Sometime during the fourth century BC, an Athenian brought an offering to the sanctuary of Asklepios. His inscription reveals that he was “rescued” from some “mighty rocks” and his marble relief depicts him with his mules pulling a cart and approaching the god (GI II/III3 4,672). Was he injured in a landslide with his animals, but healed by Asclepius? Away from the Greek mainland, at Kollyda in Lydia, a married couple erected a marble altar to Zeus “for safety (soteria) of themselves and their children” after two people (perhaps their acquaintances?) were struck by lightning (TAM V.1 360). They were not praying, as might be expected, for the “salvation” of the deceased, but for their own preservation from the wrath of the god.
These are just two examples among many dedications, scattered throughout the Greek world, testifying to the salvific power of the gods. From the end of the Archaic period (around 700 BC), an impressive number of gods and goddesses of the Greek pantheon are attested under the title of “Savior” (soter and Soteira in Greek). These deities watched over the protection of individuals and cities and had the power to bestow or withdraw an essential blessing―soteria, which can be translated variously as “deliverance”, “preservation” and “safety”. But what did it mean to be “saved” in ancient times? In a polytheistic system where multiple gods and goddesses ruled, who did the Greeks look to as their “savior,” and how could the gods be persuaded to “save”?
The Greek concept of soteria had close and entangled relations with Christianity. The same Greek word is also used in Christian writings, notably the New Testament, to signify deliverance from the consequences of sin and obtaining a blessed afterlife through the mediation of Christ the Saviour. Yet, as the episodes above show, the concept dates back to ancient Greek times, but its centrality in ancient Greek religion has long been obscured by its later prominence in Christianity. It is tempting to assume that soteria was a predominantly Christian concern with little or no relevance to other religious traditions, or to retrospectively project Christian notions of this concept onto the Greek concept. Such misconceptions are commonplace in scholarship in the 19th and 20th centuries. In fact, long before the advent of Christianity, soteria already had a central and significant role in the relationship between the ancient Greeks and their gods. It implied a different experience or experiences than what we, after more than two millennia of Christian traditions, have come to associate with this term.
So what roles did the Greek “savior” gods play in the life of the Greeks? How did the faithful seek soteria in the face of the unknown and the unknowable? Whether under normal circumstances or in times of need, the Greeks approached their gods with prayers, sacrifices and votive offerings praying for soteria. For Greek cities, this could be about delivering from an external threat, protecting against natural disasters and preserving their political constitutions. For individuals, this could mean deliverance from war, safety at sea, recovery from disease, a smooth birth, economic security and physical well-being more generally. It is interesting to note that the experiments covered by soteria actually intersect with many of our own concerns in modern times. However, this multivalent concept, with its range of meanings, remains surprisingly difficult to pin down and defies translation by a single English word. What is certain is that, despite the extensive power of the Greek “savior gods”, what they offered was limited to deliverance on earth: soteria for the Greeks had little or nothing to do with the afterlife.
Over time, the colloquial Greek word soteria was adopted into Christianity but given a new eschatological aspect not previously associated with it in the Greek tradition. Despite this new promise, what is striking is that the earthly aspect continued to be important even in the Christian religion. soteriathat is, there was common ground between the Greek and Christian concepts of soteria. Even after Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire, pagans and Christians continued to use soteria in a sense of this world. So deeply rooted is the earthly character of the Greek soteria that salvation on earth remained an integral part of the Christian notion of soteria. The remarkably stable and persistent character of soteria for nearly a millennium bears witness to how deeply rooted the concept was in Greco-Roman culture, how widely the concerns were shared by different religious groups, and how central and fundamental this blessing was in any relationship between beings humans and the divine.
Feature image: Gary Todd from Xinzheng, China, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons