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Pagan and paganism

Origin of the word "Pagan."
Two definitions of "Pagan."

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Origin of the term:

There is general agreement that the word "Pagan" comes from the Latin word "pagans." Unfortunately, there is no consensus on the precise meaning of the word in the fifth century CE and earlier. There are three main interpretations. 1 None has won general acceptance:

bulletMost modern sources by persons who consider themselves Neopagans or Pagans interpret the word to have meant "rustic,"  "hick," or "country bumpkin" -- a pejorative term. The implication was that Christians used the term to ridicule country folk who tenaciously held on to what the Christians considered old-fashioned, outmoded Pagan beliefs. Those in the country were much slower in adopting the new religion of Christianity than were the urban dwellers. Many rural dwellers still followed the Greek state religion, Roman state religion, Mithraism, various mystery religions, etc., long after those in urban areas had converted.
 
bulletSome believe that in the early Roman Empire, "paganus" came to mean "civilian" as opposed to "military." Christians at the time often called themselves "miles Christi" (Soldiers of Christ). The non-Christians became "pagani" -- non-soldiers or civilians. No denigration would be implied.

bulletC. Mohrmann suggests that the general meaning was any "outsider," -- a neutral term -- and that the other meanings, "civilian" and "hick," were merely specialized uses of the term. 2

By the fifth century CE, its meaning evolved to include all non-Christians. Eventually, it became an evil term that implied the possibility of Satan worship. The latter two meanings are still in widespread use today.

There is no generally accepted, single, current definition for the word "Pagan." The word is among the terms that the newsgroup alt.usage.english, calls "skunk words." They have varied meanings to different people. The field of religion is rife with such words. consider: Christian, cult, hell, heaven, occult, Paganism, pluralism, salvation, Witch, Witchcraft, Unitarian Universalist, Voodoo, etc. Each has at least two meanings. They often cause misunderstandings wherever they are used. Unfortunately, most people do not know this, and naturally assume that the meaning that they have been taught is universally accepted. A reader must often look at the context in which the word is used in order to guess at the intent of the writer.

Many Wiccans, Neopagans, and others regularly use the terms "Pagan" and "Paganism" to describe themselves. Everyone should be free to continue whatever definitions that they wish. However, the possibility of major confusion exists -- particularly if one is talking to a general audience. When addressing non-Wiccans or non-Neopagans, it is important that the term:

bulletBe carefully defined in advance, or that
bulletIts meaning is clearly understandable from the content of the text.

Otherwise, the speaker or writer will be discussing one group of people, while the listeners or readers will assume that other groups are being referred to.

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The first of seven definitions: Pagans consist of Wiccans and other Neopagans:

We recommend that this should be the primary definition of "Pagan," for the simple reason that many Wiccans and other Neopagans embrace the term for themselves. "Paganism" in this sense refers to a range of spiritual paths. These are generally Neopagan religions based on the deities, symbols, practices, seasonal days of celebration and other surviving components of ancient religions, which had been long suppressed. For example:

bulletThe Druidic religion is based on the faith and practices of the ancient Celtic professional class;
bulletFollowers of Asatru adhere to the ancient, pre-Christian Norse religion;
bullet Wiccans generally trace their roots back to the early Celtic era in Europe.
bulletOther Neo-pagans follow Hellenismos (ancient Greek religion), Religio Romana (ancient Roman religion), Kemetism (ancient Egyptian religion) and other traditions.

Some Neopagan religions, like Wicca and Druidism, are Earth centered. They emphasize  living in harmony with the Earth and observing its cycles. Others, like Hellenismos and Religio Romana, are deity centered.

Some typical quotations which demonstrate this meaning of "Pagan" are:

bullet"Witchcraft, or Wicca, is considered part of the occult, but has little relationship to Satanism. Wicca is pagan (pre-Christian, as opposed to anti-Christian) and is currently gaining popularity." 3
bullet"Witches do not worship the devil...Witches are more interested in magical arts and the divinity of nature...Wiccans are considered pagans because they worship several nature gods instead of a single god." 4
bullet"The World Christian Encyclopedia estimates 6 million Americans profess to be witches and engage in practices like these. They are a sub-group of over 10 million persons the encyclopedia says call themselves pagans, who practice "primitive" religions such as Druidism, Odin worship and Native American shamanism." 5

In this sense, "Pagan" refers to a group of religious traditions, and should be capitalized, as are Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

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The second of seven definitons: Pagans are people to hate:

Religious and social conservatives sometimes use "Pagan" as a general purpose "snarl" word to refer to cultures or religions that are very different from the speaker's. There is no general consensus as to meaning. It can be seen directed at any religious or cultural group that the speaker hates. Some examples:

bulletDr. John Patrick, professor at the University of Ottawa, Canada was discussing at a conference the number of abortions performed worldwide. He said: "Gods and goddesses are beginning to re-inhabit the Western world. Infant sacrifice -- there are 52 million a year. It is paganism."  6
bulletDr. Richard Swenson, director of the Future Health Study Center said at the same conference: "We went into post-Christian and neopaganism very quickly...We want the culture to change, we want some spiritual sanity, but we need to understand that this is a pluralistic and even neopaganist society." 6
bulletJerry Falwell appeared as a guest on Pat Robertson's "700 Club" program on 2001-SEP-13. He said that God became sufficiently angry at America that he engineered the terrorist attack on New York City and Washington-- presumably to send Americans a message. He said:
"I really believe that the Pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians -- all of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.' "
Pat Robertson responded: "Well, I totally concur..." 7

Falwell did not elaborate on how a religious group such as Pagans contributed to the secularization of the U.S.

[We sent a series of Emails to Falwell's office asking exactly to whom he was referring with the word "Pagans." They declined to respond. Since he died in 2007-MAY, we suspect that the question will never be answered.] More details.

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See the next essay in this section for the remaining five definitions.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. James J. O'Donnell, "PAGANUS," Classical Folia 31(1977) 163-69. Online at: http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/
  2. C. Mohrmann, "Encore une fois: paganus," 'tudes sur le latin des chr'tiens (Rome, 1958-1965), 3.277-289; orig. pub. in Vigiliae Christianae, 6 (1952), 109-121. Quoted in Ref. 16.
  3. Rob Tucker, IPCA REPORT (Spring 1989) Volume 2 #1. P. 8 The Institute for the Prevention of Child Abuse, 25 Spadina Rd, Toronto ON M5R 2S9, Canada.
  4. McDowell & Stewart, "THE OCCULT", Here's Life Publishers, (1992) P. 199.
  5. Sharon Rufus, "WHO ARE THE WITCHES?", Fate (1986 AUG), P. 59: quoted by Nelson Price in "NEW AGE, THE OCCULT AND LION COUNTRY", Power Books (1989), P. 98:
  6. From speeches delivered at the Bioethics in the New Millennium conference, Deerfield IL., 2000-JUL-22. Reported by Jordan Lite in "Bioethicists Man the Pulpit," Wired News, at: http://www.wired.com/news/technology/
  7. "PFAW President, Ralpy G. Neas, Addresses Divisive Comments by Religious Right Leaders," People for the American Way, at: http://www.pfaw.org/

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Copyright © 2000 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-JUL-28
Latest update: 2010-JAN-10
Author: B.A. Robinson

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