Because I was asked to write about the meaning of the word savior for a friend’s newsletter, I looked into the historical and mythological origins of the term .Within Christianity, savior is a title often given to Jesus Christ. The term savior also derives from the Greek word soter (σωτήρ) meaning rescuer, or someone who saves.
The term savior doesn’t hold much personal meaning for me. Even though I was brought up in a Christian church, it wasn’t a church that addressed Jesus Christ as “Our Lord and Savior.” The church of my childhood simply and plainly referred to Jesus as Christos or the “Anointed One.” Christos, (a Greek term), harkens back to an ancient tradition of anointing a land’s spiritual and political ruler—i.e. king, emperor, pharaoh—with costly essential oils such as myrrh, spikenard, and frankincense, among others (combined or singly) to ritually confer and confirm divine and earthly rulership upon the individual. However, anointment with these same costly oils was also a widespread and equally ancient ritual act to prepare the dead for eternal life as a reborn, immortal soul.
Historically however, soter is specifically a Spartan term; a title given to deities who save the lives of humans. As classics scholar Walter Burkert shows, bestowing this Spartan term was rare; it was reserved primarily for the Dioskouri (the divine twin horsemen known as Castor and Polydeuces) and secondarily to the sea god Poseidon. Burkert states, “the Dioskouri are above all saviors, soteres.”
Mythologically, the Dioskouri belong to an ancient far-reaching narrative of twins (female or male) borne from a sun goddess (often symbolized as a horse) together with an ocean or weather god. These divine or semi-divine twins—who are either a winged horse and a human, or humans who ride winged horses—serve humanity as healers and cultural heroes. The myths of these divine horse twins range from India to the British Isles over thousands of years.
In addition to being titled saviors, there are a handful of ancient sources about the Dioskouri which tell a particular story demonstrating their swift rescuing action. The Locrians, a people of Southern Italy, were dramatically saved by the Dioskouri from a fifteen-year war with the invading Crotians. In 5th century BCE, fearful of being overtaken by their enemy, the Locrians requested help from the Spartans.
The Spartans gave the Locrians Dioskouri statues to take back with them to their homeland. Once returned, the Locrians experienced a collective epiphany: they literally witnessed these divine horsemen fighting for them. All around the battle-ground, people saw “two [winged] young men fighting in armour different from that of the rest, of an extraordinary stature, on white horses and in scarlet cloaks . . . .” The war ended immediately and the Locrians were saved.
Additionally, sailors around the Mediterranean Sea region routinely credited the Dioskouri with saving them from perilous storms, rocky shores, or treacherous currents. At a dire point in history, an intense, sudden storm saved the Spartans (and other Greek citizens) from a large Persian fleet bent on conquering them in 480 BCE. The Spartans not only paid special tribute to the Dioskouri, but started a specific cult to Poseidon as savior.
So, mythologically or historically, how did the title of savior become attached to Jesus? Well, Jesus did walk on water and also rode an ass into Jerusalem as a healer, a cultural hero, and potentially, a political leader. However, he was not a divine twin. Nor was he considered a weather, storm, or sea god. The mystery deepened when I learned that the New Testament of the Bible refers to Jesus as a savior just once. That seemed odd considering that, currently, savior and Jesus seem indelibly linked. This single reference occurs in John 4 at the end of the story of Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman who gives him water at the well. After she goes back to her people relating what she has experienced with Jesus, others seek him. Once they have also seen and listened to him, they offer him the title of savior.
After further research, it appears that the bond of the title savior to Jesus Christ became solidified in medieval Christian Europe during the 1300’s. This was a devastating century for many: a great widespread famine due to climate change swept through all of Europe, followed by the Hundred Years War, and the plague known as “the Black Death.” Hundreds of thousands of people died or nearly died. Naturally, fervent prayers to God and to Jesus Christ for deliverance from peril, sickness, and death increased exponentially.
No wonder the title of savior became welded to Jesus Christ, the divine son who heals, who could save, and who, if he didn’t save someone’s mortal life, would gather their soul into his heavenly arms! Both historically and religiously then, because of these major social traumas, it seems entirely logical that savior was revived from the mythical and Biblical past to land square upon Jesus Christ as a deeply felt and very poignant plea from a suffering 14th century Christian Europe.
I’m grateful to have been asked to write a short article on the meaning of savior. The results of researching this term linked me to the ancient and mythological past as well as to historical insights on why Jesus is now so clearly titled Savior. And, I offer my wish of saving grace during this season of reflection that we all be blessed with the surcease of suffering both individually and collectively around the world.
Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical. 1985. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2014.
Hickey, Michael C. “The Late Middle Ages: Crisis and Recovery, 1300-1450.” Michael C. Hickey Home Page: Bloomsbury University of Pennsylvania. http://facstaff.bloomu.edu/hickey/late_middle_ages.htm
Justinus, Marcus Junianus. “Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus.” Trans. John Selby Watson (1853). Corpus Scriptorium Latinorum: A Digital Library of Latin Literature. 2003. http://www.forumromanum.org/literature/justin/english/trans20.html#n5.
Merisante, Margaret. Tears and Fragrance for the God’s Death and Resurrection: The Funerary Syncretism of Mary Magdalene with Isis. Presentation at the Association for the Study of Women and Mythology (ASWM) Symposium., Portland, OR, April 11, 2015.