Christian Euhemerism in the Latin Middle Ages

18 Pages Posted: 19 Jun 2014

Date Written: September 1, 2008

Abstract

In Late Antiquity, Christian apologists adopted the views of the rationalist Greek (or Sicilian) philosopher Euhemerus of Messene (fl. ca 300BCE) in order to refute the theological claims and cultic practices of pagan, principally Roman, religion. The traveller Euhemerus had written an account, now lost, of his journey to a mythical island which he called Panchaia, the Hiera Anagraphe (Sacred Record), where he claimed to have seen a golden column in the tomb of Zeus Triphylian (of the three tribes) on which was inscribed in his own words the history of his achievements. In the philosophical trend of Greek rationalism, Euhemerus sought to explain the mundane origins of the Hellenistic divinities. The ancient gods were once merely ancient royalty whose mortality had been forgotten by the ages. The record of the mortal deeds of Zeus Triphylian were used by Euhemerus to support this argument. He attributed their god-like powers remembered in the tragic poets to simple human superiority and their divine intelligence to their mere primacy: they were the first to accomplish great inventions and deeds and were remembered for it. Although several Greek philosophers held to such notions, Euhemerus’ name was applied by historians to the general rationalist idea: Euhemerism. [The investigation of later Euhemerism suffers from the movement’s close association with Greek rationalism in general. We can define Euhemerism 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 principle 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. But could not the wide sense of Euhemerism be said of many Greek rationalist interpretations of Hellenistic divinities? In some cases, simply “rationalist” might be a better qualifier for such ideas. Although the wide and strict sense above might not be relevant when charting the history of ideas, they claim some consideration when discussing the influence of Euhemerus and Euhemerism in later authors. To give an example, although Fulgentius in his Mythologies espouses views on the mortal history of the Greek mythical heroes Perseus and Ganymede (they were ancient generals) which he undoutably received from reading Greek rationalist interpretations, these views are not “Euhemerist” in the strict sense since what we know of the Hiera Anagraphe is silent on the matter. In a wider sense, however, they are in the current of Greek rationalist thought which we might call “Euhemerism”. It could be said then that Fulgentius’ views on Perseus and Ganymede reflect a kind of broad “Euhemerism” which paradoxically does not rely on the known writings of Euhemerus. In the following discussions I will be careful to denote when appropriate which sense, wide or strict, I am using.] References to the Hiera Anagraphe appear among Greek authors especially Diodorus of Sicily whose paraphrases of Euhemerus make up much of books 5 and 6 of the Library. In the 2nd century BCE, the Hiera Anagraphe was adapted into Latin by Quintus Ennius whose work, now lost as well, was referenced and cited by Lactantius and Sextus Empiricus. Euhemerist formulations also found their way into Cicero’s De Natura Deorum and Macrobius’ commentary on the Somnium Scipionis. Eusebius of Caesarea copied Diodorus’ adaptation of Euhemerus in the second book of the Praeparatio Evangelica, a manual for pagan converts to Christianity. The Euhemerism of the early Christians, Tertullian, Minucius Felix, Commodian, Arnobius, and Augustine were received mostly third-hand. Only Arnobius' pupil, Lactantius had read Ennius’ Latin adaptation when he summons Euhemerus for his arguments against Roman paganism in the Divine Institutions. [J.W. Schippers, De Ontwikkeling der Euhemeristische Godencritiek in de Christelijke Latiijnse Literatuur (diss., Utrecht; Groningen, 1952), pp. xxx].

Keywords: Euhemerism, Euhemerus, Greek Philosophy, Early Christianity

JEL Classification: B31

Suggested Citation

Killings, Steven, Christian Euhemerism in the Latin Middle Ages (September 1, 2008). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2447292 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2447292

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