|Born||Fourth century BC|
Messene (now Messina), Sicily
|Died||Third century BC|
|Occupation||Writer, philosopher, mythographer, historian|
The philosophy attributed to and named for Euhemerus, euhemerism, holds that many mythological tales can be attributed to historical persons and events, the accounts of which have become altered and exaggerated over time.
Euhemerus's work combined elements of fiction and political utopianism. In the ancient world he was considered an atheist. Early Christian writers, such as Lactantius, used Euhemerus's belief that the ancient gods were originally human to confirm their inferiority regarding the Christian God.
Little is known about Euhemerus's life, and his birthplace is disputed. Classical writers such as Diodorus Siculus, Plutarch, and Polybius, maintained that Euhemerus was a Messenian, but did not specify whether he came from the Peloponnesian or the Sicilian Messene, which was an ancient Greek colony. Other ancient testimonies placed his birth at Chios, Tegea (Pseudo-Plutarch, Plac. Phil.), or Agrigentum (Clement of Alexandria, Protrept.; Arnobius, Adv. Gent.). Most modern scholars, however, generally agree that Euhemerus came from the Sicilian Messene (Messina).
Diodorus Siculus is one of the very few sources who provide other details about Euhemerus' life. According to Diodorus, Euhemerus was a personal friend of Cassander, king of Macedonia (c. 305 – 297 BC) and the most prominent mythographer for the Macedonian court. Sometime in the early third century BC Euhemerus wrote his main work "Sacred History" ("Hiera Anagraphê").
Euhemerus' Sacred History
Only quoted fragments remain from Euhemerus' main work, Sacred History. Diodorus Siculus included fragments from Euhemerus’ writings in the Arabian geography of his fifth book and in the mythology of his sixth book.
The sixth book of Diodorus’ Bibliotheca is lost, but Eusebius cites a fragment from it at length in his Praeparatio evangelica. The ancient Roman writer Ennius first translated Euhemerus' work into Latin, but this translation also is lost. Lactantius however in the third century AD included substantial references to Ennius' translation in the first book of his Divine Institutes. Various other fragments of importance are also found in the later literature of Augustine of Hippo. From these extant fragments and references, modern scholars have been able to "compile what is presumably a fairly complete picture of Euhemerus’ work".
Euhemerus' work 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. Euhemerus claims to have traveled to a group of islands in the waters off Arabia. One of these, Panchaea, being home to a utopian society made up of a number of different ethnic tribes. His critique of tradition is epitomized in a register of the births and deaths of many of the deities, 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, according to the Christian historian of the fourth century AD, Eusebius.
Euhemerus refers to 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 naturalism. Euhemerus asserted that the Greek gods originally had been kings, heroes, and conquerors, or benefactors to the people, who had thus earned a claim to the veneration of their subjects. According to him, for example, Zeus was 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.
Euhemerus has become known chiefly for a rationalizing method of interpretation, known as "euhemerism", which treats mythological accounts as a reflection of historical events, or mythological characters as historical personages, but which were shaped, exaggerated, or altered by retelling and traditional mores. In more recent literature of myth, such as in Bulfinch's Mythology, euhemerism is called the "historical interpretation" of mythology. Euhemerism is defined in modern academic literature as the theory that myths are distorted accounts of real historical events. Euhemerus was not the first to attempt to rationalize mythology through history, as euhemeristic views are found in earlier writers, including Xenophanes, Herodotus, Hecataeus of Abdera, and Ephorus, however, Euhemerus is credited as having developed the theory in application to all myths, considering mythology to be "history in disguise".
- Diodorus vi.1.1
- De Iside et Osiride, 23 (360A)
- Hist. 34.5 apud Strabo ii.4.2
- Ne´methy 1889: 4; van Gils 1902: 12; Jacoby 1909; van der Meer 1949: 9.
- Diodorus vi.1.4.
- Diodorus v.41.4–46, vi.1.
- Eusebius Praep. evan. ii.2.59B-61A.
- Lactantius Div. inst. i.11, 13, 14, 17, 22.
- Bibliotheca classica: or, A classical dictionary: containing a copious account of the principal proper names mentioned in ancient authors; with the value of coins, weights, and measures, used among the Greeks and Romans; and a chronological table, Volume 1, John Lemprière, G. & C. & H. Carvill, 1833, p. 547.
- Euhemerus in Context, Franco De Angelis De Angelis and Benjamin Garstad, Classical Antiquity, Vol. 25, No. 2, October 2006, p. 212.
- Plutarch noted that no Greek nor barbarian had ever seen such an island. (Fragment noted in Spyridakis 1968:338).
- (Brown 1946:262); compare Plato's Atlantis or the exotic tropical isle described by Iambulus, which was noted in Diodorus 2.55ff. (Spryidakis 1968:338).
- Sprydakis 1968:340.
- Bulfinch, Thomas. Bulfinch's Mythology. Whitefish: Kessinger, 2004, p. 194.
- Honko, Lauri. "The Problem of Defining Myth". Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth. Ed. Alan Dundes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. p. 45.
- S. Spyridakis: "Zeus Is Dead: Euhemerus and Crete" The Classical Journal 63.8 (May 1968, pp. 337-340) p.338.
- Herodotus presented rationalized accounts of the myth of Io (Histories I.1ff) and events of the Trojan War (Histories 2.118ff).
- An introduction to mythology, Lewis Spence, 1921, p. 42.
- 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.
- Harry Thurston Peck, Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities 1898: Euhemerus
- Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). 1911. .
- Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol V: Cyprian, "On the Vanity of Idols" e-text
- The Ancient Library