An Ancient Theory of Religion

Euhemerism from Antiquity to Present

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Nickolas P. Roubekas
  • New York, NY: 
    , January
     184 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


An Ancient Theory of Religion sets out to distinguish the authentic thought of the Greek writer Euhemerus (fl. c. 300 BCE) and the ideas that have been associated with him since he wrote. This is a daunting task, since Euhemerus’s writings come down to us second hand, at best, and the more extensive expositions of the core of his thought are third hand. The endeavor founders, however, on weaknesses in presentation and in methodology. First, the author nowhere sets out clearly and concisely a definition of euhemerism against which we can gauge his assessment of its reception. Second, it is debatable whether what is taken as one of the defining features of euhemerism, the recognition of distinct heavenly and earthly gods, should actually be attributed to Euhemerus.

Roubekas lays out the lineaments of what we might plausibly reconstruct as Euhemerus’s thought, but he does not clarify the difficulties inherent in such a reconstruction. It is simply assumed that the division between celestial gods, who are everlasting, and terrestrial gods—mortals who achieved divine repute—belongs to Euhemerus himself. The passage in Eusebius’s Praeparatio Evangelica which discloses this theologia dipertita, however, is ambiguous. It could just as easily be taken to attribute the distinction between heavenly and earthly gods to Diodorus Siculus, the sole conduit of Eusebius’ knowledge of Euhemerus. This would be consistent with Diodorus’ treatment of the gods elsewhere. I agree with Roubekas that the theologia dipertita belongs to Euhemerus and he does bring forward the best evidence for this attribution (without discussing it as such), namely the references in the remains of Euhemerus to the reverence offered to the heavenly bodies by Uranus. But he does not indicate the problematic nature of this aspect of euhemerism, let alone set out an argument for attributing the theologia dipertita to Euhemerus. Instead he problematizes tangential matters, such as whether or not euhemerism constitutes a theory of religion (a category that would have been largely meaningless to Euhemerus) and whether or not Euhemerus’s thinking was Hellenocentric. (Herodotus would suggest that the Greeks understood their own gods as local manifestations of universal deities.)

Roubekas tries to draw a distinction not only between Euhemerus and later manifestations of his thought, but also between Euhemerus and older or contemporary writers who are assumed to have influenced him, namely Xenophanes of Colophon, Democritus, Prodicus of Ceos, and Critias. This effort results in a solid and detailed analysis of both Euhemerus and his supposed sources. At least we get a clearer idea of what euhemerism is not. Given the stress Roubekas places upon the celestial gods in Euhemerus’s system, however, the precedents for the divinity of the heavenly bodies to be found in the Platonic material and Aristotle should have been given more extensive treatment.

Another helpful section of the book is the treatment of the sources for our knowledge of Euhemerus. Roubekas indicates that what we have are passages from Diodorus (first century BCE) that paraphrase Euhemerus, passages from Eusebius (fourth century CE) that paraphrase Diodorus paraphrasing Euhemerus, and passages from Lactantius (early fourth century CE) that refer to the lost Latin translation of Euhemerus by the poet Ennius (third to second centuries BCE). He rightly asserts that we must take the context and intentions of each of these preserving authors into account as we assess the information they offer on Euhemerus. Here and throughout the book, however, there is a dubious insistence on two distinct strains of evidence, one from Diodorus/Eusebius and the other from Ennius/Lactantius. Our knowledge advances further, I think, when we look for insight into one group of remains from the other and assemble a cumulative picture.

Roubekas also tackles the assertion that Euhemerus was an atheist. He might have been a great deal clearer about the ancient definition of this category, which was essentially one who failed to revere the traditional gods according to traditional forms, but Roubekas comes close to passing the sensible verdict that Euhemerus was an atheist from the ancient perspective, but not from the modern one, inasmuch as he accepted the divinity of the heavenly bodies (presuming, once again, that the theologia dipertita belongs to him). Here he also treats what Euhemerus’s ancient polytheist critics found objectionable in his thought and writing.

The most insightful and valuable portion of the book is the chapter treating Euhemerus’s relation to the establishment of the Hellenistic ruler cults. Roubekas draws particular attention to Euhemerus’s relation to the Macedonian king Cassander, who rejected the incipient ruler cult so avidly promoted by many of his contemporaries. This suggests that Euhemerus was no proponent of the ruler cult and allows us to find some irony or satire in his account of the deification of Zeus and the rest. Roubekas also insists that Euhemerus dealt with gods, but not heroes. However, the implication that Euhemerus dealt with heroes is found in the same place as the theologia dipertita, and if we accept the latter as Euhemerus’s we can hardly reject the former out of hand.

The crux of An Ancient Theory of Religion seems to come in the chapter where Roubekas excoriates the Christian apologists for misrepresenting Euhemerus: “Early Christian authors managed to mutilate an ancient theory of religion” (128); “Christian arguments can hardly qualify as ancient euhemerism” (142). There are many problems with this chapter, such as the attempt to draw a distinction between “eternals” (gods from birth) and “immortals” (deified humans), even though no Greek gods were eternal inasmuch as they were all born at some point, and the failure to articulate a connection between the efforts to create a Christian ethnos, which are discussed at length, and the Christian exploitation of Euhemerus. But the real problem is that Roubekas rejects as invalid Euhemerists those who only accept the small kernel of insight from Euhemerus, that even the chief gods were once human, and demands that they accept the full elaboration of thought and detail found in his writings. This problem colors the rest of the book and the last chapter is an extended reproof of those who would misapply the term ‘euhemerism’ in treatments of world mythology and historical accounts the origins of religion.

Roubekas is a Euhemeristic purist and wants whatever is called “euhemerism” to correspond to Euhemerus’s original text insofar as we can reconstruct it. But I consider this purism misguided. The remarkable idea at the core of Euhemerus’s writing was that the gods of myth and traditional cult, had once been human beings. Dionysius Scytobrachion, writing a generation after Euhemerus, offers his own narrative of humans who come to be considered gods, which differs in emphasis, characters, and storyline from Euhemerus. Only the theoretical kernel of deified humans is constant. This suggests the existence of a tradition, stemming from Euhemerus, that emphasized a specific understanding of the gods, conveyed through varied narratives. Dionysius Scytobrachion is not mentioned in Roubekas’ book.

The editors at Routledge are to be censured for failing to root out the lapses from idiomatic English that occur on practically every page. Their failure presents a constant distraction to the reader and represents a disservice to the author’s ideas.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Benjamin Garstad is professor of classics at MacEwan University, Edmonton, Canada.

Date of Review: 
September 26, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nickolas P. Roubekas is a postdoctoral research fellow at the School of Ancient Languages and Text Studies, North-West University, South Africa. He received his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the Aristotle University, Greece, and held research and teaching positions at the University of South Africa and the University of Aberdeen, UK.

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