Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.07.21

M. Winiarczyk, Euhemeros von Messene. Leben, Werk und Nachwirkung. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, Band 157.   München/Leipzig:  K.G. Saur, 2002.  Pp. x, 235.  ISBN 3-598-77706-X.  EUR 80.00.  

Reviewed by Pieter W. van der Horst, Utrecht University, The Netherlands (
Word count: 1191 words

If anyone is qualified to write a comprehensive study of the life and work of Euhemerus of Messene, it is Marek Winiarczyk. This Polish scholar has devoted a lifetime to the study of ancient atheism, 'Religionskritik' and asebeia, and his record of publications in that field is impressive. Moreover, he is the editor of the meticulous Teubner edition of Euhemerus, with its extremely valuable first apparatus that well-nigh amounts to a commentary (Euhemerus Messenius. Reliquiae, ed. M. Winiarczyk, Stuttgart-Leipzig: Teubner, 1991). There can be no doubt that the book reviewed here is now, and will be for the decades to come, the most authoritative monograph on Euhemerus.

W. begins with the data of E.'s life and shows that we have very little to go by. We do not know even approximately the dates of his birth and death; we can only be sure that he lived sometime around 300 BCE. He almost certainly came from the Sicilian city of Messene, but where he led his active life as a scholar is unknown. In antiquity he was variously described as a geographer, a historian, a philosopher, or a poet; but W. himself describes E.'s Hiera Anagraphe as a novel, more precisely as a novel of travel.

From this novel not even one quotation has been preserved, it is only testimonies about its content that we have. It is for that reason, W. explains, that in his Teubner text one does not find the traditional division into testimonia et fragmenta; there are no fragments stricto sensu. W. interprets the title as 'heilige Geschichte' (sacred history). In this history E. explains that the gods originally were great kings and benefactors who were consequently worshiped as gods by their grateful subjects. The literary form is that of a journey to a mysterious and utopian island in the Indian Ocean, called Panchaia, where E. claims to have found in the temple of Zeus an inscription that revealed to him the truth about the origins of religious worship. In what is one of the most fascinating chapters of the book (ch. 4), W. delineates what were the 'ingredients' (M. cautiously puts "Quellen" in quotation marks) in the Greek tradition used by E. to construct his theory. Here he discusses the worship of heroes (with special attention to Heracles and Asclepius); the motif of gods as founders of their own cult or worship (Dionysus, Demeter); tombs of gods (Asclepius, Zeus: here one finds a very useful list of all 80 testimonies to Zeus' tomb on Crete [p.40 notes 51-53]; texts about the tombs of 12 other gods are listed exhaustively in Appendix III at pp. 197-8); the fundamental importance of euergetism (with an illuminating survey of the wide range of uses of theos for non-gods, pp. 44-46); rationalistic interpretation of myths (Hecataeus of Miletus, Hellanicus etc.); criticism of traditional religion by the Sophists (with a valuable note on the Sisyphus-fragment of Kritias, p. 51 note 96); and the beginning of cults of great generals and rulers (Lysander, Clearchus, Alexander etc.). W. rightly dismisses influence of Hecataeus of Abdera and Leon of Pella on E.

The following chapter deals with the simple, primordial social and economical order of Panchaian society according to E., and W. surmises that E., again recycling motives from earlier Greek literature, created this image in order to make it feasible that the sacred old inscription had been preserved exactly there. The temple of Zeus Triphylios on Panchaia is the topic of the next chapter and W. argues that this central sanctuary is a typical example of what Ernst Curtius has termed locus amoenus. The finding of the golden stele in this temple containing the hieros logos (with its 'euhemeristic theogony') again is a motif that was very popular in Hellenistic and Roman times. W. rightly draws a parallel here with the frequent discovery of holy books in the same period and denies Egyptian influence here.

In chapter 4 on his own interpretation of the story on the stele, W. first reviews previous interpretations and rejects the thesis that E. wanted to destroy belief in the traditional Olympian gods or to ridicule, or promote, Hellenistic ruler cults, or to reinterpret Greek mythology; rather, W. argues that the ruler cult was used by E. to elucidate the origins of religious belief and practice in general. Using the "ingredients" mentioned above, E. managed to create what is in the final analysis a partly traditional (see, e.g., the Sophists) and partly original account of the origins of religious awe, which is not to be taken to imply that E. is an atheos, especially in view of the fact that he regarded the sun, moon and stars as deities from the start.

Next W. discusses Ennius' rendering of E.'s work into Latin (between 200 and 194 BCE) and the impact of that translation. M. is of the opinion that Ennius did not want to undermine traditional Roman religious beliefs by this translation, but that he wanted to prepare the Romans for the deification of Cornelius Scipio Africanus. This is in my view the least convincing part of the book, but W. himself is the first to admit its hypothetical character. Ennius' translation is a rather free rendering, and sometimes even recasting, of E.'s text, but even so its quotations by Lactantius are important for the reconstruction of elements in the Hiera Anagraphe.

The helpful final chapter deals at length with the influence and reception history of E.'s work in antiquity ("Euhmerismus in der antiken Welt"), a tripartite chapter treating pagan, Christian, and Jewish reactions to and uses of E.'s ideas. Dionysius Skythobrachion, Persaeus of Kition, Mnaseas of Patara, Polybius, Diodorus of Sicily, Philo of Byblos, and many others pass in review. Often W. soberly warns against overhasty assumptions by many scholars of euhemeristic influences when other explanations are possible as well. Patristic writers sometimes criticize E. for his alleged atheism, but more often they happily refer to his theory as an unsuspected and welcome witness to the errors of paganism (in the catalog titled "Deos homines fuisse" in Appendix II, the vast majority of texts listed by W. are Christian). The same is the case with Jewish authors such as, e.g., the writer of the Jewish parts of Oracula Sibyllina III, although in Judaism euhemeristic theories were not taken into service for polemical purposes but in order to facilitate a reconciliation between biblical history and Babylonian and Greek mythology. In the chapter on E.'s influence on Jewish authors W. mistakenly says that of the epos of Theodotus only a fragment with the identification of Hamor (Gen. 34) and Hermes has been preserved; there are in fact several more fragments. On pp. 173-176 W. finally traces Euhemerism in several writers from the Middle Ages.

The whole book is heavily documented: there are copious notes with thousands of references to ancient sources and modern scholarly works. It would seem hardly anything escaped the sharp eye of W. He really offers everything one needs to pursue further study of E. Even though W.'s German may not always be perfect and fluent, the book is a pleasant read and I recommend it without reserve.

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