1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Euhemerus

EUHEMERUS [Euemerus, Evemerus], Greek mythographer, born at Messana, in Sicily (others say at Chios, Tegea, or Messene in Peloponnese), flourished about 300 B.C., and lived at the court of Cassander. He is chiefly known by his Sacred History (Ἱερὰ ἀναγραφή), a philosophical romance, based upon archaic inscriptions which he claimed to have found during his travels in various parts of Greece. He particularly relies upon an account of early history which he discovered on a golden pillar in a temple on the island of Panchaea when on a voyage round the coast of Arabia, undertaken at the request of Cassander, his friend and patron. There is apparently no doubt that this island is imaginary. In this work he for the first time systematized an old Oriental (perhaps Phoenician) method of interpreting the popular myths, asserting that the gods who formed the chief objects of popular worship had been originally heroes and conquerors, who had thus earned a claim to the veneration of their subjects. This system spread widely, and the early Christians especially appealed to it as a confirmation of their belief that ancient mythology was merely an aggregate of fables of human invention. 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 the work itself is lost, and of the translation only a few fragments, and these very short, have come down to us.

This rationalizing method of interpretation is known as Euhemerism. There is no doubt that it contains an element of truth; as among the Romans the gradual deification of ancestors and the apotheosis of emperors were prominent features of religious development, so among primitive peoples it is possible to trace the evolution of family and tribal gods from great chiefs and warriors. All theories of religion which give prominence to ancestor worship and the cult of the dead are to a certain extent Euhemeristic. But as the sole explanation of the origin of the idea of gods it is not accepted by students of comparative religion. It had, however, considerable vogue in France. In the 18th century the abbé Banier, in his Mythologie et la fable expliquées par l’histoire, was frankly Euhemeristic; other leading Euhemerists were Clavier, Sainte-Croix, Raoul Rochette, Em. Hoffmann and to a great extent Herbert Spencer.

See Raymond de Block, Évhémère, son livre et sa doctrine (Mons, 1876); G. N. Némethy, Euhemeri relliquiae (Budapest, 1889); Gauss, Quaestiones Euhemereae (Kempen, 1860); Otto Sieroka, De Euhemero (1869); Susemihl, Geschichte der griechischen Litteratur in der Alexandrinerzeit, vol. i. (Leipzig, 1891); and works on comparative religion and mythology.