There is a Greek myth about Eos (Roman: Aurora), the goddess of the Dawn, falling in love with Tithonus, a mortal man. She laments that while she will live forever, he is doomed to die. She asks Zeus to grant Tithonus immortality. But she fails to ask in addition that Tithonus remain eternally youthful. Tithonus, therefore, is doomed to grow old but never die. The story continues that as Tithonus ages his body becomes brittle, his mind deteriorates, and his speech becomes mere babbling. Eos is saddened by the gradual loss of Tithonus’ strength and sense, and though in the story she loses sexual attraction towards Tithonus, she does not abandon him. She transforms him into a cicada so that no one will fault his mindless chirping or fragile body.
Interpreters frequently focus on this myth as either an etiology, explaining the origin of cicadas; or as a cautionary tale along the lines of the Oscar Wilde quote: “When the gods choose to punish us, they merely answer our prayers.” While both interpretations have their merits, I would like to suggest that this myth has to do with how societies treat the elderly. Tithonus represents the unavoidable final stages towards which every life progresses. Eos represents those more youthful or healthy people that must bear the responsibility for the care of the elderly. The actions of Eos in the myth serve as a reminder of the responsibility of the strong not to discard but to care for the weak.
Such an interpretation runs counter to how our society advocates treatment of the elderly. We use terms like “drain on the economy” and “quality of life” to excuse all manner of ill treatment of those whose minds or bodies are not what they once were. We deposit them in care facilities and desire that they pass out of our knowledge so that we need not watch them age and be reminded of our own mortality. We desire to put them out of our misery.
This myth reminds us that one day we will all be Tithonus, our bodies frail, our minds feeble, our words unintelligible. When those days come may we each have an Eos in our lives who loves us enough not to fault us for having grown old. Perhaps the way to ensure this is to play the part of Eos while we are able, demonstrating love, respect, and devotion to the elderly in our society.