Euhemerism is an approach to the interpretation of myths in which accounts are presumed to have originated from real historical people or events. Euhemerism supposes that historical accounts become myths as they are exaggerated in the retelling, accumulating elaborations and alterations that reflect cultural expectations. It was named for the ancient Greek mythographer Euhemerus, who lived in the late 4th century BCE.
In the ancient skeptic philosophical tradition of 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. Therefore, 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 worshiped after their death, or sometimes even while they ruled. For instance, Dion, the dictator 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, and by extension goddesses. After all, Euhemerus was living during the contemporaneous deification of the Seleucids and pharaohization of the Ptolemies.
Of course, Euhemerus wasn’t actually the first to attempt to rationalize mythology in this way. “Euhemeristic” views of history are found in many earlier writings including those of Ephorus, Herodotus, Xenophanes, and Hecataeus of Abdera. However, the enduring influence of Euhemerus upon later thinkers such as the classical poet Ennius and the modern author Antoine Banier identified Euhemerus as the traditional founder of this particular school of thought.
Either way, 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 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…
Here Socrates is meant to show how the story of Boreas, the northern wind, can be rationalized. That is to say, 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. Of course, Plato’s writing also seems to imply that this is equivalent to rejecting the myth. That is to say, 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 the minotaur could not easily be explained.
Still, even in the more recent literature, such as Bulfinch’s Mythology, euhemerism is termed the “historical theory” of mythology. More importantly, this can be applied to any time or place. For instance, in ancient Nigeria, a man named Onire became the king of Ife. Onire was quite prone to violence and victory. He fought valiantly for the people of Ife, but also murdered some of his subjects who failed to show him his proper respect. Although, in the end, this led Onire to kill himself with his own sword. The point is that he was later deified as Ogun.
To really understand how this works let's consider the Hindu god Krishna. The narratives of his life are generally titled as Krishna Leela. Of these, his most heroic exploits are chronicled in a specific Sanskrit poem, entitled the Mahabharata. As the story goes, the Kurukshetra War arose from a succession struggle between two groups of cousins, the Kauravas, and Pandavas. They were fighting for the throne of a city named Hastinaprain, in the ancient Indian kingdom of Kuru. The epic battle was so important that it involved a number of other ancient kingdoms, as well. They were all participating as allies of the rival relatives, on one side or the other.
Interestingly enough, Krishna refused to bear arms in the conflict between the Kauravas, who were the sons of Dhritarashtra, and the Pandavas, who were the sons of Pandu. He did, however, offer a choice of his personal attendance on one side, and the use of his army on the other. Thus, during the legendary combat, the Pandavas were led by none other than Krishna the charioteer, and his first disciple Arjuna the archer. In this way, the first sermon from Krishna was given as knowledge conveyed on the battlefield and described much later in the Bhagavad Gita.
This necessarily took place in the year 3067 BCE. We know this because the Mahabharat details a number of astronomical events, such as lunar and solar eclipses, as well as the conjunctions of planets, which all occurred around that time. More importantly, at least to the ancient Indians, there were two comets seen on the eve of the clash of the cousins. It’s also important to note that the Kurukshetra War took place at a time when Mars performed a retrograde motion near Antares. Many astrologers also point out that there was a transit of Saturn at Aldebaran, which is a standard omen of war, in its own right. This all definitively proves that the event occurred in the year 3067 before the common era.
This means that Krishna must have been born very early in the 31st century BCE, on the eighth day of the dark fortnight, in the month of Bhadrapada in the Hindu calendar. This corresponds with a period of time between August and September in the Gregorian calendar, but unfortunately, it’s hard to determine exactly what year it was. What we do know is that he was born into the Yadava clan, as the nephew of the evil king of Mathura, his uncle Kamsa. However, when the king heard a prophecy that his sister’s son would destroy him, Krishna was smuggled across the Yamuna River to Gokalu, for his own safety.
According to legend, he was raised by the leader of the cowherds. Then, once he was old enough, Krishna and his brother Balarama returned home to kill king Kamsa. Following this, Krishna led the Yadavas to the western coast to build the city of Dwarka, to get married to princess Rukmini. Their home was ideally located on the beach, right up until it became severely inundated by the Arabian Sea, and had to be relocated. Sure enough, there are a number of artifacts that support this claim. This is history derived from mythology and verified by archaeology. That’s euhemerism in action!
This is not an outdated or outlandish idea. Euhemeristic interpretations of mythology continue to this day, for good reason. In line with this, I agree with Herbert Spencer, who embraced certain euhemeristic arguments in an effort to explain the anthropocentric origin of religion, through ancestor worship. As such, I believe that rationalizing methods of interpretation that treat specific myths as traditional accounts based upon historical events are a valid feature of some modern readings of mythology. That is to say, if we dismiss myths outright then we might very well overlook the truth. Ultimately, the moral of the story is that not every fable is entirely fictitious.