Paganism is a term which, from a western perspective, has come to connote a broad set of spiritual or cultic practices or beliefs of any folk religion, and of historical and contemporary polytheism religions in particular.
The term can be defined broadly, to encompass the faith traditions outside the Abrahamic monotheistic group of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The group so defined includes the Dharmic religions, Native American religions and mythologies and Shinto as well as non-Abrahamic ethnic religions in general. More narrow definitions will not include any of the world religions and restrict the term to local or rural currents not organized as civil religions. Characteristic of pagan traditions is the absence of proselytisation, and the presence of a living mythology which explains religious practice. Sacrifice plays a central part in pagan and non-pagan religion alike.
The term "pagan" is a Christian adaptation of the "goy" of Judaism, and as such has an inherent Christian or Abrahamic bias, and pejorative connotations among westerners, comparable to heathen, infidel, and mushrik and kafir (كافر) in Islam. For this reason, Ethnologists avoid the term "paganism", with its uncertain and varied meanings, in referring to traditional or historic faiths, preferring more precise categories such as polytheism, shamanism, or animism.
Since the later 20th century, however, the words "pagan" or "paganism" have become widely and openly used as a self-designation of adherents of polytheistic reconstructionism and neopaganism.
The term pagan is from Latin paganus, an adjective originally meaning "rural", "rustic" or "of the country." As a noun, paganus was used to mean "country dweller, villager." In colloquial use, it could mean much the same as calling someone today a 'bumpkin' or a 'hillbilly'. Some believe Paganus was almost exclusively a derogatory term. (It is from this derivation of "villager" which we have the word "villain", which the expanding Christians called the Pagans of Northern Europe/Scandinavia).
The semantic development of post-classical Latin paganus in the sense "non-Christian, heathen" is unclear. The dating of this sense is controversial, but the 4th century seems most plausible. An earlier example has been suggested in Tertullian De Corona Militis xi, "Apud hunc [sc. Christum] tam miles est paganus fidelis quam paganus est miles infidelis," but here the word paganus may be interpreted in the sense "civilian" rather than "heathen". There are three main explanations of the development:
* (i) The older sense of classical Latin pāgānus is "of the country, rustic" (also as noun). It has been argued that the transferred use reflects the fact that the ancient idolatry lingered on in the rural villages and hamlets after Christianity had been generally accepted in the towns and cities of the Roman Empire; cf. Orosius Histories 1. Prol. "Ex locorum agrestium compitis et pagis pagani vocantur." From its earliest beginnings, Christianity spread much more quickly in major urban areas (like Antioch, Alexandria, Corinth, Rome) than in the countryside (in fact, the early church was almost entirely urban), and soon the word for "country dweller" became synonymous with someone who was "not a Christian," giving rise to the modern meaning of "pagan." This may, in part, have had to do with the conservative nature of rural people, who may have been more resistant to the new ideas of Christianity than those who lived in major urban centers. However, it may have also resulted from early Christian missionaries focusing their efforts within major population centers (e.g., St. Paul), rather than throughout an expansive, yet sparsely populated, countryside (hence, the Latin term suggesting "uneducated country folk").
* (ii) The more common meaning of classical Latin pāgānus is "civilian, non-militant" (adjective and noun). Christians called themselves mīlitēs, "enrolled soldiers" of Christ, members of his militant church, and applied to non-Christians the term applied by soldiers to all who were "not enrolled in the army".
* (iii) The sense "heathen" arose from an interpretation of paganus as denoting a person who was outside a particular group or community, hence "not of the city" or "rural"; cf. Orosius Histories 1. Prol. "ui alieni a civitate dei..pagani vocantur." See C. Mohrmann, Vigiliae Christianae 6 (1952) 9ff.
-- Oxford English Dictionary, (online) 2nd Edition (1989)
"Peasant" is a cognate, via Old French paisent. (Harry Thurston Peck, Harper's Dictionary of Classical Antiquity, 1897; "pagus").
In their distant origins, these usages derived from pagus, "province, countryside", cognate to Greek πάγος "rocky hill", and, even earlier, "something stuck in the ground", as a landmark: the Proto-Indo-European 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 declined into military autocracy and anarchy, in the 4th and 5th centuries it came to mean "civilian", in a sense parallel to the English usage "the locals". It was only after the Late Imperial 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 respectfully 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. Additionally, a lot of rural parts of Europe were the most resistant to forced Christian conversions, militarily resisted Christian Europe and held to their natural religions, reamplifying the medieval use of the term.
As mentioned previously, the post-Christian usage of "pagan" came to mean rural folk holding to pre-Christian polytheistic beliefs in the face of the new, and predominantly urban, Christianized Roman society. Conversely, it is now the rural peoples of Western culture who are more typically aligned with Christian beliefs (e.g., the bible belt or red state within the U.S.), whereas urban areas are now more secularized.
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".
While pagan is attested in English from the 14th century, there is no evidence that the term paganism was in use 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." The term was not a neologism, however, as paganismus was already used by Augustine.
The urbanity of Christians is exemplified in Augustine's work, The City of God, in which Augustine consoled distressed city-dwelling Christians over the fall of Rome. He pointed out that while the great 'city of man' had fallen, Christians were ultimately citizens of the 'city of God.'
Many Slavic peoples, especially Eastern Slavs, use the word "pagan" as an insult in their language; translating roughly as a "conniving brute." The etymology of this meaning lies in the fact that after their forced conversion by western Christians, much of the Slavic lands took a dim view of the remaining non-Christians in their midsts.
Heathen is from Old English hæðen "not Christian or Jewish", (c.f. Old Norse heiðinn). Historically, the term was probably influenced by Gothic haiþi "dwelling on the heath", appearing as haiþno in Ulfilas' bible as "gentile woman," (translating the Greek in Mark 7:26). This translation probably influenced by Latin paganus, "country dweller", or it was chosen because of its similarity to the Greek ethne, "gentile". It has even been suggested that Gothic haiþi is not related to "heath" at all, but rather a loan from Armenian hethanos, itself loaned from Greek ethnos.
Both "pagan" and "heathen" have historically been used as a pejorative by adherents of monotheistic religions (such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam) to indicate a disbeliever 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 the established political framework of the Christian Church. It has more recently (from the 19th century) been used admiringly by those who believe monotheistic religions to be confining or colourless.
"Pagan" came to be equated with a 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 and stereotypical sense, particularly among those who were drawing attention to what they perceived as being the limitations of paganism, for example, 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." In sharp contrast Swinburne the poet would comment on this same theme: "Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath; We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fullness of death."
Christianity itself has been perceived at times as a form of paganism by followers of the other Abrahamic religions because of, for example, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, the celebration of pagan feast days, and other practices - through a process described as "baptising" or "christianization". Even between Christians there have been similar charges of paganism levelled, especially by Protestants, towards the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches for their veneration of the saints and images.
"Heathen" (Old English hæðen) is a translation of paganus. The term is used for Germanic paganism, or Germanic Neopaganism, in particular. The Germanic tribes were distributed over Eastern and Central Europe by the 5th century, and their dialects ceased to be mutually intelligible from around that time. Christianization of the Germanic peoples took place from the 4th (Goths) to the 6th (Anglo-Saxons, Alamanni) or 8th (Saxons) centuries on the continent, and from the 9th to 12th centuries in Iceland and Scandinavia.
* Paleo-Paganism: A retronym coined to contrast with "neopaganism", denoting a pagan culture that has not been disrupted by other cultures. The term applies to Hinduism, Shinto, pre-Migration period Germanic paganism as described by Tacitus, Celtic Polytheism as described by Julius Caesar, and the Greek and Roman religion.
* Meso-Paganism: A group, which is, or has been, significantly influenced by monotheistic, dualistic, or nontheistic worldviews, but has been able to maintain an independence of religious practices. This group includes Native Americans and Australian Aborigine Bushmen, Viking Age Norse paganism. Influences include: Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, Spiritualism, as well as Sikhism, and the many Afro-Diasporic faiths like 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 may include anything on a sliding scale from reconstructionist to New Age and non-reconstructionist groups such as Neo-Druidism and Wicca.
Paganism has been previously defined broadly, to encompass many or most of the faith traditions outside the Abrahamic monotheistic group of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. If the Dharmic religions are included, then 50 percent of the worlds religions would be considered pagan.
The term has also been used more narrowly, however, to refer only to religions outside the very large group of so-called Axial Age faiths that encompass both the Abrahamic religions and the chief Dharmic religions. Under this narrower definition, which differs from that historically used by many (though by no means all) Christians and other Westerners, contemporary paganism is a relatively smaller and more marginal numerical phenomenon. The American Religious Identity survey 2001, calculated that paganism formed the fifth largest religion in the United States however if the broad definition of paganism is used, see introduction, then paganism is the second largest group behind Christianity. The number of people practising non-Christian religions is reported to have increased by over 34% since the previous survey in 1990, however determining precise figures for the growth can be difficult since practitioners of some of these religions may be inclined to hide their faith, through fear of persecution, and raw figures might therefore be understated. The largest percentage quantifiable growth is Wicca which has shown a near 17 fold increase in practising members over an 11 year period. Paganism is Canada's fastest-growing religion, according to Statistics Canada.
The fear of paganism being the fastest growing religion in the west, coupled with stereotypical misconceptions, has led at times to emotive outpourings in the popular press. Contrary to popular tabloid descriptions, mainstream modern religious pagans are not noted for their ritual orgies. Some pagans may perform rituals in the nude, but this usually has more to do with climate and symbolism than with any implication of sexual activity being an essential part of the ritual.
There are many surviving traditions of folk religion, mainly in rural and sparsely populated areas. These include Animism and Shamanism of Asia, Africa, the Americas, as well as Papua and other Pacific islands. The only surviving such tradition that achieved the status of a civil religion is Japanese Shinto.
All world religions, however, also include folk religious aspects, as opposed to their theological or philosophical aspects, see folk Christianity, Paganism in the Eastern Alps, Christian mythology, Islamic mythology, Jewish mythology, Hindu mythology, Buddhist mythology, Chinese folk religion.
During the expansion of the Sokoto Caliphate in West Africa, Islamic Fulbe (Fula) labelled their non-Muslim neighbours, such as this Kapsiki diviner, Kirdi, or "pagans".
In another sense, as used by modern practitioners, Paganism is a polytheistic, panentheistic, or pantheistic religious practice, often nature-based. Most Pagans consider themselves to be religious, however some others use the term for a form of Atheism, Agnosticism, or philosophy. Neopaganism includes reconstructed religions such as Hellenic polytheism, Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism, and the many Germanic revivals such as Ásatrú, Heathenry, Norse paganism and Theodism. Due to the fact that Reconstructionist religions are polytheistic revivals and elaborations based on surviving cultural practices, many Reconstructionists prefer to be called Pagans, not Neopagans. It might best be assessed that they inhabit a grey area between Pagan and Neopagan.
Also categorised as Neopagan are religions such as Forn Sed, Neo-druidism, Longobardic Odinism, Lithuanian Romuva, and Slavic Rodoverie that also claim to revive an ancient religion rather than reconstruct it, though in general the difference is not absolutely fixed.
Modern eclectic traditions such as Discordianism, and Wicca and its many offshoots are Neopagan, although Wiccans and Wiccan-influenced Neopagans may also refer to themselves simply as "Pagan".
Many of the "revivals", Wicca and Neo-druidism in particular, have their roots in 19th century Romanticism and retain noticeable elements of occultism or theosophy that were current then, setting them apart from historical rural (paganus) folk religion. The Íslenska Ásatrúarfélagið is a notable exception in that it was derived more or less directly from remnants in rural folklore.
Still, some practitioners even of syncretized and eclectic traditions tend to object to the term "Neopaganism" for their religion as they consider what they are doing not to be a new thing. It must be said, also, that since the 1990s, the number of reconstructionist movements that reject romantic or occult influences has increased, even if those Neopagans who make a conscious effort to separate pre-Christian from romanticism influences are still a minority.
For purposes of clarity this article will focus on the ancient religions, while Neopaganism is discussed in its own article.
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 subconscious spirit of all living things forms the universal deity. Paganism pre-dates modern monotheism, although its origins are lost in prehistory. Ancient Greek Paganism, which tended in many cases to be a deification of the local deity, as Athena in Athens, saw each local emanation as an aspect of an Olympian deity during the Classical period and then after Alexander to syncretize the deity with the political process, with "state divinities" increasingly assigned to various localities, as Roma personified Rome. 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.
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 and the individuals who choose to claim this title.