An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 19

Theagenes of Rhegium was the founder of a very popular system of mythology. He pleaded for an allegorical rather than a literal reading of myth. For example, as we have already mentioned, he considered the battle of the gods 'unbecoming,' and attempted to show that in reality it was an allegorical rendering of the war of the elements. According to his view, Hephæstus and Apollo personified fire; Hera, wife of Zeus, was air; Poseidon, the sea-god, represented water; Artemis was the moon, and so on. Other gods, he attempted to show by an examination of their names, were personifications of moral or intellectual qualities.

Pherecydes of Syros (fl. sixth century B.C.) wrote a treatise, in which myth, allegory, and science were blended, on nature and the gods. He contended that the elements of fire, air, and water sprang from Cronus, the principle of time, and that from these elements later gods emerged. Zeus is called the 'principle of life,' so that we have in Pherecydes' interpretation of myth a pseudo-scientific idea that time was the originator of[Pg 42] the elements, from which in turn the gods had their being—a very daring hypothesis for the sixth century B.C.!

Hecatæus of Miletus (c. 550-476 B.C.) was probably the first critic to distinguish myth from historic fact Socrates (c. 471-399 B.C.) attempted to show that the nature of divine beings could be discovered by an analysis of their names. Prodicus (born c. 465 B.C.) is noteworthy for the 'modern' character of his outlook. First of all, he says, arose such great powers as benefit mankind (for example, the Nile), then deified men, who rendered services to humanity.

Pherecydes of Leros (fl. c. 454 B.C.) modified the myths of Greece in order to adjust them to popular belief, so that it is scarcely correct to class him as a critic of myth. Ephorus (c. 400-330 B.C.) treated myths as historical episodes. "By straining after this fancied history he was prevented from searching into the genuine import of the legends."[3]


The system of Euhemerus (fourth century B.C.), who lived under King Cassander of Macedonia, deserves more than passing mention. Like Ephorus, he considered that myth is history in disguise. The gods were men, and mists of time and later phantasy had so magnified and distorted their figures as to make them appear divine. In short, they were great men deified by later generations. The dead are magnified into gods in many countries, so Euhemerus' theory possesses a good deal of truth, but every god was not once a man, nor have all gods been evolved from the worship of the dead. The truth is that the myths of many gods have passed through a phase and have been coloured by an environment in which ancestor-worship has prevailed. Graves of gods are shown in many lands, and probably portions of legends relating to real men have been attracted into the myths of certain gods. Euhemerus' system of interpretation is known as 'euhemerism,' and was adopted by Vossius, the Abbé Banier, Huet Bishop of Avranches, Clavier, Sainte-Croix, Rochette, Hoffman, and to some extent by Herbert Spencer. Ennius popularized his[Pg 43] system in ancient Rome. Leclerc, one of Euhemerus' later disciples, actually proposed the theory that Greek mythology consisted of the diaries of old merchantmen and seamen!

Some Stoics and Platonists, such as Plutarch, endeavoured to render myths more intelligible by explaining them 'pragmatically,' and this system too saw in the gods of Greece kings or merely men. Another system, the 'Psychic,' believed myth to be explanatory of the various stages through which the soul must pass. Other Stoics, again, saw in myths reference to natural phenomena. Thus the first school, the 'Pragmatic,' would see in the figure of Pallas Athene a transfigured mortal queen; the second, the 'Psychic,' would explain her as the 'understanding,' and the third, the 'Stoic,' as the thicker air between moon and earth.

Driven to the wall by Christianity, the remaining believers in Greek myth attempted to justify it by the allegorical system of interpretation. The early Christian fathers like St Augustine (A.D. 354-430) applauded the system of Euhemerus, in which they beheld the abhorred mythology abandoned by one himself a pagan. Porphyry (A.D. 233-304), however, considered that there might be a moral meaning in myth, and others thought it possible that it concealed a germ of religious truth.