For those who haven’t yet discovered the amazing resource known as Project Gutenberg, let me recommend you go there now and take some time to browse through the thousands of ebooks available for free. If you want to read anything that was published over 100 years ago you can do so for free because such books are no longer under copyright. So if you’ve just seen the movie Les Misérables over Christmas, you can now follow-up by downloading Victor Hugo’s original text in French or English. Or how about catching up on classics such as Pride and Prejudice, Moby Dick, Dracula, The Iliad, The Odyssey, or many more.
For me, though, the pleasure also comes from finding one of the more obscure but no less important books that are usually hard-to-find or even out-of-print. Two of these that I’ve just finished are Snorri Sturulson’s The Younger Edda (or sometimes called The Prose Edda), and Myths of the Norsemen by H. A. Guerber. Both of these are accounts of Norse mythology and well-worth the trouble downloading if you want some detailed source material rather than rely on Marvel comics or self-published fantasy novels.
Now, when I first started reading The Younger Edda, I was surprised – and actually a little irritated – that it starts by talking about the Norse gods as being based on real people from history. More specifically, he argues that Odin and Thor came from the city of Troy, and that Odin lead a group of people to Scandinavia to establish a kingdom. Sturulson also engages in some etymological sleight-of-hand to suggest that the name of the Norse pantheon, the Aesir, was a corruption of the word Asia and that the gods were “men of Asi,” but this etymology has been discounted.
What Sturulson was doing here was engaging in a Middle Ages Christian tradition known as euhemerism, which is a method of mythological interpretation that regards myths as traditional accounts of real incidents in human history. From the perspective of the early Christian Church Fathers, the appeal of this method was that it gave them a way of undermining the validity of pagan gods by turning them into men rather than supernatural beings.
The word itself is an eponym i.e. it comes from the name of a person. Euhemerus was a writer who lived in Sicily around 300 BC and the author of a work called Hiera Anagraphe (Ἱερὰ Ἀναγραϕή) or “The Sacred Inscription,” which suggested that gods are simply great men from history who become deified and worshiped. In the book – or in the fragments that still survive – he relates a story of how he was on a trip across the Indian Ocean when he landed on an island called Panchaea and at a temple to Zeus came across a scroll – the Sacred Inscription. In it, the writer tells how the Greek gods were originally men whose achievements were so great that they we elevated ultimately to the status of being gods.
Most scholars believe the story to be a fabrication but that doesn’t undermine the philosophical premise that gods could, indeed, simply be “great men,” and it certainly didn’t stop early Christian writers from using this notion to “prove” the superiority of their god over the pagan ones.
Euhemerus itself means something along the lines of “happy day,” with the Greek eus meaning “happy or well” and Greek imera (ἡμέρα) meaning “day.” The –ism suffix is a common ending used to create nouns that refer to a system, belief, or ideology. The eus is found in other “happy” words such as euphoria (a feeling of intense happiness), euphemism (use of a “good” or “happy” word in place of one that has negative connotations), and eulogy (a speech of praise).
 Many euphemisms are used for sensitive and taboo subjects, Here are a few for ESL readers:
“pass away,” “snuff it,” “croak,” “kick the bucket” – to die
“let go,” “downsized” – sacked from a job
“powder your nose,” “answer the call of nature,” “see a man about a dog” – use a toilet
“catcher’s mitt,” “whisker biscuit,” “furback turtle” – a vagina
“bacon torpedo,” “one-eyed trouser snake,” “John Thomas” – a penis
“choke the chicken,” “spank the monkey,” “rub one off” – male masturbation
“factual shortcut,” “economical with the truth,” “strategic misrepresentation” – telling lies