Many lost works of Antiquity can be reconstructed to a considerable extent thanks to extensive citations of them found in later authors, as we saw in the article about Sanchuniaton. Another such case is the Bibliotheca historica (Historical Library) of Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian of the 1st century BC.

Of the 40 volumes of his work, only the first five books and numbers X to XX have come down to us complete. The rest exist only in fragments, which can be traced in the writings of Photios and other authors of early Christianity.

The one that interests us here is Book VI, because in it Diodorus collects part of the work of an earlier author named Euhemerus of Messina, who lived between 330 and 250 BC. Here we find this paragraph (via the Chronicle of John of Antioch):

And when Zeus was on the point of death he gave orders that his remains be laid away on the island of Crete; and his sons built him a temple there in which they laid him. This monument exists even to the present day, and it bears the inscription “Here lies Picus whom men also call Zeus.”

Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca historica VI–5.3

A strange assertion. Wasn’t Zeus an immortal god? Yes and no, depending on how you look at it. Diodorus resolves the issue by highlighting that:

As regards the gods, then, men of ancient times have handed down to later generations two different conceptions: Certain of the gods, they say, are eternal and imperishable, such as the sun and 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 honour and fame because of their benefactions to mankind, such as Heracles, Dionysus, Aristaeus, and the others who were like them

Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca historica VI–2

What he is explaining is precisely the theory of Euhemerus of Messina, a hermeneutic current now known as Euhemerism and which already had a precedent in the sophist Prodicus of Ceos (465–395 BC), a contemporary of Socrates.

Both claimed that the gods were nothing more than men who, through their actions, achieved such fame and renown that they became deified, and their story altered and exaggerated over time.

Euhemerus lived at the court of Cassander, king of Macedonia between 301 and 297 BC, where he must have held a diplomatic position, as Eusebius of Caesarea recounts in his Praeparatio evangelica (II 2, 59b–61a) quoting Diodorus.

Now Euhemerus, who was a friend of King Cassander​ and was required by him to perform certain affairs of state and to make great journeys abroad, says that he travelled southward as far as the ocean; for setting sail from Arabia the Blest he voyaged through the ocean for a considerable number of days and was carried to the shore of some islands in the sea, one of which bore the name of Panchaea

Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library VI–4

It is not very clear whether Euhemerus’ journey actually took place or is just a fiction invented with a philosophical character to expose his theories. After these travels, which would have taken Euhemerus to the Indian Ocean through Arabia, he would return to Alexandria following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, and there he wrote an account of his journey titled Hierà anagraphé (Ἱερὰ ἀναγραφή, translated as Sacred Inscription).

This is the lost work of Euhemerus cited by Diodorus. It is known that there was a Latin translation by Quintus Ennius (239–169 BC, considered the first great Roman epic poet), also lost, but fragments of it have been traced in the work Institutiones divinae of the Christian apologist Lactantius (c. 245–325 AD). Augustine of Hippo also cites fragments of Euhemerus’ text.

There is also on the island, situated upon an exceedingly high hill, a sanctuary of Zeus Triphylius, which was established by him during the time when he was king of all the inhabited world and was still in the company of men. And in this temple there is a stele of gold on which is inscribed in summary, in the writing employed by the Panchaeans, the deeds of Uranus and Cronus and Zeus

Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca historica VI–6

Why would so many Christian authors bother to quote Euhemerus so extensively? The above passage is a fragment of his work collected by Diodorus and passed down to us through Eusebius. It contains the clue to understanding why the matter interested them so much: Euhemerus would have found evidence that both Zeus and Cronus, Uranus, and the other pagan gods, were nothing more than mortal men. In that utopian (or not) island of Panchaea, he had seen a golden column in a temple of Zeus where the record of the births and deaths of many gods was inscribed.

In reality, what Euhemerus was trying to do was explain the myths, find the hidden meaning in them, which for him was of a historical and social nature. In short, to rationalize mythology in historical terms. Later philosophers would pick up the torch of this theory, such as Hume and Voltaire, who even wrote Dialogues with Euhemerus.

But before that, in 1220, the Icelandic bard Snorri Sturluson (who was Christian) also offered an Euhemerist explanation of the Norse gods. In his work Prose Edda, he proposes that they were nothing more than historical leaders and kings.

He states that Odin was born in Asia Minor, a descendant of the Trojan king Priam, and recounts his journey to Nordic lands:

And in all the countries they passed through, they were spoken of with great glory, so that they seemed more like gods than men

Snorri Sturluson, Prose Edda, Prologue

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on January 3, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Cuando Evémero de Mesina encontró el registro del nacimiento y muerte de Zeus, Urano y Cronos


Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica | Vicente Domínguez García, Los dioses de la ruta del incienso: un estudio sobre Evémero de Mesene | Carlos García Gual, La mitología: interpretaciones del pensamiento mítico | Wikipedia

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