Is There Salvation In Paganism?

Religion provides the solution to something. It identifies a problem, prescribes a method by which to resolve that problem. That resolution in religious terms is known as salvation. While the concept of salvation is almost exclusively identified with the Christian religion in our culture, it actually predates it. Savior is an epithet given to many old Gods, such as Hecate. Salvation from death was the main purpose behind rites such as the Eleusinian Mysteries.

As I’m trying to absorb Gregory Shaw’s Theurgy and the Soul into my incredibly dense brain, I’m finding this ancient Pagan preoccupation with the salvation of the soul troubling. I think what it is I find troubling about it explains the clearest and most obvious difference between ancient and modern Paganism.

I like to say the biggest difference between Pagan religions and other religions is that other faiths begin with the concept that there is something inherently fallen, wrong, sinful or harmful about the world as it is. Paganism, however, celebrates the world as it is. Pagans don’t begin by thinking there is anything wrong with our world, with our nature or with our souls.

However, that doesn’t mean that we don’t see something wrong and believe we can fix it. What we see as wrong is our society, our culture and our relationship to nature. However, those aren’t eternal things. Should our society, culture and relationship to nature transform, then there would be no salvation in Paganism. Or would there?

I refuse to believe there is a natural sinfulness in my soul, that I must correct my soul or become more than human to rectify it. I’m happy to be human, I believe it to be a blessing and a gift and feel no desire to transcend my humanity. Maybe there’s a bit of an Epicurean in me, but I do believe we are meant to take pleasure in our lives and in this world.

Yet we do practice towards a purpose. What is that purpose? Maybe our purpose is to bring order to the Universe? That we are co-creators with the Gods and Divine Beings, and we have our own role to fill in maintaining the cosmos? Maybe we fight entropy? Maybe we fight carelessness?

Or maybe we have no grand purpose? Maybe we just are? Maybe our practice is just comforting superstition? Would that be a bad thing?

About Star Foster

Polytheistic Wiccan initiated into the Ravenwood tradition, she has many opinions. Some of them are actually useful.

  • Jack Heron

    This is something I have wondered in relation to paganism and deities that are, in a sense, deities *of* something. Does a deity seek always to advance that which they are associated with? Or do they merely represent it, like a delegate from one branch of an organisation? Because in the former sense an element of purpose seems to be added to a relationship with that deity – they wish something and you have joined them to further that purpose. In the latter sense, though, it seems to be more of a recognition of their role rather than a joining of their side, and that suggests a less purpose-driven veneration.

    • http://www.patheos.com Star Foster

      Hephaistos is the god of blacksmithing, but I’ve never felt the urge to buy an anvil.  I think there’s something in his values I respond to, in his character, not in his “style” or accessories. I think he expects me to behave in a manner consistent with his character, not make thunderbolts in a volcanic forge. Although if that is an actual job with benefits, I’m not opposed to spending my time that way.

  • Jack Heron

    This is something I have wondered in relation to paganism and deities that are, in a sense, deities *of* something. Does a deity seek always to advance that which they are associated with? Or do they merely represent it, like a delegate from one branch of an organisation? Because in the former sense an element of purpose seems to be added to a relationship with that deity – they wish something and you have joined them to further that purpose. In the latter sense, though, it seems to be more of a recognition of their role rather than a joining of their side, and that suggests a less purpose-driven veneration.

  • Jack Heron

    This is something I have wondered in relation to paganism and deities that are, in a sense, deities *of* something. Does a deity seek always to advance that which they are associated with? Or do they merely represent it, like a delegate from one branch of an organisation? Because in the former sense an element of purpose seems to be added to a relationship with that deity – they wish something and you have joined them to further that purpose. In the latter sense, though, it seems to be more of a recognition of their role rather than a joining of their side, and that suggests a less purpose-driven veneration.

    • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

      Hephaistos is the god of blacksmithing, but I’ve never felt the urge to buy an anvil.  I think there’s something in his values I respond to, in his character, not in his “style” or accessories. I think he expects me to behave in a manner consistent with his character, not make thunderbolts in a volcanic forge. Although if that is an actual job with benefits, I’m not opposed to spending my time that way.

  • Guest

    A very thought provoking piece. I appreciate how you pointed out the impermanent wrongs versus eternal sins distinction and ended with some great questions.

  • Guest

    A very thought provoking piece. I appreciate how you pointed out the impermanent wrongs versus eternal sins distinction and ended with some great questions.

  • Mike

    my opinion: We are here as entertainment for the Gods.

    • http://www.patheos.com Star Foster

      That’s depressing. I don’t think I could embrace that view.

  • Mike

    my opinion: We are here as entertainment for the Gods.

    • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

      That’s depressing. I don’t think I could embrace that view.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/David-Carron/100001353268347 David Carron

    Our world is ours.  We should be a world accepting religion.  An afterlife is an afterthought and not a goal.  Our place needs to make this world a better one. 

    If our focus is on some afterlife then IMHO we have missed the point. We need to find our purpose and life here.  And now.

    • http://ianphanes.livejournal.com/ Ian Phanes

      I think you’re making an assumption here that is not correct.  I think you’re assuming that salvation is necessarily about an afterlife.  While *some* ancient pagan traditions of salvation influenced ones afterlife, others saw salvation as something that happened in this life.  Think Superman saving Lois Lane.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/David-Carron/100001353268347 David Carron

    Our world is ours.  We should be a world accepting religion.  An afterlife is an afterthought and not a goal.  Our place needs to make this world a better one. 

    If our focus is on some afterlife then IMHO we have missed the point. We need to find our purpose and life here.  And now.

    • http://ianphanes.livejournal.com/ Ian Phanes

      I think you’re making an assumption here that is not correct.  I think you’re assuming that salvation is necessarily about an afterlife.  While *some* ancient pagan traditions of salvation influenced ones afterlife, others saw salvation as something that happened in this life.  Think Superman saving Lois Lane.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    I’ve written on this topic several times on my own blog, because it comes up in relation to Antinous (though not as heavily as some have suggested it does).

    The fact is, there were many humans who were given the title Soter in the ancient world, from Ptolemy Soter to Hadrian to many others besides; it wasn’t just something for the gods.  And, what did it mean?  All of those roots, including “salvation” and its Greek equivalents, come from words meaning “health, wholeness,” etc.  The human rulers, and the gods, who were called Soter/Soteira were deities who made people’s lives better and more whole and health in this life now as we know it, not in an afterlife.  A ruler or government official could do this by building an aqueduct so that the local community could have a regular supply of clean water.

    So, the “this-worldliness” of paganism, ancient and modern, doesn’t at all have to be compromised or questioned by the existence of concepts like “salvation” in our religions–they do not remotely mean what Christians, Buddhists, and other “religions of salvation” have claimed they mean exclusively with respect to the afterlives.

    • http://kauko-niskala.blogspot.com Kauko

      Even in the Hebrew Bible the concept (translated as) salvation is a very ‘this-worldly’ one and not refering to a salvation for an afterlife which is a Christian reading.

      • Jack Heron

        Which is why the Gospels are full of people asking Jesus how it could be that people were saying he was the saviour of Israel, because he wasn’t acting like they were expecting.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    I’ve written on this topic several times on my own blog, because it comes up in relation to Antinous (though not as heavily as some have suggested it does).

    The fact is, there were many humans who were given the title Soter in the ancient world, from Ptolemy Soter to Hadrian to many others besides; it wasn’t just something for the gods.  And, what did it mean?  All of those roots, including “salvation” and its Greek equivalents, come from words meaning “health, wholeness,” etc.  The human rulers, and the gods, who were called Soter/Soteira were deities who made people’s lives better and more whole and health in this life now as we know it, not in an afterlife.  A ruler or government official could do this by building an aqueduct so that the local community could have a regular supply of clean water.

    So, the “this-worldliness” of paganism, ancient and modern, doesn’t at all have to be compromised or questioned by the existence of concepts like “salvation” in our religions–they do not remotely mean what Christians, Buddhists, and other “religions of salvation” have claimed they mean exclusively with respect to the afterlives.

    • http://kauko-niskala.blogspot.com Kauko

      Even in the Hebrew Bible the concept (translated as) salvation is a very ‘this-worldly’ one and not refering to a salvation for an afterlife which is a Christian reading.

      • Jack Heron

        Which is why the Gospels are full of people asking Jesus how it could be that people were saying he was the saviour of Israel, because he wasn’t acting like they were expecting. Christian soteriology is very much the weird exception compared to other religions.

  • Anonymous

    One of the things that I love in Pagans is the idea that we don’t need a concept of salvation, because we have no concept of “original sin”.  The transformation process of the experience of – say – the Eleusinian Mysteries can be interpreted as something quite different: entering the Isles of Elysium (Blest)in Tartarus through the understanding of mystery.  IMHO: The ancient notion of an afterlife as a  shade – or shadow – in a dark and dreary underworld would, naturally, give rise to something more hopeful, be it Valhalla, Avalon or Elísia Pedia.  In the meantime, 2000 and some years have passed and – just maybe – some of us are outgrowing the notion of requiring salvation or dwelling upon the afterlife and focusing on this world and the work that needs doing here, now.

  • LezlieKinyon

    One of the things that I love in Pagans is the idea that we don’t need a concept of salvation, because we have no concept of “original sin”.  The transformation process of the experience of – say – the Eleusinian Mysteries can be interpreted as something quite different: entering the Isles of Elysium (Blest)in Tartarus through the understanding of mystery.  IMHO: The ancient notion of an afterlife as a  shade – or shadow – in a dark and dreary underworld would, naturally, give rise to something more hopeful, be it Valhalla, Avalon or Elísia Pedia.  In the meantime, 2000 and some years have passed and – just maybe – some of us are outgrowing the notion of requiring salvation or dwelling upon the afterlife and focusing on this world and the work that needs doing here, now.

  • Crafters22001

    I corresponded with inmates and ‘saved souls’ by encouraging inmates to put away thoughts of suicide and look for how they could be useful to fellow pagans. don’t know how that plays into afterlife.

    • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

      I could give you a hug! I think that’s a fabulous example of salvation in Paganism! We’re all here to look after each other!

  • http://www.themonthebard.org/ Themon the Bard

    The idea of a “Fall of Nature” in Christianity was shaken out in the fifth century in the debates between Augustine of Hippo and a fellow known as Pelagius. The debate was fierce, and Augustine won; Pelagius’ views became “the Pelagian Heresy.” The modern Christian idea of sinfulness, which stems from the Augustinian view, can certainly be called normative of orthodox Christianity, but it can hardly be considered normative of “religion.” Indeed, I would call the Augustinian view fairly odd, perhaps even outright pathological, in the history of religion.


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