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Old Age 4500 Years Ago

Posted Nov 16 2012 8:30am
”O sovreign my Lord! Oldness has come; old age has descended. Feebleness has arrived; dotage is here anew.

“The heart sleeps wearily every day. The eyes are weak, the ears are deaf, the strength is disappearing because of weariness of heart, and the mouth is silent and cannot speak.

“The heart is forgetful and cannot recall yesterday. The bone suffers old age. God is become evil. All taste is gone. What old age does to men is evil in every respect.”

Those are the words of Ptah Hotep, a scribe in the court of Pharoah Izezi who ruled during Egypt's fifth dynasty, about 2450 B.C. His is the earliest known personal writing about old age and is quoted in George Minois's important 1987 book, History of Old Age.

As I have mentioned in a couple of past posts, I am researching the history of old age and although I'm not ready to state so unequivocably (I have lots more work to do), the high point of respect for elders appears to have existed in the cultures of the Fertile Crescent long before even the Hellenistic period.

Long life in Ptah Hotep's day was a divine reward for the just and even though he laments his physical decay, explains Minois, he fervently wishes old age for his son:

”May you live as long as me. What I have done on the earth is negligible. The king has granted me a hundred and ten years of life and preeminent favour among ancients, because I have served the king well until death.”

Fifth century B.C. Historian, Herodotus, admired the veneration of elders in ancient societies and judged it worthy of mention

”...because it contrasted with the current Hellenic practice of his age, when, as we will see,” Minois tells us, “only the Spartans seemed to respect old age.

“Herodotus also observed that old Egyptians were not abandoned, since their daughters were obliged by custom to look after them: 'Sons are under no compulsion to support their parents if they do not wish to do so, but daughters must, whether they wish to or not.'”

Minois is careful to note that the rarity of texts about old people from the ancient world make it difficult to know their exact condition. But he is comfortable saying,

”...the pre-Hellenic world, if it was already fully aware of the fundamental ambiguity of old age, granted the old an honorable place, which they would find only exceptionally in the centuries to come.

“The absence of satires directed against the old is significant,” continues Minois. “Old men and women, whom the art and literature of later ages took pleasure in ridiculing, were treated worthily here...

“[I]n a world where writing was a rarity, they were living archives and represented the law. In an unchanging universe their experience was never outdated and always useful...

“In spite of the physical sufferings brought on by old age, they were not wrong to consider their longevity as a divine blessing,” says Minois. “Listened to and held in honor, they exercised real power as patriarchs and counsellors.”

It will take a long time before I finish researching, noting and making sense of all the information I am collecting but now and again, I find something that I would like to tell you.

Most of it is bare bones at this point and, like this today, lacking context. So if you find that to be too skimpy and uninteresting, let me know and I'll wait until it can be more complete.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Marc Leavitt: The Great September Gale

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