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2nd century CE marble statue of Heracles based on a Greek statue of 450 BCE.
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain

Mar 19, 2008
Gods in the Flesh – Part Two

The celestial marvels witnessed by our ancestors instilled a picture of superhuman involvement in the greatest events of mythology.

As seen in part one, classical thinkers followed two strategies to justify the “humanity” of their major gods despite the clear astronomical nature of the latter: they would either adduce a story of catasterism, explaining how a certain “human being” was once placed in the sky as a star or a planet, or they would redress the celestial connotations of such gods as “scientific accomplishments” of the people they had been supposed to be.

As a further example of the latter, Uranus, the first supreme sky god in Hesiod’s system, was downgraded to a humble scientist:

“… Since he was a careful observer of the stars he foretold many things which would take place throughout the world; and for the common people he introduced the year on the basis of the movement of the sun and the months on that of the moon, and instructed them in the seasons which recur year after year. Consequently the masses of the people, being ignorant of the eternal arrangement of the stars and marveling at the events which were taking place as he had predicted, conceived that the man who taught such things partook of the nature of the gods, and after he had passed from among men they accorded to him immortal honors, both because of his benefactions and because of his knowledge of the stars; and then they transferred his name to the firmament of heaven, both because they thought that he had been so intimately acquainted with the risings and the settings of the stars and with whatever else took place in the firmament, and because they would surpass his benefactions by the magnitude of the honors which they would show him, in that for all subsequent time they proclaimed him to be the king of the universe.”

Although the disavowal of theism, implicit in Euhemerism, comes a step closer to a modern understanding of the “gods”, the fallacy at the root of this theory is exposed by the almost ridiculous abundance of early and virtuous astronomers the Euhemerists ended up with. Moreover, hardly any human society have dispensed with the astral component of myth entirely; no matter how persistently artisans and ritual actors modeled the gods on human beings, traces of the cosmic nature of these entities nearly always survived.

Even Plutarch, in fairness, recorded the opinion of “... some who without reservation assert that Osiris is the Sun … and Isis is none other than the Moon”, while heaping scorn on Euhemerus, who “... drew up copies of an incredible and non-existent mythology, and spread atheism over the whole inhabited earth by obliterating the gods of our belief and converting them all alike into names of generals, admirals, and kings, who, forsooth, lived in very ancient times and are recorded in inscriptions written in golden letters at Panchon, which no foreigner and no Greek had ever happened to meet with, save only Euhemerus.”

In a structural way, the deathblow to Euhemerism is given by the comparative approach to mythology, as increasingly refined sets of intercultural parallels help to filter out universal motifs from incidental, secondary and local additions. Clearly, worldwide motifs such as a divine creator of the sky or a giant being upholding the sky with his arms are not satisfactorily explained on the postulate of a separate ‘real historical person’ for each individual case. A much more economic interpretation is that such motifs trace to forms and movements once observed in the sky by the people that devised the myths.

Yet in that case, why did people worldwide tend to depict these gods in terms of human beings? A combination of two different factors may be at work here. Firstly, anthropologists point out that the concept of “ancestor” was a fuzzy one in most traditional societies, where the “totem” ancestor of a tribe or clan could be anything from a mammal, a bird, a plant, or a rock, to an actual human being. Inherited myths of the deeds of such diverse ancestors – all modeled on celestial apparitions – may only secondarily and by degrees have been interpreted as human ancestors in the modern, “meaningful” sense.

Secondly, on-going interdisciplinary investigation suggests that the high-energy density auroral pillar accountable for much of “creation mythology” in various stages of its evolution showed a distinct human likeness. The column itself, bifurcated at its top and bottom ends and featuring radiant orbs at its apex and bottom, would have struck human observers as a giant luminous “man” looking down from the highest heavens. And the multitudes of glowing sparks emitted in this configuration would have vacillated in appearance between “stars” and little people frolicking in the sky.

With this in mind, Euhemerism may be vindicated in the sense that many of the plasmatic prototypes of the gods and goddesses looked somewhat like human beings. But of course this is still very different from Euhemerus’ more down-to-earth belief that real people formed the first deities.

Contributed by Rens Van der Sluijs

Further Reading:

The Mythology of the World Axis; Exploring the Role of Plasma in World Mythology

The World Axis as an Atmospheric Phenomenon


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