February 14, 2011

The modern origin of religious skepticism

Egypt has been in the news a good bit lately. While the country has been under the thumb of one oligarch or another for most of written history, Egypt has managed to mature into a modern, advanced society. It seems therefore rather appropriate to discuss some of the region’s history, and perhaps a bit of the intellectual origins of the Land of the Pharaohs.

Egypt is a land replete with larger than life characters and astounding human progress. There have been ups and downs, yet some of this planet’s greatest civilizations were nurtured by the fertile lands of the Nile valley.

The seeds of modern culture originated not in Egypt herself, but across the Mediterranean in a land in the north of Greece called Macedon. Alexander the Great, Macedonian King and would be world conqueror, planted those early seeds. Following the rape of Gaza in 332 BCE, Alexander was welcomed into Egypt as a savior, even assigned god-like status. Alexander must have liked this because he began referring to himself as the son of Zeus.

Alexander built a great city along the Mediterranean coast, naming it after himself. Historian Michael Wood said of Alexandria, "it was the first city of the civilized world in size, elegance, riches, and luxuries: where one could obtain anything imaginable to fill the needs of the body and soul. As its famous Pharos lighthouse was a welcome sight for weary travelers, Alexandria itself seemed to have acted as a beacon for merchants, curious tourists, religious prophets, and most importantly: the finest intellectual minds of the times.”

Around the same time Alexander ascended to the Macedonian throne following the death of his father King Phillip II, a happy Sicillian philosopher was born of privileged parents in Messina. We know he was a happy fellow because his name, Euhemerus, is taken from the Greek word euhÄ“meros, meaning ‘happy or prosperous.’ It is unclear if Euhemerus ever met Alexander, but we know that he did find some association with the Alexandrian Court.

In 331 BCE, Alexander departed Alexandria on a quest to conquer Babylonia and the Persian Empire. He never returned, and died in 323 BCE.

Cassander next ascended the Macedonian throne. The young King seemed to take a bit of a shine to Euhemerus, giving him a job in his court. According to Euhemerus writings, Cassander sent him on long, adventurous journeys, of which he kept detailed diaries. There are those who describe these journals as fictitious and I’m quite inclined to agree. Most of the writings are lost. What we know of them is from the surviving works of his contemporaries.

It one of the most important works, of which only scraps survive, Euhemerus describes a voyage by ship to an island somewhere in the Indian Ocean.  The island is called Panchaea, and Euhemerus describes the culture he encountered there in great detail. He found on the island a golden monument upon which were inscribed the feats of Greek gods. The monument was called Hiera anagraphÄ“, or ‘Sacred Scripture’.

The stories spoke of the great Kings, Uranus, Cronus, and Zeus. These were human Kings later worshipped as gods. The island and the society of which he writes are imaginary, but the Kings described bore resemblance to real Hellenistic rulers of the day. This tale was commentary on the practice of these rulers pretending to serve the people, yet being desirous, in Alexanderesque fashion, of worship and elevation to the status of god.

Thus Euhemerus became mythographer in chief in the court of King Cassander. His tenure in the King’s court was brief, yet his skeptical philosophy would spread across western culture. The theory of god as man didn’t make much of an impression on his fellow Greeks, but the euhemerizing of man-gods had quite the effect on much of the rest of the civilized world.

The written works of Euhemerus have survived only in scraps and in the recollections of contemporaries such as Diodorus and Theodorus. The religious skepticism of a man 300 years dead at the time the Christian Messiah was born has had enduring effect. 600 years after the death of Euhemerus, the early Christian apologist Lactantius utilized euhemeristic thought to debunk the Greek gods in his work Divinae Institutiones. Interesting that he never made a similar leap with his on religious heroes.

Euhemeric thought treats religious myth as a reflection of an actual historical event… just made larger than life by societal change, frequent retelling and reinterpretation. In the Cyrenaic philosophical tradition embodied in the skepticism of Theodorus, euhemerism opened broad, new avenues for interpretation of ancient myth and contemporary religious belief.

Over those brief four years Euhemerus was fortunate enough to have access to the resources of the Cassandrian court, he benefitted greatly from the intellectual environment present in Alexander's great city by the sea. With exposure to Egyptian culture, the scholars, philosophers and tourists who often visited Alexandria, and the availability of Demetrius' great library, the knowledge of the developed world lay at his feet.

Euhemerus may have been the first true skeptic. Truly it is a shame so much of the original work has been lost. Still, with only those few salvaged fragments of his writings, Euhemerus managed to pave the skeptical path for many generations of philosophers.



Old Weird Libra said...

This man sounds very interesting, but you did not cite a source. Where can I read more about him? On line, perhaps?

Mule Breath said...

Well, as I said there is nothing written by Euhemerus that has survived intact so anything we might find is in reference to his writings. There are several online and offline resources available.

Wikipedia is always a good place to start. The citations in the articles provide good source material.

A good synopsis of anything religion related may be found in the Encyclopedia of Religion, portions of which is available online in scanned version. Hardcopy purchase of this 15-volume set is too pricey for my budget, but the larger libraries generally keep a set on the shelves.

There is one Latin language book available, Euhemeri reliquiae, but I do not read the language so my familiarity is via scholarly papers citing the book.

The papers, however, are mostly available on a pay-per-use basis. One that can be downloaded from SSRN
without cost is The Comic Affixation to Myth: a survey of the Poetae Comici Graeci, by University of Dallas professor Alan Grau Sumler.