Myth as Actual History
Theories through History about Myth and Fable 7
The most influential theory on myth since antiquity, repeated in various ways ever since, is that of the 3rd century BC Greek thinker Euhemerus. His explanation of mythology has even been given his name: euhemerism. On the other hand, that is just about all he is famous for and not much more is known about him.
Euhemerus (c. 330-260 BC) was a Greek writer on myth an history at the court of Macedonia. His main work was Sacred History, about his fictive travels to strange lands where he claimed to learn about the human ancestry of the gods. The book only exists in fragments.
Euhemerus saw myth as history in disguise, where the gods being worshipped were originally living men, elated in this way because of some great feat of theirs, or their splendid virtue, perhaps sometimes simply because of all the power they had when alive. Men, who had been glorified in life, were by later generations deified.
As can be seen in the above, his theory was adopted and applied by numerous scholars during all of the Christian era, well into our days, more or less closely similar to how its originator had used it.
Still, he has always been questioned, mainly because of doubts regarding his claims of proof for his theory. They are clearly fictional, which was evident to his readers ever since antiquity.
The main source to Euhemerus is Diodorus of Sicily (c. 90-30 BC). He was a Greek historian, whose main work was the voluminous Bibliotheca historica, written between c. 60 and 30 BC, large portions of which still remain. Diodorus gives an example of how Euhemerus revealed human history behind divine myth:
On a visit to the island of Panchaea, Euhemerus saw pious inhabitants worship their gods with magnificent sacrifices, and he found a temple to Zeus, in which there was a writing telling the deeds of Uranus, Cronus and Zeus - when they were men who walked the earth.
Euhemerus goes on to say that Uranus was the first to be king, that he was an honorable man and beneficent, who was versed in the movement of the stars, and that he was also the first to honor the gods of the heavens with sacrifices, whence he was called Uranus, or "Heaven". There were born to him by his wife Hestia two sons, Titan and Cronus, and two daughters, Rhea and Demeter. Cronus became king after Uranus, and marrying Rhea he begat Zeus and Hera and Poseidon. And Zeus, on succeeding to the kingship, married Hera and Demeter and Themis, and by them he had children, the Curetes by the first named, Persephone by the second, and Athena by the third. And going to Babylon he was entertained by Belus, and after that he went to the island of Panchaea, which lies in the ocean, and here he set up an altar to Uranus, the founder of his family. [Diodorus of Sicily, The Library of History, book VI, translated by C. H. Oldfather, volume 3, Cambridge 1970, 335.]
Thus, the whole Olympian community began as a family matter. Euhemerus goes on to tell of Zeus conquering Cilicia and visiting many other nations, "all of which paid honor to him and publicly proclaimed him a god." [Diodorus of Sicily, book VI, 335.]
It is generally assumed that the island of Panchea, as well as the rest of what Euhemerus accounts, is more or less fiction of his. Plutarch, above, had nothing but contempt for his claims and the absurdities by which he tried to prove them. Yet, this approach to mythology, seeing behind it some distant historical facts, did not lose its credibility.
To Christianity, the ideas of Euhemerus had the advantage of doing away with the heathen ingredient in the Greek myths, without having to do away with the myths altogether. The stories of old could be retold, with an interpretation doing pretty much the reverse of what Euhemerus said once had taken place, so that men having been turned into gods could be turned back into men. A clear example of this is abbé Banier, above, who argued for most - though definitely not all - mythology having its roots in actual history.
Generally speaking, the view on myth as containing other stories or another content than appearances suggest has been adopted by a vast majority of writers on mythology ever since the days of Euhemereus. Most theories presented above and below go along this line, albeit they make different interpretations as to what that original content may be. Thereby, the direct and indirect influence of Euhemerus is hard to overstate.
With Euhemerus, we have opened the door to Ancient Greece and what their thinkers thought about the mythology that was both cherished and worshipped in their society. Click this link to get to my texts about the Greek philosophers and their thoughts about the myths and the gods: Cosmos of the Ancients
A Scientific Revolution of Mythology.
© Stefan Stenudd 2015
Mythology Meanings Menu
- Mythology and Fable in the First Encyclopedia: Louis de Jaucourt
- Thomas Blackwell: Instruction by Fable
- Antoine Banier: Mythology as Idolatry
- Eusebius: Myths as Heathen Remnants
- Plutarch: Battle of Daemons
- Euhemerus: Myth as Actual History
- A Scientific Revolution of Mythology
- Andrew Lang: Rational versus Irrational
- Max Müller: Disease of Language
- Edward B. Tylor: Animism Turned Personification
- James G. Frazer: Myth as Ritual
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