THE TRUE MEANING OF PAGANISM
by Ryan Stone
The word “paganism” has come to refer to various pre-Christian religions belonging to a number of ancient cultures—those from Greece, Rome, Egypt, Scandinavia, and so on. It has come to also represent, in some circles, the modern ideology of Wicca and the followers of revived versions of the old practices. The truth about “paganism”, however, is that it is a historically inaccurate phrase in the context of these aforementioned faiths. Although it is now the accepted term for these religions, it is important to examine where the word truly came from and what it initially meant, allowing for a better, all-inclusive understanding of the world’s religious past.
The term “paganism” was revived during the Renaissance when writers were trying to differentiate the old traditions from their contemporary Christian faith. The term itself stems from the Latin paganus translated loosely along the lines of “country dweller” or “rustic”; thus it was initially a word describing a person of locality rather than a religion. However, because of its usage in ancient texts, medieval authors mistakenly believed it referenced a religious sect and thereby gave it the corresponding connotation. In actuality, there was a different word used to describe the “pagans” as they are called today, and that word too stemmed first and foremost from the location of the religious supporters.
According to scholar Peter Brown of Princeton University, “Hellene” was initially utilized in place of “paganism”. “Hellene” was a reference to Ἕλλην (Hellas), the native ancient Greek name for what is now called Greece. Brown explains that when Christianity started making appearances in the eastern communities, “Hellene” was used to differentiate the non-Christians from the Christians. Those from Hellas tended to remain faithful to the old religions, but with the strife between Judaism and Christianity beginning, the Jewish faction needed to ensure they were not incorrectly associated with them. As they were not from Greece, “Hellene” became the perfect title.
In the Latin west, it was more common for the various religions to refer to themselves by their ethnic origins rather than by the gods they worshipped—they simply referred to themselves (in their own language) as Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, etc., simultaneously insinuating their religious factions as well. This form of labeling was largely due to the fact that the political and religious aspects of life were a unified entity. Thus, the tradition of ethnic titling appears to have been continued by the early Christians. As far as ancient sources can tell, it wasn’t until the Late Roman Empire that the term “pagan” began to be used instead, as it was an easy way to lump all the non-Christians together in conversation, decrees, etc. It rose to popularity as a matter of convenience rather than of accuracy and respect.
It is important to note that “paganism” is not intended to differentiate the polytheistic religions from the monotheistic. The number of gods does not apply to the term because many so-called “pagans” would have not considered it important to differentiate themselves based on the number of gods they worshipped. Followers of the ancient religions did not necessarily have anything against Christianity based on its preference for a singular deity—many cults within each sect had a primary deity at the center of the religion, beneath which subordinate deities were also worshipped. “Paganism” as a title was intended only to reference the non-Christians (and the non-Jews), isolating them into one solitary category that could be more easily destroyed and replaced.
This effort of combining all non-Christian religions under one umbrella was, in fact, a clever strategy by the early Christians to remove the “pagan” faiths altogether. Using the Norse traditions as an example, the Vikings of the early medieval period had no true name for their religious following. In truth, the word religion would have been an unknown, foreign term to them. The Nordic tribes preferred the word “customs” as—like the Greeks and Romans—their rituals, beliefs, and traditions were undefined and fluidly interpreted, orally passed down rather than rigidly studied. There was no all-encompassing word for the belief in the Aesir and Vanir, and the various other beings and deities the ancient Norse worshipped, and there was no written text discussing their practices until the Christian author Snorri Sturluson wrote their mythology down in the 13th century.
According to Gareth Williams in Viking: Life and Legend, what is now considered the Norse religion is actually the “legacy of the Christian missionaries”, their textual product a “concentrated target” that is much easier to remove and erase than the amalgamation of gods liberally worshipped. Consolidating the various Norse—and every other “pagan”—tradition into a simplified faith with recorded rules and codes provided the early Christians with a more straightforward target to remove and replace.
Though the phrase “paganism” is widely used to describe followers of the various ancient religions, it is important to understand from where the term originates and the misconceptions behind its usage. Too many centuries have passed now—the word “paganism” will continue to label these supporters despite its original meaning. But it is never too late to be informed of the origins of the term, thereby allowing a better comprehension of the history of the ancient followers.
Brown, Peter. Late Antiquity: a guide to the postclassical world (Harvard University Press: Massachusetts, 1999.) s.v. “Pagan”.
Cameron, Alan G. The Last Pagans of Rome (Oxford University Press: New York, 2011.)
Davies, Owen (2011). Paganism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press: New York, 2011.)
Robert, P. & Scott, N. A History of Pagan Europe (Barnes & Noble Books: New York, 1995.)
Swain, “Defending Hellenism: Philostratus, in Honour of Apollonius,” in Apologetics, p. 173
Williams, Gareth, Peter Penz, and Matthias Wemhoff. Vikings: Life and Legend (Cornell University Press: New York, 2014.)
York, Michael. Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion (New York University Press: New York, 2003.)