BMCR 2023.06.03

Évhémère de Messène: Inscription sacrée

, , Évhémère de Messène: Inscription sacrée. Fragments, 23. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2022. Pp. cii, 330. ISBN 9782251453736

The term Euhemerism turns up in a number of European languages in the mid-nineteenth century, denoting a theory according to which the members of the polytheistic pantheons were originally humans and had been deified because of their more than ordinary accomplishments in the service of mankind. Its eponym, Euhemeros of Messene, is one of those shadowy figures of classical antiquity who, despite leaving little direct traces in preserved texts and artifacts, are credited with influencing the thinking of later times to a considerable degree. Euhemeros became known for expounding his theory in a book called Ἱερὰ ἀναγραφή (Holy Inscription).[1] The title of the book refers to a text of venerable age that Euhemeros claimed to have found inscribed on a gold plaque (στήλη χρυσῆ) in a temple of Zeus on an island called Panchaia (Παγχαία) in the ocean south of Arabia; the inscription was in “Egyptian” or “Panchaean” script. It was quoted in full – obviously translated into Greek – in his book, which also contained a report on his travel to the island and a description of its geography, inhabitants, etc. The book was lost already in antiquity and, just like the writings of numerous other philosophers and historians, it must now be reconstructed from more or less accurate data provided by later ancient or, even, medieval sources.

The most recent attempt at a reconstruction is the volume under review here. It is based on Sébastien Montanari’s thèse de doctorat (Évhémère de Messène ou La mythologie retrouvée: enquête sur l’Inscription sacrée), completed in 2013 under the direction of Bernard Pouderon at the University of Tours. It is organized in four main sections: a copious introduction (pp. ix–ci), an edition of the relevant Greek and Latin texts with translations into French (pp. 2–97, the first complete translation into a modern language of the Euhemerian remains), annotations on these texts (pp. 101–173), and a string of “annexes” (mainly additional texts of ancient date with mythographic content, pp. 175–267). Montanari and Pouderon are jointly responsible for the text edition and the translation, Montanari alone for the other portions. The book is rich in content, and a great variety of issues is discussed. For the reader’s convenience useful summaries, tables and ample indexes have been added. The 25-page bibliography seems to contain all relevant literature from the last two centuries.

As is customary in editions of Euhemeros and similar reconstructed texts, Montanari and Pouderon separate testimonies on the author’s person and biography from fragments of the text he wrote. Winiarczyk, in his Teubner edition of 1991,[2] gave up this distinction and called all his Euhemeros texts “testimonies”, arguing that only genuine excerpts deserve to be labeled fragments and that no such material has been preserved from Euhemeros’ book. Montanari and Pouderon think it advisable to differentiate between matter originating from the original book – i.e. “fragments” – and data from other sources (“testimonies”), but they agree with Winiarczyk that no verbatim quotations from the Holy Inscription can be identified; the “fragments” mirror the contents of Euhemeros’ book, not its wording. The treatment of a piece of text, which its source presents as a literal quote (Sextus Empiricus, Adv. mathematicos 9.17 Εὐήμερος … φησιν) and which an earlier editor – Némethy – had recognized as a portion of Euhemeros’ actual praefatio, is illustrative: it now appears as “Témoignage 7”, not among the fragments.

The text portions presented by Montanari and Pouderon are practically the same as those of Winiarczyk’s edition but numbered differently. A few of the approximate dozen passages labeled Dubia by Winiarczyk appear among the testimonies; the rest of them are defined as outright Falsa, and those that Winiarczyk in his edition classifies as Falsa are not listed separately but, if at all, commented upon in Montanari’s annotations. Compared to earlier editions, both Winiarczyk and Montanari–Pouderon offer much more material. The new edition has been still more enriched by a selection of Textes complémentaires. These include, e.g., fragments of Dionysios Skytobrachion, Leon of Pella and Philon of Byblos on cosmogony and divine history that have been preserved by Diodoros, Cicero, Eusebios and others.

The reconstruction of Euhemeros’ Holy Inscription relies on a great number of miscellaneous sources of varying date, from Kallimachos, the Hellenistic poet, to Eustathios, the metropolitan of Byzantine Thessalonica; the most important ones are Diodoros of Sicily (book 5 and the fragmentary book 6 of his Bibliotheca historica), Eusebios of Caesarea’s Praeparatio evangelica and Lactantius’ Divinae institutiones. Montanari, in his introduction, has a clarifying discussion on the comparative reliability of the material preserved by these three. Diodoros ranks highest among them. He evidently had access to the original text of Euhemeros’ book and, since he trusted it to be a truthful account of the travel to Panchaia and of the marvels to be found there, he is likely to have treated the text with respect and reproduced it without deliberate distortions. However, as Montanari emphasizes, Diodoros was not just a compiler but had a governing plan for his own work and adapted his text stylistically to the trends of contemporary historiography. These aspects must be kept in mind when assessing its accuracy.

Unfortunately, book 6 has not been preserved in the Diodoros manuscripts but is known only from adaptations and references in later texts, primarily Eusebios’ Praeparatio, and Eusebios is not a totally trustworthy reporter. Being a Christian, he welcomed the rational explanation that the pagan gods were born originally just as humans and not, e.g., evil demons, whose powers also Christians must fear. Yet, Eusebios’ reports cannot be regarded as trustworthy as those of Diodoros, since he must polemize against the fundamental presupposition of Euhemerism, viz. that humans could be deified.

Lactantius was not familiar with the Greek sources but relied on Quintus Ennius’ Latin translation of the Ἱερὰ ἀναγραφή, dating from early second century B.C. Just like Eusebios, Lactantius had the ambition to liberate his Christian brothers and sisters from fear of the pagan gods. Yet, Montanari, pointing to scraps of archaic Latin preserved by him, classifies Lactantius as “un citateur assez fidèle d’Ennius”. The quotations indicate that Ennius used prose for his translation, not hexametric poetry, as you might expect from “the father of Roman poetry”. Montanari suggests that Ennius chose prose for his medium because it made a more precise rendering of the original possible than poetry with its stylistic conventions. Thus, Ennius, via Lactantius, becomes a potential source for the reconstruction of the Ἱερὰ ἀναγραφή.

Diodoros, Eusebios, and Ennius/Lactantius are the sources most often quoted by the present editors. Their index locorum includes other well-known names too: Cicero, Strabon, Pliny the Elder, Augustine. Montanari and Pouderon have not themselves collated manuscripts or other original text witnesses. The Greek and Latin texts have been taken over, with only few deviations, from existing reliable critical editions. Relevant textual problems are discussed by Montanari in his annotations, so the critical apparatus accompanying the Greek and Latin texts can be kept at a minimum.

A reference to “the third book of the Ἱερὰ ἀναγραφή” (Athenaios, Deipnosophistai 14.658e Εὐήμερος … ἐν τῷ τρίτῳ τῆς Ἱερᾶς ἀναγραφῆς) indicates that the Holy Inscription consisted of at least three books. Unlike Winiarczyk and earlier editors, Montanari and Pouderon try to identify the individual books from which the fragments originate. The first book appears to have been a description of Euhemeros’ travel and of the island of Panchaia. Diodoros used it in his book 5, so the main lines of its content can be reconstructed (fragments 1–7).

To a more sketchily known second book Montanari and Pouderon assign fragments 8–28 that treat the Olympian gods. Most of these fragments are transmitted by Ennius/Lactantius. They may sometimes be misleading, for Ennius transferred the Greek gods to a partly Romanized setting and used the Latin names for them. The world in which he lived had also seen kings and other remarkable individuals becoming idolized and receiving divine honors. Ennius may have thought his own patrons, the Roman war heroes Scipio Africanus and Marcus Fulvius Nobilior, worthy of such distinctions. Montanari suggests that this may explain why he became fascinated by Euhemeros’ account of men who were transformed into gods.

The rest of the fragments (29–43) have varying content and varying origins. They are placed under the appropriately imprecise heading LIBER III & VARIA.

Lack of precision also characterizes large portions of Euhemeros’ biography. Discussing the unclear points, Montanari concludes that his native city was most probably Sicilian Messene, rather than its Peloponnesian namesake or any other of the alternative locations mentioned in the sources. But Euhemeros did not belong to a Sicilian context only. Montanari rejects the suggestion that Euhemeros was associated with the kings of Syracuse but admits that his plausible acquaintance with Lipari and the Aeolian Islands of the Tyrrhenian Sea may have inspired his description of the imaginary island of Panchaia and its archipelago. He most probably was – or claimed to be – in the service of the Macedonian kings. That is what he implied when he described himself as φίλος Κασσάνδρου τοῦ βασιλέως ‘friend of King Kassandros’.

Thus, Euhemeros seems to have been active in the reign of this king, i.e. 305–297 B.C. Kallimachos (Iambi 1.9–11, frg. 191 Pfeiffer) probably offers another chronological clue. He refers to “the old impostor” (γέρων ἀλάζων) who “long ago invented Panchaean Zeus” (πάλαι Πάγχαιον ὁ πλάσας Ζᾶνα) and now is active at “the sanctuary in front of the wall” (τὸ πρὸ τείχευς ἱρόν). Montanari takes this as an indication that Euhemeros, in his later years and in Kallimachos’ lifetime, spent some time at Parmenion’s Serapeion in Alexandria. The precise dates of his birth and death remain unknown.

Since antiquity, Euhemeros has often been classified as an atheist, an ἄθεος. According to Montanari and Pouderon this is a mistake. Like most of his compatriots, Euhemeros believed in the Olympians and in other gods. His idea that these gods originally were humans, on the other hand, was not generally acceptable. Philosophers (Sextus), historians (Polybios) and geographers (Eratosthenes, Strabon) found faults with it. Euhemeros himself seems not to have paid much attention to such criticism, but it is remarkable that Diodoros and Ennius believed in his account of the island of Panchaia and what he claimed to have found there. Christians like Eusebios, Lactantius and Augustine found support in it for the belief in the uniqueness of their God. They exploited it for their own objectives, and it is mainly their interest in a pagan text that has made it possible for philologists of today to reconstruct it.

To sum up: Montanari and Pouderon have given us an exhaustive summary of what is possible to know today about Euhemeros and his Holy Inscription. The translations of the Greek and Latin texts into a modern language are particularly helpful. The book also points forward to future research. The extensive annotations will be of prime importance to anyone who turns to questions concerning Euhemeros and his achievement that still await a definite answer: what was his motive for creating a theogony, why embed it into a fictitious travel story, whο were his predecessors or models, what benefit did he expect to gain from it, etc.



[1] On the ambiguity of the word ἀναγραφή, here rendered by ‘inscription’, see Montanari, pp. xxxvi–xxxviii. One might consider alternatives: ‘record’, ‘account’ or simply ‘writing’.

[2] Euhemerus Messenius, Reliquiae. Ed. M. Winiarczyk, Stuttgardt & Leipzig 1991. Cf. also id., Euhemeros von Messene. Leben, Werk und Nachwirkung, Munich & Leipzig 2002, pp. 15–16 (review: BMCR 2002.07.21). Earlier editions: Euhemeri reliquiae. Collegit, prolegomenis et adnotationibus instruxit Geyza Némethy, Budapest 1889; Felix Jacoby, in his Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker, Leiden 1923/1957 (Erster Teil, pp. 301–313); G. Vallauri, Evemero di Messene. Testimonianze e frammenti con introduzione e commento, Torino 1956.