The Greek Myths

William Harris, Prof. Em. Middlebury College

Preface and Historical Background

Euhemerus was a Greek philosopher who lived about 330-260 B.C. who is known mainly for his radical interpretations of the Greek myths, which he felt were part of a long historical tradition by which the Gods were originally men, known for some great historical feat or some important social and cultural advancement and later raised to god-hood. This view was current in Greek intellectual circles and was popular in the early Christian period as well, probably as a way of defusing the idea of pagan religion.

The principal materials were handed down in the writing of Diodorus Siculus' Bibliotheca Historica: Book VI, (Loeb Library ed. Vol. 3, transl. C. H. Oldfather, HUP 1970):

Diodorus presents Euhemerus as a friend of king Cassander, first ruler of Macedonia after the death of Alexander, on the throne no more than four years until his death. It was Cassander who sent Euhemerus to sea on international expeditions, going southward from Arabia for a number of days, before carried ashore on the island of Panchaea where he found inhabitants worship their gods with magnificent sacrifices. He found a temple to Zeus, in which there was a writing telling the deeds of Uranus, Cronus and Zeus when they were men in a fully human status.

Certain of the gods, they say, are eternal and imperishable, such as the sun and the moon and the other stars of the heavens, and the winds as well and whatever else possesses a nature similar to theirs; for of each of these the genesis and duration are from everlasting to everlasting. But the other gods, we are told, were terrestrial beings who attained to immortal honor and fame because of their benefactions to mankind, such as Heracles, Dionysus, Aristaeus, and the others who were like them. Regarding these terrestrial gods many and varying accounts have been handed down by the writers of history and of mythology; of the historians, Euhemerus, who composed the Sacred History, has written a special treatise about them, while, of the writers of myths, Homer and Hesiod and Orpheus and the others of their kind have invented rather monstrous stories about the gods.
Euhemerus says 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.

The materials relating to Euhemerus were first collected in a small volume by the Hungarian scholar Nemethy in 1889. New edition of the materials by Marek Winiarczyk: Euhemerus Messenius: Reliquiae, Hamburg 1994, and the Dissertation of H. F. van der Meer, Amsterdam 1949 (Dutch)

Euhemerism and Mythic History

This study investigates the Greek myths as a thinly cloaked chapter in an ancient Historical Tradition, which goes far back into the history of the Near East. A captious critic of conservative cast might call this approach Cultural Materialism, while many who have read and loved the Greek stories as highschool students will resent a theory which threatens the pleasure of the days when they were entranced with their Bulfinch's Mythology. The Myths themselves have no real basis in a Greek "Theology", which never was developed at any period.. The Mystery Religions which coursed through Hellenic culture from Homer to Christ were the real "Religion" of the Hellenic world, but their myths which were secret are ill known and generally had small influence outisde the cults.. But the Myths do have many traces of historical fact, much of it going back to a Pre-Greek period, even into the third millennium BCE. Examining these considerations critically is the core of the twelve chapters of this study.

The ancient Greek myths are a familiar part of the intellectual background of Western society. Along with the materials of the Old Testament and New Testament, Greek mythology supplies a variety of names, situations and awarenesses which no educated person can ignore. Reading the Greek and Roman literary Classics, one is constantly confronted with mythological references, and this is equally true of our English Classics, which from the Renaissance on used Classical mythological names and references as a part of the modern Western cultural tradition. The Greek and also the Hebraic traditions did contribute many of the views and traditions which crystallized in the mind of modern Western society. But it was from Charles Bulfinch's popularizing book (The age of Fable, l855) that Greek mythology became a part of the English language consciousness, while mythical motifs reappeared indirectly in painting, sculpture and the curious Greek Revival architecture in America. Even now elementary school classes learn the more common stories about the Greek gods, especially those which present material consonant with our society's esthetics and morals, while the less attractive tales of incest, murder and cannibalistic atrocities are conveniently avoided.

For the Romans the Greek myths were readily available, and since they reflected the values and status of the literary models of the Greek world, they were often used for largely illustrative and decorative purposes. We see a fascination with the Greek stories in Ovid's and Propertius' poetry, but sheer proliferation of mythologizing tends to become an end in itself. Mythological "references" in Propertius are often nothing more than literary "asides" for the recognition of an educated class of readers, while the poet's value lies more in his personal and subjective processes than in the mythological trimming.

For earlier authors Aeschylos and especially Pindar, the myths were intertwined with the poet's meaning in an inextricable interplay of forces, but already in the Hellenistic period and especially in Alexandrian circles the Greek myths were either reference points for new treatments of traditional themes, or used for purely decorative effects. By the time Apollodoros' Library of Mythology was put together about l50 B.C. for literary readers' use, the myths had become a web of stories which had lost both religious and historical significance. When the Roman learned his mythology out of Julius Hyginus' strange little abridgment in Latin, he was familiarizing himself with materials which he would find useful in his Classical reading, much as the modern student of literature uses his pocket dictionary of mythology to decode Milton's Paradise Lost or the Greek Drama which is on his reading list.

When one compares Greek mythology with the myth cycles of the Indian tradition, one sees immediately that there is a vast difference between the two. The Indian myths have as wide a story-telling range as the Greek myths, but they have also been incorporated into, and also formed by a strong religious tradition. They are used to develop philosophical points, to indicate moral choices, and to reinforce sincere religious views if value to the society. Part of the reason for this transparency of purpose lies in the fact that there is a continuous religious tradition which extends with many changes from Vedic to modern times, even as Hinduism became fused and amalgamated with Buddhism, to reappear later as the dominant religious system of India. Within this long, living tradition the position of the myths in India is full of new developments but their use is relatively stable and clear.

Working with the Greek myths carefully, I have always felt that they are far more History than Storytelling. Their theological and philosophical content is questionable and can often seem evanescent. We do know the Greeks were early in contact with India by the 7th century BC, and I believe some thoughtful Greeks absorbed some of the format of the Indian myths while entirely missing their religious and philosophical penchant. But most of the the Greek myths reach further back into the history of migrations into Europe from the Near East, and represent a different segment of historical evolution.

I and many others have found the mythic interpretations of Joseph Campbell misleading and embarked on an entirely wrong track. But Campbell achieved a certain degree of public fame in the decades before his death. I feel we should not leave the public with an impression of Campbell as the major authority in this area. Campbell started his studies with serious interest in the Hindu myths, which are remarkable examples of myth, story and philosophy rolled into one. But then he returned to the Greek materials, with a conviction that they were analogous to the Indian corpus and throughout his long career he preached the message of the Indian doctrine on very different Greek social and textual grounds. It is no pleasure to discredit Campbell under the adage "Nihil de mortuis nisi malum...", but his loose and uncritical treatment of Greek myths as a close cousin of the Indian mythologies, which has become popular in the last few decades, has led us on an entirely wrong path.

The Greek myths had no regular religious structure or "Theology" to reinforce popular belief, since Greek religion never became institutionalized beyond the needs of the individual city-state. Myths became formalized and politicalized after the fifth century, and in the Hellenistic period they became more of a political or even literary tradition than a religious phenomenon. It was the ancient Mystery Cults which were the real religion of the Greeks, from the time of Homer down into the Hellenistic Period, even with some features which were absorbed into early Christianity.The myths were reduced to a complicated system of formalized storytelling, largely bereft of historical and the earlier pre-Greek associations. Greek mythology turned into a formalized political apparatus with specific associations and rituals assigned to each city-state, but it could also be used as entertainment for a literary Hellenistic society. It is in this mode that it appeared in Bulfinch's l9th century translation as a delightful set of stories from the ancient world, arranged,compacted and regularized for modern readers.

Beyond being entertaining and useful for understanding the Classics read in translation and our older English poetry, what do the Classical myths tell us? Often their meaning is obscure, contradictory and (if taken literally) frightening. One might well ask if there is another way of approach. Euhemeros, a Greek writer on myth and mythic history in the early third century B.C. had already suggested an alternate path of interpretation for myths, his views were widely known in the ancient world, and the fact that he did develop a new method of approach shows that even in the Classical period people were not satisfied with the traditional, story-cycle approach to mythology. His methods were of a sort that educated Hellenistic Greeks could understand and use. His ideas enjoyed a considerable vogue in the Hellenistic world, although their extension was limited by the accusation of atheism which was leveled against their founder. In the Christian period Euhemeros' theories were used in another way, to demonstrate the man-made and hence harmless notions of the Greek gods, and his notions became a stock demonstration of the futility of the heathen world's atheistic theology.

In the last two centuries we have learned a great deal about man's behavior from the formal fields of sociology, psychology, political science and economics. Archaeology has thrown a whole new light upon man's recently unknown past, while anthropology has broadened the scope of all studies of the human condition. Scientific aids, such as carbon-dating methods and pollen identification, as well as information gathered by students of the history of science, have extended our range of inquiry far beyond what the ancient Greek could have imagined. This "new thought" must be present in any serious study of humankind, and much of this material is so important and pervasive that it simply cannot be ignored. Our study of Man's history extends from the very beginning of humankind some five millions years ago, to the time after the last glacial retreat, when much factual material about the rise of civilization as a social phenomenon starts to appear. A great deal of light on the human condition can be elicited from the rich matrix of human history interpreted in the light of the newly evolving disciplines, and it is in this spirit that the present study of Greek mythology is undertaken. Euhemeristic interpretation of myth has much to work with in conjunction with modern studies of myth as part of the human social and historical record.

The Greek myths are of two sorts. Some are what can be called the "mythic" myths, which are stories which find ways of telling important things about difficult and even ineffable matters through stories. Some of the Greek myths explore profound matters and have through the ages challenged people with examples of serious thought, these are the true and spiritual myths, which abundantly deserve religious and philosophical study, and constitute to a major section of Greek thought.

A second much larger group may be called the "historical" myths. These are the ones which Euhemeros identified and began to interpret, and it is these which the present study will discuss. Many of the myths, when viewed as mythology will seem confusing, self-contradictory and somewhat pointless as myths, but this is because are historical records of social and historical events which lose their meaning when read as quasi-religious mythology. And when the historical mythology loses its original social and historical factuality, it becomes inane and superficial. Over the years it has become common to tell and retell the myths as imaginative stories, leaving historical origins aside, rather than trying to fathom an original meaning.

A partial parallel may be seen in the fossilized Mother Goose stories which date from l8th century England. Children and their elders still enjoy telling and retelling the traditional tales about Jack and Jill, Humpty Dumpty, and the old lady who lived in a shoe, but most of us have no idea of they mean, if they do mean anything. Historical studies have shown that these stories once had pertinent, often trenchant political meaning, but for most of us, they are amusing but essentially meaningless. Yet by being familiar and historically "indestructible", they do form a part of our cultural baggage, meaning left quite aside. We can enjoy the mouse who went up the clock, without having any idea of what he was doing and that the story means. Appreciation of most of the Greek myths is exactly of this nature, we know and retell and enjoy Greek mythology without having much idea of what it is really about.

The germ of the idea behind the present study goes back to Euhemerus, a writer on mythology who flourished about 300 B.C. at the court of Cassander, the king of Macedonia. Very little is known about his life, even the place of his birth is disputed, the date of his death is unknown, and there are no personal particulars to give us a better idea of the man. He is known chiefly as the author of a book called The Sacred History, which purports to be based on inscriptional material found on the island of Panchaea while traveling around the coast of Arabia Felix. These inscriptions have never been taken to be any more real than the imaginary island of Panchaea, but the Sacred History also outlines the theory for which Euhemerus' name is famous. Euhemeros seems to have picked up some parts of his theory of interpretation from eastern sources which he heard of on his travels, but some parts of his theory may come from Greek sources, or even from his own imagination.

This study proceeds with an analysis of the Greek myths partly analogous to Euhemeros' outline. His scant material has been collected by Nemethy (Euhemeri Reliquiae, Budapest l889), as a source of what later became the Euhemeristic school of interpretation of the Greek myths. His suggestions seem perhaps hesitant or tntative, either because they were not well developed in ancient times, or because our historical information about them is so fragmentary. This study will graft onto the Euhemeristic rootstock, a number of concepts and sources of information which are available at the present time. Using Euhemeros' original and authentically Greek interpretations as a starting point, we can go a great deal further than he would have gone, probably further than he could have imagined.

Some of the inscriptions Euhemerus cites claimed to have come from Greece proper, others from "Panchaia" which may be as far away as Ceylon (Sri Lanka). The Sacred History has never been taken seriously as a document, but a full and entertaining description of Euhemerus' travels among the Panchaeans is found in Diodorus Siculus (V, c. 4l-46), which at first glance might seem to belong somewhere in the imaginative range between Psalmanazer's 1702 description of Formosa and Gulliver's Travels. But we have more skills these days about processing of presumed "fake" data for bits of fact, enough perhaps to make rereading the Sacra Historia worthwhile, if it is undertaken by someone competent in ancient Near Eastern history.

One may wonder why Euhemerus was traveling in the Near East in the first place. He was authorized to travel there by Cassander who found himself passed over after Alexander's death as ruler of Macedonia, a position which he clearly expected not only because he was ambitious, but also since he had married Alexander's half-sister Thessalonica. After killing Alexander's son Alexander, and Alexander's wife Roxana, and making connections with various powers, he did finally become ruler of Macedonia in 30l, just four years before his death. Everything that Cassander did, seems to have been done in opposition to Alexander. He worked against Alexander's family, against the assignment of rule in the empire, and he even rebuilt Thebes, which Alexander had previously razed. Hence it is not surprising that the chapter of Alexander's history, his trip to the East and specifically to India, should have been the one thing which Cassander could not equal. When he sent Euhemerus to the East on an exploratory cultural-historical mission, he probably thought he was ensuring for his memory the kind of fame which Alexander had accrued in his lifetime as world-king in Greece and abroad.

Euhemerus' name would have probably been consigned to the library files of antiquity forever, had he not incorporated in his writing the one idea which made his name famous. He maintained that heroes and gods were actually men of note, who were commemorated for their achievements by being relegated to divine status by a grateful populace. It has been suggested that this idea was drawn from Indian or Arabian sources, which Euhemerus may have picked up in his travels either from written materials or from discussion with the natives. Whatever the origin of this singular idea, the ancient world fastened onto it with great interest, since it promoted a train of historical thinking about the gods and heroes which few people in Greece had contemplated.

Euhemerus' theory proposed that the divine and semi-divine personages of myth were just people, perhaps remarkable people, but actually humans and not of divine origin. For some people Euhemerus was considered an evil man, oras the poet Callimachos put it "an idly babbling old man", or still worse, an atheist, although for Hellenistic scholars his name was not identified with atheism.

But the Christians took an opposite tack. If one could prove that the gods of antiquity were mere human fabrications, whether they were so constructed for bad or for good reasons, Christians can get rid of the weight of millennia of pagan thought with one swift stroke. This is rendered even more plausible when it is suggested that Euhemerus himself was an atheist. From this odd notion comes the important flow of Christian comment and quotation on this author, to which we owe a great deal of our knowledge of Euhemerus and his theories. A great deal of this material is hopelessly garbled, not only because of slanted arguments which the Christians were using, but also because they had almost no authentic material at hand on which to base their views. Second-hand historical criticism, especially when done with a zealot's vengeance, is not a good source for exact information, but this is exactly the case of the many Christian apologists who rehandled Euhemeros' name in the interests of proving old errors and establishing the true faith.

In l889 Geyza Nemethy brought together everything that is known about Euhemerus (G. Nemethy: Euhemeria Reliquiae, Budapest l889), and this material was carefully sifted through by Jacoby in his article on Euhemerus (Pauly Wissowa s.v. Euhemerus). Much of the ancient material is thin and disappointing, especially when one considers the serious studies in the Euhemeristic spirit which have been undertaken since the l8th century, starting with Banier's "Explication de la Fable, Expliquee par la Histoire ", the l9th century factualizing historians and even the sociology of Herbert Spencer.

Cicero intelligently remarks that "Those who maintain that famous and important men after their death became the gods to whom we pray and bow.... are these men not actually immune to religion? This kind of thinking has been developed by Euhemerus, which our Roman Ennius later translated and interpreted. But it is Euhemerus who has portrayed the deaths and burials of the gods. Does he (Euhemerus) seem on the one hand to have provided a factual base for religion, or has he actually removed the need for it?" (Cicero De Natura Deorum I 42).

One wonders why, with all the rich Greek literary materials available, the 3 c. BC Roman poet Ennius chose to translate the work of Euhemerus. It may have been that the Romans were uneasy with the superior status of the Greek deities as compared to their own familiar if shadowy Animistic spirits, and wanted an explanation which rendered these distant theological concepts more understandable. If they turned to debunking them by analysis, it suits well the hardheaded, practical Romans, who were at work developing a few things on their own, like Rustic Comedy and the genre of Satire. Most people in the third century B.C. would still have been aware of the subtleties of the old Roman animistic beliefs, which carried their own interpretation for a perceptive country folk . If the Greek gods and heroes were not interpretable, they would seem inaccessible, and in such a quandary Ennius' interest in approaching Euhemerus' doctrine seems reasonable. Since Ennius' translation with his own commentary has disappeared and is known only from slight references, there is little more that we can draw from this source.

Sextus Empiricus is not the best witness for subtle thought, he is as often disappointing in his remarks about early Greek philosophical figures as he is informative. But in the case of Euhemeros he is the only source which gives a clear and unequivocal statement of his basic views, and his remarks can serve as a general introduction to Euhemeristic thought:

"In the days when life was unsettled, those who were superior to the others in strength and intelligence, so as to get greater control over the rest (figuring that they might seem more remarkable and serious), fabricated the story that there was some surpassing and, as it were, divine power about their persons, and it is from this that they were venerated by the people as gods."

This is an extension of the rule of "man is the measure of all things", to the role of "measure of the gods". Man made the gods, and in a typically Greek mode, made them out of human forms and notions, and even eventually from human beings who had died. Xenophanes had said in parallel spirit some centuries earlier "if oxen and lions had hands which enabled them to draw, they would portray their gods as having bodies like their own, horses would portray them as horses, and oxen as oxen". Moreover he noted "Ethiopians have gods with flat noses and black hair, Thracians have gods with blue (glaukos!) eyes and red hair." With such well known statements serving as intellectual background, Euhemeros' words would not have been surprising to the educated Greek public. However he does, as Cicero remarked, work this process in reverse, and the results of his theorizing can finally dispense with deity altogether.

In the history of the West after the Greek period, divification is common. It started with the cult of Romulus and the Roman founding fathers, who are not actually deified, but given a special position of respect and veneration in the Roman consciousness. The serious tone in which the Augustan poets speak of these early heroic figures at Rome marks a semi-religious sanctity which verges more on the religious than on the historical side. The formal divification of Caesar and the Roman Emperors follows easily from Greek myths, from the old idea Eastern Monarchs were gods in their own right, and from the old Roman hero tradition. As Christianity gathered strength and numbers within the Roman world, it too found the practice of sanctifying certain holy men with the title of "saint" to be a useful focus for public veneration. The transition from humanness to godliness seems easier to imagine than the conversion of a god into a human being, which can only be done as aa temporary disguise. Holifying famous men produces hallowed examples of holiness out of human fabric, and this probably offers a greater opportunity for social identification than the gods who reside apart in the clouds like Epicuros' "reformed" deities, aloof and unconcerned.

The very familiarity of a great deal of Greek mythology, which was heavily used in a borrowed form by everybody from the Romans to the classically oriented nineteenth century, obscures the fact that many Greek myths are obscure in themselves, and so heavily reworked into later fabrics that the basic meaning of the original cannot be imagined. But following an Euhemeristic thread, and weaving it into the fabric of modern studies of the three pre-BC millennia which are now appearing, we may elicit from the Greek Myths a wealth of surprising information.

In summary, the aim of this study is to bring into focus the Greek myths of the class which belong less to a religious than to a historical class, and to elicit from them where possible,factual social and historical meaning. There is much important information which we can draw from myths if we treat them as carriers of the social and historical activities which were current in the early Greek and pre-Greek periods, at the time when story-cycles (later to become myths) were alive and responsive to social issues. In the last two hundred years we have learned a great deal about man and his early history. If we can use a portion of our modern, multifarious frame of reference in the interpretation of Greek myths, we can extend our knowledge of man's earlier history considerably further back into the shadowy realm of Pre-History.

Return to Greek Myth index

William Harris
Prof.Em. Middlebury College