"Pagan" redirect here. For other usages, see Pagan (disambiguation)

Various different religious traditions have been labelled "pagan" over the centuries; including the Classical religion of ancient Greece (left; The Parthenon) and the new religious movement of contemporary Paganism (right; Romuvan priestess).

Paganism is a blanket term used in various different contexts to refer to groups who are defined by either their religious beliefs, or in some cases lack thereof. In keeping with this, there is no one universally accepted definition of "paganism", with it being used alternatively to refer to a wide variety of different groups.

The widest definition of the term uses it to refer to all religions that are not in the Abrahamic category (i.e. the monotheistic faiths with their origins in the Middle East, like Christianity, Judaism and Islam); within this category can therefore be found agnostic, atheistic, pantheistic and polytheistic religious movements which are otherwise unconnected.[1][2][3] Another definition, currently used by some religious studies scholars, uses the term to apply to religions which adhere to a belief in polytheism, animism and a concept of divine immanence; under this category therefore comes the pre-Christian and pre-Islamic religions of Europe and Asia, the indigenous religions of the world and new religious movements that consider themselves to be a part of the Contemporary Pagan movement.[4]

A third definition narrows the pagan category down further and chooses to use it not in reference to world indigenous religions but only to the pre-Christian religions of Europe and the contemporary Pagan groups which are influenced by them.[5] In certain contexts the term "pagan" has also been used to simply mean "irreligious".[1]

The term "pagan" originated as the Latin paganus, a Latin word meanining 'peasant' or 'rural inhabitant'[6] as opposed to a townsman. The term was used amongst early Christians in southern Europe to refer to those who were neither Christian nor Jewish; the reason for the adoption of this word by Christians is however still an area of debate amongst scholars. The term pagan is a Christian adaptation of the "gentile" of Judaism, and as such has an inherent Abrahamic bias, and pejorative connotations among monotheists,[7] comparable to heathen and infidel also known as kafir (كافر) and mushrik in Islam. As European Christian explorers navigated and settled across other continents in the Early Modern period, they encountered the wide variety of non-monotheistic religious traditions in these new lands, which they also called "pagan". In the 19th century however, ethnologists began to reject the term "paganism" for these faiths, instead referring to them as "folk religions", "ethnic religions" or "indigenous religions". Meanwhile, in the late 19th and 20th centuries, various new religions were forged that attempted to resurrect the pre-Christian religions of Europe; these included Wicca, Thelema, Neo-druidry and Germanic Heathenry, and they would come to be referred to under the banner of contemporary Paganism or Neo-Paganism.



The Neoplatonist philosopher, mathematician and astronomer Hypatia of Alexandria, was killed in March 415 CE by a mob of Christian monks who considered her to be a pagan.


The origins of the modern English word "pagan" come from the Latin paganus, an adjective originally meaning "rural", "rustic" or "of the countryside."[8][9] For decades, it was widely believed by scholars that the early Christians who were living in southern Europe had adopted this paganus to refer to those people who were not worshippers of a monotheistic God (thereby not being either Jews or Christians). It was argued that Christians called these people paganus (implying that they were "rustics" or "rural folk") because the non-monotheistic cults of various deities lingered on in the rural villages and hamlets after Christianity had been accepted in the towns and cities of the Roman Empire.[10][11][12]

An alternative reason for the adoption of paganus in reference to those who were not followers of Judaism or Christianity was later put forward by French scholar Pierre Chuvin (1990). He argued that soldiers in the Roman Army had used the word paganus contemptuously to refer to civilians and non-combatants. Following on, he proposed that the early Christians, considering themselves to be 'soldiers of Christ', began referring to those who did not worship their God as the pagani.[13][14]

Peter Brown observes:

The adoption of paganus by Latin Christians as an all-embracing, pejorative term for polytheists represents an unforeseen and singularly long-lasting victory, within a religious group, of a word of Latin slang originally devoid of religious meaning. The evolution occurred only in the Latin west, and in connection with the Latin church. Elsewhere, "Hellene " or "gentile" (ethnikos) remained the word for "pagan"; and paganos continued as a purely secular term, with overtones of the inferior and the commonplace.[15]


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 "Hellene" in Mark 7:26). This translation was probably influenced by Latin paganus, "country dweller", or it was chosen because of its similarity to the Greek ἐθνικός ethnikos, "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 ἔθνος ethnos.


Paganism as non-Abrahamic religion

Under the first definition of "paganism", religions which are non-Abrahamic in basis, such as Buddhism (left) and LaVeyan Satanism (right) would be considered to be "pagan", something that would not occur in modern definitions, which reserve such a definition for polytheistic and animistic traditions.

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; although in modern times it is not always used as a pejorative. "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.

"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. Thus 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."[16]

Christianity itself has been perceived at times as a form of polytheism by followers of the other Abrahamic religions[17][18] because of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (which at first glance appears indistinguishable from Tritheism,[19] though this is variously condemned as heresy or apostasy by the main Christian denominations) or the celebration of Pagan feast days[20] and other practices – through a process described as "baptizing"[21] or "christianization". Even between Christians there have been similar charges of idolatry levelled, especially by Protestants,[22][23] towards the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches for their veneration of the saints and images.

Paganism as pre-Christian European religion

The right half of the front panel of the seventh century Franks Casket, depicting the pan-Germanic legend of Weyland Smith, which was apparently also a part of Anglo-Saxon pagan mythology.

Some religious scholars have chosen to use "paganism" in reference only to the pre-Christian religions of Europe which Christianity encountered and subsequently replaced, and not to indigenous religious groups in other continents. This decision was taken, in part, because the term "pagan" was perceived as a "Eurocentric imperialism that denies indigenous peoples their separate identities."[5]

English religious studies scholar Michael York (2003) criticised such a view, noting that it suffered problems in drawing a boundary between Europe and other parts of the world; as he remarked, "what inherently distinguishes the European traditions from the Indo-European complex from which they descend other than the accident of geographic location?"[5] He went on to put forward a second criticism, that by dividing pre-Christian European religion and worldwide indigenous religions, which all share similar characteristics of polytheism, animism and at times shamanism, it prevents scholars from appreciating the "natural kinship" between these two groups, and that it is therefore an "ethnocentric blinder."[5]

Paganism as polytheistic world religion

English religious studies scholar Michael York (2003) argued that many ancient Eurasian religions, indigenous religions and contemporary Pagan faiths contained "an identifiable position of common characteristics and understandings" and that they could therefore all be labelled as forms of the same religious movement, which he termed "paganism". In this way, York maintained that paganism should be treated as a world religion.[24] He went on to identify the characteristics of such a religion, arguing that paganism involved:

(1) a number of both male and female gods, (2) magical practice, (3) emphasis on ritual efficacy, (4) corpospirituality, and (5) an understanding of gods and humans as codependent and related. Paganism has no belief in historic revelation. Instead, this world and the otherworld are intimately interrelated, and while the myths and stories about the gods are chiefly to be understood as metaphors, the divine itself is to be experienced directly.[25]

Such ideas have been supported by contemporary Pagans Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick in their scholarly study of pre-Christian European religion (1995), when they used "paganism" to cover "Nature-venerating indigenous spiritual traditions generally". They argued that a set of characteristics could be seen in all such religions, which they defined thus:

They are polytheistic, recognising a plurality of divine beings, which may or may not be avatars or other aspects of an underlying unity/duality/trinity etc.
They view Nature as a theophany, a manifestation of divinity, not as a 'fallen' creation of the latter.
They recognise the female divine principle, called the Goddess (with a capital 'G' to distinguish her from many particular goddesses), as well as, or instead of, the male divine principle, the God.[26]

Under such a category, Jones and Pennick placed not only the pre-Christian religions of Europe, but also "Native American tradition, the tribal religions of Africa, the sophistication of Hindu belief and practice and the more recently revived Japanese tradition, Shinto", all of which were "the authentic native animistic traditions of their respective areas."[27]

Pre-Christian European religion

Classical Antiquity

Ludwig Feuerbach (1833) defines "Paganism" (Heidentum) in the context of classical antiquity as "the unity of religion and politics, of spirit and nature, of god and man",[28] qualified by the observation that "man" in the Pagan view is always defined by ethnicity, i.e. Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Jew, etc., so that each Pagan tradition is also a national tradition. Feuerbach goes on to postulate that the emergence of monotheism and thus the end of the Pagan period was a development which naturally grew out of Hellenistic philosophy due to the contradiction inherent in the ethnic nature of Pagan tradition and the universality of human spirituality (Geist), finally resulting in the emergence of a religion with a universalist scope in the form of Christianity.[29]

Venus of Arles, late 1st century BCE.

Late Antiquity

The developments of Late Antiquity in the religious thought in the far-flung Roman Empire needs to be addressed separately, as this is the context in which Early Christianity itself developed as one of several monotheistic cults, and it was in this period that the concept of "pagan" developed in the first place. Christianity as it emerged out of Second Temple Judaism (or Hellenistic Judaism) stood in competition with other religions advocating "pagan monotheism", including Neoplatonism, Mithraism, Gnosticism, Manichaeanism, and the cult of Dionysus.[30]

Dionysus in particular exhibits significant parallels with Christ, so that numerous scholars have concluded that the recasting of Jesus the wandering rabbi into the image of Christ the Logos, the divine saviour, reflects the cult of Dionysus directly. They point to the symbolism of wine and the importance it held in the mythology surrounding both Dionysus and Jesus Christ;[31][32] Wick argues that the use of wine symbolism in the Gospel of John, including the story of the Marriage at Cana at which Jesus turns water into wine, was intended to show Jesus as superior to Dionysus.[33] The scene in The Bacchae wherein Dionysus appears before King Pentheus on charges of claiming divinity is compared to the New Testament scene of Jesus being interrogated by Pontius Pilate.[33][34][35]

For these reasons, it is difficult if not impossible to draw a clear line between "Christianity" and "Paganism" for the period of the 3rd to 4th centuries when Christianity was in its formative phase. Only with the emergence of Orthodox Christianity as reflected in the Apostle's Creed and the final decline of Hellenistic paganism by the 6th century does "Paganism" become a concept clearly distinct from Christianity.

Early Modern period and Romanticism

Interest in pagan traditions was revived in the Renaissance, at first in Renaissance magic as a revival of Greco-Roman magic. In the 17th century, description of paganism turned from the theological aspect to the ethnological, and a religion began to be understood as part of the ethnic identity of a people, and the study of the religions of "primitive" peoples triggered questions as to the ultimate historical origin of religion. Thus, Nicolas Fabri de Peiresc saw the pagan religions of Africa of his day as relicts that were in principle capable of shedding light on the historical Paganism of Classical Antiquity.[36]

Paganism re-surfaces as a topic of fascination in 18th to 19th century Romanticism, in particular in the context of the literary Celtic and Viking revivals, which portrayed historical Celtic and Germanic polytheists as noble savages.

The 19th century also saw much scholarly interest in the reconstruction of pagan mythology from folklore or fairy tales. This was notably attempted by the Brothers Grimm, especially Jacob Grimm in his Teutonic Mythology, and Elias Lönnrot with the compilation of the Kalevala. The work of the Brothers Grimm influenced other collectors, both inspiring them to collect tales and leading them to similarly believe that the fairy tales of a country were particularly representative of it, to the neglect of cross-cultural influence. Among those influenced were the Russian Alexander Afanasyev, the Norwegians Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, and the Englishman Joseph Jacobs.[37]

Romanticist interest in non-classical antiquity coincided with the rise of Romantic nationalism and the rise of the nation state in the context of the 1848 revolutions, leading to the creation of national epics and national myths for the various newly formed states. Pagan or folkloristic topics were also common in the Musical nationalism of the period.

Contemporary Paganism

Pagan handfasting ceremony at Avebury (Beltane 2005).

In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a variety of new religious movements grew up that aimed to revive the historical, pre-Christian religions of Europe and the Near East. This variety of new religions have come to be known under the umbrella term of contemporary Paganism, or at other times Neopaganism or Neo-Paganism. Some of these newly developed faiths attempted to recreate extinct religions using the available historical and archaeological sources of information, whereas others were more modern in construct, but took an influence from European pre-Christian religion.

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.


Contemporary Pagan religions place a great emphasis on polytheism, the acceptance and/or veneration of multiple deities, most of whom are adopted from pre-Christian European pantheons.[38] In some Pagan traditions however, these deities are not viewed as literal entities as they were in pre-Christian and indigenous spiritualities but as symbolic representations of psychological archetypes, in this manner being influenced by Jungian psychology.[39] The sociologist Margot Adler made a study of Paganism in the United States, noting that many of those whom she interviewed informed her that they had adopted polytheism because it allowed a greater freedom, diversity and tolerance of worship amongst the community than that permitted in monotheistic religions.[40]

Another pivotal belief in the contemporary Pagan movement is that of animism. For modern Pagans, this "is used to imply a reality in which all things are imbued with vitality."[41] Animism was also a concept common to many pre-Christian European religions, and in adopting it, contemporary Pagans are attempting to "allow their participants to reenter the primeval worldview, to participate in nature in a way that is not possible for most Westerners after childhood."[42]

A third pivotal belief in the Pagan community is that of pantheism, the belief that divinity and the material and/or spiritual universe are one and the same. For Pagans, it means that "divinity is inseperable from nature and that deity is immanent in nature."[43]

Ritual practice

American folklorist Sabina Magliocco came to the conclusion, based upon her ethnographic fieldwork in California, that certain Pagan beliefs "arise from what they experience during religious ecstasy".[44]

The hammer Mjöllnir is one of the primary symbols of Germanic Paganism. Pendants of the Mjöllnir are commonly worn amongst Germanic Pagans.

There are a number of Pagan authors who have examined the relation of the 20th-century movements of polytheistic revival with historical polytheism on one hand and contemporary traditions of indigenous folk religion on the other. Isaac Bonewits introduces a terminology to make this distinction,[45]


Paganism has been previously defined broadly, to encompass many or most of the faith traditions outside the Abrahamic religions.

The term has also been used more narrowly,[46][47][48] 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 Indian religions. Under this narrower definition, which differs from that historically used by many[49][50] (though by no means all[51][52]) Christians and other Westerners, contemporary Paganism is a smaller and more marginal numerical phenomenon. According to Encyclopedia Britannica estimates (as of 2005), adherents of Chinese folk religion account for some 6.3% of world population, and adherents of tribal religions ("ethnoreligionists") for another 4.0%. The number of adherents of neopaganism is insignificant in comparison, amounting to 0.02% of world population at the most, or some 0.4% of the "ethnoreligious" population.



  1. ^ a b York 2003. p. 14.
  2. ^ "CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Paganism". 21 November 2009. Retrieved 17 August 2010. "Paganism, in the broadest sense includes all religions other than the true one revealed by God, and, in a narrower sense, all except Christianity, Judaism, and Mohammedanism. The term is also used as the equivalent of Polytheism." 
  3. ^ – Robinson, B.A (2000). "What do "Paganism" & "Pagan" mean?" at
  4. ^ York 2003.
  5. ^ a b c d York 2003. p. 06.
  6. ^ Langenscheidt's Shorter Latin Dictionary
  7. ^ "Pagan", Encyclopedia Britannica 11th Edition, 1911, retrieved 22 May 2007.[1]
  8. ^ Jones and Pennick 1995. p. 01.
  9. ^ Word History
  10. ^ Watts, Alan W. "Nature, Man and Woman", 1991, Vintage Books, p. 25.
  11. ^ Jones and Pennick 1995. p. 01.
  12. ^ Chuvin 1990. p. 17.
  13. ^ Chuvin 1990. p. 17.
  14. ^ Jones and Pennick 1995. p. 01.
  15. ^ Peter Brown, in Glen Warren Bowersock, Peter Robert Lamont Brown, Oleg Grabar, eds., Late Antiquity: a guide to the postclassical world, 1999, s.v. "Pagan".
  16. ^ 'Hymn to Proserpine'
  17. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia
  18. ^ Shirk
  19. ^ Chapman, John (1912). "Tritheists", The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved 17 May 2011.
  20. ^ Christianised calendar
  21. ^ The Pope, The Emperor and the Persian Leader
  22. ^ 'Philip Melanchthon 'Apologia Confessionis Augustanae'
  23. ^ Jean Seznec 'The Survival of the Pagan Gods'
  24. ^ York 2003. p. viii.
  25. ^ York 2003. p. 14.
  26. ^ Jones and Pennick 1995. p. 02.
  27. ^ Jones and Pennick 1995. p. 01.
  28. ^ c.f. the civil, natural and mythical theologies of Marcus Terentius Varro
  29. ^ Ludwig Feuerbach, Geschichte der neueren Philosophie (1833), Introduction, §1 (Paganism, Philosophy, Religion, Christianity) Das Wesen des Heidentums war die Einheit von Religion und Politik, Geist und Natur, Gott und Mensch. Aber der Mensch im Heidentum war nicht der Mensch schlechtweg, sondern der nationell bestimmte Mensch: der Grieche, der Römer, der Ägyptier, der Jude, folglich auch sein Gott ein nationell bestimmtes, besonderes, dem Wesen oder Gotte anderer Völker entgegengesetztes Wesen — ein Wesen also im Widerspruch mit dem Geiste, welcher das Wesen der Menschheit und als ihr Wesen die allgemeine Einheit aller Völker und Menschen ist. Die Aufhebung dieses Widerspruchs im Heidentum war die heidnische Philosophie; denn sie riß den Menschen heraus aus seiner nationellen Abgeschlossenheit und Selbstgenügsamkeit, erhob ihn über die Borniertheit des Volksdünkels und Volksglaubens, versetzte ihn auf den kosmopolitischen Standpunkt.
  30. ^ E. Kessler, Dionysian Monotheism in Nea Paphos, Cyprus "two monotheistic religions, Dionysian and Christian, existed contemporaneously in Nea Paphos during the 4th century C.E. [...] the particular iconography of Hermes and Dionysos in the panel of the Epiphany of Dionysos [...] represents the culmination of a Pagan iconographic tradition in which an infant divinity is seated on the lap of another divine figure; this Pagan motif was appropriated by early Christian artists and developed into the standardized icon of the Virgin and Child. Thus the mosaic helps to substantiate the existence of Pagan monotheism." Biblical Studies on the Web
  31. ^ Pausanias, Description of Greece 6. 26. 1 - 2
  32. ^ Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 2. 34a
  33. ^ a b Wick, Peter (2004). "Jesus gegen Dionysos? Ein Beitrag zur Kontextualisierung des Johannesevangeliums". Biblica (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute) 85 (2): 179–198. Retrieved 2007-10-10. 
  34. ^ Studies in Early Christology, by Martin Hengel, 2005, p.331 (ISBN 0567042804)
  35. ^ Powell, Barry B., Classical Myth Second ed. With new translations of ancient texts by Herbert M. Howe. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1998.
  36. ^ "It would be a great pleasure to make the comparison with what survives to us of ancient Paganism in our old books, in order to have better [grasped] their spirit." Peter N. Miller, History of Religion Becomes Ethnology: Some Evidence from Peiresc's Africa Journal of the History of Ideas 67.4 (2006) 675–696.[2]
  37. ^ Jack Zipes, The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm, p 846, ISBN 0-393-97636-X
  38. ^ Adler 2006. p. 22.
  39. ^ Adler 2006. p. 29.
  40. ^ Adler 2006. pp. 31-32.
  41. ^ Adler 2006. p. 22.
  42. ^ Adler 2006. pp. 22-23.
  43. ^ Adler 2006. p. 23.
  44. ^ Magliocco 2004. p. 09.
  45. ^ "Defining Paganism: Paleo-, Meso-, and Neo-" (Version 2.5.1) 1979, 2007 c.e., Isaac Bonewits
  46. ^ Meanings of the terms Pagan and Paganism
  47. ^ Eisenstadt, S.N., 1983, Transcendental Visions – Other-Worldliness – and Its Transformations: Some More Comments on L. Dumont. Religion13:1–17, at p. 3.
  48. ^ Michael York, Paganism as Root-Religion, The Pomegranate, 6:1 (2004), pp. 11–18 (distinguishing the main streams of developed religion as gnostic, dharmic, Abrahamic and pagan).
  49. ^ Catholic Encyclopaedia (1917 edition) on paganism
  50. ^ Hindu rites at a famous Catholic shrine shocks many Catholics
  51. ^ David Scott, Christian Responses to Buddhism in Pre-Medieval Times, Numen, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Jul., 1985), pp. 88–100
  52. ^ Audrius Beinorius, Buddhism in the Early European Imagination: A Historical Perspective, ACTA ORIENTALIA VILNENSIA 6:2 (2005), pp. 7–22


Academic Books

  • Adler, Margot (2006). Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers and Other Pagans in America (revised edition). London: Penguin. ISBN 978-0143038191. 
  • Berger, Helen (1999). A Community of Witches: Contemporary Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft in the United States. University of South Carolina Press. 
  • Clifton, Chas S. (2006). Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America. Oxford and Lanham: AltaMira. ISBN 978-0759102026. 
  • Chuvin, Pierre (1990). Chronique des Derniers Païns. Paris: Belles Lettres/Fayard. 
  • Gardell, Mattias (2003). Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Separatism. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press. 
  • Harvey, Graham (2007). Listening People, Speaking Earth: Contemporary Paganism (second edition). London: Hurst & Company. ISBN 978-1850652724. 
  • Hutton, Ronald (1999). The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0198207443. 
  • Hutton, Ronald (2009). Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0300144857. 
  • Jones, Prudence and Pennick, Nigel (1995). A History of Pagan Europe. London: Routledge. 
  • Magliocco, Sabina (2004). Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-paganism in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 978-0812238037. 
  • Wallis, Robert J. (2003). Shamans/Neo-Shamans: Ecstasy, alternative archaeologies and contemporary Pagans. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0415302036. 
  • York, Michael (2003). Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion. New York: New York University Press. ISBN 978-0814797020. 

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