Pagans and Paganism

There has been some discussion recently about whether or not the word pagan should be used as a name for people who practice non Christian religions. The religious meaning of the word pagan means non Christian in general, or, more partucularly, non Christian, non Islamic, non Jewish, or non Abrahamic. So, yes, of course, a word which means non Christian (or non Islamic, Jewish, or Abrahamic) is perfectly appropriate for people who are not Christian (or Islamic, Jewish, or Abrahamic). As a category of belief and pracice, the term paganism is vague and general and includes polytheistic, henotheistic, monotheistic, and atheistic religions and philosophies.


Apparently some people have become disturbed that the general term of “paganism” includes new religions such as Wicca, and other belief systems that include elements that are not part of the traditional religions of Egypt, Greece, Rome, Babylon, the Druids, the Celts, the ancient Germanic and Norse peoples, etc. Some reconstructionists are afraid that their own religious movements will be viewed by the media as being connected to what might be described as “fluff bunnyism”, which includes such things as magic wands, fairy dust, claims that there is only one supreme goddess and god, dragon and unicorn lovers, earth worshippers, tree huggers, astrological fanatics, crystal fondlers, and glittery New Age dabblers. So these people, being afraid of the popular media, would like to discard the word pagan, since in their view the word has become irretrievably contaminated by the fluff bunnies. I say that these people are cowards and self deceivers. Someone who is practicing some form of revived Druidism, or Religio Romana, or Hellenismos, or Kemeticism, etc and claims to not be a pagan is engaging in self deception. The religious meaning of the word pagan was specifically and deliberately invented 1600 years ago as a description of the non Christian religions of the Roman Empire. It was intended as a mark of dishonor and disrespect, but it has since become a mark of pride and persistence for those of us who are loyal to the ancient gods. I have been a pagan for fifty years and I am not going to abandon that term for the exclusive use of fluff bunnies and Wiccans. Some people would like to substitute the word polytheist for the word pagan. That’s not going to work. The general public does not know what the word polytheist means, and the meaning of the word is almost as general as the meaning of the word pagan.  Pagan, however, does have a specific meaning that is more relevant to us in historic terms. Pagan, in a scholarly sense, refers to the pre Christian and pre Islamic religions of the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, including all of Europe and all of the Near East. Someone who is practicing one (or more!) of the original religions of that area is indeed a pagan, no matter how hard they pretend that they are not. The religious meaning of the word pagan has dark origins, but it has become a very useful term. So, I say, be pagan and proud! Don’t give in to the fluff bunnies and the modern media! 


It might be useful to briefly review the history of the word pagan. Interested persons should consult the Oxford Latin Dictionary for a discussion of the word. The word pagan is derived from the Latin word paganus. Paganus originally meant both a rural district and a person who lived in a rural district. The meaning of the word changed over the centuries and during the Roman Imperial era it came to mean the lower classes in general, ordinary people of no distinction, whether they lived in urban districts or rural districts. Sometimes it meant civilians or civilian affairs, as distinguished from soldiers and military affairs. The religion of Christianity became fashionable among the upper classes of the Roman Empire in the fourth century ce, and it became the favored religion of the Emperors and the military establishment. In spite of this, the majority of people who lived in the smaller towns and cities and in the countryside, and the urban masses of a few large cities, continued to worship the old gods and goddesses for generations after the Christians had taken control of the government. Because the pagani, the common district dwellers, continued to honor the old gods, the word paganus acquired a religious connotation. During the fifth century ce the word paganus came to mean anyone who was not a Christian or a Jew.  


A personal note: I consciously and officially became a pagan, of the Graeco-Roman variety, fifty years ago. It was in September or October of 1961. Perhaps September 14 or 21. I wrote the date down on a piece of paper which I kept for many years. Then the paper got lost or thrown away, and now I don’t remember the exact date anymore. Fifty year anniversaries are sometimes thought of as important. Maybe I should do something for it. What have I accomplished in fifty years? Hmmm. I survived.

Published in: on May 31, 2011 at 9:45 pm  Comments (6)  
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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I do think you should mark the occasion in some way…And perhaps, you might consider doing so in conjunction with the Sept. 21 observance of Hadrian and Antinous’ initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries. In fact, if I may be so bold to suggest such, I’d be interested in having you write something for the occasion, and to honor you for your long service to the gods on that date. (And, though I don’t know what yet, I suspect there may be a title for you in this that we can bestow as the Ekklesia Antinoou…perhaps you can be our first recognized, in the original sense, Senator?)

    • Yes, I should do something about the anniversary. Numbers can be scary. Fifty years! Gosh. Dynasties have risen and fallen in less time than that. My “long service to the gods” was mostly in secret as a very closeted pagan, so I don’t really have that much to write about, much less boast about. Maybe I could try a short one page autobiography. I have been thinking about writing an article on syncretism for the blog, but my thoughts on that subject are rather disjointed at the moment. I know what I think about the matter (mostly, most of the time) but expressing those thoughts in a manner intelligible to other people is a bit tricky.

      • If nothing else, I’d like to interview you for my blog on that occasion. And, as I said, a title is very likely in it for you as well. My first two or three years of paganism were fairly closeted as well, and it wasn’t until I was at college that I was really able to fully express it without worry, at least when I wasn’t around my parents, etc. But, years are years, and devotion is devotion, and that certainly counts for something. It’s coming up on 20 years for me, and that feels like a long time; and, after a year more, that will be the length of Hadrian’s principate, which was among the longer ones in the history of Rome, so 50 years is certainly nothing to sneeze at! 😉

        And, of course, something on syncretism is always welcome as well, and I look forward to reading your thoughts on the matter here in the near future!

  2. An interview might work. Well, you could ask questions and I could try to provide rational answers, hah! Not today, mind you, but as we get to September.

  3. I think you’ve pointed out a big reason I have not moved away from the term “Pagan”, besides the fact I’ve found that resources under that label tend to be more relevant to me than not.

  4. […] Poppaeus considers the opposition to use of the word “Pagan” […]

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