The fountain of youth, as it existed in ancient Greek lore, was first suggested by the historian Herodotus, who is believed to have lived from around 484 to 425 B.C., when he spoke of the longevity, physical prowess and general youthfulness of a group he called the Macrobians. The Macrobians were a people that thrived during the first millennium B.C. in an area believed to be modern day Somalia, though the exact location is the subject of debate.
Origin of the Myth
The phrase "fountain of youth" came much later. The idea of the fountain, as it permeates most cultures today, is one of a spring whose waters reverse aging and cure ailments, and that sustains the luxuries of youth. This version stems from stories of Ponce de Leon's journey to the new world. Most accounts deem the fountain to have been Leon's goal. The first reference, in relation to Ponce de Leon's journey, came from the works of Peter Martyr. He wrote, in his text "Decades de Orbe Nova," of an island called Boinca, where there was a "spring whose waters restore youth to old men."
Deciphering the Macrobians
Herodotus attributes no magical qualities to a fountain of youth and paints no portrait like the one of modern fantasy. He suggests, rather, that given their strength and longevity, the Macrobians likely reaped some unique nutrition from their waters. Some theorize that the Macrobians may have been a warrior caste of Egypt, but few sources speak with resounding certainty on anything about the Macrobians.
The Chronicler Who Started It
Herodotus, predominantly a war historian, traveled much of the world as a young man and accrued through his career a reputation as the "father of history" in ancient Greece. Revered as much for his insights and breadth of knowledge as he was for his writing, his work has enjoyed high regard throughout history, albeit for different reasons. His credibility as a historian is, by modern standards, considered abysmal. His approach to history has been deemed romantic and naive, and he has even been accused of laziness in his assessment of certain cultures, such as the Macrobians. The quality of his writing, however, is no less revered. However true or false his historical accounts, Herodotus's bibliography is read as a study of the preeminent views of history during his time.
The Myth Continues
The historian Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo, one of the earliest to elaborate on the fountain of youth myth shortly after Martyr, suggested, in his "Historia General" in 1535 that Ponce de Leon sought the fountain of youth to cure his impotence. Historian Douglas T. Peck refers to Oviedo's assessment as "unfounded, unsubstantiated [and] untrue" but attributes to it the persistence of the myth. He speaks of how the myth of the fountain of youth, wherever it comes up, tends to address sexual anxieties. The people who pursue it long for virility, fertility or the physical allure lost with age.
- New World Explorers: Misconceptions and Myths Related to the Fountain of Youth
- Fordham University: Ancient History Sourcebook -- Herodotus
- The Geography of Herodotus; James Talboys Wheeler
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