the curse of immortality
December 5, 2005 1:22 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for the origination of the "immortality as a curse" archetype.

I've checked around, but am mostly finding things about eternal life in hell or eternal life in heaven. The wikipedia article on immortality was helpful, but mostly talked about fictional characters.
So what is the basis for this archetype? Who was the first person condemned to live an eternal life on earth and saw it as a punishment?
posted by cyphill to Writing & Language (20 answers total)
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:28 PM on December 5, 2005

Response by poster: by fictional characters above I mean recent fictional characters. Whoops.
posted by cyphill at 1:28 PM on December 5, 2005

Darn. Beaten to Tithonus because I went to get part of the Tennyson poem:

I ask'd thee, "Give me immortality."
Then didst thou grant mine asking with a smile,
Like wealthy men who care not how they give.
But thy strong Hours indignant work'd their wills,
And beat me down and marr'd and wasted me,
And tho' they could not end me, left me maim'd
To dwell in presence of immortal youth,
Immortal age beside immortal youth,
And all I was in ashes. Can thy love
Thy beauty, make amends, tho' even now,
Close over us, the silver star, thy guide,
Shines in those tremulous eyes that fill with tears
To hear me? Let me go: take back thy gift:
Why should a man desire in any way
To vary from the kindly race of men,
Or pass beyond the goal of ordinance
Where all should pause, as is most meet for all?
posted by vacapinta at 1:30 PM on December 5, 2005

The Wandering Jew?
posted by Tenuki at 1:30 PM on December 5, 2005

There are some legends about Cain (Adam and Eve's son) being condemned to walk the Earth until the second coming.
posted by leapingsheep at 1:36 PM on December 5, 2005

what about the punishments in hades, Sisyphus, Prometheus.. so forth. An element of immortality coupled with never ending punishment
posted by edgeways at 1:57 PM on December 5, 2005

Mary Shelley's "Mortal Immortal" isn't the origination of the idea but has had some effect on later stories.
posted by dagnyscott at 2:04 PM on December 5, 2005

This question got me looking around. I highly recommend scanning through this list. I know I'm engrossed.
posted by vacapinta at 2:08 PM on December 5, 2005

I'm pretty sure there was an Incredible Hulk storyline where he got stuck as the Hulk and everyone died and he's invulnerable so he just sits there forever or something.

I never read it, so I could be wrong.
posted by aubilenon at 2:10 PM on December 5, 2005

Here's a summary of the Hulk story that aubilenon mentions.
posted by flipper at 2:16 PM on December 5, 2005

T.S. Eliot fans may cite the Sibyl of Cumae (her death wish is the epigraph for the Waste Land); it's the earliest example I know of. Check this out for more details. I might try looking for still earlier examples in Greek mythology, though.
posted by kimota at 2:16 PM on December 5, 2005

It's definitely Sisyphus... his story captures this notion quite perfectly. In a way, a lot of Greek mythology raises the question of whether immortality would be a good thing for us crazy humans.

There are also Asian myths, I believe, that talk of people condemned to an eternity of lonelieness and wandering the earth. Too lazy to track 'em down, sorry.
posted by nixerman at 2:18 PM on December 5, 2005


Nicholas Was...

...older than sin, and his beard could grow no whiter. He wanted to die.

The dwarfish natives of the Arctic caverns did not speak his language, but conversed in their own, twittering tongue, conducted incomprehensible rituals, when they were not actually working in the factories.

Once every year they forced him, sobbing and protesting, into Endless Night. During the journey he would stand near every child in the world, leave one of the dwarves' invisible gifts by its bedside. The children slept, frozen into time.

He envied Prometheus and Loki, Sisyphus and Judas. His punishment was harsher.




- Neil Gaiman, Smoke and Mirrors

posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:10 PM on December 5, 2005

Amazon has a book called A History of Ideas About the Prolongation of Life that you can Search Inside. It looks pretty good, from what I could tell by browsing.

It suggests Juvenal, Jonathan Swift, and Aldous Huxley as writers who dealt with immortality’s burdens. (Huxley’s book After Many a Summer takes its title from Tennyson’s poem “Tithonus.”)

And if you don’t mind a gratuitous link, try Greg Egan’s 9,000-word short story “Border Guards”. If you have encountered Egan before, you may be prepared for how profoundly his stories can blow your mind; if you have not, you are in for a mental treat.
posted by cgc373 at 3:41 PM on December 5, 2005

I remember reading a Greek myth/fable in which a mortal man married an immortal and was made immortal himself, though he continued to age until he shriveled up and became the very first grasshopper.
posted by Sara Anne at 4:08 PM on December 5, 2005

Utnapishtim in the epic of Gilgamesh? He doesn't spend much time lamenting (after all, he isn't the hero) but the gods gave him immortality and yet not eternal youth.

The idea might well be older, but we have no way of knowing inasmuch as the Sumerians invented writing.
posted by ilsa at 4:56 PM on December 5, 2005

In Gulliver's Travels, Swift writes of the Struldbrugs, who have immortal life but not immortal youth. They get more and more decrepit, forever.
posted by KRS at 5:46 PM on December 5, 2005

Another nod towards Prometheus. Heck, all he did was give mortals fire and what did he get for it? Being tied to a rock and having his liver eaten every day. Some days it doesn't pay to be a nice guy.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 7:47 PM on December 5, 2005

OK, maybe it's not literature, but there's a bit in the film Van Helsing that gave me shivers.

Dracula is musing on how he no longer feels anything. No fear. No joy. No pain. "I am hollow," he says. "And I will live forever."
posted by SPrintF at 8:03 PM on December 5, 2005

The Portrait of Dorian Gray seems to address such a quandry, and is a short read to boot.
posted by vanoakenfold at 9:55 AM on December 6, 2005

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