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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter October 7, 2017

‘Salvation’ (Soteria) and Ancient Mystery Cults

Theodora Suk and Fong Jim


In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it was often held that ancient mystery cults were ‘religions of salvation’ (Erlösungsreligionen). Such interpretations have been criticised by Walter Burkert in Ancient Mystery Cults (1987), who argued against the other-worldly character of Greek mysteries. Burkert’s work remains one of the most important studies of mystery cults today; nevertheless it does not examine the actual use of the Greek word soteria (‘salvation’, ‘deliverance’, ‘safety’), which is central for determining whether Greek mystery cults were indeed ‘Erlösungsreligionen’. This article investigates the extent to which Greek mystery cults could offer soteria (‘salvation’) in the eschatological sense. By examining the language of soteria in the best-known mystery cults in ancient Greece, it will ask whether Greek eschatological hopes were ever expressed in the language of soteria or in other terms. It will be demonstrated that, even when used in relation to mysteries, soteria did not mean anything other than protection in the here-and-now, so that what was offered was predominantly a this-worldly ‘salvation’. If early Christianity indeed derived its most important concept (soteria) from Greek religion, it was a derivation with a significant adaptation and change in meaning.

Published Online: 2017-10-7
Published in Print: 2017-9-26

© 2017 by Walter de Gruyter Berlin/Boston

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