Monday, February 06, 2006

Glossary: Elixir

The elixir that promotes health, rejuvenates, prolongs life or even grants immortality is included among the forms of what Stephen Oppenheimer calls "edible immortality."

On Penglai, the Chinese isle of immortals, everything from the water to the plants and fruits promote longevity and well-being. In the Churning of the Milky Ocean myth as related in the Mahabharata the ashes and runoff created by the fiery holocaust on Mt. Mandara produces, among other things, a jar of the elixir of immortality.

Apparently the light-colored ash flowing into the sea turns the ocean into a milky or white color. In the Milky Ocean, therefore, there is a Svetadvipa or "White Island" where everything is white. Also on Penglai it is sometimes said that all the plants and animals are white. This may refer symbolically to the milk-colored volcanic substances that are said to have the "power of the Elixir" and which blanket the entire region after an eruption.

In the Zoroastrian literature, the White Haoma of the Varkash (Vourukasha) Sea is also said to be prepared as the ambrosia of the immortals.

Both the Indian and Persian literature link the Soma and Haoma respectively with the ocean. The Khorda Avesta (5:8) calls the Vourukasha, the "deep sea of salt waters." Tides and ocean currents are also apparently mentioned as having action upon this ocean:

Ahura Mazda answered It is even so as thou hast said, O righteous Zarathustra! I, Ahura Mazda, send the waters from the sea Vouru-kasha down with the wind and with the clouds.

I, Ahura Mazda, make them stream down to the corpses; I, Ahura Mazda, make them stream down to the Dakhmas; I, Ahura Mazda, make them stream down to the unclean remains; I, Ahura Mazda, make them stream down to the bones; then I, Ahura Mazda, make them flow back unseen; I, Ahura Mazda, make them flow back to the sea Pûitika.

'The waters stand there boiling, boiling up in the heart of, the sea Pûitika, and, when cleansed there, they run back again from the sea Pûitika to the sea Vouru-kasha, towards the well-watered tree, whereon grow the seeds of my plants of every kind [by hundreds, by thousands, by hundreds of thousands].

-- Vendidad 2:17-19

During the medieval period, Albumasar apparently develops these old Iranian concepts into a theory of tides in his work Great Introduction to Astrology. Albumasar's theory was adopted by Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, Robert Grosseteste, William of Auvergne, Albert the Great and others. The influence of the Moon on tides and the ocean is interesting in connection with the elixir as "Soma" is also a Sanskrit name for the Moon.

Oppenheimer has shown in Eden in the East how the waxing and waning of the Moon was seen in very ancient times as a sign of the immortality of the lunar deity. He feels that myths connected with the Moon and immortality were diffused by Austro-Asiatic peoples.

Iranian cosmology places the cosmic mountain at the farthest shore of the Varkash Sea to the East. From this mountain flow all the world's water after purifying the "underworld."

Waters from rivers and streams flow first into the sea where they apparenly eventually make their way east to west following the prevailing winds over the ocean. At the Western horizon they fall into "hell" where they wash away all impurities. From hell they make their way back into the cosmic mountain where initially they appear like "quicksilver" (Rivayats 1:91), and then flow into the Varkash Sea. From there, they again travel from East to West. It is this motion that causes the ebb and flow of the tide according to early tradition.

In the Varkash Sea is the White Haoma tree and also the Tree of Many Seeds. The trees are protected by a great fish known as the Kar and the Simurgh bird, which is portrayed usually with a dog or human head. The White Haoma is explicitely tied to the "Water of Life."

The Simurgh Bird that protects the Tree of Many Seeds

The Soma of Indic tradition also appears not to have been so much a single plant as the life-force of plants in the waters: " appearance like the sun, he [Soma] runs through the lakes, the seven streams and heaven" (Rgveda 9:52:2).

Production of both Soma and Haoma may be seen as partly a ritual reenactment of the great cataclysmic event that produced the original pot of elixir. The Soma pounded from medicinal herbs was mixed or "clothed" in milk possibly to resemble the ash-colored ocean of milk.

Even in the Rgvedic production of Soma, there appears to be an allusion to the primordial event -- a pit known as uparava, one arm-length in depth is dug in the earth to mix the juice pounded with sacred stones from the Soma herbs. The pit is reminiscent of the underworld association of the "waters of life" in mythologies from Sumer to Hawai`i.

Iranian myth mentions a three-legged "ass," apparently a whale since it is said to be the source of ambergris (Bundahishn 11:12), that purifies the fluids of the earth that return to the Varkash Sea.

Also in the midst of the sea is the great bull Sarsaok with flames shooting up out of its back. In some sources, it is said that this bull is slain in the last days and its marrow used to make the White Haoma of immortality. It is from the flames of this bull's back that the sacred Zoroastrian temple fires were brought.

Obviously, the flaming Sarsaok bull can be equated with the White Haoma tree and again with the cosmic/volcanic mountain. Also the three-legged ass or whale may also refer to the purifying fire's shooting up from the bull's back and protecting the elixir.

The word for ass is kar, and the great fish that guards the Tree of Many Seeds is known as the Kar Mahi or "ass-like fish." Thus the Kar and Kar Mahi may be the same -- a large fish or whale that resembles a three-legged ass.

Guarding of the sacred trees may refer to their fiery nature, as the Kar is also the purifier of the waters. In a similar sense, the Hebrew Bible speaks of the flaming sword that guarded the way of Eden.

Haoma's whiteness again bespeaks of the whitish ash of the volcanic eruption. In the Ayurvedic tradition of India, the incineration of plants and metals into bhasma or ash plays an important role in the making of medicines. We can look at the metals here as standing also for the great quantities of earth incinerated during the eruption. Bhasma smeared on the body of the god Siva or on the bodies of ascetics symbolizes purity through the fire of austerity, and the immortality thus gained.

Ascetics known as Nagasadhus, smeared with ash, gather for a dip in the Ganges River during the Kumbhamela pilgrimage. According to legend, some of the elixir produced during the churning of the milk ocean dropped here from the pot of Dhanvantari. (Source:

In the latter practice of alchemy, the ingredients of plants, metals, water and fire used to produce the elixir attempt to recreate some of the chemistry caused by the natural cataclysmic event.

Al-Balkhi and his followers placed the palace of the immortals, Kangdez, and the Varkash Sea in the same location as the Indian Yamakoti.

Quests for the Elixir

Both the Muslim and Greek geographers compressed the known world from East to West to fit into their worldviews. Ptolemy in his Geography, sought to extend the distance from the Happy Isles to Cattigara to 180 degrees.

Quite interestingly, in most of the known distances in Geography, such as those between Rome and Alexandria, between the latter and Babylon, etc., the real degree of longitude was about 3/4 of Ptolemy's longitude degree. If Ptolemy simply wanted to create fictional lands, he could have easily represented a fully-inhabited globe. However, mariners of his day would have ridiculed such a representation since they had no knowledge of any ability to circumnavigate the earth.

For Ptolemy then only half of the globe was inhabitable and he sought to fit the known world into that 180 degrees.

The Hindu astronomers appeared to have shrunk the real degree of longtitude to one-half in order to represent the known world as extending around the globe. Thus, the distance from Lanka to Romaka is given as 90 degrees when it is just slightly over 45 degrees. If we look at the real distance of the Hindu quadrants, they would represent nearly the division of the world into eight rather than four parts.

Kangdez's location was very much similar to that of the medieval Christian Garden of Eden. From this location was said to come eastern spices like aloeswood, cinnamon, cassia and ginger in both Christian and Muslim tradition. Indeed such association for these spices hails back to the Book of Enoch and the Old Testament where the mount of God appears as topped with fire and smoke.

This mountain, the omphalos, was the fountain also of the underground "waters of life" -- the Sumerian Abzu.

Many Austronesian myths locate the "water of life" in paradise, which often is also the land of the ancestors, the land of the dead. The Samoans knew of Bulotu, a blessed land whose lord has a home made of the bones of dead chiefs. Spirits come here to bathe in the water of life and regain strength. The Fijians know of the same place called Burotu or Murotu where a speaking tree is found near the waters of life.

A "river of living water" found in the mythology of San Cristoval refreshes the souls of the dead and grants immortality to the devout. In the Philippines, many indigenous peoples take ritual baths in rivers and streams to rejuvenate the body, using bundles of sacred herbs, leaves or grasses dipped in the water to baptize each other.

Paul Kekai Manansala