|Tithonus and Eos by Francesco de Mura
Pio Monte della Misericordia, Naples, Italy
The Pio Monte della Misericordia, a building in the historic center of Naples, is today a museum that exhibits important paintings such as Caravaggio’s The Seven Works of Mercy and many Neapolitan Caravaggists. Here the visitor may come across a large painting of a gorgeous, blonde woman rising from pink and blue clouds, surrounded by love-putti, little angels, and maidens scattering flowers. It would be just one of the several baroque paintings of the collection if in its lower left corner there was not an incongruous old man lying naked on an unmade bed. His gaze looks desperately for the lady, who moving away looks back and down at him. The painting, by Francesco de Mura (1698–1784), a late-Baroque Italian painter, represents “Tithonus and Eos.” In Greek mythology Eos was the goddess of dawn, and Tithonus a Trojan prince and one of her many lovers. Tithonus had been very handsome, and the goddess had once fallen in love with him and asked Zeus, the father of all gods, to grant him immortality. Homer tells us how “Zeus bowed his head to her prayer and fulfilled her desire. Too simply was queenly Eos: she thought not in her heart to ask youth for him and to strip him of the slough of deadly age. So while he enjoyed the sweet flower of life he lived rapturously with golden-throned Eos, the early-born, by the streams of Ocean, at the ends of the earth; but when the first grey hairs began to ripple from his comely head and noble chin, queenly Eos kept away from his bed, though she cherished him in her house and nourished him with food and ambrosia and gave him rich clothing. But when loathsome old age pressed full upon him, and he could not move nor lift his limbs, this seemed to her in her heart the best counsel: she laid him in a room and put to the shining doors. There he babbles endlessly” (Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, transl. by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Loeb Classical Library).
Francesco de Mura painted two other versions of the myth, one in the Museum Capodimonte in Naples, the other in W.P. Chrysler Jr.’s private collection in New York. In both versions Tithonus is shielding his eyes from the light, which flows from Eos. In the Capodimonte version Eos is quite far from the old man and carries a torch. In the Chrysler version the goddess is just in front of the old man, and the light derives from her gaze.
The subject of “Tithonus and Eos” was in fashion during the Baroque and Rococo periods. One might mention De Mura’s mentor, Francesco Solimena (1657–1747), who first introduced the theme of Tithonus shielding his eyes; Sebastiano Ricci (1659–1734), whose Eos looks like a uncanny Dionysus smiling at a helpless Tithonus; Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée (1724–1805), whose Aurora’s Take Off crystalizes the moment in which the dawn leaves her aged lover. In music, one might mention the “Aurora ingannata” by Girolamo Giacobbi (1567–1629) and “Titon et l’Aurore” by Jean-Joseph de Mondonville (1711–1772). The myth of the goddess of dawn and her fateful lover can also be found in literature. Apart from indirect references such as Jonathan Swift’s Struldbruggs and Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, it is worth citing at least Johann G. von Herder’s (1744–1803) Tithon und Aurora and Alfred Tennyson’s (1809–1892) Tithonus. Both Herder and Tennyson, though from quite different perspectives, use the myth as a parable of the inherent tension between mortality, evolution, and rejuvenation. Humanity’s innate search for perfection demands mortality, argues Herder, because renewal and rejuvenation are part of the life cycle, in which death is appropriate and necessary. Tennyson concludes his poem with a moving plea,
Release me, and restore me to the ground;
Thou seëst all things, thou wilt see my grave:
Thou wilt renew thy beauty morn by morn;
I earth in earth forget these empty courts,
and thee returning on thy silver wheels.
An echo of Tennyson’s words can be still heard in the Argentine scholar and writer, Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986), who in his short novel The Immortal equates immortality with irrationality and horror. For Borges immortality is the nonsense of an infinite repetition without difference, and the immortals are troglodytes incapable of speech, “There is nothing very remarkable about being immortal; with the exception of mankind, all creatures are immortal, for they know nothing of death. What is divine, terrible, and incomprehensible is to know oneself immortal” (Collected Fictions, transl. by A. Hurley, Penguin Press, 1999). A never-ending life, tells us the myth, is not for humans. The ancient Greeks thought that perfection coincided with finitude; on the contrary what has no end is incomplete and thus imperfect. A life becomes entirely meaningful only at its end, when the circle is closed, for “none can judge the life of any man for good or bad until that man is dead” (Sophocles, Trachiniae, 1, transl. by R. Torrance. Houghton Mifflin, 1966).
The tale of “Tithonus and Eos” is also about aging and medicine. There are at least three important lessons to be learnt from it. First the myth tells us that anti-aging medicine makes sense because it is rooted in something real. Popular press and moralists tend to take seriously life-extension research, while they label anti-aging as frivolous, cosmetic. Yet the human quest for technological immortality is frequently a misdirected search for rejuvenation. We are afraid of death but worried by loss of function, by dependency, and by the decline of physical appearance and lessening of sexual appeal and ability. To be sure, we humans get used to things quite quickly, and we learn soon to put up with physical decay. Yet the progressive loss of physical beauty, at least that of youth, always produces some mental ruptures and depression. When older people succeed in overcoming these depressive reactions, they often end up by denying ageing. Most gerontological studies show that successful older people tend to cope with aging by disassociating themselves from the category of being old. They describe themselves as if they were not truly older people because they are still active and because “one is as old as he feels.” This is not surprising because in contemporary western culture social meanings attached to older age are largely negative. Yet social theories are not enough to explain a phenomenon that goes deeper in human psychology, as the tale of Tithonus and Eos shows. Humans hardly aspire to immortality, they aspire to eternal youth.
The second lesson the myth teaches is that there is in aging something that concerns the sexual difference. Eos is an old goddess, probably dating back to pre-Greek civilization, and the name Tithonus comes from Titans, the race of giants who preceded the Olympic gods. Thus the myth is likely to have pre-Greek origins and it echoes the oldest Mediterranean tales of the female goddesses with their handsome young lovers, destined to be seduced, took, and eventually evirated. Aging is gendered because of biological and social reasons, but also because of powerful cultural forces related to an enduring fight between men and women. If one aims to understand aging and age-related events, gender is an essential element that should not be left out of consideration.
Finally, the myths speak of older people’s exclusion. At the beginning of the aging process, the goddess excludes Tithonus from her bed but still takes care of him and tenderly multiplies her attentions. But as Tithonus gets older and frail, losing his mental and physical abilities and no longer able to take care of himself, his presence becomes unbearable and the goddess secludes him in a room.
Much has been written about older people’s solitude, yet practitioners know that older people rarely suffer from loneliness but often from isolation and social exclusion—by a society that tends to seclude and hide older people as they become too old or do not succeed in aging successfully. The more medicine extends life and frail older people survive, the more society segregates them in nursing homes or at home by using assisting technology. So the dream of the eternal youth turns into a nightmare, creating a multitude of Tithonus. This is may be the deepest reason why an ancient Greek myth, represented four centuries ago by a baroque painter, is still telling.
, MD, is a psychiatrist and philosopher. He taught bioethics in the University of Rome La Sapienza (IT) and served as a scientific secretary of the Bioethical Commission of the National Research Council. From 2002 to 2014 he directed the Center for Science, Society and Citizenship. He currently runs Responsible Technology, a Paris (FR) based consultancy devoted to Responsible Research and Innovation. Since 1994 he has served as scientific coordinator or team leader in thirty-one international research projects funded by the European Commission. He has published extensively and edited fourteen books.