Stoicism on Theology as Metaphor

Euhemerism or Mythology as “History in Disguise”

Euhemerism or Mythology as “History in Disguise”

What if the Greek and Roman myths were “history in disguise” — stories about real historical individuals and events that gradually became exaggerated and distorted through centuries of retelling? Some influential ancient Stoics appear to have been proponents of a theological doctrine, later known as Euhemerism, which said just this.

The term “Euhemerism” is derived from the name of an obscure Greek philosopher called Euhemerus, believed to have been born in Messina, Sicily. Euhemerus was a friend and courtier of King Cassander of Macedonia, and a contemporary of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism. His major work Sacred History was written in the early 3rd century BC, during the first decades after Zeno founded his Stoic School in Athens. Only fragments of Euhemus’ writings, quoted by other authors, survive today. However, from these the broad outlines of his philosophy can be seen.

Euhemerus argued that mythological accounts of the gods should not be taken literally but rather interpreted in a more rational and naturalistic manner. He believed that most of these myths originated in accounts of real events and individuals, which had become exaggerated and mythologized over time. Storytellers naturally tend to embellish stories and so what began as naturalistic accounts of real historical events, such as the lives of famous rulers, are gradually distorted by continual retelling over the centuries and turned into mythological accounts of supernatural events. Today, we might also describe Euhemerus as favouring a relatively skeptical perspective on ancient myths and theology.

In short, Euhemerus appears to have developed a systematic account of ancient myths, which claimed that the gods were originally great kings, heroes, and benefactors of humanity, who became objects of religious veneration over time. He noted that the deification or apotheosis of powerful rulers was not uncommon, even within living memory, such as that of the tyrant Dion of Syracuse, a couple of generations earlier, or the Egyptian pharaohs. (Centuries later, of course, Stoics would witness the Romans also deifying their emperors.) This observation naturally led to the skeptical view that myths concerning most deities originated in a similar manner but were fashioned into increasingly supernatural stories.

There appear to be two main ways in which this tradition reinterprets myths naturalistically:

  1. Some myths about gods are read as symbolic representations of natural phenomena, e.g., the Egyptians worship the River Nile as a god, the discovery of wine led to its personification as the god Dionysus, etc.

  2. Others myths are viewed as resulting from the deification of kings (also pharaohs and emperors) and various great men and women

For example, Euhemerus claims that Zeus was actually a real king of Crete, who became so highly revered that legends gradually turned him into a god. This interpretation was supported by the fact that the Cretans were known for making the controversial claim that a tomb near Knossos, inscribed with the words “The tomb of Zeus”, contained the mortal remains of a Cretan king upon whose life the myth of the Greek god was originally based. Porphyry later claimed that Pythagoras discovered the tomb and inscribed it with the words “Here died and was buried Zan, whom they call Zeus”. In fact, Cretans had earned a reputation among other Greeks for being liars and atheists because of their controversial claim that Zeus had, in reality, been a mortal king of Crete.

These naturalistic and somewhat skeptical methods of interpreting myths don’t necessarily lead to atheism. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, positions resembling Euhemerism were widely regarded in the ancient world as forms of atheism or agnosticism, which could lead to the persecution of those advocating such ideas.

Although he became known for promoting it, Euhemerus was not the first to develop a rational, naturalistic interpretation myths. Some of the natural philosophers who preceded Socrates appear to have held similar views. For example, Xenophanes observed that people tend to construct representations of the gods in their own image:

But if cattle and horses and lions had hands
or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do,
horses like horses and cattle like cattle
also would depict the gods’ shapes and make their bodies
of such a sort as the form they themselves have. […]
Ethiopians say that their gods are snub–nosed and black
Thracians that they are pale and red-haired. — Xenophanes

If a god exists he must be quite unlike humans. “But mortals think that the gods are born and have the mortals’ own clothes and voice and form”, says Xenophanes. In other words, we naturally tend to create anthropomorphic images of gods. The natural philosophers who came before Socrates therefore realized that the gods of Greek mythology were probably, in some sense, merely human inventions. However, it was from the Sophists that the Stoics inherited their naturalistic interpretation of the gods as “history in disguise”.

The Sophists as Euhemerists

Protagoras, the first famous Sophist, earned considerable notoriety for his agnosticism. According to Diogenes Laertius, for instance, his book On the Gods began with the words:

As to the gods, I have no means of knowing either that they exist or that they do not exist. For many are the obstacles that impede knowledge, both the obscurity of the question and the shortness of human life. — Protagoras, On the Gods

Protagoras’ most famous student, the Sophist Prodicus, a friend of Socrates, was also frequently labelled an “atheist” or “agnostic” because, a few generations before Euhemerus, he embraced a naturalistic reinterpretation of the gods as symbolic personifications of natural phenomena.

Prodicus of Ceos says that ‘the ancients accounted as gods the sun and moon and rivers and springs and in general all things that are of benefit for our life, because of the benefit derived from them, even as the Egyptians deify the Nile.’ And he says that it was for this reason that bread was worshipped as Demeter, and wine as Dionysus, and water as Poseidon, and fire as Hephaestus, and so on with each of the things that are good for use. — Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians

These sort of interpretations appear to have been very familiar to educated Greeks. For instance, in the Phaedrus, Plato portrays Socrates discussing the myth about Boreas, the god of the north wind, abducting the Athenian princess Orithyia. Socrates mentions that some intellectuals, perhaps Sophists like Prodicus, claim the myth originated because a strong gust of wind blew a real girl called Orithyia over the rocks by the riverside, causing her to fall to her death, something that became transformed over time into the myth that she had been carried off by Boreas, the god of the north wind. However, Plato’s Socrates finds this mode of naturalistic interpretation somewhat unpersuasive.

The Early Stoic Euhemerists

The famous allegory of Prodicus, called “The Choice of Hercules”, as recounted in Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates, was apparently the text that inspired Zeno of Citium to become a philosopher. It ultimately led to the founding of the Stoic school. As we’ll see, we’re told that one of Zeno’s most influential students accepted Prodicus’ interpretation of religious myths as metaphors for natural phenomena. Although we can’t be certain, it’s quite possible therefore that Zeno himself also adopted this view, as it may have followed quite naturally from his pantheism.

In Diogenes Laertius, who provides one of our best accounts of early Greek Stoicism, we’re told:

The deity, say they, is a living being, immortal, rational, perfect or intelligent in happiness, admitting nothing evil [into him], taking providential care of the world and all that therein is, but he is not of human shape. He is, however, the artificer of the universe and, as it were, the father of all, both in general and in that particular part of him which is all-pervading, and which is called many names according to its various powers. They give the name Dia because all things are due to him; Zeus in so far as he is the cause of life or pervades all life; the name Athena is given, because the ruling part of the divinity extends to the aether; the name Hera marks its extension to the air; he is called Hephaestus since it spreads to the creative fire; Poseidon, since it stretches to the sea; Demeter, since it reaches to the earth. Similarly men have given the deity his other titles, fastening, as best they can, on some one or other of his peculiar attributes. — Diogenes Laertius

This is attributed to Stoics in general, although the context suggests it may perhaps have been the original view of Zeno, perhaps stated in his treatise On the Whole.

For the Stoics, therefore, the universe considered in its totality was divine, a single living rational being, which they called Zeus. “Zeus” and “Nature” were therefore basically synonymous terms, as they would later be for Spinoza, another pantheist, who became notorious during his lifetime for saying Deus sive Natura — “God aka Nature”. By interpreting the traditional myths as metaphors for Nature as a whole, or aspects thereof, the Stoics could potentially avoid the charge of atheism for which earlier philosophers had been persecuted. Although sometimes the very ambiguity of their position would backfire and bring the same charge upon their heads.

Zeno, in his Republic, reputedly taught that all temples and religious sculptures should be abolished. Similar views resurface three centuries later in the Pharsalia of Lucan, Seneca’s nephew, which portrays the Stoic Cato of Utica refusing to seek an oracle from the priests in a temple to Zeus (called Jupiter by Romans) because he is a pantheist and therefore believes that god is everywhere and within everyone equally.

Did he select the barren sands
to prophesy to a few and in this dust submerge the truth
and is there any house of God except the earth and sea and air
and sky and excellence? Why do we seek gods any further?
Whatever you see, whatever you experience, is Jupiter. — Lucan, Pharsalia

In an article entitled ‘The Stoic Worldview’, John Sellars, one of the leading contemporary scholars of Stoicism, writes:

It is difficult to know how serious this talk of ‘God’ was. The early Stoic Cleanthes appears very sincere in his ‘Hymn to Zeus’, for instance, and we have no reasons to doubt his sincerity. However the Stoics were also well known for offering allegorical interpretations of the pagan Gods, including allegorical interpretations of the portraits of the Gods in Homer for instance. Famously, the Stoic Chrysippus once said that Zeus and his wife Hera are actually the active and passive principles in Nature, breath and matter. (In one source, Diog. Laert. 7.147, divine names for Nature are explained on the basis of their etymology.) Much later, in the third century AD, the philosopher Plotinus said that the Stoics bring in God into their philosophy only for the sake of appearances (Enn. 6.1.27). If ‘God’ is simply another name for Nature then it doesn’t really do much work in their philosophy; it doesn’t add or explain anything, so one might easily drop the word without any obvious loss. — John Sellars

Indeed, the Stoics became especially known for interpretation the Greek myths allegorically, as metaphors or symbols for various natural phenomena and processes. For instance, Henry Sedgwick, in his biography of Marcus Aurelius, summarizes the original teachings of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism as follows:

Zeus, Hera and Vesta,
And all the gods and goddesses
Are not Gods, but names
Given to things that lack life and speech;
For Zeus is the sky, Hera the air,
Poseidon the sea, and Hephaestus fire.

We’re actually told that Persaeus, the most prominent of Zeno’s immediate students, adopted this agnostic or atheistic way of interpreting the gods from the teachings of Prodicus.

Persaeus appears in reality to be prepared to dispense with a divinity, or at least take up an agnostic position; seeing as, in his treatise On the Gods, he says that Prodicus was not unpersuasive in writing that things that provided nourishment or other help to us were the first things to be acknowledged and honoured as gods, and later that persons who first found new means of obtaining food or providing shelter, or invented other arts and crafts were called names like Demeter, Dionysus and the like. — Philodemus, On Piety

Cicero also attributes Prodicus’ view of the gods to Persaeus:

Persaeus says that it was men who had discovered some great aid to civilization that were regarded as gods, and that the names of divinities were also bestowed upon actual material objects of use and profit, so that he is not even content to describe these as the creations of God, but makes out that they are themselves divine. — Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods, 1.15

In his recent book, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, Tim Whitmarsh therefore classes the Stoic Persaeus as an atheist, like Prodicus before him. Early Christian authors familiar with Stoicism, would turn this into a way of refuting the very existence of their pagan gods. They enthusiastically embraced Euhemerism, with regard to the Greek and Roman gods, allowing Clement of Alexandria to exclaim: “Those to whom you bow were once men like yourselves”.

However, Persaeus wasn’t the only Stoic to use arguments based on the historical theory of mythology. We actually have a surviving text from the Stoic Cornutus, titled the Compendium of Greek Theology, which elaborates at great length on the symbolic interpretation of the gods, drawing heavily on speculations about ancient etymologies.

For example, the Greek goddess Artemis was traditionally given the epithet Phosphoros, meaning “light-bearing” because, says Cornutus, the moon, like a lesser version of the sun, also “emits light and illuminates the surroundings to some extent,” especially when it is full. The moon, he says, came to be depicted as the huntress Artemis because it appears to “chase” the animals of the zodiac “and swiftly catches them up — speed being something associated with a hunt as well.” Cornutus therefore concludes:

In the same way, my child, you can apply these basic models to everything else that comes down through mythology concerning those considered to be gods, in the conviction that the ancients were far from mediocre, but were capable of understanding the nature of the cosmos and ready to express their philosophy in symbols and enigmas. — Cornutus, Compendium of Greek Theology

Cornutus wanted to remove “superstition” from the ancient myths by interpreting them symbolically but he still believed piety was important and customary rituals should be preserved. Throughout his text traditional myths concerning each of the gods are understood metaphorically as references to different aspects of divine Nature.

Seneca, who was a contemporary of Cornutus, makes it clear that he sees the ancient myths as akin to children’s stories and that no educated adult should take them literally.

I am not so foolish as to go through at this juncture the arguments which Epicurus harps upon, and say that the terrors of the world below are idle — that Ixion does not whirl round on his wheel, that Sisyphus does not shoulder his stone uphill, that a man’s entrails cannot be restored and devoured every day; no one is so childish as to fear Cerberus, or the shadows, or the spectral garb of those who are held together by naught but their unfleshed bones. — Seneca, Letters, 24

It’s not necessarily the case that skeptical positions like Euhemerism should lead to atheism or even agnosticism. One might believe in the divinity of Nature as a whole, like the Stoics, or in a single transcendent God, like the Christians, while interpreting numerous ancient myths as “history in disguise”, deriving them from distorted accounts of real historical individuals and natural phenomena. However, once you start down the skeptical road, it can be hard to turn back. Someone who basically reinterprets all of the traditional myths allegorically is surely bound to go on to question whether or not gods even exist at all.

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