WHAT IS PAGANISM?
Here we explore what Paganism is, its history, its origins, and how it has changed in the modern world.
An extract from 'Pagans, Witches & Everything In between. Book coming soon.' (Words copyrighted)
The word Pagan originates from the Latin ‘Paganus’. It was a word to describe a civilian or commoner, as opposed to an official, or private citizen, in the Roman Empire. It was originally devoid of any religious meaning or connection. In other parts of the world, words such as 'Hellene' or 'Gentile' were being used and Pagan was purely secular, sometimes associated with someone being inferior, or poor. Heathen was also a word used in Northern Germanic and Scandinavian countries at the time in place of the word Pagan. This is why in current times, Heathens are usually Pagans of the old Norse religion.
Eventually, the word Pagan spread and it became associated with religious meaning, as people were being categorised and labels were becoming ever-so-important. By the end of the 4th Century, Christians were using 'Paganus' to describe ‘Gentiles’ in a vulgar or insulting way as Christianity spread and conversion was increasing.
By 417 CE, Orosius, a Roman priest and historian, wrote a book called ‘History Against the Pagans’ in which he described Romans who defended the old gods as ‘men of the pagus peasants’. This really changed the definition of Pagan to 'followers of the old religions’. The word Pagus meant countryside or rural living and it was not meant to describe the distribution of population between towns and countryside; nevertheless, the assumption that paganism was the religion of peasantry and survived longer in the countryside than in the towns and cities, their large temples and closer proximity to the clergy became the definition of the word.
DEFINITIONS IN TODAYS AGE
The definition of Pagan has changed so much over time and it is the case now that we can observe the three main definitions of what Paganism has evolved to mean today.
They are as follows:
A polytheistic, animistic, pantheistic religion.
This stems from the fact many pre-Christian religions were polytheistic or animistic. Polytheism stands for a belief system or religion that encompasses multiple deities. Animism is the belief that everything, from
humans to animals, to rocks and plants all possess their own spiritual essence, and so are considered alive and conscious in some way. Finally, pantheism is the belief that the universe and God are one and the same, much like believing in Mother Nature as the creator of the earth as well as being the ground you walk upon.
2. A religion that isn’t part of the ‘big three’ Abraham faiths - Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Christianity and Islam are religions that both have roots in Judaism but are separate religions and all three are considered Abrahamic religions. The word Pagan eventually became a descriptor Christians used for those who do not believe in their Christ. Many religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Native American traditions etc. do not define nor call themselves Pagan - even if they may sound like one, which is something we should keep in mind.
3. A nature worshipping/following, or Earth-honouring religion. A belief system that is constructed around the natural cycles of the moon, the seasons, or the weather. Followers may believe in deities, particularly those linked to certain astrological bodies such as Mars and Venus in the historical Roman religion, or those featured in Norse mythology such as Thor, the god of thunder, or Odin, the Allfather. Reconstructionism of these older religions can be common. Believers may hold a deeper connection and relationship with mountains, lakes, and other such geographical features and can involve the celebration of holidays or festivals focused around the changing of the seasons.
Paganism as a descriptor was not a word people described themselves with and especially after the rise of Christianity due to it being a derogatory word and only became in use again at the turn of the 20th Century for Polytheist Reconstructists and Neopaganism.
This is definitely something to keep in mind - we are trying to reconstruct what our ancestors did as best we can using a myriad of both historical and reconstructionist sources. Or, if you are going down a more modern path such as Wicca, trying to recreate the essence of what Paganism is by picking from selected resources and creating something new using a patchwork of other religious traditions or cultures as a basis.