Skepticism regarding myths and their gods date back to the sixth century BCE – in Greece!
The presocratic philosopher Xenophanes of Colophon was one of the first Greeks to question the anthropomorphism of the gods, saying that:
… if cattle and horses and lions had hands
or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do,
horses like horses and cattle like cattle
also would depict the gods’ shapes and make their bodies
of such a sort as the form they themselves have.
Therefore, according to him, humans have merely projected their own qualities – whether good or bad – onto their deities. Homer’s and Hesiod’s renditions of the gods as adulteres and deceivers were also offensive to him: the gods were supposed to be virtuous in all manner of things and possess exemplary behaviour.
Theagenes of Rhegion was another 6th-century philosopher who delved into the structure of myths. Apparently, the portrayal of gods in Homer and Hesiod impressed him negatively as well. He claimed that people should understand offensive mythological narratives not literally but allegorically. Take for example the description of the Trojan War in Homer’s Iliad. The internal strife among gods should be interpreted as a strife of natural elements: dry wars with moist, heat with cold, etc.
Palaephatos is responsible for codifying the first rationalistic approach to understanding myths (On Unbelievable Tales) back in the 4th century BCE. He defended the idea that if something does not exist in his own day, it did not exist in the past either. For example, centaurs were not seen wandering in 4th-century Greece. Therefore, one should come to the conclusion that they never existed at all. In his text On Incredible Tales, he gives us another example of his rational approach towards myths:
The story about Callisto is that while she was out hunting she turned into a bear. What I maintain is that she too during a hunt found her way into a grove of trees where a bear happened to be and was devoured. Her hunting companions saw her going into the grove, but not coming out; they said that the girl turned into a bear.
As Hansen points out, “the allegorism of Theagenes and the rationalism of Palaephatos represent two basic approaches to the interpretation of mythology. They represent a middle way between a literal acceptance of mythological tradition and a wholesale rejection of it.”
Interestingly enough, these two approaches would be responsible for the survival of myth until our days. Myth as allegory, in particular, has acquired enormous popularity since Fulgentius in the 5th century AD. More recentlty, Freud and Jung have also capitalised on the view of myth as allegory to illustrate and support their psychological theories.
For more on the topic, read these other posts:
THE BEGINNINGS OF SCIENCE
CHARACTER IS FATE