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In the spirit of this question:

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

...but ruling out the immortals who continue to age and get more and more decrepit (e.g., Tithonus), which obviously sucks. Similarly, ruling out Sisyphus and others being eternally tormented although being healthy. What's the earliest example of an ever-healthy immortal who's unhappy about it? The "doomed to walk this Earth for all eternity" thing.

For instance, Mr. Flint of ST:OS's Requiem for Methuselah was immortal (until he left Earth) and tired of humanity and losing loved ones. Or (of course) the Highlander(s) from the Highlander films and TV series ("who wants to live forever...when love must die"). (Although Duncan didn't seem too sad in general, just when someone specific died. Connor always seemed more emo to me.)

Surely this "it gets really lonely" and/or "humanity gets tiresome" and/or other cause of being unhappy about being immortal must predate ST:OS by at least decades if not centuries...

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    What about immortals who are being punished, as in the ancient myths of Sisyphus and Prometheus, or the modern story where a guy has been sentenced to life imprisonment and over the centuries his repeated attempts at suicide are thrwarted by bringing him back to life with advanced technology? Do they count? Or do you just want stories of people who find that everlasting life, even at its best, is not all it's cracked up to be? I believe Clifford Simak wrote a story on that theme. – user14111 Sep 16 at 9:54
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    I suppose the legend of the wandering Jew (many versions including some stfnal ones about The Wandering Jew in Space) would be the sort of thing you're looking for. – user14111 Sep 16 at 9:57
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    The same TV Tropes entry as the other question will give you the answer. – OrangeDog Sep 16 at 10:30
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    @NKCampbell - Answers to that one won't answer this one, so...to me that's different. – T.J. Crowder Sep 16 at 15:15
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    I was actually quite happy to see this followup, since the other question included so many people who are not what we normally think of when we say "immortal"--i.e. that you still age. That's a specific trope, with a Literal Genie misinterpreting what the newly immortal actually wanted. Of course they won't be happy with a perverted wish. – trlkly Sep 16 at 17:25
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The legend of the Wandering Jew (who insulted or otherwise disrespected Jesus and was punished by being made to await the Second Coming) covers an unaging, unharmed individual granted immortality, but regretting it. The legend began as an oral tradition, and as such you can find many different versions of it, but one example is an excerpt from a 13th century story:

[The Wandering Jew] is a man of holy conversation and religious, a man of few words and circumspect in his behaviour, for he does not speak at all unless when questioned by the bishops and religious men; and then he tells of the events of old times, and of the events which occurred at the suffering and resurrection of our Lord, and of the witnesses of the resurrection, namely those who rose with Christ, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto men; he also tells of the creed of the apostles, and of their separation and preaching; and all this he relates without smiling or levity of conversation, as one who is well practised in sorrow and the fear of God, always looking forward with fear to the coming of Jesus Christ, lest at the last judgment he should find him in anger, whom, when on his way to death, he had provoked to just vengeance.

Numbers come to him from different parts of the world, enjoying his society and conversation, and to them, if they are men of authority, he explains all doubts on the matters on which he is questioned. He refuses all gifts that are offered to him, being content with slight food and clothing.

He places his hope of salvation on the fact that he sinned through ignorance, for the Lord when suffering prayed for his enemies in these words, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

The sadness is not specifically linked to the immortality, but rather the potential punishments that await him eventually, but it is an early example of the sad, but physically and mentally unharmed, immortal.

The legend overlaps that of the legend of Cain (never explicitly granted immortality in the Torah, but often interpreted or retold to include that as part of the punishment), making the roots of the legend potentially much older.

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    Of course it is worth noting that this is a religious work and not SFF-nal. – TheLethalCarrot Sep 16 at 20:12
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    @TheLethalCarrot: True, though the question is asking for the earliest example that might have inspired the modern trope, not the earliest SFF example. I wouldn't even call it a religious work; it falls more into the realm of folk tales than anything else (since it has no direct basis in scripture to my knowledge, nor were the original stories propagated by religious authorities). – ShadowRanger Sep 16 at 20:22
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    Oh sure, just we have a policy that religious works aren’t SFF-nal so I like making it explicit where possible. – TheLethalCarrot Sep 16 at 20:29
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    Interestingly, Jewish folklore has similar stories about Elijah, who teaches humility and other morals, will answer all unresolved religious questions one day, and has few material possessions, among other similarities. However, his legend/immortality is not based on a curse, and there's no stories I'm aware of where he's sad about his status, so this just is more of an interesting comparison to the Wandering Jew legend than a variant on this answer. – Bobson Sep 17 at 23:06
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+50

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.

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    "We will likely never know if Gilgamesh achieved his goals" It seems fairly clear from what survives that Gilgamesh dies. Whatever other goals he may have accomplished, he didn't achieve immortality in the flesh. Utnapishtim does seem a relevant example though, since he himself is immortal, but discourages Gilgamesh from seeking immortality for himself, which if nothing else indicates that immortality may be an inferior outcome relative to other options in some way. – ShadowRanger Sep 17 at 0:19
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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.


Answer copied over, as requested by bounty owner.

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Looking for examples from modern literature, there are several early examples in various grades.

Lord Byron's 1817 dramatic poem Manfred is not a novel, and Byron doesn't give us a lot of details, but we learn that the title character has made himself immortal through his researches:

And then I dived,

In my lone wanderings, to the caves of death,

Searching its cause in its effect; and drew

From wither'd bones, and skulls, and heap'd up dust,

Conclusions most forbidden. Then I pass'd

The nights of years in sciences untaught,

Save in the old-time; and with time and toil,

And terrible ordeal, and such penance

As in itself hath power upon the air,

And spirits that do compass air and earth,

Space, and the peopled infinite, I made

Mine eyes familiar with Eternity,...

...-- and with my knowledge grew

The thirst of knowledge, and the power and joy

Of this most bright intelligence, until --

This destroys the love of his life, a woman named Astarte

MANFRED: Her faults were mine -- her virtues were her own--

I loved her, and destroy'd her!

WITCH: With thy hand?

MANFRED: Not with my hand, but heart -- which broke her heart --

It gazed on mine, and withered. I have shed

Blood, but not hers -- and yet her blood was shed --

I saw -- and could not staunch it.

And because of this, his immortality is a torture:

MANFRED: We are the fools of time and terror. Days

Steal on us and steal from us; yet we live

Loathing our life, and dreading still to die.

Manfred still appears young:

ABBOT: Alas! I 'gin to fear that thou art past all aid

From me and from my calling, yet so young...

In the end, Manfred finds a way to end his life. We aren't told much about the method, except:

MANFRED: Say, Are all things so disposed of in the tower As I directed?

HERMAN: All, my lord, are ready; Here is the key and casket.

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