The individual is defined by their context, while at the same time they also define the context in which they exist- a push and pull of personal and collective narratives about the world. For quite a while, I have been interested in ideas of personal mythology- more specifically, how each individual perceives the world based on their own interpretations of a particular space and time. In exploring this idea, I stumbled across the concept of euhemerism in mythology. Euhemerism is generally understood as a way of interpreting mythology as having originated with real-life people and events. For example, an approach using euhemerism in relation to the story of Hercules from Greek mythology would go something like this: Hercules existed long ago as an ordinary, and perhaps very strong man. His story was embellished and re-told until he became a literal demigod according to the ancient Greeks ("Euhemerus").
Euhemerism traces back to the Greek philosopher Euhemerus. Euhemerus lived from about 330-260 BCE and is primarily known for arguing that the Greek myths began with men, not the gods ("Euhemerus"). Euhemerus felt that the myths
“were part of a long historical tradition by which the Gods were originally men, known for some great historical feat or some important social and cultural advancement and later raised to god- hood. This view was current in Greek intellectual circles and was popular in the early Christian period as well, probably as a way of defusing the idea of pagan religion.” ("Euhemerus")
Interestingly, although the myths of the ancient Greeks are generally thought as being intrinsic to the Greek's spiritual belief system, this shows evidence that in certain ancient circles, philosophy questioned this system and tried to explain it with a logical and historical framework. Further more, it is true that at least some myths are actually based on historical events, as demonstrated by the historical and archeological evidence that supports Homer’s epic The Iliad. Euhemerism therefore becomes extremely complex because it leads to the assertion that everything and anything could be part of a mythological narrative. In fact, philosopher and writer Roland Barthes argues that “myth is a word chosen by history” ("Mythologies"). This analysis of myth is something that Barthes explores in his work Mythologies, and highlights the presence of the every-day in mythology, turning the mundane into the extraordinary.
Roland Barthes’ Mythologies presents elements of contemporary life as hypothetically mythological happenings. Mythologies is a collection of essays, written between 1954 and 1956, where Barthes employs euhemerism to mythologize what could otherwise be described as part of the mundane or the everyday. As an introduction to the work, Barthes writes; “I resented seeing Nature and History confused at every turn, and I wanted to track down, in the decorative display of what-goes-without-saying, the ideological abuse which, in my view, is hidden there” (Barthes 10). In other words, Barthes was interested in uncovering the ways in which we use devices of mythology to describe our everyday, and the potential harm of such actions.
Barthes also brings up the importance of language in the context of euhemerism. In Mythologies he states that “myth is a language” (Barthes 10). Examples of this language of myth, and how it can be used are the objective of Mythologies, and the methodology is apparent in how he describes elements of the every day. In a discussion about chlorinating fluids in his essay “Soap Powders and Detergents”, Barthes writes “the implicit legend of this type of product rests on the idea of a violent, abrasive, modification of matter: the connotations are of a chemical or mutilating type: the product ‘kills’ the dirt” (Barthes 35). This excerpt exaggerates the actions of the cleaning agent as overtly violent, and personifies an inanimate object, thus creating room for a narrative, and further discussion of good and evil- which are the basic components of myth-making and therefore important to ideas of euhemerism.
Euhemerism is also inherent in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Invisible Cities is a fictionalized account of the conversations between Marco Polo and Emperor Kublai Khan. While it is based on the reality of the two men’s historical encounter, as a work of fiction it also moves beyond what is absolutely supported by history, filling in the gaps with imagined conversations and lending itself to a comparison to mythology. The book primarily consists of Polo describing cities of the world to the Khan, with brief moments of dialogue between the two men at various intervals. Interestingly, the books starts with the assertion that the Khan does not think Polo is being truthful: “Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening” (Calvino 5). This sets up a question in the truth of Polo’s words, but also allows for the reader to believe that maybe there is something more valuable than truth hidden in the descriptions of these cities. This idea of a more-than-truth feeds into euhemerism and the draws of a mythological narrative.
The argument for euhemerism in this text is further supported by Italo’s use of language in the sections that Polo narrates. Take for example, the second description of a city that Polo gives:
“ When a man rides a long time through wild regions he feels the desire for a city. Finally he
comes to Isadora, a city where the buildings have spiral staircases encrusted with spiral
seashells, where perfect telescopes and violins are made [...]. He was thinking of all these
things when he desired a city. Isadora, therefore, is the city of his dreams” (Calvino 8).
Such an idealized place has little hold on reality. The language used by Polo’s character glosses over gritty details and instead focuses on setting up Isadora as a place of wonder and perfection. It situates itself with the language of myths because it goes beyond the banality of every-day life to create a space of idealization. This is linked to euhemerism because the language takes things that may have, at some point, been at least half true and embellishes them to create an alternate and mythological narrative.
Mythology is a complex system of structures, of which the idea of euhemerism is one way of deciphering texts. On a personal level, I found the assertion that the truth eventually leads to myth to be interesting, complex, and an important consideration when trying to objectively view the world. As stated by Barthes’ Mythologies, perhaps the everyday is subject to the process of euhemerism and will at some point be ushered into a mythological narrative. My question then would be: is it possible to objectively discuss the present without buying into some kind of mythological narrative?
Ajax and Achilles Playing Draughts, Exekias, 530 BCE Archaic Greek, Ceramic black figure-ware : This vase depicts a portion of the Iliad from Greek mythology, with ties to historical events
Bust of Euhemerus
excerpt from Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities (copywrite 1972)
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Translated by Annette Lavers. Paris, Johnathan Cape Ltd., 1972.
Calvino, Italo. Invisible Cities. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974.
Harris, William, Prof. Em.. "Euhemerus". community.middlebury.edu/~harris/GreekMyth/Preface.html, (accessed November 11, 2016)
New World encyclopedia contributors, "Mythology", New World Encyclopedia, www.newworldencyclopedia.org/p/index.php?title=Mythology&oldid=985781(accessed November 10, 2016)