Fluid | Fixed

Pagan Perplexity

“The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.”—Mark Twain

It is obvious that many of the Christian denotations derived from ‘paganus’ are still prominently used today. However, a new interpretation has come to the forefront of modern western society. This interpretation called (Neo)-paganism is of a highly complex nature that even among its’ followers, there seems to be little mutual understanding. Despite this, it is this interpretation I will attempt to explain. For brevity sake, the scope of this article is limited to those “Western Civilizations” that developed out of Europe. There is no denying the facts that there are other ancient religions in other parts of world, which by the Christian definition, are pagan. However, its’ members would not necessarily identify with this term.

Pagan1 noun -s [ME, fr. LL paganus, fr. L, civilian, country dweller, fr. paganus, adj., of the country, fr. pagus country, village, district; akin to L pangere to fix, fasten, pacisei to agree, contract -more at Pact] 1: heathen 1; especially a follower of a polytheistic religion (as in ancient Rome) 2: one that has little or no religion and that is marked by a frank delight in and uninhibited seeking after sensual pleasure and material goods : an unrestrained irreligious hedonist and materialist <is a ~ of the decadence> takes the world with exquisite nonchalance and prefers a well-ordered dinner to a dissertation on the immortality of the soul -T.L. Peacock>    pagan2 adjective : of, relating to, or having the characteristics of pagans : heathenish <~ customs> <represents the earthy, ~ acceptance of life in all its sensual vulgarity -R.M. Kain> <the ~ concept of death and oblivion as the natural end of life -Cyril Connolly> –paganly adverb.    paganism noun -s [ME paganysme, fr. LL paganismus, fr. paganus pagan + L -ismus -ism] 1a: pagan beliefs or practices : heathenism <its conflict with modern ~ –C.J.C. Bergendoff> <the rites of ~> <powers with which they had ascribed to the gods of ~ –K.S. Latourette> b: a particular pagan religion <ancient ~s were all polytheistic, with dozens of gods arranged in complex pantheons -John Bright born 1908> 2: the quality or state of being a pagan (as in attitude or outlook) <the natural joyous ~ of the Greeks -Hunter Mead>. —Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language
Unabridged Edition, Volume II

Ancient Paganism

To understand the present one should understand its realization, and so I begin with a bit of historical background.

When changes happen in history, they usually begin in the cities and towns. This is attributed to the greater interaction with outside cultures, usually through trade and war. Therefore, it is not surprising that there existed a cultural and social distinction between city and country inhabitants. Ancient Rome is one such embodiment; a great conquering nation that assimilated many cultural ideas and philosophies. This amalgamation was so significant that eventually what was practiced in the Roman cities (urbs) no longer resembled what was practiced in the countryside (pagus). The word, pagus, incorporated this social distinction both in its agrarian and non-combatant status. Whether or not, these country dwellers ever identified with the term is doubtful.

Enter the Christians—

Until now, Romans got along with their “conquered religions” either by assimilating or ignoring them. So, when the Romans come into contact with Judaic monotheism, they pretty much ignored it. As a non-invasive religion, Judaism posed little threat to the Romans. In contrast, Christianity was far more intrusive and prolific. Unlike Judaism where you were born into the faith, Christianity accepted new members through conversion. This did not go over well with the Romans to say the least. There was no room for assimilation or compromise because Christianity was the antithesis to Roman’s polytheistic philosophy. This new religion was far more detrimental than any other religion Rome had ever come across. Rome was right to worry, for many Romans did convert. It was these converts who ultimately changed the meaning of paganus from country dweller to polytheistic heathen. It was these selfsame converts, along with other historical factors, that finally changed the power base of Rome.

Christian Rome—

The real Christian versus Pagan dichotomy probably started around 340 AD when the first “anti pagan” laws began to take hold. The Christian Emperor, Constantius II prohibited public pagan worship on pain of death. Although, there was a brief respite for “pagans” under the subsequent pagan ruler Julian, the ruling power eventually reverted to Christianity, where it remained until 381 when the anti-pagan laws are firmly re-established in the Imperatoris Theodosiani Codex. There was now zero tolerance for “paganism” in the Roman Empire and Christianity was declared the only permissible faith.[1] The “pagan” persecutions begin, and by 415 AD pagans are banned from Military and Civic positions. The power base now lies firmly in the hands of the Christians.

From the 4th century onward, pagan becomes a pejorative term to indicate one who is not Christian. The word mutated and adapted throughout Christian history to what now resides in the dictionaries. Quite often you will see heathen used as a synonym for pagan. Interestingly enough, the Gothic haiþnô from which we derive the word heathen is thought to have followed a similar path of semantic development as that of paganus. Heathen is another agrarian term whose meaning changed from “dweller on the heath” to a non-Christian.

The way I see it; pagan was used as a prejudicial classification both before and after the introduction of Christianity and at no time, was it ever a religion (in and of itself). That is until, 1,600 years later…

Post Paganism

In the Webster dictionary under paganism, there is a line that, if taken out of context, may give a clue to what Neo-Paganism means today. The line reads: “state of being— as in attitude or outlook”. The question then remains— what outlook and what attitude?

Neopaganism was and still is a religious movement that counters many of the ideologies and beliefs within society’s mainstream religions. As part of the larger sixties Hippie Counterculture, Neopaganism incorporates many of their anti-establishment and liberal attitudes. Perhaps, this is why the framework of their belief systems or traditions is so polymorphic; making it virtually impossible to find a single unified religious composite. For this reason, many do not consider Neopaganism a religion. Nevertheless, there are those who follow a broader interpretation of religion and who would define it as such.

Historical Inputs

An assortment of historical developments needed to come together in order for Neopaganism to evolve.

Belief Structure

In Neopaganism, traditions are often centered on a particular culture and/or folkloric practice. The majority of the Neopagan traditions focus on those ancient cultures in Europe and Middle East that were displaced by the Abrahamic religions. However traditions based on other indigenous cultures like Eastern, Native America and African are becoming popular. Despite the differing beliefs and practices among the traditions, there are some common identifiable aspects to Neopaganism.


It is a regular quagmire when it comes to identifying what’s what in Neopaganism. While some labels are self explanatory others can cause confusion and contention. Much of this is attributed to misinformation, interpretation of history and personal opinion.

Personally… with regards to the distinction between Paganism and Neopaganism, I put no importance on one or the other, except that they both should be capitalized when referring to the religion or the movement. Looking at it from a historical perspective, they are both modern religions.


Hybrids, for a lack of a better term, are a combination of two already existing religions but they are not exactly traditions. Still, many will classify them under (Neo)Paganism because one of the two religions is polytheistic. Due to this syncretic nature, hybrids do not necessarily share all the characteristics of other Neopagan groups. Vodoun, Santeria and Candomble are examples where Roman Catholicism mixed with African and other indigenous religions as a result of slavery.


At first glance, one would assume that Neopagans practice polytheism, end of story. This is not necessarily the case. It is far more complicated than that. The heterogeneous nature of Neopaganism allows for all spiritual attitudes towards divinity. Add to this the extensive list of philosophical outlooks and the permutations are endless. A better way of viewing Neopaganism is that it is “poly-theological”. Here is a sampling of a few relational attitudes.

Personal Thoughts— If we look throughout history, we would see that the underlying principle of the term ‘pagan’, has always been to indicate “otherness”. Neopagans have taken this “pagan” outlook, and made it their own. In their self-awareness and spiritual connection to this concept, which membership is recognized and embraced, they have created a religion. What was once a derogatory term is now a positive word reclaimed by those who wish to follow the other alternative to the orthodox religions and in particular–Christianity. As I see it, the importance of Paganism does not lie in the actually “re-construction” or even the relational attitude of worship. Perhaps, paganism is about linking to a past set of values long forgotten and lost in many of today’s religions.


[1] A History of Pagan Europe, -Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick, 1995 pg.71
[2] Many of the theories presented in these early anthropological works have since been challenge as to their accuracy.
[3]The word itself was not new. Prior to this, the term, neo-pagan, had been used to describe artist and poets during the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

A History of Witchcraft, Jeffrey B. Russell
Drawing Down the Moon, Margot Adler
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology 4th ed. Vol.2

Ancient Latin Texts
Celsus’ view of Christianity
Definition of Paganism
James J. O’Donnell
Perseus Online Texts
Roman Empire
The Demise of Paganism