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Friday, 16 November 2012

Old Age 4500 Years Ago

”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


Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post

Comments

Very interesting. I think longevity is a Divine blessing too. But I have a magnet saying..."The meaner you are, the longer God lets you live."
lol

One of those comments proved telling: "in an unchanging world." I was thinking about that the other day, as I asked my 11-year-old granddaughter to help me with a new app on my smart phone. In an unchanging world, she would have been coming to me for help with the things she would need to know in adulthood. Now I go to her. I'm not complaining. It's fun interacting with my grandchildren in this manner, but they already inevitably see me as the inept one, not the great learned one that I truly am! LOL.

"...they exercised real power as patriarchs and counsellors." Interesting in light of our political parties' current quest for youth.

I do enjoy hearing these bits as you find them.

I think it also important to know a past society's definition of old age.

In recorded history very, very few people lived into their 80s. Life was too hard. In the US in 1900 the average life expectancy was 49 years! A 60 year old was OLD and respected for having cheated death as much as anything.

W1th 10,000 people turning 65 every day in the US alone, being old is no longer a novelty.

"in a world where writing was a rarity..." elders were respected. Could it be that the dawn of the alphabet and literacy caused, among other casualties, disdain for elders? “Old men and women, whom the art and literature of later ages took pleasure in ridiculing, were treated worthily here..." in pre-Hellenic times. In his book, The Alphabet vs. The Godess: The Conflict Between Word and Image, the author, Dr. Leonard Shlain, posits that the literacy-generated dominance of the left brain over right brain led to the demise of the goddess in favor of a male god. This is a link to a talk he gave http://www.bodhitree.com/lectures/Shlain.html *
It's a fascinating theory and mentions Spartan culture (illiterate, women with status) vs Athenian (literate, women restricted) which might also tie in to the condition of elders at the time in the two cultures. [*preview shows url truncated. Hope not]

There is only one thing I find consistent about old age and that is the fact that the body wears out. Some bodies wear out sooner rather then later, but eventually the eyes dim, the hearing lessens, the limbs grow weak and usually ache.

Nature has a way of making us less useful and I think it's the natural slow decline toward the inevitable end. We must make space for the newborn.

Does that sound maudlin? I don't mean it to be. I just think it's a pragmatic reality.

Keep it coming!

Your work is never skimpy or uninteresting!

Fascinating! I agree with Bev Carney (and others) above.

The comment about written language is very interesting in this context. Was that the point when the young had new knowledge and ridiculed their elders for not possessing that knowledge? Similar to the situation of today with technology, knowledge is power and those without it lose the respect of those who do. I am also curious about the definition of elderly in the time of Ptah Hotep. I recently realized that in the not-so-distant past, I would, at what I consider to be still young, have been quite elderly. I would be lame, blind and likely banished without the assistance of today's medical knowledge for seizures, cataracts and osteoarthritis.

According to the Torah - man's life is calculated at three score years and ten and everyday after that is a blessing up to 120. Go figure. That would sure give me time to clean out my house..

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