorded to have consumed the elixir of immortality, in the hopes of living forever. In reality, however, the elixir shortened their lives, and even caused their deaths, as its ingredients often included highly toxic substances. Still, this did not deter the Chinese elite from seeking the elixir of immortality, and this deadly substance is documented to have been consumed as late as the 18 th century.

The Elixir Across Cultures and Centuries

The elixir of immortality is found in various cultures throughout history. In ancient Greece, for example, this substance was known as ‘ambrosia’, or the ‘nectar of the gods’. The ancient Greeks believed that the gods attained their immortality by consuming this substance.

A similar substance, known as ‘amrita’ is found in Hindu mythology, specifically in the story of the ‘Churning of the Ocean of Milk’. In this myth, ‘amrita’ was the last of the fourteen treasures to have emerged during the churning of the ocean.

Depiction of the ‘Churning of the Ocean of Milk’, the elixir of life from Hindu mythology. (Public domain)

Depiction of the ‘Churning of the Ocean of Milk’, the elixir of life from Hindu mythology. ( Public domain )

In Arthurian legend, there is the Holy Grail , the cup believed to have been used by Jesus Christ during the Last Supper . Those who drank from the grail are believed to be granted immortality. Lastly, medieval alchemists sought to create the elixir of life, and Nicolas Flamel is reputed to have succeeded in this endeavor. Although Flamel was a real person who might not have dabbled in alchemy, he gained a reputation as a master alchemist centuries after his death.

The Last Supper painting where Jesus was believed to have drunk from the Holy Grail, which was believed to be an elixir of life. (Leonardo da Vinci / Public domain)

The Last Supper painting where Jesus was believed to have drunk from the Holy Grail, which was believed to be an elixir of life. (Leonardo da Vinci / Public domain )

In the examples above, the elixir of immortality is largely confined to the realm of myth and legend, well beyond the reach of mortal hands. In Chinese history, however, it was possible for mortals to attain the elixir of immortality, and many, normally members of the elite, are documented to have consumed it.

The Chinese Elixir of Death

This elixir, however, not only failed to prolong their lives, but may have poisoned them, and even caused their deaths. The basis of the Chinese elixir of immortality is found in Taoist alchemy, which in turn is rooted in the doctrines of Taoism. Accordingly, there are two branches of Taoist alchemy, Neidan and Waidan.

The former, known also as Internal Elixir / Alchemy, refers to the doctrines, as well as physical, mental and spiritual practices that uses the human body itself to achieve immortality. Neidan includes Taoist meditation, physiological exercises, especially breathing and diet.

Chinese woodblock illustration of Neidan “Cleansing the heart-mind and retiring into concealment”, 1615 Xingming guizhi 性命圭旨 (Pointers on Spiritual Nature and Bodily Life). (Wellcome Images / CC BY 4.0)

Chinese woodblock illustration of Neidan “Cleansing the heart-mind and retiring into concealment”, 1615 Xingming guizhi 性命圭旨 (Pointers on Spiritual Nature and Bodily Life). (Wellcome Images / CC BY 4.0 )

On the other hand, Waidan focuses on the creation of the elixir of immortality by compounding various substances. In the later Waidan tradition, there are two main methods for creating the elixir of life. The first of these involves the use of mercury and lead, which are said to represent the principles of Yin and Yang respectively. Practitioners of this method believe that after refining and combining these two elements, a new substance with the qualities of the Pure Yang (or Chunyang) will be produced.

According to Taoist belief, the Pure Yang is the state of Oneness before its division into Yin and Yang. The other major method of the Waidan tradition entails the use of cinnabar, a mercury sulfide mineral considered in Taoism to be a Yang substance. The mercury within the mineral is believed to be the True Yin, and is extracted before being added to sulfur (a Yang substance). The process is normally repeated up to nine times, and the final product contains the qualities of the Pure Yang.

Crystals of cinnabar (red color) from the Wanshan Mine, Guizhou Province, China. An example of a material historically associated with Chinese alchemy and the elixir of life. (Géry Parent / Public domain)

Crystals of cinnabar (red color) from the Wanshan Mine, Guizhou Province, China. An example of a material historically associated with Chinese alchemy and the elixir of life. (Géry Parent / Public domain )

Highly Toxic

Mercury and lead, however, are both highly toxic substances, and exposure to them can have adverse effects on a person’s health. Symptoms of mercury poisoning in adults include hearing and speech difficulties, lack of coordination, muscle weakness, and vision changes, whereas lead poisoning may cause difficulties in memory or concentration, mood disorders, headaches, and joint and muscle pain. High levels of either mercury or lead may also cause permanent damage to the kidneys and nervous system, and eventually lead to death.     

'Putting the miraculous elixir on the tripod' from Xingming guizhi (Pointers on Spiritual Nature and Bodily Life) by Yi Zhenren, a Taoist text on internal alchemy published in 1615 (3rd year of the Wanli reign period of Ming dynasty). (Wellcome Images/ CC BY 4.0)

'Putting the miraculous elixir on the tripod' from Xingming guizhi (Pointers on Spiritual Nature and Bodily Life) by Yi Zhenren, a Taoist text on internal alchemy published in 1615 (3rd year of the Wanli reign period of Ming dynasty). (Wellcome Images/  CC BY 4.0 )

Although the two most important methods in the Waidan tradition involve mercury and lead, and cinnabar, other substances were also used to create the elixir of immortality. In 2019, it was reported that archaeologists in Luoyang, a city in the province of Henan, Central China, unearthed a bronze pot with liquid inside. The discovery was made in the tomb of a noble family from the Western Han Dynasty, which lasted from 202 BC to 8 AD.

According to the report, the pot contained around 3.5 liters of liquid, which archaeologists initially thought was some kind of liquor, as it was giving out an alcoholic aroma. Subsequently, samples of the liquid were analyzed in a laboratory, and it was found that it consists mainly of potassium nitrate and alunite. This led the archaeologists to conclude that the liquid in the pot is the mythical elixir of immortality.

This was a significant discovery, as it is the first archaeological evidence of the elixir of immortality in China. Like lead and mercury, potassium nitrate is also a toxic substance. Exposure to high levels of potassium nitrate may result in headaches, fatigue, dizziness, trouble breathing, and even death.

A pair of bronze pots, one containing the first real example of an ancient Chinese elixir of life, were unearthed from a Western Han Dynasty tomb in Luoyang, Henan Province. (VCG)

A pair of bronze pots, one containing the first real example of an ancient Chinese elixir of life, were unearthed from a Western Han Dynasty tomb in Luoyang, Henan Province. ( VCG)

Was Everlasting Life Worth the Risk?

Although the Chinese must have noticed the negative effects mercury and lead had on a person’s health, it did not deter the elites from consuming elixirs of immortality made using these toxic substances. It seems that a shot at everlasting life was well-worth the risk, and therefore such poisonous elixirs continued to be consumed throughout China’s history.

One of the earliest mentions of the elixir of immortality comes from the Warring States period, which lasted from the 5 th to 3 rd centuries BC. A story is found in the Zhanguo Ce (which translates to mean ‘Records of the Warring States’) and the Hai Feizi (a collection of essays from the Legalist school of thought) that involves the elixir of immortality. Both these works have been dated to the 3 rd century BC.

According to this story, Qingxiang, the King of Chu, was once presented with a ‘bu si zhi yao’, which may be translated to mean ‘medicine of deathlessness’. In other words, he was presented with an elixir of immortality. As the chamberlain was taking the elixir into the palace, a guard at the gate asked if it was edible, and when he answered yes, the guard took the elixir, and ate it.

When the king learned of this, he was furious, and condemned the guard to death. The guard sent a friend to persuade the king not to execute him. He argued that since the guard had first asked the chamberlain if the elixir was edible, and the latter replied yes, the blame should be placed on the chamberlain.

In addition, if the guard was to be executed, the elixir of life, as presented by the guest, would be an elixir of death, thereby showing the guest to be a liar. Therefore, the guard’s friend concluded, it would be better to release the guard, rather than to execute him, which would demonstrate the guest’s false claim. In the end of the story, the guard was released.

As the tale focuses on sophistic argument, it does not say if the guard achieved immortality. We do know, however, that those who sought the elixir of life not only failed to find it, but most likely caused their own demise through poisoning.

Emperors’ Obsession With Immortality

One of the most famous cases of death by elixir poisoning is that of Qin Shi Huang , China’s first emperor. There are numerous tales pertaining Qin Shi Huang’s obsession with immortality. More recently, in 2017, a set of wooden slips were discovered in Hunan, a province in Central China. The slips contain the emperor’s executive orders for the search of the elixir of immortality throughout the country, and official replies from the local governments.

Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, who had an obsession with immortality and eventually died from poising after taking an ‘elixir of life’. (Public domain)

Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, who had an obsession with immortality and eventually died from poising after taking an ‘elixir of life’. ( Public domain )

One of the means by which Qin Shi Huang hoped to achieve immortality was through the consumption of the elixir of immortality, which were in fact mercury pills, prepared by his fangshi (which literally mean ‘method master’, and may be translated to mean ‘alchemist’). Qin Shi Huang is recorded to have died of mercury poisoning.

Qin Shi Huang’s death by elixir poisoning seems to have not deterred future emperors from seeking immortality by the same means. Thus, over the course of China’s long history, many other emperors are recorded to caused their own deaths through their pursuit of immortality.

Emperor Ai of Jin, who reigned during the 360s AD, is one such example. In his attempt to achieve immortality, the emperor practiced Taoist fasting, i.e. abstaining from cereal grains. At the same time, he consumed the elixir of immortality prepared by his fangshi. As a consequence, he was poisoned, lost consciousness of what was going on around him, and died at the age of 24/5.     

Especially the Tang Dynasty…

Although Taoism was recognized as a religious system as early as the 4 th & 3 rd centuries BC, it only achieved official status under the Tang Dynasty , which lasted from 618 to 907 AD. The founder of the dynasty, Emperor Gaozu of Tang (born Li Yuan), claimed to descend from Laozi, a semi-legendary figure regarded to be one of Taoism’s founders. As a result, Taoism, including Taoist alchemy, flourished during this period.

Emperor Gaozu of Tang. (Public domain)

Emperor Gaozu of Tang. ( Public domain )

One of the negative consequences of Taoism’s success, however, was the increasing obsession with the elixir of life. At least six emperors of the Tang Dynasty are said to have died of elixir poisoning, as well as numerous scholars and officials. One of these emperors was Emperor Taizong, Gaozu’s successor, whilst the other five were Xianzong, Muzong (Xianzong’s son and successor), Jingzong (Muzong’s son and successor), Wuzong (Jingzong’s younger brother), and Xuanzong (Muzong’s younger brother, and Wuzong’s successor).

By the time the Tang Dynasty ended in 907 AD, many had died of elixir of life poisoning. As a result, the popularity of the Waidan tradition was in decline. Instead, those who sought immortality opted for the practices of the Neidan tradition.

Condemnation and Decline of the Elixir

In time, the practice of creating elixirs of immortality with poisonous substances was even condemned. One of the most vocal critics of this practice was Li Shizhen, a physician renowned for his Bencao Gangmu (translated as ‘Compendium of Materia Medica’), regarded today to be the most complete and comprehensive piece of writing in the field of traditional Chinese medicine. In this work, Li Shizhen condemns the alchemists for their use of mercury in elixirs of immortality, but also points out that the medical uses of this substance should not be ignored.

Stamp with the famous physician Li Shizhen on it. (China Post / Public domain)

Stamp with the famous physician Li Shizhen on it. (China Post / Public domain )

Li Shizhen lived during the 16 th century, when China was under the Ming Dynasty . Only one Ming emperor, the Jiajing Emperor, is thought to have died of elixir poisoning. The emperor is known to have been a devout follower of Taoism, and neglected his duties as a ruler in order to focus on Taoist pursuits.

Naturally, attaining immortality became an obsession, especially during the emperor’s later years. Apart from Neidan practices, the Jiajing Emperor also sought the elixir of immortality. The emperor may have died after consuming an elixir given to him by Wang Jin, a Taoist alchemist.

The Jiajing Emperor, 12th Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, who also sought the elixir of immortality. (Public domain)

The Jiajing Emperor, 12th Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, who also sought the elixir of immortality. ( Public domain )

Likewise, only one Qing emperor is believed to have lost his life due to elixir poisoning. The Yongzheng Emperor, who reigned during the 18 th century, is the last Chinese emperor whose death is attributed to elixir poisoning. Whilst historians believe that the emperor poisoned himself by consuming the elixir of immortality, legend has it that he was assassinated by Lu Siniang, the daughter of Lu Liuliang, whose anti-Qing writings led to a failed rebellion during Yongzheng’s reign. Consequently, Lu Liuliang was posthumously punished, his surviving relatives punished, and his writings banned.

A Thing of the Past?

Throughout China’s history, many emperors lost their lives as a result of elixir poisoning. Considering that the elixir of immortality could be obtained by the elites, as well as those wealthy enough to afford them, it is hard to estimate the number of lives lost in the quest for immortality.

From the example of the emperors, it seems that by the Ming and Qing Dynasties, interest in elixirs of immortality had drastically dropped. Still, Li Shizhen’s critique of the practice may imply that such elixirs were still popular amongst the Chinese. In any case, belief in a Taoist elixir of life seems to be a thing of the past. In addition, considering the current knowledge about the toxicity of the substances used to make them, such elixirs are neither made nor consumed today.

Top image: Representation of the elixir of life with a human skull.           Source: Dmitriy / Adobe stock

By Wu Mingren

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