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Title: Euhemerism  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Skíðblaðnir, Kvasir, Vanir, Prose Edda, Prologue (Prose Edda)
Collection: Greek Mythology Understanding and Criticism, Mythology, Philosophy of History, Study of Religion
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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. In more recent literature of myth, such as Bulfinch's Mythology, euhemerism is termed the "historical theory" of mythology.[1] Euhemerus was not the first to attempt to rationalize mythology in historical terms, as euhemeristic views are found in earlier writings including those of Xenophanes, Herodotus, Hecataeus of Abdera and Ephorus.[2][3] However, the enduring influence of Euhemerus upon later thinkers such as Ennius and Antoine Banier identified him as the traditional founder of this school of thought.[4]


  • Early history 1
    • Deification 1.1
    • Tomb of Zeus 1.2
  • Euhemerism and Christians 2
    • The Book of Wisdom 2.1
    • Early Christian apologists 2.2
    • Middle Ages 2.3
    • Christ myth theory 2.4
  • Snorri Sturluson's "euhemerism" 3
  • Euhemerism in the modern world 4
  • References 5

Early history

In a scene described in Plato's Phaedrus, Socrates offers a euhemeristic interpretation of a myth concerning Boreas and Orithyia:

"Phaedrus: Tell me, Socrates, isn't it from somewhere near this stretch of the Ilisus that people say Boreas carried Orithuia 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 Arga. 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..."[5]

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.[6]

In the ancient 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.[7]


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.[8] Euhemerus was also living during the contemporaneous deification of the Seleucids and "pharaoization" of the Ptolemies in a fusion of Hellenic and Egyptian traditions.

Tomb of Zeus

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.[9] This claim however did not originate with Euhemerus, as the general sentiment of Crete during the time of Epimenides of Knossos (c. 600 BCE) 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:

A later Latin scholia on the Hymns of Callimachus attempted to account for the tomb of Zeus. According to the scholia, the original tomb inscription read: "The tomb of Minos, the son of Jupiter" but overtime the words "Minos, the son" wore away only leaving "the tomb of Jupiter", which had misled the Cretans into thinking that Zeus had died and was buried there.[11]

Influenced by Euhemerus, Porphyry in the 3rd century CE 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".[12] Varro also wrote about the tomb of Zeus, but few accounts could agree of its precise location on Crete.

Euhemerism and Christians

Hostile to paganism, the early Christians, such as the Church Fathers, embraced euhemerism in attempt to undermine the validity of pagan Gods.[13] 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."[14]

The Book of Wisdom

The Wisdom of Solomon, a deuterocanonical book, has a passage, Wisdom 14:12-21, giving a euhemerist explanation of the origin of idols.

Early Christian apologists

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 AD 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.

Eusebius in his Chronicle employed euhemerism to argue the Babylonian God Baʿal was a deified ruler and that the god Belus was the first Assyrian king.[15]

Euhemeristic views are found expressed also in Tertullian (De idololatria), the Octavius of Marcus Minucius Felix and in Origen.[16] 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[17] 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.[18] 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.[19]

Middle Ages

Christian writers during the Middle Ages continued to embrace Euhemerism, such as Vincent of Beauvais, Petrus Comestor, Roger Bacon and Godfrey of Viterbo.[20][21] “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)

Christ myth theory

In his 2011 book, The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems, former Baptist pastor and double PhD in religious studies Robert M. Price supported the Christ myth theory when he wrote "the story of Jesus which we have, in every form, remains a redemption myth constructed along the lines of the universal mythic hero archetype, with no "secular," biographical material left over. When we are done dismantling the records and we begin ghoulishly picking through the scanty remains for clues to an underlying "historical Jesus," like people scavenging gold from the teeth and fingers of the battlefield dead, are we perhaps engaging in Euhemerism?" [22]

Snorri Sturluson's "euhemerism"

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 orignally 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.[23]

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.

Euhemerism in the modern world

Euhemeristic interpretations of mythology continued throughout the 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 and claimed to have discovered artefacts of Greek mythological figures (see Mask of Agamemnon).

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 received with at least some scepticism.[26][27][28][29][29][30][31][32][33][34][35][36]


  1. ^ Bulfinch, Thomas. Bulfinch's Mythology. Whitefish: Kessinger, 2004, p. 194.
  2. ^ S. Spyridakis: "Zeus Is Dead: Euhemerus and Crete" The Classical Journal 63.8 (May 1968, pp. 337-340) p.338.
  3. ^ Herodotus presented rationalized accounts of the myth of Io (Histories I.1ff) and events of the Trojan War (Histories 2.118ff).
  4. ^ An introduction to mythology, Lewis Spence, 1921, p. 42.
  5. ^ Plato, Phaedr. 229b-d, translation taken from:  
  6. ^ Phaedrus, 229d
  7. ^ S. Spyridakis, 1968, pp.338-339.
  8. ^ Euhemerus in Context, Franco De Angelis De Angelis and Benjamin Garstad, Classical Antiquity,Vol. 25, No. 2, October 2006, pp. 211-242.
  9. ^ Zeus Is Dead: Euhemerus and Crete, S. Spyridakis, The Classical Journal, Vol. 63, No. 8, May, 1968, pp. 337-340.
  10. ^ Callimachus, Hymn to Zeus
  11. ^ The hymns of Callimachus, tr. into Engl. verse, with notes. To which are added, Select epigrams, and the Coma Berenices of the same author, six hymns of Orpheus, and the Encomium of Ptolemy by Theocritus, by W. Dodd, 1755, p. 3, footnote.
  12. ^ Epilegomena to the Study of Greek Religions and Themis a Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion, Jane Ellen Harrison, Kessinger Publishing, 2003, p. 57.
  13. ^ Euhemerism: A Mediaeval Interpretation of Classical Paganism, John Daniel Cooke, Speculum, Vol. 2, No. 4, Oct., 1927, p. 397.
  14. ^ Quoted in Seznec (1995) The Survival of the Pagan Gods Princeton University Press pg 12, who observes (p. 13) of the numerous Christian examples he mentions, "Thus Euhemerism became a favorite weapon of the Christian polemicists, a weapon they made use of at every turn".
  15. ^ Chronicon, Pat. Graeca XIX, cols. 132, 133, i. 3.
  16. ^ Euhemerism and Christology in Origen: "Contra Celsum" III 22-43, Harry Y. Gamble, Vigiliae Christianae, Vol. 33, No. 1, Mar., 1979, pp. 12-29.
  17. ^ Isidore, Etymologiae, book viii, ch. 12.
  18. ^ Seznec 1995:16.
  19. ^ "Chapter 4: Pagan Survivals in Galicia in the Sixth Century". 
  20. ^ Euhemerism: A Mediaeval Interpretation of Classical Paganism, John Daniel Cooke, Speculum, Vol. 2, No. 4, Oct., 1927, pp. 396-410.
  21. ^ The Franciscan friar Roger Bacon in the 13th century argued that ancient Gods such as Minerva, Prometheus, Atlas, Apollo, Io and Mercury were all deified humans. -Opus Maius, ed. J. H. Bridges, Oxford, 1897, pp.46-47.
  22. ^ Price, Robert M, ( 2011) The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems, American Atheist Press. ISBN 1-57884-017-1 p. 313
  23. ^ Snorri Sturluson, trans. Anthony Faulkes, Edda. Everyman. 1987. (Prologue, p. 4)
  24. ^ For example in the preface to Arthur Golding's 1567 translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses into English, Golding offers a rationale for contemporary Christian readers to interpret Ovid's pagan stories. He argues: 'The true and everliving God the Paynims did not know: Which caused them the name of Gods on creatures to bestow'.
  25. ^ The rise of modern mythology, 1680-1860, Burton Feldman, Robert D. Richardson, Indiana University Press, 2000, p.86.
  26. ^ Wood, Juliette (1999). "Chapter 1, The Concept of the Goddess". In Sandra Billington, Miranda Green. The Concept of the Goddess. Routledge. p. 12.  
  27. ^ Hutton, Ronald (1993). The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy.  
  28. ^ The Paganism Reader. p. 128.
  29. ^ a b Hutton, Ronald (1993). The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy.  
  30. ^ Davidson, Hilda Ellis (1998). Roles of the Northern Goddess, page 11. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-13611-3
  31. ^ Lewis, James R. Magical Religion and Modern Witchcraft. p. 172.
  32. ^ G.S. Kirk, Myth: its meaning and functions in ancient and other cultures, Cambridge University Press, 1970, p. 5. ISBN 0-520-02389-7
  33. ^ Richard G. A. Buxton, Imaginary Greece: The Contexts of Mythology, Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 5. ISBN 0-521-33865-4
  34. ^ Mary Lefkowitz, Greek Gods, Human Lives
  35. ^ Kevin Herbert, review of The Greek Myths; The Classical Journal, Vol. 51, No. 4. (Jan., 1956), pp. 191–192.
  36. ^ Nick Lowe, "Killing the Graves Myth", Times Online, December 20, 2005
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