Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.
Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 61: What myth of eternal youth in Africa inspired Europeans for centuries?
Whenever he encountered a counterintuitive fact, my mother’s brother, my Uncle Ed, was fond of saying, “That’s another one of those things that ‘they’ just don’t tell us,” as if key bits of information about the order of things were systematically being withheld from black people. At the top of my own list of things we weren’t told in school is the fact that the legendary Fountain of Youth was not only thought for centuries to be located in Ethiopia, but that the man who had discovered it and ruled over it was a black man.
European artists even painted portraits of him and sometimes decorated their maps of Africa with his image. European kings, popes and explorers from Marco Polo to Ponce de León knew of him and his magical realm. That’s right: When de León and his Spanish compatriots were wandering around the swamps of Florida, trying not to be eaten by alligators, it was a black man and his mythical fountain for which they were likely searching. In fact, one way to think of the conquest of the oceans and the eventual navigation around the Cape of Good Hope in the late 15th century was that it was motivated, among other things, by the desperate search to find this black patriarch and tap into his wealth and military might. The goal wasn’t only to help liberate the Holy Land, but also to experience this king’s secrets of immortality.
Whatever his true name might have been, he was known throughout Europe as “Prester John,” the formidable priest-king of ancient Ethiopia.
The Fountain of Youth in Ethiopia
While most of us associate the fountain of perpetual youth with the New World, especially Florida, that has only been the case for the last 500 years. For a much longer stretch of history, actually, dating all the way back to the fifth century B.C., its home was believed to be in Ethiopia. Back then, the First Persian Empire touched three continents, but Ethiopia resisted invasion. In his voluminous History of the Greco-Persian War, the first grand historical narrative (440 B.C.E.), Herodotus recounted how the king of Ethiopia, protective of his lands, scoffed at the average life span of a Persian—80—while “most” of his people, “the long-lived Ethiopians … lived to be a hundred and twenty years old, while some even went beyond that age.”
At first, Herodotus writes, the king attributed this feat to the Ethiopian diet, “boiled flesh” and “milk,” but when his visitors “showed wonder at the number of the years, he led them to a fountain, wherein when they had washed, they found their flesh all glossy and sleek, as if they had bathed in oil—and a scent came from the spring like that of violets. The water was so weak, they said, that nothing would float in it, neither wood, nor any lighter substance, but all went to the bottom. If the account of this fountain be true, it would be their constant use of the water from it which makes them so long-lived.”
In 1001 Ideas That Changed the Way We Think, Robert Arp suggests this was “[t]he first recorded mention” of the Fountain of Youth in history. There had to be a reason Ethiopians appeared to live longer, and in Herodotus’ account, that reason was what Italian author Umberto Eco describes in his latest work, The Book of Legendary Lands, as “the underground spring of Ethiopia” (though Eco is quick to point out the near universality of fountain imagery in world culture, from variations on the Garden of Eden and the Romance of Alexander to the ancient myths of the Far and Middle East). In the Judeo-Christian context, man’s obsession with defying what seemed to be his inevitable fate—aging and death—sprang from his banishment from the original “earthly paradise.” Another lesson from the Bible—Psalms, 68:31, to be specific—was the prophecy: “Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.”