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A coterie of immortals and their shadows

Before you go trying immortality at home, you should be aware of some of these pitfalls.


Photo by Izabel 🏳️‍🌈 on Unsplash

Ouroboros


The ancient self-consuming snake/dragon. The name literally comes from a Greek word meaning “devouring its tail” and is one of the oldest symbols of immortality—via its depiction of endless deaths and rebirths.

“The oldest-known ouroboros appeared on a golden shrine in the tomb of Tutankhamen–'King Tut'–in Egypt in the 13th Century BC.” - Joobin Bekhrad

Other ancient creatures/symbols within this tradition include the phoenix and the hydra. These creatures, which simultaneously defy death and cyclically succumb to it, convey the illusory nature of death itself. This connects this kind of immortality to a kind of de-centering experience of ego-death or Schumpeterian creative destruction. In other cases, this natural process of birth-death-birth which continually transforms our actuality may be interrupted, as is mythically depicted in the case of Kronos—who devours his children to prolong his own reign.


Undoubtedly, another part of the shadow which follows closely behind this immortal is the eternal recurrence of Nietzsche. As the infamous “perfect nihilist”, he twists the life-affirming ouroboric symbolism into the conclusion that we live in pointless, ever-repeating cycles.

“The notion that life is cyclical, that death is followed by rebirth ad infinitum, was entertained in the ancient world not only by Eastern philosophers but also by Greek thinkers such as Empedocles and the Stoics, as Nietzsche would certainly have known… He posited that each recurrence of history would be identical in every respect, down to the tiniest details. Your life can never change. So Nietzsche himself, who in many ways had an unhappy life, full of suffering, would have to go through the death of his father and brother when he was a small child, his chronic ill-health, chest pains, migraines, and insomnia, his unrequited love, his visual impairment, his poverty and lack of recognition, and eventually his descent into madness, over and over again for eternity.” - Brandon Robshaw

Ahasver


Also known as the “Wandering Jew”, Ahasver was given a double-edged immortality as a punishment for taunting or in some way betraying Christ. He is, resultingly, forced to wander the Earth in an aimless fashion. As a mythical figure, he also blurs together with the real historical experience of people mistaking one Jew for another (or particularly the immortal Wandering Jew) who lived decades or centuries earlier.


“There were claims of sightings of the Wandering Jew throughout Europe and later the Americas, since at least 1542 in Hamburg up to 1868 in Harts Corners, New Jersey.” - Wikipedia

Ahasver is a limbo-dweller—indicative of an unwanted “mortal” immortality which traps one in life-after-death which, ironically, keeps one away from “God” or some other spiritual absolute. The latter, in this context, would be considered the “true” immortality.


Other similar figures/stories include the "Eternal Jew” of Nazi propaganda, and, broadly, vampires who are coded as Eastern European blood drinkers—a tradition which can be at least loosely connected to Count Dracula and Twilight's vampires, as well as many in-between.


This kind of immortality, which can potentially be transferred from one human to another, also raises interesting questions about irreversible decisions. Should one become a vampire if given the chance?

“How should you choose? If, in the end, you choose to become a vampire based on the exciting possibilities that becoming immortal seems to offer, you shouldn’t fool yourself—you have no idea what you are getting into. You just don’t know what it’s like to be a vampire. And if you refuse to become one on the basis that you can’t imagine not being human anymore, then you also shouldn’t fool yourself—you have no idea what you are missing.” - L.A. Paul

Nicolas Flamel


Famous alchemist who was purported to have created the Philosopher’s Stone. He is representative of immortality as an analogy for spiritual perfection and/or psychological individuation of the self. The canonical danger of alchemy is that its powers may fall into the hands of the uninitiated or ill-intentioned. In this sense it draws comparisons to technology—which has no ethical system of its own and readily and agnostically serves any master. This speaks to another adjacent theme in immortality, which is that it will be attained, but in a Pyrrhic way which strips away life’s possibility of meaning—transforming its endless continuation into an affliction.


Koschei the Deathless


Typical of the soul-hiding variety of immortality. As in, these kinds of immortals cheat death by hiding or splitting up their souls.

“My death is far away. In the sea there is an island, on that island stands an oak, under the oak a coffer is buried, in the coffer is a hare, in the hare is a duck, in the duck is an egg, and in the egg is my death.” - Koschei the Deathless

One is tempted to make the connection between this Russian immortal and Matryoshka dolls, in which life is nested within life which is nested within further life. Oscar Wilde’s character of Dorian Gray is another death-defier in this tradition. And many today will recognize the soul-hider known as Voldemort, from J.K. Rowling’s book series, Harry Potter, who uses dark magic called Horcrux to achieve his eponymous “flight from death”. Koschei relates ideas like fractality, and recursive processes which asymptotically approach infinity.

“In his mother tongue, Koschei the Deathless is called Koschei Bessmertnyi, a word which roughly translates to ‘without death’… This translation rings true, as Koschei’s immortality is quite literally derived from displacement: his mortality is removed, hidden, locked away… At any rate, the treatment of death in the Koschei tales is an unexpected one: immortality is not glorified, likened to holiness or godliness, or sought after by the hero, but rather is regarded as an attribute of evil and wickedness… Koschei is immortal but is also loathed and despised as an unnatural being. ‘In killing Koschei, the hero and heroine never defeat death itself; indeed, they affirm its presence in life,’ writes Magyarody… The ideas portrayed in the Koschei tales—of immortality as—undesirable and conversely, of mortality as a wholesome and heroic trait—serve to alleviate the feelings of despair which naturally arise in the face of death.” - Rachel Glassford

The darker side of this variety of immortality thus includes the interruption of natural cycles (such as birth and death), as well as self-fragmentation or loss of soul.


Peter Pan


Peter Pan is connected to the ancient concept of a fountain of youth. Since Peter never grows up, the costly shadow of this kind of immortality is immediately recognized as arrested development. This makes Peter a companion to Koschei, who avoids death by hiding his soul. Both of these routes to endless life seem to include the shadow aspect of lost wholeness, which can be taken psychologically as the equivalent of running on a treadmill, in which the psyche functionally stands still and ceases to re-pattern itself, or spiritually as a blind-alley which traps souls on the way to enlightenment.


Phil


From the film Groundhog Day. Phil is representative of a limited sort of immortality in which someone is stuck in an infinite time-loop. Although they are not truly immortal, they are ageless and deathless for as long as they are stuck in their particular loop. This is usually tied to ideas of purpose, meaning, or even fate and destiny, as I wrote about in my post about Palm Springs. The loop is portrayed either as an opportunity for a being to find their True Being or True Love, or else conveys the inherent absurdity of action which is erased when the time-loop resets itself. In other words, the price for time-loop immortality is the loss of meaning.


Hank & Dean Venture


A mind-uploading, body-backup immortality. We learn in the second season of The Venture Bros. that Hank and Dean die all the time, but are kept alive by their father who uses technology to grow clones—into which the “souls” of the boys may be kept safe, at least for another day.


This seems linked with “time-loop” immortality, in that it creates a condition of uncertainty surrounding the inherent meaning of action. Part of life’s contract, wherein we get to keep playing as long as we follow certain rules, presumably includes the clause that actions have irreversible consequences. One of these possible consequences is death—unless you can upload your “mind” or “soul” and download it into some new body as often as you’d like.


So the dark side of body-backup immortality is, at least, irreverence, and, at worst, a brazen amorality in which one feels no connection to the fragility and finitude of life. Life is the first blessing to which we owe veneration, and only upon that should we leap toward that unreachable immortal horizon.


Selu, the Corn Mother


In this Native American story, a “Mother Earth”-like figure is a personified/deified representation of the human relationship to the non-human world. In a typical telling, a mother or grandmother undergoes a self-sacrificial death, and is reborn as the first corn plant. The sons/grandsons are tasked with being the first stewards of this plant, and sharing it with as many as possible.


The story stresses reciprocity and respect between humans and their environment (or the biosphere as a whole, in the tradition of Gaia). As with the Ouroboros, Selu is a figure who points to a worldview where immortality is a default and pervasive feature of reality—life and death being partially illusory halves of this true whole.

“When the people call Earth ‘Mother,’ they take with love and with love give back so that all may live. When the people call Earth ‘it’, they use her consume her strength. Then the people die.” - Marilou Awiakta

The darkly-reflected image of Selu may be recognized in personal attitudes, collective values, or the ideas built into systems and institutions—whether social, economic, political, or otherwise. In all these cases, the opposite of Selu’s promise—that reciprocal respect will lead to a thriving planet and abundant conditions for everyone within it—is something like the Malthusian orientation which evangelizes scarcity and recommends acts of terror-managing desperation.


If Selu’s immortality is like a cornucopia which is always full, the opposite is something like the competitive, zero-sum, finite game attitude which secures life for a few at the expense of most.


Empedocles


A (probably apocryphal) legend says that this pre-Socratic Greek philosopher either thought of himself as godlike, was sporadically worshipped as one by real followers, or else was trying to prove that he had qualities like immortality. The legend goes that he hurled himself into a volcano. He was never heard from again, but his name lives on in perpetuity.


The possibility of “cultural” immortality seems to be alluring enough to get people to do some pretty horrible things. If this life is finite, one might do just about anything in order to trade it for infinity.

“If life is a boon, immortality must be a blessing; but if life is simply a burden and a misery, immortality must become, not an object of desire and hope, but of aversion and dread.” - George Angier Gordon

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