Herodotus and The Fountain of Youth

The Fountain of Youth, From mural at Manta Castle near Saluzzo, Italy

Herodotus introduced the concept of a mythological water source with the power of granting eternal youth

The Fountain of Youth is a mythical spring that is supposed to have the power of prolonging or restoring the youth of those who drink from or bathe in it.

Myths of such a fountain are to be found in various cultures, particularly throughout the Middle East. The first recorded mention of it is from the ancient Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484-435 BCE), who recounted a claim that there was such a fountain in Ethiopia. In the Middle Ages, stories about the Fountain of Youth circulated in the Islamic world and then spread to such European works as The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (c. 1356).

The Fountain of Youth, 1546 painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder

In the sixteenth century, the Spanish historian Peter Martyr d’Anghiera, who wrote early accounts of the European exploration of the New World, reported a native story of a miraculous fountain on an island in the Gulf of Honduras, an inlet of the Caribbean Sea. While the explorer Juan Ponce de Leon was indeed given a charter to discover and settle a legendary island (Beniny or Beimeni), the popular idea that he sought the Fountain of Youth there seems to have been invented by the sixteenth-century historian Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo, who maliciously added that Ponce de Leon hoped to cure his impotence.

However, the story about his search for the Fountain persists as a historical myth. Marcel Proust said in [[Remembrance of Things Past|Proust[Remembrance of Things Past, “The only bath in the Fountain of Youth would be … to possess other eyes.”

Few people take the story of the Fountain of Youth seriously today, but it remains a popular theme in literature and the arts (such as Darren Aronofsky’s film The Fountain, 2006).

It is also inevitable as a metaphor in discussing the modern concerns of prolonging lifespan and reducing the effects of aging.

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