Posts Tagged ‘lifespan’

I have a practical reason for asking what it would be like to live for hundreds of years: I’m facing the problem of portraying fictional characters in the ancient pre-flood world described in the Bible. What would it be like to live for three hundred, six hundred, eight hundred years? How should I write characters of such long ages in a work of fiction?

The Sumerian King-List. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Sumerian King-List as inscribed on the Weld-Blundell Prism. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Part 1 of my novel The Cursed Ground is scheduled for release on Jan. 20, 2015, and further episodes are in development and should be following rapidly after that. The main characters in the story are younger, in their twenties through fifties. But some minor characters are much older, so I’ve already been confronting the challenge a bit.

Since I was already grappling with this question, I was intrigued by a recent article pointing to extra-biblical references to long age-spans among ancient humans. Tara MacIsaac, writing for Epoch Times (see “Did Ancient People Really Have Lifespans Longer Than 200 Years?“) brings together accounts from a variety of cultures describing such lifespans.

The long lifespans of humans before the Great Deluge are well-known in Western civilization and among those familiar with the Bible. Look up Genesis chapter 5, and you’ll read that the first human, Adam, lived to be 930 years, his son Seth 912 years, Enosh 905 years, and so on. According to Gen. 7: 6, “Noah was 600 years old when the floodwaters came upon the earth.” Even after the Deluge, the long lifespans continued, Abraham living to 175 years, according to Gen. 25:7,8. Some have suggested that the human lifespan decreased after the Flood because of changed atmospheric conditions or the lack of some key nutrients on the earth. Another explanation is that the length of a human life declined as the race got further away from the original perfection of Adam.

However, as MacIsaac points out, the Bible account is not the only source that cites longer lifetimes among ancient humans. Another well-known source she cites is the Sumerian King-List, an ancient Bronze-Age manuscript in the Sumerian language found in various sources. The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (ETCSL) provides the following translation:

1-39. After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridug. In Eridug, Alulim became king; he ruled for 28800 years. Alalĝar ruled for 36000 years. 2 kings; they ruled for 64800 years. Then Eridug fell and the kingship was taken to Bad-tibira. In Bad-tibira, En-men-lu-ana ruled for 43200 years. En-men-gal-ana ruled for 28800 years. Dumuzid, the shepherd, ruled for 36000 years. 3 kings; they ruled for 108000 years. Then Bad-tibira fell (?) and the kingship was taken to Larag. In Larag, En-sipad-zid-ana ruled for 28800 years. 1 king; he ruled for 28800 years. Then Larag fell (?) and the kingship was taken to Zimbir. In Zimbir, En-men-dur-ana became king; he ruled for 21000 years. 1 king; he ruled for 21000 years. Then Zimbir fell (?) and the kingship was taken to Šuruppag. In Šuruppag, Ubara-Tutu became king; he ruled for 18600 years. 1 king; he ruled for 18600 years. In 5 cities 8 kings; they ruled for 241200 years. Then the flood swept over.
40-94. After the flood had swept over, and the kingship had descended from heaven, the kingship was in Kiš.

As you can see, the King-List claims some immense time periods for the reigns of those ancient kings, tens of thousands of years. Most researchers think those kings are fictional or mythical — or if real, that their reigns are exaggerated. MacIsaac says some scholars have suggested that a mathematical process might have been used to generate those long time periods — squares or multiples of 60, for example.

My Ancient History professor once compared the long ages in the pre-flood Sumerian King-List with those in the Bible, concluding, “See? It’s the same thing!” I found myself thinking, Well, no it’s not really the same thing to say that someone lived 930 years and to say that someone else lived for longer than 28,800 years. That’s a difference of two orders of magnitude. However, that professor was a big guy and pretty mean-looking, and the way he conducted his class you weren’t encouraged to even comment or ask a question, much less challenge his assertions.

MacIsaac mentions other sources that ascribe long ages to ancient peoples. Even after the Deluge, the Sumerian King-List attributes long ages to monarchs, although the reigns are much shorter, most in the hundreds of years. The Shahnameh, a Persian epic, MacIsaac writes, “tells of kings reigning 1,000 years, several hundred years, down to 150 years, and so on.” She also quotes a book by a Chinese medical scholar writing about longevity:

According to Chinese medical records, a doctor named Cuie Wenze of the Qin dynasty lived to be 300 years old. Gee Yule of the later Han dynasty lived to be 280 years old. A high ranking Taoist master monk, Hui Zhao, lived to be 290 years old and Lo Zichange lived to be 180 years old. As recorded in the The Chinese Encyclopedia of Materia Medica, He Nengci of the Tang dynasty lived to be 168 years old. A Taoist master, Li Qingyuan, lived to be 250 years old. In modern times, a traditional Chinese medicine doctor, Lo Mingshan of Sichuan province, lived to be 124 years old.

But what about creating fictional characters hundreds of years old? One thing I can imagine is that, if you could live the equivalent of ten or twenty of today’s lifetimes — and still have good health and a sound mind — you could attain a much greater fund of knowledge and skill. So I am planning on developing characters who have become experts in multiple domains. Perhaps you can imagine a single long-lived person mastering such diverse skills as farming, homebuilding, boatbuilding, sailing, writing, music, visual arts, and handcrafts.

Another option would be to create characters who have stuck with one single domain but who have mastered it beyond anything we could imagine today. This makes me think of Cain’s descendants, who became famous for founding complex lifestyles, musical genres, and metallurgical technologies (see Gen. 4:17-24).

Jeanne Louise Calment (1875-1997), who lived to 122 years, the longest lifespan confirmed in modern times. Shown here at age 20. Source: Wikipedia.

Jeanne Louise Calment (1875-1997), who lived to 122 years, the longest lifespan confirmed in modern times. Shown here at age 20. Source: Wikipedia.

But what about less material aspects of someone’s life? If we lived for hundreds of years, how would our character and personality develop? We think of ourselves as mature at the age of forty or fifty, but in reality we are children in comparison with someone five hundred years old. I imagine that great age would be no guarantee of one’s becoming a better person, though. A long lifespan might allow more opportunity to increase in hatefulness or violence. I’m dealing with this theme a little in Part 2 of The Cursed Ground, which I am calling “Children of the Keeper,” and which focuses on the descendants of Cain.

What are your thoughts? What kinds of things might people of ancient times have been able to accomplish during their long lifetimes? Or what mischief might have they gotten up to? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

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ARK — 22 December 2014





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