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Euhemerus (flourished around 316 BCE) was a Greek mythographer at the court of Cassander, the king of Macedonia. Euhemerus' birthplace is disputed, with Messana 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.
The Sacred History
Only quoted fragments remain from his main work, a Sacred History ("Hiera Anagraphê"), that was a philosophical fictionalized travelogue, based upon imagined archaic inscriptions, which he claimed to have found during his travels. He particularly relies upon a register of the births and deaths of many of the gods, which his narrator persona discovered inscibed on a golden pillar in a temple on the invented island of Panchaea, when on a voyage round the coast of Arabia, undertaken at the request of Cassander, his friend and patron.
In this work 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. Euhemerus asserted that the gods had been originally heroes and conquerors, who had thus earned a claim to the veneration of their subjects. It is not easy to judge Euhemerus' importance among pagan thinkers. How widely this reductionist system actually spread is debatable. It is said that Euhemerus was a firm upholder of the Cyrenaic philosophy, and by many ancient writers he was regarded as an atheist: his work was translated by Ennius into Latin, but both works are now lost. Additionally, Cicero's essay De natura deorum ("On the nature of the gods") contains some euhemerist views.
Euhemerism and the Early Christians
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 CE that takes 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. ] 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 3rd century CE. 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' dismissal of paganism in the 5th century, on rationalizing grounds, may have depended on a reading of Cyprian, with the details enormously expanded (to the satisfaction of the modern mythographer). 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), not a context sympathetic to non-Christian mythography.
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. Thus few students of comparative religion would now agree with the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica that "all theories of religion which give prominence to ancestor worship and the cult of the dead are to a certain extent Euhemeristic." In 18th century France, the abbé Banier, in his Mythologie et la fable expliqués par l'histoire, was frankly Euhemeristic; other leading Euhemerists were Étienne Clavier, Sainte-Croix, Desiré-Raoul Rochette, Emile Hoffmann and, to a great extent, Herbert Spencer.
Euhemerism in the Modern World
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 20th 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.
Euhemeristic belief within Mormonism
Among the official tenets of Latter Day Saints or Mormons, the archangel Michael lived a mortal life as the patriarch Adam. In the beliefs of the Latter-Day Saints, Michael and Adam are regarded as the same person, but Michael alone is regarded as the immortal resurrected being, or angel. Thus a human being regarded as historical within theology becomes a supernatural angelic being. quotes from the Book of Mormon are needed here
- Harry Thurston Peck, Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities 1898: Euhemerus
- Encyclopaedia Britannica 1911: Euhemerus
- Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol V: Cyprian, "On the Vanity of Idols" e-text
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