Euhemerism is an approach to the interpretation of mythology in which mythological accounts are presumed to have originated from real historical events or personages. Euhemerism supposes that historical accounts become myths as they are exaggerated in the retelling, accumulating elaborations and alterations that reflect cultural mores. It was named for the Greek mythographer Euhemerus, who lived in the late 4th century BC. In the more recent literature of myth, such as Bulfinch's Mythology, euhemerism is termed the "historical theory" of mythology.
Euhemerus was not the first to attempt to rationalize mythology in historical terms: euhemeristic views are found in earlier writings including those of Sanchuniathon, Xenophanes, Herodotus, Hecataeus of Abdera and Ephorus. However, the enduring influence of Euhemerus upon later thinkers such as the classical poet Ennius (b. 239 BC) and modern author Antoine Banier (b. 1673 AD) identified him as the traditional founder of this school of thought.
Phaedrus: Tell me, Socrates, isn't it from somewhere near this stretch of the Ilisus that people say Boreas carried Orithyia away?
Socrates: So they say.
Phaedrus: Couldn't this be the very spot? The stream is lovely, pure and clear: just right for girls to be playing nearby.
Socrates: No, it is two or three hundred yards farther downstream, where one crosses to get to the district of Agrai. I think there is even an altar to Boreas there.
Phaedrus: I hadn't noticed it. But tell me, Socrates, in the name of Zeus, do you really believe that legend is true?
Socrates: Actually, it would not be out of place for me to reject it, as our intellectuals do. I could then tell a clever story: I could claim that a gust of the North Wind blew her over the rocks where she was playing with Pharmaceia; and once she was killed that way people said she had been carried off by Boreas...
Socrates illustrates a euhemeristic approach to the myth of Boreas abducting Orithyia. He shows how the story of Boreas, the northern wind, can be rationalised: Orithyia is pushed off the rock cliffs through the equation of Boreas with a natural gust of wind, which accepts Orithyia as a historical personage. But here he also implies that this is equivalent to rejecting the myth. Socrates, despite holding some euhemeristic views, mocked the concept that all myths could be rationalized, noting that the mythical creatures of "absurd forms" such as Centaurs and the Chimera could not easily be explained.
In the ancient skeptic philosophical tradition of Theodorus of Cyrene and the Cyrenaics, Euhemerus 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 or historical events subsequently given supernatural characteristics through retelling. Subsequently Euhemerus was considered to be an atheist by his opponents, most notably Callimachus.
Euhemerus' views were rooted in the deification of men, usually kings, into gods through apotheosis. In numerous cultures, kings were exalted or venerated into the status of divine beings and worshipped after their death, or sometimes even while they ruled. Dion, the tyrant ruler of Syracuse, was deified while he was alive and modern scholars consider his apotheosis to have influenced Euhemerus' views on the origin of all gods. Euhemerus was also living during the contemporaneous deification of the Seleucids and "pharaoization" of the Ptolemies in a fusion of Hellenic and Egyptian traditions.
Euhemerus argued that Zeus was a mortal king who died on Crete, and that his tomb could still be found there with the inscription bearing his name. This claim however did not originate with Euhemerus, as the general sentiment of Crete during the time of Epimenides of Knossos (c. 600 BC) was that Zeus was buried somewhere in Crete. For this reason, the Cretans were often considered atheists, and Epimenides called them all liars (see Epimenides paradox). Callimachus, an opponent of Euhemerus' views on mythology, argued that Zeus' Cretan tomb was fabricated, and that he was eternal:
Cretans always lie. For the Cretans even built a tomb,
Lord, for you. But you did not die, for you are eternal.
A later Latin scholium on the Hymns of Callimachus attempted to account for the tomb of Zeus. According to the scholium, the original tomb inscription read: "The tomb of Minos, the son of Jupiter" but over time the words "Minos, the son" wore away leaving only "the tomb of Jupiter". This had misled the Cretans into thinking that Zeus had died and was buried there.
Influenced by Euhemerus, Porphyry in the 3rd century AD claimed that Pythagoras had discovered the tomb of Zeus on Crete and written on the tomb's surface an inscription reading: "Here died and was buried Zan, whom they call Zeus".Varro also wrote about the tomb of Zeus.
Hostile to paganism, the early Christians, such as the Church Fathers, embraced euhemerism in attempt to undermine the validity of pagan gods. 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 AD 247 that assumes the euhemeristic rationale as though it needed 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 Leucothea; "The Castors [i.e. Castor and Pollux] 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 AD. 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.
Euhemeristic views are found expressed also in Tertullian (De idololatria), the Octavius of Marcus Minucius Felix and in Origen.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 produntur. ("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 Petrus Comestor's appendix to his much translated Historia scholastica (written ca. 1160), further 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.Martin of Braga in his De correctione rusticorum wrote idolatry stemmed from post-deluge survivors of Noah's family who began to worship the Sun and stars instead of God. In his view the Greek gods were deified descendants of Noah who were once real personages.
Christian writers during the Middle Ages continued to embrace euhemerism, such as Vincent of Beauvais, Petrus Comestor, Roger Bacon and Godfrey of Viterbo. "After all, it was during this time that Christian apologists had adopted the views of the rationalist Greek philosophers. And had captured the purpose for Euhemerism, which was to explain the mundane origins of the Hellenistic divinities. Euhemerism explained simply in two ways: first in the strictest sense as a movement which reflected the known views of Euhemerus' Hiera Anagraphe regarding Panchaia and the historicity of the family of Saturn and Uranus. The principal sources of these views are the handed-down accounts of Lactantius and Diodorus; or second, in the widest sense, as a rationalist movement which sought to explain the mundane origins of all the Hellenistic gods and heroes as mortals." Other modern theorists labeled Euhemerism as a "subject of classical paganism that was fostered in the minds of the people of the Middle Ages through the realization that while in most respects the ancient Greeks and Roman had been superior to themselves, they had been in error regarding their religious beliefs. An examination of the principal writings in Middle English with considerable reading of literature other than English, discloses the fact that the people of the Middle Ages rarely regarded the so-called gods as mere figments of the imagination but rather believed that they were or had been real beings, sometimes possessing actual power." (John Daniel Cook)
In the Prose Edda, composed around 1220, the Christian Icelandic bard and historian Snorri Sturluson proposes that the Norse gods were originally historical leaders and kings. Odin, the father of the gods, is introduced as a historical person originally from Asia Minor, 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:
And whatever countries they passed through, great glory was spoken of them, so that they seemed more like gods than men.
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 also (on the model of Virgil's Aeneid) to hint that the 'divinisation' was done in order to legitimize more recent Scandinavian rulers.
Euhemeristic interpretations of mythology continued throughout the early modern period from the 16th century, to modern times. In 1711, the French historian Antoine Banier in his Mythologie et la fable expliqués par l'histoire ("The Mythology and Fables of the Ancients, Explained") presented strong arguments for a euhemerist interpretation of Greek mythology.Jacob Bryant's A New System or Analysis of Ancient Mythology (1744) was also another key work on euhemerism of the period, but argued so from a Biblical basis. Of the early 19th century, George Stanley Faber was another Biblical euhemerist. His work The Origin of Pagan Idolatry (1816) proposed that all the pagan nations worshipped the same gods, who were all deified men. Outside of Biblical influenced literature, some archaeologists embraced euhemerist views since they discovered myths could verify archaeological findings. Heinrich Schliemann was a prominent archaeologist of the 19th century who argued myths had embedded historical truths. Schliemann was an advocate of the historical reality of places and characters mentioned in the works of Homer. He excavated Troy and claimed to have discovered artifacts associated with various figures from Greek mythology, including the Mask of Agamemnon and Priam's Treasure.
Herbert Spencer embraced some euhemeristic arguments in attempt to explain the anthropocentric origin of religion, through ancestor worship. Rationalizing methods of interpretation that treat some myths as traditional accounts based upon historical events are a continuous feature of some modern readings of 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 widely criticized and are rejected by most scholars.