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Euhemerus (Ευήμερος) (working late fourth century B.C.) was a Greek mythographer at the court of Cassander, the king of Macedon. Euhemerus' birthplace is disputed, with Messina in Sicily or Messene in the Peloponnese as the most probable locations, while others champion Chios, or Tegea.
He is chiefly known for a rationalizing method of interpretation, known as Euhemerism, that treats mythological accounts as a reflection of actual historical events shaped by retelling and traditional mores. In the skeptic philosophical tradition of Theodorus of Cyrene and the Cyrenaics, Euhemerism forged a new method of interpretation for the contemporary religious beliefs. Though his work is lost, the reputation of Euhemerus was that he believed that much of Greek mythology could be interpreted as natural events subsequently given supernatural characteristics. Living at court in the generation following the superhuman feats of Alexander the Great and Alexander's subsequent deification, with the contemporaneous "pharaoization" of the Ptolemies in a fusion of Hellenic and native Egyptian traditions, Euhemerus was trained in the rational philosophizing current of Hellenistic culture; the two strains meet in his materialist rationalizing of Greek myth. "Euhemerus may be credited as the writer who systematized and explained an ancient and widely accepted popular belief, namely that the dividing line between gods and men is not always clear," S. Spyridakis, among others, has observed.
In Classical religion, which lacked a revealed text and a prophetic tradition, a fluid theogony absorbed most contradictory claims. The tenets of Euhemerus, exceptionally, were attacked, even viciously. Of the Latin translation, only a few brief fragments have come down to us, where they were quoted in patristic writers, especially in a fragment said to be from Diodorus Siculus, preserved by Eusebius in his history of the Church. Other fragments survive quoted by Lactantius in his treatise De Falsa religione ("Concerning False Religion," 1.11), a context sympathetic to Christian mythography. Euhemerist ideas apparently also survived in Philo of Byblos, who transmitted a euhemerist view of Phoenician religion, if we may trust the account of him preserved in the pages of the Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea: "It was Eusebius' object to refute the pagans, not recover the history of Phoenicia" (see Euhemerism and the early Christians below).
In modern times Euhemerism has been compared, specifically by David Friedrich Strauss, with many nineteenth-century German rationalists, such as Johann Gottfried Eichhorn and Heinrich Paulus, in their interpretations of the Judeo-Christian scriptures. Euhemerus's rationalizing, skeptical method, which reduces religion to what we would now call anthropology or sociology, has seemed like the forerunner of those sciences. Sigmund Freud, in Civilization and Its Discontents and The Future of an Illusion, makes religion into a kind of hopeful mirage seen by pre-scientific pre-psychoanalytic humankind. Even Freud, rebuked by Jules Romain and other friends, worried that he—too much the humanist—had failed to understand the spiritual experience. "Euhemerism" is sometimes used pejoratively to mean naive reductionism by modern secular thinkers, who misunderstand religious behavior by attributing to the pious only those motives (economic, psychological, utilitarian) which are secular.

Euhemerus' Sacred History

Only quoted fragments, mainly in Diodorus Siculus, remain from Euhemerus' main work, a Sacred History ("Hiera Anagraphê"), which may have taken the form of a philosophical fictionalized travelogue, universally accepted today as a philosophical Romance, incorporating imagined archaic inscriptions, which his literary persona claimed to have found during his travels. His critique of tradition is epitomized in a register of the births and deaths of many of the gods, which his narrator persona discovered inscribed on a golden pillar in a temple of Zeus Triphylius on the invented island of Panchaea; he claimed to have reached the island on a voyage down the Red Sea round the coast of Arabia, undertaken at the request of Cassander of Macedon, according to the Christian historian of the fourth century AD, Eusebius of Caesarea. This lost work references a rational island utopia. The ancient Hellenic tradition of a distant Golden Age, of Hesiod's depiction of human happiness before the gift of Pandora, of the mythic convention of idealized Hyperboreans, made concrete in the legendary figure of the Scythian philosopher-hero Anacharsis, or the idealized "Meropes" of Theopompus had been recently enriched by contacts with India. Euhemerus apparently systematized a method of interpreting the popular myths, which was consistent with the attempts of Hellenistic culture to explain traditional religious beliefs in terms of a rational naturalism. Herodotus presented rationalized accounts of the myth of Io (Histories I.1ff) and events of the Trojan War (Histories 2.18ff). Euhemerus went farther, asserting that the Greek gods had been originally kings, heroes and conquerors, or benefactors to men, who had thus earned a claim to the veneration of their subjects. Zeus for example, was according to him, a king of Crete, who had been a great conqueror; the tomb of Zeus was shown to visitors near Knossos, perhaps engendering or enhancing among the traditionalists the reputation of Cretans as liars.
It is not easy to judge Euhemerus' importance among pagan thinkers. Cicero's essay De natura deorum ("On the nature of the gods"), iii.53ff, contains some euhemerist views, which are put in the mouth of Cotta, but whether as an explication or as a refutation has been argued; how widely this reductionist system actually spread among the educated class is debatable. It is said that Euhemerus was a firm upholder of the Cyrenaic philosophy, and that by many ancient writers he was regarded as an atheist: his work was translated by Ennius into Latin, but that work too is now lost.

Euhemerism and the early Christians

Cyprian

The early Christian apologists deployed the euhemerist argument to support their position that pagan mythology was merely an aggregate of fables of human invention. Cyprian, a North African convert to Christianity, wrote a short essay, De idolorum vanitate ("On the Vanity of Idols") in 247 A.D. that assumes the euhemeristic rationale as if needing no demonstration. Cyprian begins:
"That those are no gods whom the common people worship, is known from this: they were formerly kings, who on account of their royal memory subsequently began to be adored by their people even in death. Thence temples were founded to them; thence images were sculptured to retain the countenances of the deceased by the likeness; and men sacrificed victims, and celebrated festal days, by way of giving them honour. Thence to posterity those rites became sacred, which at first had been adopted as a consolation."
Cyprian proceeds directly to examples, the apotheosis of Melicertes and Leucotheia; "The Castors [i.e. Dioscuri] die by turns, that they may live," a reference to the daily sharing back and forth of their immortality by the Heavenly Twins. "The cave of Jupiter is to be seen in Crete, and his sepulchre is shown," Cyprian says, confounding Zeus and Dionysus but showing that the Minoan cave cult was still alive in Crete in the third century A.D. In his exposition, it is to Cyprian's argument to marginalize the syncretism of pagan belief, in order to emphasize the individual variety of local deities:
"From this the religion of the gods is variously changed among individual nations and provinces, inasmuch as no one god is worshipped by all, but by each one the worship of its own ancestors is kept peculiar."

Arnobius

Arnobius' dismissal of paganism in the fifth century, on rationalizing grounds, may have depended on a reading of Cyprian, with the details enormously expanded (to the satisfaction of the modern mythographer).

Snorri Sturluson's "euhemerism"

In the Prose Edda, composed around 1220, the Icelandic bard and historian Snorri Sturluson proposes that the Norse gods were originally historical war leaders and kings whose funereal sites have developed cults. Odin, the father of the gods, is introduced as a historical character living in present-day Turkey, tracing his ancestry back to Priam, the king of Troy during the Trojan War. As Odin travels north to settle in the Nordic countries, he establishes the royal families ruling in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway at the time. Thus, while Snorri's euhemerism follows the early Christian tradition, the effect is not simply to discredit the divinity of the gods of a heathen religion on the wane, but (on the model of Virgil's Aeneid), to legitimize the current rulers.

Euhemerism in the modern world

As among archaic tribes it is possible to trace the evolution of family and tribal gods from great eponymous chiefs and warriors, so, euhemerism claims, it is equally possible to see those gods as abstractions of the tribal ethos, personalized with names. Among the Romans the gradual deification of ancestors and the apotheosis of emperors were prominent features of cult, an extension of Greek veneration of heroes. All theories of religion which give prominence to ancestor worship and the cult of the dead are to a certain extent Euhemeristic. However, euhemerism isn't generally accepted by comparative religion scholars today as the sole explanation of the origin of the idea of gods. In 18th century France, the abbé Antoine Banier, in his Mythologie et la fable expliqués par l'histoire (1711 and later editions), was frankly Euhemeristic; other leading Euhemerists were Étienne Clavier, Guillaume de Sainte-Croix, Desiré-Raoul Rochette, Emile Hoffmann and, to a great extent, Herbert Spencer.
Rationalizing methods of interpretation that treat some myths as traditional accounts based upon actual historical events are a feature of some modern readings of Greek mythology. The twentieth century poet and mythographer Robert Graves offered many such "euhemerist" interpretations in his telling of The Greek Myths (1955). His suggestions that such myths record and justify the political and religious overthrow of earlier cult systems have been received with skepticism. Axel Olrik, in Principles for Oral Narrative Research(1921; translated by Kirsten Wolf and Jody Jensen, 1992) denies (§30) that such readings could be valid.

Notes

References

  • Smith, William. 1870. "Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology." (London: C. Little and J. Brown) sub "Evemerus"
  • Abbé Banier's Ovid commentary Englished The Euhemerist tradition in Banier's "historical" commentaries on Ovid's Metamorphoses.
  • Brown, Truesdell S. "Euhemerus and the Historians" The Harvard Theological Review 39.4 (October 1946), pp. 259-274. Includes a comprehensive redaction of the existing fragments of Euhemerus' Sacred History.
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