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Within a European Christian context, paganism is a catch-all term which has come to connote a broad set of not necessarily compatible religious beliefs and practices (see Cult (religion)) of a natural religion (as opposed to a revealed religion of a text), which are usually, but not necessarily, characterized by polytheism and, less commonly, animism. There is little organized "-ism" in paganism.


Origins and meanings of the term

The etymology of the term pagan can be traced. According to Harry Thurston Peck, Harper's Dictionary of Classical Antiquity (1897) [1] the Latin noun paganus was used to mean "country dweller, villager" and originally had no denigrating connotations. The derived adjective meant "rural", "rustic" or "of the country". It is a cognate of the word "peasant."

In its distant origins, these usages derived from pagus, "something stuck in the ground," as a landmark. The root pag means "fixed" and is also the source of the words "page", "pale (stake)", and "pole", as well as "pact" and "peace". Later, through metaphorical use, paganus came to mean 'rural district, village' and 'country dweller' and, as the Roman Empire strengthened, it came to mean "civilian", in a sense parallel to the English usage "the locals". It was only after the Roman introduction of serfdom, in which agricultural workers were legally bound to the land (see Serf), that it began to have negative connotations, and imply the simple ancient religion of country people, which Virgil had mentioned with respect in Georgics. Like its approximate synonym heathen (see below), it was adopted by Middle English-speaking Christians as a slur to refer to those too rustic to embrace Christianity.

Neoplatonists in the Early Christian church attempted to Christianize the values of sophisticated pagans such as Plato and Virgil. This had some influence among the literate class, but did little to counter the more general prejudice expressed in "pagan".

The term paganism as opposed to pagan

Although the etymology of pagan can be tracked and its antiquity is known, the term paganism, by contrast, appears not to have been widely used until much later, though paganismus is a term employed by Augustine. There is no evidence that the term is used in English before the 17th century. The OED instances Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776): "The divisions of Christianity suspended the ruin of paganism."

It is possible that the various pagan practices were not seen as instances of a more general 'paganism' at all until the point when the term was used to blur distinctions between non-Christian beliefs and make of them one homogenous, primitive mass. The term paganism thus belongs in a colonial or missionary context, in which it is used to describe a state rather than an organized belief system.

Modern nature religion

Many current Pagans in industrial societies base their beliefs and practices on a connection to Nature, and a divinity within all living things, but this may not hold true for all forms of Paganism, past or present. Some believe that there are many deities, while some believe that the combined subconcious spirit of all living things forms the universal deity. Paganism predates modern monotheism, although its origins are lost in prehistory. Ancient paganism tended in many cases to be a deification of the political process, with "state divinities" assigned to various localities (Athena in Athens, for example). Many ancient regimes would claim to be the representative on earth of these gods, and would depend on more or less elaborate bureaucracies of state-supported priests and scribes to lend public support to their claims. This is something it shares with more 'mainstream' religions, as can be seen in the history of the Catholic church, the Church of England and the ancient and current trends in Islam. In one well-established sense, paganism is the belief in any non-monotheistic religion, which would mean that the Pythagoreans of ancient Greece would not be considered pagan in that sense, since they were monotheist, but not in the Abrahamic tradition. In an extreme sense, and like the pejorative sense below, any belief, ritual or pastime not sanctioned by a religion accepted as orthodox by those doing the describing, such as Burning Man, Halloween, or even Christmas, can be described as pagan by the person or people who object to them.

See also neopaganism.

Pejorative sense

The term has historically been used as a pejorative by adherents of monotheistic religions (such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam) to indicate a person who doesn't believe in their religion. "Paganism" is also sometimes used to mean the lack of (an accepted monotheistic) religion, and therefore sometimes means essentially the same as atheism. "Paganism" frequently refers to the religions of classical antiquity, most notably Greek mythology or Roman religion, and can be used neutrally or admiringly by those who refer to those complexes of belief. However, until the rise of Romanticism and the general acceptance of freedom of religion in Western civilization, "paganism" was almost always used disparagingly of heterodox beliefs falling outside of the established political framework of the Christian Church. It has more recently (from the 19th century) been used admiringly by those who believe the monotheistic religions to be confining or colourless.

"Pagan" came to be equated with a popular, Christianized sense of "epicurean" to signify a person who is sensual, materialistic, self-indulgent, unconcerned with the future and uninterested in sophisticated religion. The word was usually used in this worldly sense by those who were drawing attention to the limitations of paganism, as when G.K. Chesterton wrote

"The pagan set out, with admirable sense, to enjoy himself. By the end of his civilization he had discovered that a man cannot enjoy himself and continue to enjoy anything else."

Perhaps such usages reflect more light on Victorians than on the world of Antiquity.

The word is also used as a generic derogatory term for an unruly (usually young) person.


Heathen, in English and Scots originally meaning someone who lived in the wild, uncultivated heath that was outside the village system and not covered by the parish boundary nor blessed by the protective presence of a local priest, was often used as a synonym of "pagan". Like the word pagan, it came to mean a person holding onto non-Christian customs and beliefs, often used in a pejorative sense of an unbaptized savage (as opposed to a heretic). Viking raiders were "heathens".

A general term, sometimes still referring to (often in a pejorative sense) non-adherents to a certain religion, it may have originally applied only to those who lived "on the heath," (though this etymology is disputed) or in the underpopulated areas of Europe which were slow to convert to Christianity during its period of expansion. Regardless, plausible etymological origins for the word, and more modern variants, are found within the corpus of texts comprising what is considered to be the original Norse polytheist faith system.

In more modern, neopagan circles, it often refers specifically to the ancient religion of the Germanic peoples, which in its modern form is in the US more widely known by the term Ásatrú. In Britain "Heathenry" is the most widely used term for those who are recreating and reinterpreting old Germanic/Scandinavian religious practices and worldviews from the literary and archaeological sources and who describe themselves as "Heathen" in part to distinguish themselves from other pagans whose rituals come from other sources. In America, "Odinist" seems to have just as much currency in this context as "Heathen", though ideologically variant groups within the same overal religious group have been known to use "Heithinn" or even simply "Folk / Volk".


In another sense, as used by modern practitioners, paganism is a polytheistic, panentheistic or pantheistic often nature-based religious practice. This includes reconstructed religions such as Hellenismos, Ásatrú as well as more recently founded religions such as Wicca, and these are normally categorised as "Neopaganism". Although Neopagans often refer to themselves simply as "Pagan", for purposes of clarity this article will focus on the ancient religion, while Neopaganism is discussed in its own article.

This also includes religions such as Forn Sed, Druidry, Romuva and Slavic Rodoverie that claim to revive an ancient religion rather than reconstruct it, though in general the difference is not absolutely fixed. Practitioners of these tend to object to the term "Neopaganism" for their religion as they consider what they are doing not to be a new thing.

Pagan subdivisions coined by Isaac Bonewits [2]

  • Paleo-Paganism: A Pagan culture that has not been disrupted by other civilizations or other cultures. This does not include any known cultures. Indeed, this absolutely, by definition, cannot include any sort of living culture, since all cultures have been "disrupted" by their neighbors to some extent or another.
  • Meso-Paganism: A group, which is, or has been, influenced by a conquering culture, but has been able to maintain an independence of religious practices. This includes Native Americans and Australian Aborigine Bushmen.
  • Syncreto-Paganism: A culture, which has been conquered but adopts and merges the conquering culture's religious practices with their own. This includes Haitian Vodou, and Santería.
  • Neo-Paganism: An attempt by modern people to reconnect with nature, pre-Christian religions, or other nature-based spiritual paths. This definition includes Ásatrú and Neo-Druidism.

This system of classification completely leaves out any possibility of classifying Hindu religions or Shinto as "paganism". Likewise, it would exclude the state religion of the pre-Christian Roman Empire.

These subdivisions are circulated on the Internet as 'anthropological' definitions of Paganism, but they do not derive from anthropology.

See also

External links

Last updated: 10-18-2005 01:29:36
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