Monday, November 23, 2009

Today’s Word: euhemerism

euhemerism (you-HE-muhr-izm): the interpretation of myths and mythology as traditional accounts of actual historical persons and events, eponymously named after the 4th century BC Greek mythologist Euhemerus. This is not to be confused with a literal interpretation of mythology — that, say, there was a guy living at the top of mount Olympus who could hurl thunderbolts to Earth and whose daughter sprang forth from his freshly cracked skull. Euhemerism is based on the idea that the stories of the gods and of mythological events are based on the actions of real (and mortal) men and actual natural events, and that these men and events, over time, were deified, and their now exaggerated stories were over time collected and evolved into a complete mythology. At its most basic, euhemerism states that, when it comes to mythology, the line between man and god is not always clear.

There are certain mythologies in American culture that can be viewed euhemistically. The story of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree, for instance, might be based on an actual event, but because the story serves our cultural mores well, it has taken on a life outside of historical fact. Johnny Appleseed is another story based on fact that has euhemistically become a type of American mythology. You might be able to analyze those old tall tales euhemistically — like Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, and John Henry — but it will be more difficult.

I wonder what stories, years from now, will take on a mythological bent. Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon? The assassination of JFK? The life of Elvis?