Euhemerism: Do Myths Have Their Roots in Real History?
A Myth Around a Myth
Right up until the 19th century, the Trojan War and all the figures surrounding it, such as Achilles, Hector, and a certain wooden horse, were believed to be figments of ancient imaginations. The war itself was a myth, a fiction, written to entertain, not a record or remembering of actual historical events. After all, the archaeological site believed to be Troy was nothing more than the ruins of a small town. Not a majestic city state, capable of going toe-to-toe with the mighty Greeks.
Then, the 1870’s answer to Graham Hancock, Heinrich Schliemann, ‘discovered’ (no he didn’t) and destroyed (NO!? He didn’t!?) the actual site of Troy at Hisarlik, in modern Turkey. Suddenly the Homeric epic seemed a lot more plausible, or at least its backdrop did: the Trojan War. You see, there is a layer in the site at Troy, dating to around the time The Iliad’s events are believed to have taken place, that shows some signs the city was sacked; such as, arrowheads, scorch-marks and fractured skulls. After this discovery, the Trojan War could no longer be written-off as pure fantasy.
Evidence for a battle in the right place at the right time does not automatically verify the Iliad; and it certainly doesn’t verify the existence of Achilles or the Trojan Horse. It does, however, give us pause for thought. If this layer at Hisarlik is the Troy of the Trojan War, if there is truth to the tale, even just a grain…what other ‘stories’ that we’ve told, over the last several thousand years, are actually echoes from a distant past? Was there ever a city called Atlantis? Did Moses really lead the slaves on an exodus? Is the sun actually being chased by a wolf that’s trying to devour it?
Of course, we now know that last one to be true  but what about the rest? Join us as we delve into euhemerism, the theory that myths originated as history but were distorted over time, thanks to the world’s longest game of Chinese whispers.
The Origin Stories of Origin Stories
There are many different theories as to how myths originated and if you know an academic’s background, you can probably guess which one they subscribe to. Psychologists, like Carl Jung, often see myths as symbolic of the universal human condition. Their characters are archetypes of our nature and their events reflect our shared experiences. Anthropologists, like Bronislaw Malinowski, tend to think myths are functional, that they help teach moral lessons and foster a sense of community. Linguists might take a comparative approach, being less concerned with ‘why’ myths came into existence, more ‘when’ and ‘how’, their common cross-cultural features and evolution over time.
Even the old geologists have got in on the act and they’re notoriously glacial. There’s now a whole field known as ‘geomythology‘ that looks to explain myths through geological and astrological events; such as, earthquakes, tsunamis, fossil discoveries, supernovas and eclipses. Next we’ll have meteorologists trying to explain myth as being caused by the bloody weather…
Euhemerism then is the natural home for rationalists, those seeking logic in the creation and propagation of fantastical memes. To euhemerists myths are rooted in reality: primitive explanations for natural occurrences; or historical events, that became more exaggerated with each repetition of the story. Once upon a time, some kid named Zeus (or, more likely, ‘Dyeus‘) might have started a rebellion against his father, defeating his champion in battle and becoming king. 10 generations of embellishment later, he fought a monster called Typhon and became king of the gods, slaying him with a thunderbolt given to him by a one-eyed giant, before retiring on top of a mountain to follow his true passion: randomly impregnating mortals by any means necessary.
As someone who primarily sees themselves as a storyteller, I bring my own biases to this debate. I see the content of the myth as being more important than its accuracy or purpose. A good story will stand the test of time regardless of its truth or function. Therefore, all these theories play a role in creating, understanding and shaping mythological stories. Their origins can come from anywhere, as long as the plot and the characters resonate, the myth survives.
If we assume I’m correct (and I usually do) then we should not expect all myths to have euhemeristic origins. However, we should expect some myths to have a historical or naturalistic basis, at least in part.
The History of Historicity in Myth
The first attempts at euhemerism were made by the Ancient Greek mythographer Euhemerus (hence the name), who thought that the gods were deifications of historical figures. Mortals made eternal through the power of story. Euhemerus even believed that Zeus had died on Crete and that his tomb could still be found there.
Whilst these interpretations weren’t popular in Euhemerus’ own time, they did catch on much later, after the Christians got hold of his ideas. Who, you guessed it, used his interpretations as a way of dissing paganism and boosting Jesus’ street cred. Disproving Jupiter and Zeus, they thought, would help prove that Jesus was the real son of God because…apparently that’s how logic worked in the Early Middle Ages? This tradition was continued by the most fantastically named person outside the Marvel Universe, Snorri Sturluson. Who is pretty much the sole reason we know anything about Odin, Loki, Thor, and the cosmological Battle Royale that is Ragnarok.
Snorri (such a good name) thought similarly to Euhemerus, he saw the Norse gods as ancient kings. In Odin’s case, the forefather of all the royal lineages of Scandinavia. He even went full Virgil (author of the Aeneid, the founding myth of Rome) and claimed the Aesir had a lineage stretching back to King Priam, the ruler of Troy in the Trojan War. Snorri believed they had traveled north after the city fell because, well, if the Greeks and the Romans were there at Troy, what are the chances the Vikings weren’t as well, eh?
Honestly, is logic a recent invention or something?
Eventually, euhemerism would do a 180 and be applied to the Judeo-Christian mythos itself, to diss Christ’s divinity. Nowadays, it’s quite common to hear people proclaim that they think Jesus was a real figure, who probably led a spiritual or political movement. However, he wasn’t the son of God, capable of walking on water and rising from the dead. These ‘miracles’ were embellishments, added as his legend grew and became manipulated by scholars. This is a very euhemeristic interpretation of the Christ myth.
Time to Get Real
So, given our ever advancing knowledge in the fields of science and archaeology, which myths seem likely contenders for a euhemeristic interpretation? I mentioned Moses and Exodus earlier, which is an interesting one to explore…so I’m not going to. It’s so interesting I think it probably deserves its own article to do it justice. There are naturalistic explanations out there for everything from the burning bush to the pillar of fire, via every sodding plague, as well as an intense debate over when it happened…or if it even happened at all! Far too much to cover in the few hundred words I have left.
Plato’s Atlantis, the story of a majestic city that fell beneath the waves, is another common tale to get euhemerised in the west. However, real archaeologists have called bullshit on a lot of the pseudo-nonsense surrounding it. Even the most logical attempts at an explanation, such as the myth being a memory of the eruption of Thera (Santorini) and the collapse of the Minoan Empire, have no hard evidence to support them. Most scholars now believe Atlantis to be a work of fiction and, unless we find its ruins one day, that seems unlikely to change.
Yet, there are some stories about sunken cities, from around the world, that have proven to be true. Dvaraka, an opulent city state described in many Hindu texts, including the Puranas, was a sacred pilgrimage site in ancient India. It was said to have been built by everyone’s favourite Hindu hero, Krishna, who then made the city his home…and this place makes Atlantis seem like downtown Detroit! Palaces bedecked in jewels, with magnificent pleasure gardens and parks, birdsong ringing through the streets. It sounds a lot better than the endless concrete, glass, and smog most of us are subjected to, doesn’t it?
Hooray for progress!
In the Mahabharata, 7 days after Krishna’s death, Dvaraka was consumed by the ocean:
The sea, which had been beating against the shores, suddenly broke the boundary that was imposed on it by nature. The sea rushed into the city. It coursed through the streets of the beautiful city. The sea covered up everything in the city. I saw the beautiful buildings becoming submerged one by one. In a matter of a few moments it was all over. The sea had now become as placid as a lake. There was no trace of the city. Dvaraka was just a name; just a memory.
Eventually, this story was consigned to myth. However, in 1963, underwater archaeologists (yes, that’s a thing) discovered the ruins of the ancient city off the coast of the modern day Dwarka in Gujarat. Later, this was confirmed to be a sizable city-state, with satellite towns, until it was submerged around 1500 BCE.
Myth suddenly gave way to history.
And Dvaraka isn’t the only ancient flood myth to have gained some credence. The founding tale of the Chinese Xia dynasty, who were long thought to be a mere fiction, now has some hard evidence to back it up as well.
The story goes that Yellow River kept flooding, harming people and crops, so the chief appointed a man named Gun to solve the problem. Gun built a huge dam made from earth but, after a while, the dam failed and the problem got worse (not least for Gun, who was executed). Gun’s son Yu was now appointed to solve the flooding. Yu took a very different approach, digging great channels to divert the flood water. It took him decades but eventually everyone was saved, Yu became emperor, and the Xia dynasty flourished.
In 2007, geologists examining sedimentary layers along the Yellow River, were gobsmacked when they found indications of massive flooding from almost precisely the same time the myth is supposed to have taken place. Further examination revealed exactly what happened.
An earlier earthquake had caused a mudslide, which blocked off the river for 9 months, collecting billions of gallons of water in a mountain lake. Eventually this natural dam burst, releasing a wave 30-stories high. This was one of the largest known floods of the last 10,000 years. Settlements 2,000km (1,240 miles) downstream would’ve been obliterated. This took place at a time the river was changing course – something that leads to regular widespread flooding anyway. Andrew Marr, in his series on World History, even mentions that there is evidence for these ‘river taming projects’ (although I have been unable to find a corroborating source for this).
More intriguing still, is the fact that the advanced Bronze Age culture, the Erlitou, begin to flourish after this time. Could they be the ‘mythical’ Xia? Whilst we can’t definitively link the two, I’m sure that’s not going to stop some people (*cough*Hancock*cough*). However, real historians and archaeologists are now starting to ask these questions as well.
One of the most eerily accurate myths (if you ignore the supernatural/godly context), when compared to historical facts, comes out of the oral traditions of the Klamath people of North America. Who believe Crater Lake, in Oregon, came about after a battle between 2 gods: Llao and Skell.
Llao was the god of the below-world, he lived under the mountain La-o Yaina but could often be seen climbing out the top. Skell was the god of the above-world and controlled the weather. Llao fell in love with the daughter of the Klamath chief; and when she refused him, he got angry and sent a curse of fire. The people asked Skell for help and he obliged. The two gods hurled hot rocks and storms back and forth, trembling the earth and causing huge landslides.
Eventually their fighting got so rough a darkness set over the world. Terrified and scared, brave men from the Klamath sacrificed themselves in the hopes of stopping the conflict. Inspired by this, Skell fought harder, eventually sending Llao back to the below-world once and for all. He collapsed La-o Yaina on top of his fallen foe and covered the hole with rain. Forming the lake and smothering darkness with tranquility.
In case you hadn’t guessed it already, this myth describes part of a long history of volcanic activity in the region. The largest of these explosions, 7,700 years ago, is almost perfectly preserved in the stories of the Klamath and led to the collapse of what is now known as Mount Mazama. The storms that followed created the lake. This tale was passed on from generation to generation only by word of mouth and is adding to a growing body of evidence that oral traditions retain much more accuracy than we give them credit for.
However, that is another story for another day.
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Do Your Own Damn Research!
If you would like to learn more about euhermerism, there is a book by Nickols Roubekas available here.
Alternatively, if you would like to learn more about mythology generally, try watching this awesome series from Crash Course: