Panchaians: Euhemeros and Diodoros on a noble people worshipping Zeus on a utopian island (fourth / first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Panchaians: Euhemeros and Diodoros on a noble people worshipping Zeus on a utopian island (fourth / first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified June 11, 2023,

Ancient authors: Euhemeros / Euhemerus (fourth-third centuries BCE), Sacred History, or Sacred Inscription = FGrHist 63 F2-3, as discussed in Diodoros (mid-first century BCE), Library of History 5.41-46 and 6.1, the latter cited by Eusebios (early fourth century CE), Preparation for the Gospel 2.2.59b-61a (link; link to FGrHist).

Comments: Euhemeros of Messene (either on the Peloponnesos or, more likely on Sicily) is known solely through others’ mentions of him and from rather brief quotations of his Sacred Inscription, which was likely produced around 300 BCE. Euhemeros was remembered for an influential theory: most if not all terrestrial deities worshipped on a regular basis were, in fact, originally particularly successful humans whose achievements led others to sacrifice to them and establish temples for them in response to their benefactions (cf. Lactantius, Divine Institutes 1.33, 65). That human origin of the gods (perhaps with the exception of celestial deities like the sun) was mostly forgotten by the majority of later worshippers, but Euhemeros discovered the truth on an inscription about Ouranos, Kronos and Zeus on a mysterious island, so the story goes.

As one of the most substantial quotations of Euhemeros’ work below shows, he was also associated with (fictionalized, if not fictional) travel-writing with an ethnographic focus, even if this was also used to support his famous theory. The second passage from Diodoros (via Eusebios) below securely makes use of the Sacred Inscription in connection with a picture of utopian life on islands south of Arabia (Oman and Yemen), where it is imagined that the human Zeus (later treated as a god) visited. If real islands have anything to do with this, perhaps the Socotra Archipelago islands (including Abd al Kuri, Yemen) off the horn of Africa are in mind, particularly in light of the focus on trade in frankincense (see the discussion of the adjacent land of Barbaria / Somalia at this link). But even so, this is a fictionalized account with very little connection to reality (nothing new, I suppose).

Once that usage of Euhemeros is established, it seems that a more extended passage in book five of Diodoros (the first passage below) likewise draws on Euhemeros’ travelogue regarding more details about social structures, cultic activites (for Zeus Triphylios), and lifestyles of peoples on these islands. The account pictures both indigenous Panchaians (or: Panchaeans) and immigrants consisting of Cretans, Scythians, and Indians. The picture of an ideal people here also means that Diodoros is working with a noble barbarian concept in some respects, so I have also placed the post in that category too.

A bird’s-eye view of Diodoros’ thoughts about islands also shows that his use of Euhemeros allows Diodoros to continue one of his favourite ongoing themes about utopian life on distant islands specifically: see his discussions of an island far east beyond India (link) and an island far west beyond Africa in the Atlantic (link).

Works consulted: M. Winiarczyk, The Sacred History of Euhemerus of Messene (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013).

Source of the translations: C. H. Oldfather, Diodorus Sicilus: Library of History, volumes 1-6, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1935-1952), public domain (passed away in 1954), adapted by Harland.


Euhemeros (likely) via Diodoros

[Context of islands off the coast of Arabia Felix]

(5.41-46) But now that we have described the lands which lie to the west and those which extend toward the north, and also the islands in the ocean, we will in turn discuss the islands in the ocean to the south which lie off that portion of Arabia [Yemen, Oman, and possibly southern Iran] which extends to the east and borders upon the country known as Gedrosia [modern Balochistan, Pakistan].​ Arabia contains many villages and notable cities, which in some cases are situated upon great mounds and in other instances are built upon hills or in plains. The largest cities have royal residences of costly construction, possessing a multitude of inhabitants and ample estates. The entire land of the Arabians abounds with domestic animals of every description, and it bears fruits as well and provides no lack of pasturage for the fatted animals. Also, many rivers flow through the land and irrigate a great portion of it, thus contributing to the full maturing of the fruits. Consequently that part of Arabia which holds the chief place for its fertility has received a name appropriate to it, being called Arabia the Blest [Eudaimōn in Greek, Felix in Latin].

[Panchaians on Hiera (“Sacred”) island and Panchaia island]

On the farthest bounds of Arabia Felix, where the ocean washes it, there lie opposite it a number of islands [perhaps an imaginative elaboration of the Socotra Archipelago islands of Yemen, just off the coast of the horn of Africa], of which there are three which merit a mention in history, one of them bearing the name Hiera (“Sacred”), where no one is allowed to bury the dead, and another lying near it, seven stadium-lengths away, to which they take the bodies of the dead for burial.​

Now Hiera has no share in any other fruit, but it produces frankincense in such abundance as to suffice for the honours paid to the gods throughout the entire inhabited world [on which compare the discussion of the mainland region of Barbaria [link] in what is now Somalia]. This island possesses also an exceptional quantity of myrrh and every variety of all the other kinds of incense of highly fragrant odour. The nature of frankincense and the preparing of it is like this: In size it is a small tree, and in appearance it resembles the white Egyptian Acacia,​ its leaves are like those of the willow, as it is called, the bloom it bears is in colour like gold, and the frankincense which comes from it oozes forth in drops like tears. But the myrrh-tree is like the mastich-tree, although its leaves are more slender and grow thicker. It oozes myrrh when the earth is dug away from the roots, and if it is planted in fertile soil this takes place twice a year, in spring and in summer. The myrrh of the spring is red, because of the dew, but that of the summer is white. They also gather the fruit of the paliouros [related to buckthorn],​ which they both eat and drink and use as a drug for the cure of dysentery.

The land of Hiera is divided among its inhabitants, and the king takes for himself the best land and likewise a tithe of the fruits which the island produces. The width of the island is reputed to be about two hundred stadium-lengths. And the inhabitants of the island are known as “Panchaians.” These men take the frankincense and myrrh across to the mainland and sell it to Arabian merchants, from whom others in turn purchase wares of this kind and convey them to Phoenicia, Coele-Syria and Egypt. In the end, merchants convey them from these countries throughout all the inhabited world. And there is yet another large island, thirty stadium-lengths distant from the one we have mentioned, lying out in the ocean to the east and many stadium-lengths in length; for men say that from its promontory which extends toward the east one can glimpse India, which is misty because of its great distance.

As for Panchaia itself,​ the island possesses many things which are deserving to be recorded by history. It is inhabited by men who are indigenous (autochthones), called “Panchaians.” The immigrants (epēlydes) there are Oceanites, Indians, Scythians and Cretans. There is also a notable city on the island, called Panara, which enjoys unusual happiness. Its citizens are called “suppliants (hiketai) of Zeus Triphylios,”​ and they are the only inhabitants of the land of Panchaia who live under laws of their own making and have no king over them. Each year they elect three leaders (archontes). These men have no authority over capital crimes, but render judgment in all any other matters. Of their own volition, they refer the most serious cases to the priests.

[Local customs and myths associated with the Temple of Zeus Triphylios]

Some sixty stadium-lengths away from the city of Panara is the temple of Zeus Triphylios. This lies out on a level plain and is especially admired for its age, the costliness of its construction, and its favourable situation. The plain lying around the temple is thickly covered with trees of every kind, not only such as bear fruit, but also those that are nice to look at. For the plain abounds with cypresses of enormous size, plane-trees, and sweet-bay and myrtle, since the region is full of springs of water. Indeed, close to the sacred precinct there bursts forth from the earth a spring of sweet water of such size that it gives rise to a river on which boats may sail. Because the water is led off from the river to many parts of the plain and irrigates them, throughout the entire area of the plain there grow continuous forests of lofty trees. In these forests many men pass their time in the summer season and a multitude of birds make their nests, birds of every kind and of various hues, which greatly delight the ear by their song. There is also every kind of garden and many meadows with varied plants and flowers, so that there is a divine majesty in the prospect which makes the place appear worthy of the gods of the country. And there were palm trees there with giant trunks, conspicuous for the fruits they bore, and many varieties of nut-bearing trees, which provide the natives of the place with the most abundant subsistence. In addition to what we have mentioned, grape-vines were found there in great number and of every variety, which were trained to climb high and were variously intertwined so that they presented a pleasing sight and provided an enjoyment of the season.

The temple was a striking structure of white marble, two plethra in length and the width proportionate to the length. It was supported by large thick columns and decorated at intervals with reliefs of ingenious design. There were also remarkable statues of the gods, exceptional in skill of execution and admired by men for their massiveness. Around about the temple the priests who served the gods had their dwellings, and the management of everything pertaining to the sacred precinct was in their hands. Leading from the temple an avenue had been constructed, four stadium-lengths in length and a plethron in width.

On each side of the avenue are great bronze vessels which rest upon square bases, and at the end of the avenue the river we mentioned above has its sources, which pour forth in a turbulent stream. The water of the stream is exceedingly clear and sweet and the use of it is most conducive to the health of the body. The river bears the name “Water of the Sun.” The entire spring is surrounded by an expensive stone quay, which extends along each side of it four stadium-lengths, and no man except the priests may set foot upon the place up to the edge of the quay. The plain lying below the temple has been made sacred to the gods, for a distance of two hundred stadium-lengths, and the revenues which are derived from it are used to support the sacrifices.

Beyond the above-mentioned plain there is a lofty mountain which has been made sacred to the gods and is called the “Throne of Ouranos” and also “Triphylian Olympos.” For the myth relates that in ancient times, when Ouranos was king of the inhabited earth, he took pleasure in staying in that place and in surveying from its lofty top both the heavens and the stars. At a later time it came to be called Triphylian Olympos because the men who lived around it were composed of three peoples: these, namely, were known as Panchaians, Oceanites, and Doians, the last of which were expelled at a later time by Ammon. For Ammon, men say, not only drove this people into exile but also totally destroyed their cities, razing to the ground both Doia and Asterousia. And once a year, we are told, the priests hold a sacrifice in this mountain with great solemnity.

Beyond this mountain and throughout the rest of the land of Panchaiitis, the account continues, there is found a multitude of animals of every description. The land possesses many elephants, lions, leopards and gazelles, as well as an unusual number of other wild animals which differ in their aspect and are of amazing ferocity. This island also contains three notable cities, Hyrakia, Dalis, and Oceanis. The whole country, moreover, is fruitful and possesses in particular a multitude of vines of every kind. The men are war-like and use chariots in battle after the ancient manner.

[Communal organization and lifestyles among the Panchaians]

The entire communal organization of the Panchaians is divided into three divisions: The first division among them is that of the priests, to whom are assigned the artisans; the second consists of the farmers; and, the third is that of the soldiers, to whom are added the herdsmen.

The priests served as the leaders in everything, rendering the decisions in legal disputes and possessing the final authority in all other affairs which concerned the community. The farmers, who are engaged in the tilling of the soil, bring the fruits for communal storage. The man among the farmers who is thought to have practised the best farming receives a special reward when the fruits are portioned out, with the priests deciding who had been first, second, and so on in order to the tenth, this being done in order to spur on the rest. In the same manner, the herdsmen also turn both the sacrificial animals and all others into the treasury of the People with all precision, some by number and some by weight. Generally speaking, there is not a thing except a home and a garden which a man may possess for his own. Instead, all the products and the revenues are taken over by the priests, who portion out with justice to each man his share, and to the priests alone is given two-fold.


The clothing of the Panchaians is soft, because the wool of the sheep of the land is distinguished above all other for its softness. They wear ornaments of gold, not only the women but the men as well, with collars of twisted gold around their necks, bracelets on their wrists, and rings hanging from their ears after the manner of the Persians. The same kind of shoes are worn by both sexes,​ and they are fashioned in more varied colours than is usual.

The soldiers receive a pay which is apportioned to them and in return protect the land by means of forts and posts fixed at intervals. This is because there is one section of the country which is infested with groups of bandits (lēstēria), composed of bold and lawless men who lie in wait for the farmer and wage war on them.

Regarding the priests, they far excel the rest in luxury and in every other refinement and elegance of their manner of life. So, for instance, their robes are of linen and exceptionally sheer and soft, and at times they wear garments woven of the softest wool. Furthermore, their headdress is interwoven with gold, their footgear consists of sandals which are of varied colours and ingeniously worked, and they wear the same gold ornaments as do the women, with the exception of the earrings. The first duties of the priests concerned with the services paid to the gods and with the hymns and praises which are accorded them. In their hymns, they recite in song the achievements of the gods one after another and the benefactions they have given to humankind.

[Cretan connection and kinship]

According to the myth which the priests give, the gods had their origin in Crete, and were led by Zeus to Panchaia at the time when he sojourned among men and was king of the inhabited earth. In proof of this they cite their language, pointing out that most of the things they have about them still retain their Cretan names. They also add that the kinship which they have with the Cretans and the kindly regard they feel toward them are traditions they received from their ancestors, since this report is always handed down from one generation to another. And it has been their practice, in corroboration of these claims, to point to inscriptions which, they said, were made by Zeus during the time he still sojourned among men and founded the temple.

[Decorations and implements in the temple]

The land possesses rich mines of gold, silver, copper, tin, and iron, but none of these metals is allowed to be taken from the island. Nor may the priests for any reason whatsoever set foot outside of the sacred land. If one of them does so, whoever meets him is authorized to kill him. There are many great dedications of gold and of silver which have been made to the gods, since time has amassed the multitude of such offerings. The doorways of the temple are objects of wonder in their construction, being worked in silver, gold, ivory and citrus-wood. And there is the couch of the god, which is six forearm lengths long and four wide and is entirely of gold and skillfully constructed in every detail of its workman­ship. Similar to it both in size and in costliness in general is the table of the god which stands near the couch. And on the centre of the couch stands a large gold plaque which has letters which the Egyptians call “sacred” [hieroglyphs]. This inscription recounts the achievements both of Ouranos and of Zeus. The achievements of Hermes, as well as Artemis and Apollo were added to this.

As regards the islands, then, which lie in the ocean opposite Arabia, we will rest content with what has been said.


Euhemeros via Diodoros via Eusebios

[Varying accounts of the gods in history and myth]

(6.1) [Eusebios:] In the sixth book, Diodoros confirms the same view regarding the gods, drawing from the writing of Euhemeros of Messene, and using the following words:

“[Diodoros:] As regards the gods, then, men of ancient times have handed down to later generations two different conceptions: Certain of the gods, they say, are eternal and imperishable, such as the sun, moon and other stars of the heavens, as well as the winds and whatever else possesses a nature similar to these. For with each of these the origin and duration are eternal. But the other gods, we are told, were terrestrial beings who attained to immortal honour and fame because of their benefactions to humankind, such as Herakles, Dionysos, Aristaios, and the others who were like them. Regarding these terrestrial gods many and varying accounts have been handed down by the writers of history and mythology. Among historians, Euhemeros, who composed the Sacred Inscription, has written a special treatise about them. On the other hand, the writers of myths – Homer and Hesiod and Orpheus and the others of their kind – have invented rather monstrous stories about the gods. But for our part, we will try to briefly run through the accounts which both groups of writers have given, aiming at due proportion in our exposition.”

[Panchaians encountered on Euhemeros’ supposed journey south of Arabia]

“Now Euhemeros, who was a friend of king Kassandros [or: Cassander; of Macedon, ca. 305–297 BCE]​ and was required by him to take care of certain royal matters and to make long journeys abroad, says that he travelled southward as far as the ocean. Setting sail from Arabia Felix [Yemen], he voyaged through the ocean for a considerable number of days and was carried to the shore of some islands in the sea. One of these islands bore the name of Panchaia.”

“On this island Euhemeros saw the Panchaians who live there. They excel in piety and they honour the gods with the most magnificent sacrifices and with remarkable votive offerings of silver and gold. The island is sacred to the gods, and there are a number of other objects on it which are admired both for their antiquity and for the great skill of their workman­ship, regarding which we have written about several in the preceding books” [see 5.41‑46, further above].

“High up on a large hill on the island there is situated a sanctuary of Zeus Triphylios (‘of the three tribes’), which was established by him during the time when he was king of all the inhabited world and was still in the company of men. And in this temple there is a monument of gold on which is inscribed in summary, in the writing employed by the Panchaians, the deeds of Ouranos, Kronos, and Zeus.”

Euhemeros goes on to say that Ouranos was the first to be king, that he was an honourable man and beneficent, who was versed in the movement of the stars. He says that he was also the first to honour the gods of the heavens with sacrifices, from which he was called Ouranos (“Heaven”). There were born to him by his wife Hestia two sons, Titan and Kronos, and two daughters, Rhea and Demeter. Kronos became king after Ouranos. After marrying Rhea, Kronos had Zeus, Hera and Poseidon. After Zeus succeeded to the kingship, he married Hera, Demeter, and Themis. He had children with them: the Kouretes by the first named, Persephone by the second, and Athena by the third.”

“Travelling to Babylon Kronos was entertained by Belos [i.e. Marduk as Bel is in mind]. After that, Kronos went to the island of Panchaia, which lies in the ocean. He set up an altar to Ouranos, the founder of his family, there. From there he passed through Syria and came to Kasios, who was ruler of Syria at that time, and who gave his name to mount Kasios [Jebel Aqra, on the border of modern Syria and Turkey]. And coming to Cilicia he conquered in battle Kilix, the governor of the region. He also visited very many other peoples (ethnē), all of which paid honour to him and publicly proclaimed him a god.”

[Eusebios:] After recounting what I have given and more to the same effect about the gods, as if about mortal men, Diodoros goes on to say:

“Now regarding Euhemeros, who composed the Sacred Inscription, we will have to be content with what has been said and we will try to run over briefly the myths which the Greeks recount concerning the gods, as they are given by Hesiod, Homer and Orpheus.”

[Eusebios:] At that point, Diodoros goes on to add the myths as the poets give them.

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