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Thoughts On Euhemerism

The Trope-Namer

So, there is a certain philosophy called Euhemerism. It is based on a Greek by the name of Euhemerus who wrote a story or two based on the idea that the Greek gods were all 'actually' kings and queens who came to be held up as sacred over time as people added to the real people's stories.

He wasn't terribly out there in thinking this. Some places did have ruler cults after Alexander the Great came around, and it was accepted in some circles that Herakles came about that way. He isn't even completely wrong now: The Pied Piper Of Hamlin may have been based on a time when young people from Hamlin were lured away by a locator to colonize places like Estonia and Latvia in the wake of the Northern Crusades.

He wasn't actually the first to vaguely have the idea, either, as Xenophanes and Herodotus had similar ideas. However, he was the first to make whole books about it and to develop it completely. He wrote in roughly the early 3rd or 4th century BC, and wasn't exactly popular with academics.

There were early Christian missionaries that sometimes used Euhermerus's idea to claim that the Greek gods were inferior to their own, and then people in the Early Modern Era and the Enlightenment went and turned that on the Bible, suggesting that it, too, is a much exaggerated and distorted report of historical events. Since then, it has become a popular tack to suggest that many myths are based on real people and events that have become exaggerated over time. Bullfinch's Mythology and other books on myths written in the 1800s and 1900s often used the philosophy to explain things like Nymphs.

These days, it comes up a lot in sensational History Channel type shows. "Who was the real Dracula?" "Who was the Real Robin Hood?" We've seen a few of these. So, let's think of what it all means.

Used (And Misused) To Make A Point

Newton apparently went down the path of trying to reconcile ancient history and mythology with the Bible, trying to make it all come out true. This meant ultimately rewriting all three things and stretching them beyond anything recognizable. But darn it, he had a world-view to push and no pesky facts were going to get in his way!

There was a touch of that thinking in that cat book I disliked so much (why dragons? Because ancient people had cats and owls!) Academics have kind of moved in other directions in studying myths, but many popularizers seem to make up 'just-so' stories to explain myths in a way that reinforce what they want to believe. It's really important that there is a 'material' or 'natural' explanation for someone because the person popularizing the idea doesn't want to let go of the story's main logic or lesson but doesn't want to worship a god or give other people any acknowledgment either.

Of course the most popular use was when early Christians were denigrating the pagan pantheons, and then certain high school kids are doing the same to them. They want to prove the other people are bad/wrong, and you should believe like them instead.

They also need to prove to themselves that they are on the right path. After all, if people can believe in far-fetched ideas that have no basis in any reality, that someone just made up one fine day and told, then maybe they are believing made-up things that someone invented out of whole cloth too. To question the foundation of how beliefs come into being and accept that we have deep-seated and quirky mental tendencies that can cause us to invent things is to suggest that your dearly held religion or belief may be resting on a foundation of sand too, just like those other bad/wrong people.

Missing The Point

I think there are times when looking for the 'real' whoever or whatever just misses what a story can give you.

Robin Hood is a good example. Robin was a really popular name for guys around 1300 or so when the poems first made the rounds, and the original stories are kind of goofy. According to Our Fake History podcast, hosted by Sebastian Major, in The Jest Of Robin Hood, Robin Hood didn't even put on a disguise when he went to the archery contest in Nottingham. He just waltzed in for the funsies and got arrested. He is amazingly dumb, and his friends have to rescue him. They also kill folks on the regular because reasons.

Later people did come to believe that this dummy with zero sense of self-preservation existed at one time and put up shrines to him, but doing so neatly ignores the message and joy of the story. Robin Hood is a semi-trickster character that resembles Stephanie Plum or Percy Jackson who ultimately win out, despite being the Medieval British version of Earl. When you go looking for the 'real' Robin Hood, you miss what these stories are telling you about what normal people of the time enjoyed and what we enjoy about the regular dude who goes on adventures and has bro-mances.


A Youtuber I like, (I think it was Hello Future Me, ) talked about how Ready Player One celebrated this shallow memorization of names and numbers, devoid of context or psychological meaning. He complained that this was not a great aspect of nerd culture, and I think that Euhemerism is a similar shallow, cherry-picking, nothing approach to these types of stories that he was complaining about.

Who cares if you remembered all the Power Ranger's names or the five main characteristics of Robin Hood and his Merry Men? So what? What would that mean for the broader world? The stories of Robin Hood, to go back to my example, is far more than 'an outlaw named Robin existed in the early 1300's, possibly with a girlfriend with a name similar to Marian and was somewhere near Nottingham, the Sherwood Forest, or the Barham Forest.' In fact, if all you do is try to find some guy named Robin in the Barham Forest, you have done the laziest, most narrow-minded kind of search known to man. You have skipped over, I might even say merrily skipped over, important political and social truths of that era. You have ignored what keeps Robin Hood appealing after all these many centuries. You could get so much more out of this beloved piece of cultural history if you allowed yourself to look into the folkloric and literary elements.

I think this is why these sorts of Euhemerus approaches are used in TV or YouTube. It can often be cheap, shallow sensationalism at the expense of getting anything real out of a piece of media.

OK, But...

There are times when you can hunt down the 'real' whoever. That is always nice, and it can illuminate a snippet in time.

It can also be used to bring people to information they might have otherwise found dull. Heading an article with 'The Real Story of The Pied Piper Of Hamlin' is a good way to attract people's attention to the deep rabbit hole that is The Northern Crusades, late Medieval German history, and the fine folkloric tradition of pipers and rats in stories.

It's a problem, however, when it takes over the conversation of a historical event, and saturates all the public facing history things with shallow nothing stories. It's a big problem when it is used to essentially propagandize and make political points. I wish, ultimately, that we could find space for long-form essays that take Euhemerism in stride but takes other tacks also to give people a real understanding.

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