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In a lot of science fiction and fantasy, there is the trope of someone becoming immortal, but then being really sad about it, deciding that it is worse than being mortal.

What is the oldest work to have this trope?

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    I was gonna mention Jonathan Swift's Struldbruggs but duskwuff's answer has that beat by a couple thousand years. But this question reminds me that you haven't accepted an answer to your climate-change question from last month. Are you still hoping for better answers? – user14111 Sep 15 at 14:39
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    Most of the answers handle immortality, but still aging. Is there any answer about the frist menion of someone living at full health, yet still cursing their immortality? – Lot Sep 16 at 11:17
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    I first read about it in the 1970s (or early 1980s) in the context of #1 getting really bored after a while, and #2 the sadness of seeing your loved ones constantly dying. – RonJohn Sep 16 at 13:10
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    @Lot doubt this is the oldest, but I thought of Douglas Adam's Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged from Life, the Universe, and Everything (1982). – usul Sep 16 at 16:08
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    @FooBar It has been posted as a separate question. See scifi.stackexchange.com/q/220150/116908 – PM 2Ring Sep 17 at 8:56

10 Answers 10

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What is the oldest work to have this trope?

This trope is prehistoric.

Greek mythology held that Eos, the goddess of the dawn, once asked Zeus to make her mortal lover Tithonus immortal, but Eos neglected to specify that he should remain eternally young as well. To Eos's regret, Tithonus grew older and older, shriveling away in his age; in some tellings, this caused him to eventually turn into a cicada.

(TVTropes catalogues this trope as Who Wants To Live Forever?. I drew the preceding example from there.)

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    Shoutout to Stephen Fry's Mythos! – marcellothearcane Sep 15 at 22:06
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    "...when love must die..." – T.J. Crowder Sep 16 at 9:16
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    @Bilkokuya The "earliest writings" we have of classical civilisations are not histories, they are mythologies – Caleth Sep 16 at 12:34
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    please add "binge warning" to the TVTropes mention – aaaaa says reinstate Monica Sep 16 at 17:11
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    @TylerH Oh, I think that one's even older. The concept of a trickster -- often a god or a genie -- who twists the words of a request in an unexpected way appears in ancient stories and legends across the world. The story of Tithonus happens to be one of those, but there's no reason to suspect it's the first. – duskwuff Sep 17 at 20:21
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(OK, let's not work ourselves into a place where everything is like everything else.)

Although TVTropes provides some examples of sucky immortality from ancient mythology, these are really just examples for a few unfortunate individuals, as a special punishment of the gods. Other mortals were made immortal and it was awesome for them.

But the idea of of immortality sucking in general, or just in modern fiction, probably dates back to Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. During Gulliver's visit to the island of Luggnagg, he encounters the Struldbruggs -- people whose bodies continue functioning forever, but also continue to age forever.

The Struldbruggs come from the general (mortal) population of Luggnagg. There are physical reasons why being a Struldbrugg sucks (one just keeps getting more and more decrepit) and social reasons (in order to keep the Struldbruggs from accumulating all the wealth and power, they are declared officially dead at 80 and forbidden from having wealth or owning property).

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    There's nothing in the question that specifies this is about immortality "sucking in general" or just for an individual. Gulliver's Travels is a good example from modern literature but the trope is definitely much older than that. – user22478 Sep 15 at 21:58
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    Your exemple of the Struldbruggs is exactly the same than Tithonus where they are immortal but still grow old. – Echox Sep 16 at 7:56
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    Swift knew his Greek, so the Struldbruggs would have absolutely been derived from Tithonus. Everything isn't like everything else... everything is like the original Greek. – gbjbaanb Sep 16 at 9:55
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    @gbjbaanb - And the Greeks may well have just been the first to write them down... :-) – T.J. Crowder Sep 16 at 10:07
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    @T.J.Crowder if those silly old Atlanteans couldn't be bothered to get waterproof paper, then they deserve for Aeschylus to take credit for their stories! – gbjbaanb Sep 16 at 14:48
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Hercules, a.k.a. Heracles, hit his master Chiron the centaur with a poisoned arrow as friendly fire during a battle. Chiron was immortal in the sense that he would never age and would live forever, and also immortal in the sense that he wouldn't die from the poison. Dude was the best healer ever, but he wasn't able to heal himself and the pain was unbearable. Zeus took pity of Chiron and took the centaur's life.

Since this is ancient greek mythology, this would have been contemporary to the story presented in duskwuff's answer.

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    Not quite, Ancient Greek scholars will be happy to tell you that Ancient Greece is a period over a large territory, even with its own dark age, with a definite evolution in the mythos over time and location. Though I'm not studied enough myself to know which came first. – ratchet freak Sep 18 at 11:29
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    This isn't a case of an immortal being unhappy with their immortality though. It's about someone who was in horrible pain and had no way of dying. I don't really see how it's relevant here. – terdon Sep 18 at 12:35
  • @terdon I honestly can't see a difference. – Renan Sep 18 at 12:44
  • Well, my understanding of the question (which may be wrong, of course!) was about the concept of someone who discovered that immortality is unpleasant. I wouldn't consider someone who gave up their immportality because they were looking at endless pain a candidate. I was thinking more along the lines of Bowerick Wowbagger, i.e. someone who just dislikes their immortality because of how immortality itself works, rather than because they're being tortured or in constant pain because of external factors. – terdon Sep 18 at 13:25
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    @terdon If you (would) live an infinitely long live, and there is a non-zero probability to be poisened by an incurable poison, it will eventually happen. You just haven't seen it all yet, until it happens. Hopefully you get bored before that and somehow end it while not in pain. Immortality sucks. – Graipher Oct 25 at 12:43
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@duskwuff gives one small example of the ancient Greeks discovering problems with immortality. However this is a relatively minor point in one fable.

More significantly, the ancient Greeks invented the concept of an afterlife for sinners as a place of eternal suffering, a concept most notably picked up by Christianity and called Hell. The Greeks called it Tartarus. The existence of Tartarus was not just a fable to the ancient Greeks (and the Romans who followed them and inherited their traditions), but was an established fact in their religion.

Note that this is distinct from the underworld of Hades, which is more akin to the Jewish concept of Sheol in that Hades takes everyone, both good and bad. Generally Tartarus is the destination for people who offend a specific god somehow (and sometimes for no fault of their own).

The Titans were the original inmates of Tartarus, after the "new gods" led by Zeus won the war against their Titan parents. Of those, perhaps the most notable example of eternal torture was Prometheus. Chained so he could not move, an eagle (or vulture depending on translation) would fly down every morning and disembowel him to eat his liver; and because of his immortality, the liver would have regrown by the next morning to allow the bird to do it all over again.

Mortals were then also sent to Tartarus for eternal torture too. Famous examples are Sisyphus, sentenced to drag a rock up a hill forever, or Tantalus, sentenced to eternal hunger and thirst with food and drink in sight but unreachable.

I'd say that pretty well qualifies as "immortality sucks"!

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    'the ancient Greeks invented the concept of an afterlife' this is simply wrong; the Egyptians and Sumerians each predated the Greeks by a few thousand years and both had their own concepts of afterlife, including the scary part about punishment. In fact in Ancient Sumeria the afterlife for humans was believed to be a giant cave of darkness where they ate nothing but dust for the rest of time. – TylerH Sep 17 at 19:31
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    @TylerH It's simply wrong if you only quote a fraction of the sentence. I never said the Greeks were the first with an afterlife - it's institutionalised eternal punishment for defying the gods which AFAIK is a Greek invention. – Graham Sep 17 at 19:43
  • If that's what you meant, then it's poorly worded IMHO; it currently reads as 'the Greeks invented the afterlife, and they did so for the purpose of punishing sinners', rather than as 'the Greeks inventing a new, separate afterlife of suffering, just for sinners'. Anyway, the Egyptians, at least, also had an alternate path in the afterlife for sinners (e.g. 'weighing the heart'), though a failure there was obliteration, the Egyptian idea of eternal suffering, rather than existence in some unpleasant realm. I don't know Sumerian religion enough to know details about the fate of sinners there. – TylerH Sep 17 at 19:59
  • @TylerH "The ancient Greeks invented the concept of an afterlife for sinners as a place of eternal suffering". I'd say that's pretty clear. If you stop reading in the middle of a sentence, you're naturally going to get the wrong message. :) – Graham Sep 17 at 23:30
  • I would remark that we really don't know who invented anything, we just know who documented things first, and managed to get those documents preserved up until our times. So much history has been lost... – Mike Wise Sep 18 at 10:09
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It seems to me that other answers describe intentional eternal suffering inflicted by gods instead of the immortality being itself the cause of boredom or unhappiness as asked in the original question. Still, as @duskwuff said, the trope is prehistoric. For the closest and earliest example I can think of, we need to look no further than at the earliest surviving great work of literature - Epic of Gilgamesh.

After losing his friend Enkidu, Gilgamesh was afraid of death. Siduri, the goddess of wisdom told him:

Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man, they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.

In his search for immortality, king Gilgamesh also meets Utnapishtim, his ancestor granted immortality for saving his family and animals from the great flood (predecessor of the Noah flood myth). He also dissuades him from chasing immortality, but eventually points him in the direction of the flower which can make him young again, but Gilgamesh loses it.

In the end, Gilgamesh does not attain immortality, he accepts his mortality and decides to "become immortal" by being a good ruler. One of the morals of the story is therefore to not chase immortality and instead live your mortal life to the fullest.

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    If he never becomes immortal how does this answer the question any better than the other answers? In fact if he doesn't become immortal at all I'd argue it is even less of an answer. – TheLethalCarrot Sep 17 at 8:54
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    @TheLethalCarrot Utnapishtim is immortal, but tells Gilgamesh immortality is reserved for the gods and he should abandon his quest. Of course, we can not say for sure if this means he himself does not want to be immortal anymore. – Peter Pavlík Sep 17 at 8:59
  • @PeterPavlík Exactly. Modern reworkings of Gilgamesh often position his failed quest for immortality as "you wouldn't want to be immortal anyway", but the original just says "immortality isn't meant for you". – Sneftel Sep 17 at 9:42
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    No "great work of literature" is "prehistoric". As soon as litterature exists, so does history (pre-history is pre-writting). – Hoki Sep 18 at 9:33
  • @Hoki while I agree with you, I want to point out that the stories of Gilgamesh - similarly to many mythological tales - began as oral tradition, and were later compiled. To the so called "Epic of Gilgamesh" in this case. So, yeah, literature is not prehistoric by definition. However - apparently - the trope is. And what did the answers say? Did they say that the literature was prehistoric? No! they say "the trope is prehistoric". – Theraot Sep 18 at 11:09
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I would like to get some answers focusing on what the first mention of "healthy non-aging immortals" is, that grow tired of living.

I went looking for tales of eternal youth. There are a few kinds.

Sometimes the eternal youth is imposed by a lover. That would be the case of Endymion. Or also some variants of the tale of Ganymede.

Sometimes there is eternal youth as a result of an attempt to escape. That would be the case of Daphne (after being converted to a tree).

Depending of what version you get, the myth of the Moon Rabbit could fit in one of the categories above.

Some times the youth comes with a condition. For example, the tale of Kumbakarnan, who – if I am reading correctly – had to sleep for half of each year, and if awoke would die. He was awaken for war, and died in battle.

Another example, which comes closer to what we are looking for, is the condition of not leaving a particular land. Such would be the case of Odysseus and Calypso... or could be the case of Osin and the land of youth. These are a bit close to "grow tired of living", in that these characters left their eternal youth because of a desire to return home.

I am, of course, oversimplifying these myths.


Now, not exactly immortality... however, I think the tale of Yao Bikuni fits the bill. She ate the flesh of Ningyo. The Ningyo are human/fish yokai, eating their flesh grants eternal youth. Said yokai can also cause catastrophes, but those are other tales. Yao Bikuni got married, and saw his husband age and die, many times. She eventaully took her life.

From Wikipedia:

The story tells how a fisherman who lived in Wakasa Province once caught an unusual fish. In all his years fishing, he had never seen anything like it, so he invited his friends over to sample its meat.

One of the guests, however, peeked into the kitchen, noticed that the head of this fish had a human face, and warned the others not to eat it. So when the fisherman finished cooking and offered his guests the ningyo's grilled flesh, they secretly wrapped it in paper and hid it on their persons so that it could be discarded on the way home.

But one man, drunk on sake, forgot to throw the strange fish away. This man had a little daughter, who demanded a present when her father arrived home, and he carelessly gave her the fish. Coming to his senses, the father tried to stop her from eating it, fearing she would be poisoned, but he was too late and she finished it all. But as nothing particularly bad seemed to happen to the girl afterwards, the man did not worry about it for long.

Years passed, and the girl grew up and was married. But after that she did not age any more; she kept the same youthful appearance while her husband grew old and died. After many years of perpetual youth and being widowed again and again, the woman became a nun and wandered through various countries. Finally she returned to her hometown in Wakasa, where she ended her life at an age of 800 years.

According to the book "Death and the Afterlife in Japanese Buddhism", the tale of Yao Bikuni appears widely in the Tokugawa period, that would be 1603–1867, the book also claims there was evidence of a real Buddhist nun Yao Bikuni in the year 1449.


Addendum

Going to the Mahabharata, we find Ashwatthama, who was cursed:

(...) thou must have to bear the fruit of these thy sins. For years thou shalt wander over this earth, without a companion and without being able to talk with anyone. Alone and without anybody by thy side, thou shalt wander through diverse countries, O wretch, thou shalt have no place in the midst of men. The stench of pus and blood shall emanate from thee, and inaccessible forests and dreary moors shall be thy abode! Thou shalt wander over the Earth, O thou of sinful soul, with the weight of all diseases on thee.

-- Sauptika Parva, section 16 (source).

For what I have found, there are versions that say that the curse is for 3000 years (which seems to be most common, see), other say that the curse is until the end of the Kali Yuga. And some people claim that Ashwatthama is still alive (there are even reports of seeing him), see Aswathama Exists – Ashwathama Seen By People – Ashwathama Is Alive.

As per dating the Mahabharata, the usual dating is that it from the six century BC or older.


By the way, I would like to mention Revelations 9:6:

In those days men will seek death and will not find it; they will long to die, but death will escape them.

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Petronius' Satyricon is famously quoted by the opening epithet of T.S. Eliot's poem "The Waste Land". The Cumaean Sybil, a prophetess, was blessed by Apollon to live as many years as there are grains in a handful of sand. When she declined his further advances, he did not give her resilience against aging. She finally shrunk to a size where she could be fit in a bottle where she yearned for death.

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In classical literature immortality was either a curse or a blessing as seen from the examples in answers. Basically those born with it (like gods and various creatures) do well but if gifted it was a two-edged sword. The observation that when granted immortality you'll see everybody you know, love or hate eventually die is and was utterly obvious.

Don't overlook the medieval christian character of 'The wandering jew', doomed to walk the earth for eternity. Also the 15th century "La belle dame sans mercy" has a knight doomed to wander by (the personification) Tristesse, and taken away his capacity to feel by Mort; so feeling as a capacity of mortals was a clear concept then.

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There are many interesting answers to this question already, but none of them seem to answer the question exactly.

As @Duskwuff's answer says, there have indeed been stories of regrettable immortality for a very, very long time. However, as @Peter Pavlík points out, most if not all of these tend to be due to the type of immortality in question or a form of curse being tied to it, not the immortality itself.

TV Tropes

TV Tropes, as also referenced by @Duskwuff, lists the concept of undesired immortality as Who Wants to Live Forever?.

According to the examples from that page, the oldest example of ending an eternal existence being something to strive for probably comes from Buddhism. Since there it is due to life inherently being a form of pain and the only immortality involved is through reincarnation and actually the natural state of all life, this does not exactly fit yet.

Literature

The oldest example from the "Literature" section appears to be The Tale of Norna Gest, estimated 1300 AD.

When he was recently born, his father had invited three seeresses, or norns, to foretell the child’s future. Two of the norns made good prophecies, but the last one was in a bad mood and when some rude guests enraged her, she cursed Gest to live no longer than the candle that burned beside his cradle. So the other norns extinguished the candle and told Gest’s parents to keep it, and Gest gained immortality — he cannot die before the candle is used up.

On the wish of King Olaf, Norna-Gest agrees to be baptized. After a time, King Olaf asks him how long he plans to live. Norna-Gest says that he wants to die, being three hundred years old. In the presence of King Olaf, he lays down on a bed and lights the candle. A priest gives him the last rites. When the candle burns out, he dies.

This story at least involves a human being attaining immortality though unnatural means deciding to end his life voluntarily.

This seems to be by far the oldest example of a story like this.

The next oldest story I could find from TV Tropes is The Ring of Thoth by Arthur Conan Doyle, first published in 1890.

Mr. John Vansittart Smith is a student of Egyptology who travels to France to see some papyri in the Louvre Museum. Tired from his visit, he sits in a corner of the museum and dozed. When he wakes up, the museum is closed and he is locked inside. Trying to get out he meets a strange man who seems to perform a ritual on a mummy. The curious man tells his story: His name is Sosra and he was born 3500 years ago in Egypt. He was a priest of the god Osiris and discovered a remedy against death. He used it and shared it with his assistant, Parma. He wanted then to administer this elixir to his fiancee, Atma, but she died just before. He went desperate because he couldn't join her in the afterlife. So he wanted to become mortal again. Parma reported him that he had found an antidote but he had decided to use it for himself so he can die and meet Atma beyond. Sosra realized that the antidote was in the ring of Thott but Parma had hidden it and he took his secret to the grave. 3500 years later the mummy of Atma is found by French archaeologists and repatriated to the Louvre. Sosra succeed to be hired in the museum, found the Atma sarcophagus and got the ring containing the precious elixir. At the end of his incredible story Sosra accompanies Vansittart to the exit. Two days later he learns in the newspapers that a man was found dead in the museum entwined in the arms of a mummy.

Most if not all other examples from literature seem to be newer than at least the 1920s.

Since death and the desire to avoid it are, and have always been, a fairly important part of human existence, the actual origin of this trope may be lost to time or not exist at all.

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This question asks about the origin and the oldest example (two questions). It also asks specifically for tales where immortality is itself the curse, not some torment or suffering for eternity such as Tithanos or Struldbrugss. I will try to answer both with best known dates:


The trope of unaged immortality is a simple extension of moral lessons against gluttony by fulfilling greedy desires in excess. Essentially, "If you like X so much, have all you want and see what happens!"

The first known literary works telling of a mortal actually cursed with eternal health and undying are many variations of The Wild Huntsman from Rhineland folklore. The most famous of these is Sir Walter Scott's The Wilde Huntsman published in 1796, which itself is an imitation of the German folk tale by Gottfried August Bürger.

"Oppressor of creation fair!
Apostate spirits’ hardened tool! Scorner of God! Scourge of the poor!
The measure of thy cup is full.

"Be chased for ever through the wood,
For ever roam the affrighted wild; And let thy fate instruct the proud,
God's meanest creature is His child

  • Sir Walter Scott

Many derivative works of the Huntsman immortality curse exist, most notably Heinrich Heine's Flying Dutchman published in his 1833 satirical memoire entitled Aus den Memoiren des Herrn von Schnabelewopski. Heine's work in turn inspired the opera of the same name by Wilhelm Richard Wagner composed in 1843.

The many various wild huntsman stories themselves date back before written records and have always had an undying huntsman, originally known to be Herne The Hunter (a ghost), the old High German Wuotan, or the Norse god Odin. These have passed through oral folklore since ancient times, however they have always cast the Huntsman as a spirit or a god.

Christian influences seem to have adapted the story turning the Huntsman into Bürger's idea of an obsessed civic annoyance cursed with undying for gleefully murdering wildlife, trampling crops under hoof, raising a ruckus, and defying God's own command. The inspiration for Bürger's adaptation has not been recorded however there is precedent which precedes Judaism.

The origin was very possibly the well-known story of Gilgamesh's obsessive and ill-advised quest for immortality. The theme of that story is that he was fortunate not to achieve it, so a simply literary extension allows a good storyteller to simply grant the greedy Gilgamesh his wishes and account the consequences. While many versions of this story have been found, a history and synopsis of one unfinished version which could have ended with an immortal and young Gilgamesh follows:

The Babylonian Sippar tablet is one of the oldest works of written literature, dating to between 888-850 BC during the reign of Nabu-apla-iddina. It is one of many tablets recovered documenting Gilgamesh who was obsessed with achieving immortality out of fear from the death of his friend Enkidu. This tablet in particular tells of his dismay over several failed attempts. He then consults the god Shamash who quarrels and tells him the quest is futile, and the alewife Siduri who urges Gilgamesh to be content with the simple pleasures of life. Shamash does feel pity and tells Gilgamesh he should pursue youth instead of immortality, giving instructions on how to find the rejuvenating box-thorn plant. Gilgamesh found the plant but it was stolen before he could test it.

While this tablet is incomplete, the message is clearly warning against the futility and uselessness of immortality and the quest for it.

Likewise, in another tablet Gilgamesh finally reaches Utnapishtim, the only immortal, to ask how he achieved it. The response is similar:

"There is no permanence. Do we build a house to stand forever, do we seal a contract to hold for all time?…. When the Anunnaki, the judges, come together, and Mammetun the mother of destinies, together they decree the fates of men. Life and death they allot but the day of death they do not disclose."

It is not known how or if this story reached 18th century German authors however it serves as an origin for the impropriety of immortality and eternal youth. Unfinished legends and myths are strong sources for writer inspiration. It seems reasonable that at some time a writer chose to grant Gilgamesh his wish and account the consequences. "What if Gilgamesh found immortality?" The narrative is clear that his eternal life would logically follow unfavorable paths.

Happyaku Bikuni (After 552 AD) A Japanese folk tale about a buddhist nun who was inadvertently fed meat from a mermaid gained eternal youth and was saddened as her family eventually all died. This has been carried along orally with no known origin. Buddhism reached Japan in 552 AD, the tale is at most that old. The mythical Ningyo (mermaid) itself which she ate is traditionally said to be a goddess who if you capture her and bite her flesh you will have eternal youth and beauty. Other ageless unwritten stories about women who have succeeded in this pursuit could also have inspired this trope in visitors to Asia.


Other Notable Immortals in Literature

  • Appolonius of Rhodes wrote a poem about Endymion (c. 250 BC) who was blessed with eternal youth by Zeus however he was also in eternal sleep.

  • Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726). Gulliver's finds the island of Luggnagg, where the Struldbruggs -- bodies continue functioning forever, but also age.

  • Nornagestr (Norna Gest) - 14th century - Could not die before a candle was burnt out, yet he still became "stricken with years." Converted to Christianity, lit the candle, and died.

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