“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
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.
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. 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.
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.
An assortment of historical developments needed to come together in order for Neopaganism to evolve.
- The Age of Philosophy (BCE) - This was the time of speculative thought, where man studied the meaning and justification of beliefs, ethics, reality and all aspects of life. For more on the great thinkers of our time visit: Biographies.
- The Medieval Crusades - Ironically, it was the Crusader who re-introduced pagan concepts to the Christendom. They brought back from their travels, an assortment of literary subjects covering Gnosticism, Jewish Mysticism, and the ancient works of the Greek and Roman Philosophers. Religious orders began to form based on these new ideas causing the Church to instigate their own “internal crusades against such heresy” called The Inquisitions.
- Renaissance During the 15th century, a pivotal shift in thinking set in motion a whole series of changes that would reverberate throughout history. When pagan philosophies like, rationalism, individualism, humanism and nationalism were once again being discussed and when people started looking to themselves, instead of the Church for answers.
- Enlightenment Era - With the Bible no longer being the source of all knowledge, a need to better understand the world arose. Human beings began to explore nature through science and rationalism. Enlightenment was the time for freedom of thought and the age of reason.
- Age of Romanticism - Interest in other cultures was emerging. New ideologies were being introduced into Europe and America from abroad. Most importantly of these, was the introduction to Oriental philosophy.
- The Spiritualism Movement - Interest in other cultures continued to flourish, especially in the form of archeology and anthropology. One culture in particular was of great interest -Ancient Egypt. It provided a great source information for those interested in witchcraft, mysticism, and other esoteric practices.
Many of the resources used in Modern Paganism come from this movement. Aradia, Gospel of the Witches by Charles G. Leland, The Golden Bough, by Sir James Frazer, and Witch-Cult in Western Europe by Margaret Murray are the best known. Other important authors included, but not limited to, are Eiphas Levi, Gerald Gardner, Aleister Crowley, and A.E. Waite. A great site for the listing of “the who’s who” and their writings can be found at Sacred Texts.
- The Freedom Movements -The 1960’s was a very turbulent time with its many Social Movements. Freedom of speech, race and religion was preached and liberal belief systems, which exceed the social, political and moral norms, are practiced. It is around this time that the term “Neopagan” is first applied by Oberon Zell to the religious counter-culture movement and their individualistic belief systems.
- The New Age Movement - A broad movement that combines the metaphysical and spiritual approach with world issues like health, science, globalization and environmentalism. The New Age Movement popularizes such practices like holistic healing, hatha yoga, inner channeling, and alternative medicine.
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.
- Individualism: (Non-authoritarian) - There is no centralized organization that governs Neopaganism. Emphasis is placed on the return to the simpler direct relationship between the individual and their divine. A practice long lost in many hierarchical institutionalized religions. What structuralization that does exist in Neopaganism is purely social. (Non-dogmatic) - There is no sacred book, tenet or doctrine. Within each tradition, there may exist a writ of their beliefs and tenets but this is not a universal dogma.
- Humanism - Focus is on reconnecting with life; living in the here and now, no matter what the belief structure.
- Spiritual anarchism - There is no reward or punishment just consequences. The individual is accountable for his/her own actions. Unlike mainstream religions, there is no atonement or salvation needed for redemption for there is no sin. This is not to say there is no socially accepted concept of “right” and “wrong”.
- Nature - Nature plays an important role albeit in varying degrees from sacred worship to harmonious interaction.
- Energy - A concept of an unseen “energy” is prevalent throughout Neopaganism. However, its utilization varies among the denominations. This energy is primarily used for empowerment, self-realization and magic. Additionally, it may be viewed holistically as a singular divine entity. It has various names: the power, primal force, cosmic energy, universal force, life force, aura, spirit and manna.
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.
- Traditional and Eclectic - Often used when describing the antiquity factor, as well as the source. Usually the adjective traditional is applied to those denominations that adhere strictly to one distinct ancient culture as oppose to a mixture of cultures or eclectic. However, the term has also been used to denote those early eclectic orders and secret societies from the Spiritualism Movement of the 19th century, making the use of the adjective ‘traditional’ ambiguous.
- Modern and Neo- Commonly used for those spiritual constructs formed in the later half of the 20th century, even though it accurately defines all re-constructed traditions in the Post Christian Era.
- Solitaire - A designation used to describe what seems to be the preferred method of practice -solitary. For those who would like to practice in groups can do so in covens, brotherhoods, orders, societies, families and churches.
- Family is used to describe those traditions with beliefs and practices that have been handed down within the family generations. However, there is some skepticism within the Neopagan community for those who claim their family tradition is older than three generations.
- Paganism and Neopaganism - Academically, paganism is used to refer to the genre of polytheistic religions that existed before the Christian Era, while Neopaganism is used for the later re-constructions in the Post Christian Era. Socially, Paganism and Neopaganism are often used synonymously. The general consensus being, that Paganism has a more holistic connotation while Neopagan is more deterministic.
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.
- New Polytheism - The deities are just Jungian archetypes created by human need. The deities are but symbols.
- Polytheism - This is the belief and worship of multiple deities. These deities are often sentient personification of non-sentient entity(s), which are beyond human comprehension. This personification is known as anthropomorphism.
- Duotheism - The polarity of natural forces are expressed in the deities, often a masculine-feminine structure. However, they do not necessarily always represent opposites; they can indicate harmony and balance.
- Pantheism - The belief that the entire universe is a divine spiritual unity, and humans are a part of this divine universe.
- Agnostic Pantheism - The universe is revered but not from transcendental divine aspect. This is often equated to Scientific Pantheism.
- Animism - All things in nature have a distinct spirit and when this concept extends to inanimate matter, it is called Hylozoism.
 A History of Pagan Europe, -Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick, 1995 pg.71
 Many of the theories presented in these early anthropological works have since been challenge as to their accuracy.
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