You’ve likely heard the term “pagan” before. Probably in a movie or in some context relating to the Christian religion. Maybe there was condemnation over “pagan rituals” or something like that. The word “pagan” has changed a bit in its application and meaning over time, though Christian use of the term has remained a relative constant. So what is paganism exactly, and what does it mean to be pagan anyway?
The early Latin origins of the word “pagan” loosely translate to “villager” or “civilian.” That, or the Classic Latin for “rural” and “rustic.” Around the 1840s, through the power of Christian Latin, the word came to describe “a person of heathen character or habit”. The 1800s version of the Century Dictionary narrows this definition to just mean “non-Christians.”
Eventually, the term came to specifically relate to “civilized non-Christians.” This was largely used to refer to the Greeks and Romans, who Christians knew worshiped false gods, but ceded that they were “civilized.” Consequently, the term “heathen” was used to refer to tribal and indigenous groups. At the time, this was primarily Africans.
Related post: Why is Africa Called the “Dark Continent?”
What Does it Mean to Be Pagan?
Paganism in History
While the English word “pagan” wouldn’t come about until the 17th century, Christians used earlier forms of the term, like pagus and later paganos, to describe others starting around the 4th century. Christians at that time primarily used these words in respect to the Romans, who were polytheistic.
By the 5th century, “pagan” and its derivatives had become associated with anyone outside of the Christian faith. More or less it meant “heretic,” and it had other counterparts, like the Islamic mushrik or kafir.
The term was used in this sense up until the 17th century, when the derogatory nature of paganism shifted away from just religion. The word would come to be used to attack others on both an ethnic and theological basis. As we alluded to earlier, it was mostly African cultures that came under fire.
So yes, Christians took a Latin word with no religious context and pretty much made it a catchall for “people we don’t like.”
Paganism as a Religion
So given what we’ve talked about, you may have already come to the conclusion that paganism was never really an actual religion. You know, because early Christians had lumped all the polytheists and generally not-Christian cultures together. Think about it, there was a time when “pagan” could be applied to followers of the Graeco-Roman mythology and/or every single religion in Africa together.
We can all agree that the idea of there being only two religions (yours, and everyone else’s) is an incredibly reductive way to view world culture. Some more contemporary definitions include “pre-Christian indigenous religions,” though that’s not much less reductive. Because not every religion that the Christians deemed “pagan” were pre-Christian. Nor were they indigenous.
As a result, there are not truly “pagan” beliefs. Especially since the contemporary definition of paganism includes a diverse set of mythologies–like Germanic mythologies and, as we mentioned, the Graeco-Roman one.
But anyway, let’s play ball and see what someone would say if they thought you were pagan.
Early Christians largely defined paganism as polytheistic religions–mostly because there would be no argument that people of those cultures believed in their “One True God.” Even if you only believed in one god that wasn’t the Christian one, it would still be possible (in theory) to play it off like you did. Polytheistic culture, though, was tied to hedonistic ideals. Broadly, hedonism is about pursuing personal pleasure being life’s ultimate goal. While this can be interpreted in a quite wholesome manner, early Christians didn’t see it that way. Pagans were selfish, materialistic, and unconcerned with the future (going to heaven).
Pagans were also often associated with the worship of nature. Rituals revolving around Earth or the spirituality of animals generally came to mind.
Whether or not you think paganism is a reductive term or not, it’s actually making appearances today.
Referred to under the banners of modern, contemporary, or neo-paganism, these movements are still a catchall. They’re for new religious movements whose roots lie in historically pagan religions. So we guess the weirdly reductive roots of paganism never really went away.
However the definition of “new religion” is a bit under contention–especially when you consider how some would consider a new religious movement to be a cult, but not a religion (some people have different definitions of what a cult vs. a religion is). Anyway, the earliest date we could find was 1830 with the Latter Day Saints movement. Others contest that any new religious movement is designated as “new” only after the conclusion of World War II.
Either way, new religions based on the ones Christians used to call pagans are modern pagans. Which means a term that was once meaningless now has… Slightly more meaning.
How many religious texts have you read? Or at least, how many are you able to pretend to have read? Test yourself here.