Euhemerus (Εὐήμερος, Euhēmeros, meaning happy or prosperous) (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 as the most probable location, 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.
The intellectual climate was exceptionally prepared for this development, Jean Seznec observed at the start of his Survival of the Pagan Gods, for rationalizing philosophical speculation on the divine in the human soul and the recent history of Alexander the Great's Dionysian expedition to India alike had prepared the way. "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 deification of the Seleucids and "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, saw religion as a kind of hopeful mirage seen by pre-scientific pre-psychoanalytic humankind. Even Freud, rebuked by Jules Romains 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.
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.
The usefulness of euhemerist views to early Christian apologists may be summed up in Clement of Alexandria's triumphant cry in Cohortatio ad gentes: "Those to whom you bow were once men like yourselves."
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 though it needed no demonstration. Cyprian begins:
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:
Arnobius' dismissal of paganism in the fifth century, on rationalizing grounds, may have depended on a reading of Cyprian, with the details enormously expanded.
Isidore of Seville, compiler of the most influential early medieval encyclopedia, devoted a chapter "De diis gentium" to elucidating with numerous examples and elaborated genealogies of gods, the principle drawn from Lactantius, "Quos pagani deos asserunt, homines olim fuisse produntor." ("Those whom pagans claim to be gods were once mere men.") Elaborating logically, he attempted to place these deified men in the six great periods of history as he divided it, and created mythological dynasties. Isidore's euhemeristic bent was codified in a rigid parallel with sacred history in Peter Comestor's appendix to his much translated Historia scholastica (written ca. 1160), condensing Isidore to provide strict parallels of figures from the pagan legend, as it was now viewed in historicised narrative, and the mighty human spirits of the patriarchs of the Old Testament.
In the Prose Edda, composed around 1220, the Christian 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 religion on the wane, but (on the model of Virgil's Aeneid), to legitimize the current rulers.
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 still remains controversial by scholars of comparative religion today as a correct explanation of the origin of the idea of gods.
Humanity was endowed with "little seeds and sparks of heavenly light" which motivated them to seek the divine, but mistakenly perceived gods in creatures, rivers, trees, fire, wind, virtues, vices, and abstract concepts. Additionally, Golding argues that Ovid's tales must be interpreted euhemeristically, as allegories for such concepts:
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 White Goddess (1948) and 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.