Salvation and healing: transformations of antique salvation cults

Corpus of sources/sub-project A 2 as part of SFB 644 "Transformations in antiquity"

Salvation cults were just as well-known to pagan antiquity as they were to Christianity. How they related to one another, how pagan shrines were transformed into places where Christian salvation cults were practiced is what this project looked at. In doing so, it used literary sources and archaeological artefacts to document how this aspect of healing managed to assert itself in such a vital manner in late antiquity and the early middle ages, amidst the rejection and destruction of pagan religiosity and alongside the rather rational from of medicine that was otherwise practiced and became integrated into the Christian context. This is particularly true of the practice of healing sleep, or incubation. Literary reports, in particular those about the lives of the saints, show us that those who visited Christian shrines took part in rituals that were very similar to those practiced at pagan shrines. The person in question carried out certain purification rites and then slept in rooms (incubation halls) set aside for this specific purpose, so that they might receive a message in their dreams about how to heal their illness or so that they might even be healed directly during sleep. The way in which this took place in both religions was practically identical, the situation in the rooms was very similar and in some places the same ritual helpers were even used for both. The theologically most significant difference was the Christian reinterpretation of local deities: the Christian God was imparted in and through the saints, while the antique healing deities each had their own individual power and did not act as representatives of one single divine power.

For this reason and in face of the fact that both Christian and pagan salvation cults existed parallel to one another, the research and documentation in this area of lively everyday culture also touched upon superordinate questions about the nature of Early Christianity in late antiquity and the early middle ages.

Since 2008, the project has been involved primarily in the examination and documentation of Christian incubation shrines, their previous pagan history and has studied healings and their target groups in a comparative light. Were their personnel and functional continuities concerning the people assisting at such shrines? What group of the sick sought help? How were physical illnesses and religious “impurities” (or miasma) related to one another? In this process, a corpus of sources from the relevant texts should gradually be made available on the internet and later published as a book. This should include original text passages in Latin and Greek as well as translations into German and English in line with modern philological standards, plus short commentaries. Finally, a selected, relevant text with extensive commentary should also be developed in a monographic work (sub-project 2). The material and the research results are to be discussed in reading groups and corresponding teaching events at a high academic level and made available for students.

Project manager
Christoph Markschies

Project duration


Ioannis Politis
Dorothea Zeppezauer (geb. Hollnagel)

Henrik Holm
Gundula Meinert
Stefanie Rabe
Anne-Kathrin Runte