What’s A Pagan?

When someone says that “P” word, what flashes into your mind?

  • Maybe a frenzied savage who’s dancing around a stone idol while some hapless wretch is being sacrificed on an altar.
  • Or perhaps a screaming barbarian with hair down to his knees who’s marauding his way through the streets of ancient Rome.
  • Or maybe even a tattooed member of a particular outlaw motorcycle club who’s stormed past you on the highway.

Well, it might surprise you to learn that the word “pagan” originally meant nothing more sinister than a person who lives in the countryside. Indeed, it’s derived from the Latin word that Julius Caesar used to describe the natives of Gaul, the area of Western Europe that he conquered around 50 B.C. Of course, Caesar was a pagan himself according to the Christians who came after him. They used the word to signify anyone who practiced a religion that didn’t trace its roots back to Abraham, the first of the Hebrew patriarchs. Simply put, if you weren’t a Jew, a Christian, or a Muslim, then you were a pagan – even if you were part of a society that was culturally advanced (like the ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, or Mayans). This is the definition of paganism that prevails today, at least among those who aren’t anthropologists or religious history scholars.

The latter have proposed a wide variety of other definitions, but all of them seem to share some fundamental traits:

First, most pagans worship multiple gods (“polytheism”). However, that alone doesn’t make a pagan a pagan. For example, some religions (such as Zoroastrianism, the ancient faith of Persia) are generally viewed as pagan but were essentially monotheistic. Furthermore, even polytheistic faiths often lean toward monotheism in that they believe in a “High God” that rules over lesser deities. Perhaps the most important example of this was El, the High God of Canaan who later became Yahweh. When the Israelites first began to worship Him exclusively, He was still only one god among many. However, over time (and at the insistence of Yahweh Himself) they began to deny the existence of any other gods.

Another characteristic of paganism that scholars often cite is a sense of affinity with the natural world. Pagans view it as something to respect and even worship rather than conquer or exploit. One striking example is the Native American practice of thanking the animals that they kill for the food and hides that it provides. Furthermore, many tribes believe that they’re descended from an animal – at least in the spiritual sense – and are therefore its kin.

Closely related to this veneration of nature is the pagan belief that all natural things have a spirit. That’s one of the reasons why oak trees were sacred to the Druids as were certain streams, wells, hills, and rocks. It’s also why the earliest Britons heard the voices of spirits in the rustling of leaves.

Indeed, pagans usually believe that there’s another dimension – a world of spirits – that’s accessible to man. However, reaching this world may require mediation by a shaman (a.k.a. medicine man or witch doctor) who has special training and knowledge. It also requires an altered state of consciousness which can be produced by such means as meditation, ecstatic dancing (think of whirling dervishes), prolonged chanting, sensory deprivation, starvation and of course psychedelic substances. I might add that altering consciousness to gain spiritual enlightenment hasn’t been limited to pagans. For example, Christian ascetics often lived solitary lives in near starvation in order to open their minds to the spiritual realm.

Lastly, many pagan religions make use of magic. In The Never King, Father Agnelli describes magic as the power to bend Nature to one’s will which implies that it’s supernatural. However, most of today’s neo-pagans (see below) would probably argue that magic is a natural power even though it comes “naturally” to only a few. Instead, magic must usually be learned. In that regard, pagan societies have usually restricted the teaching of magic because of its potential for abuse. Therefore, the great majority of magic has been directed toward making a change for the better (such as healing the sick or protecting the vulnerable). Of course “black” or malevolent magic has received much more attention, presumably because of the fear that it causes or the fact that it’s an object of morbid curiosity. But the point is that “black” magic isn’t characteristic of pagan religions.

Let me conclude by commenting on what paganism is today.

If you use the Church’s definition, then you can divide it into three broad divisions. The first includes the great, non-Christian religions of the East. The second consists of what remains of the traditional folk religions of indigenous people throughout the world. The third is the newest and perhaps the most challenging to contemporary society: neo-paganism or, if you prefer, the “pagan revival.”

Neo-paganism, which arose mostly in the 19th and 20th centuries, isn’t one religion. On the contrary, the term embraces a very wide variety of sects, most of which you probably haven’t heard of. Not surprisingly, many of the beliefs that they share harken back to traditional pagan religions, particularly those of the Celtic tribes of Britain that are now extinct except for the Scottish clans (which of course are no longer pagan). These neo-pagan beliefs include:

  • A belief in a male and a female deity that represent complimentary aspects of a single, supreme force or spirit that created and maintains the universe.
    Whether this belief represents true polytheism is debatable. You could argue that, like Christians, at least some neo-pagans believe that the One God can be manifested in more than one way. However, unlike Christians, neo-pagans tend to give their goddess parity with their god and some of them believe in only a goddess.
  • A belief in the basic benevolence of their god or gods.
  • A conviction that no religion – including neo-pagansim – is the only valid form of belief in the divine.Indeed, most neo-pagans don’t make you give up your previous faith (and God) in order to accept theirs. The Christo-paganism of Thistle and Arthur in The Never King is a good example of this.
    I might add that this helps to explain why neo-pagan religions seldom, if ever, proselytize and are perfectly happy if you’ve never heard of them.
    I should also point out that the ancient pagans showed a similar tolerance. As the religious scholar Karen Armstrong has written, they usually made room in their faith for someone else’s god as long as they were allowed to also keep their own.
  • A belief in the sanctity of the natural world and in man’s vital connection with it.This is one reason why neo-pagans are often advocates for the environment and for animal rights.
  • A belief in a spiritual dimension beyond the material world and in the efficacy of ritual and magic.
  • A conviction that we are all here to do good and that we thus have a responsibility to try to perfect ourselves.

Of course, there’s much more that’s worth saying about paganism in general and neo-paganism in particular. However, I hope that I’ve provided a useful over-view. Please see the section on “Further Reading” for places to go for further information.

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