Origin of the word "Pagan."
Two definitions of "Pagan."
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:
Most 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
still followed the Greek state religion, Roman state religion,
Mithraism, various mystery religions, etc., long after those in urban
areas had converted.
Some 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.
C. 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,
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:
Be carefully defined in advance, or that
Its 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.
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:
The Druidic religion is
based on the faith and practices of the ancient Celtic professional class;
Followers of Asatru adhere to the ancient,
pre-Christian Norse religion;
Wiccans generally trace
their roots back to the early Celtic era in Europe.
Other 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:
"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
"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
"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
In this sense, "Pagan" refers to a group of religious
traditions, and should
be capitalized, as are Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
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:
Dr. 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
Dr. 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
Jerry 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.
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.
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.
McDowell & Stewart, "THE OCCULT", Here's Life Publishers, (1992)
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:
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/
"PFAW President, Ralpy G. Neas, Addresses Divisive Comments by Religious
Right Leaders," People for the American Way, at: