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Paganism (from Latin paganus, meaning "country dweller", "rustic")[1] is a blanket term used to refer to various polytheistic, non Judeo-Christian religious traditions. Its exact definition may vary:[2] It is primarily used in a historical context, referring to Greco-Roman polytheism as well as the polytheistic traditions of Europe before Christianization. In a wider sense, extended to contemporary religions, it includes most of the Eastern religions, and the indigenous traditions of the Americas, Central Asia and Africa, as well as non-Abrahamic folk religion in general. More narrow definitions will not include any of the world religions and restrict the term to local or rural currents not organized as civil religions. Characteristic of pagan traditions is the absence of proselytism and the presence of a living mythology which explains religious practice.

The term "pagan" is a Christian adaptation of the "gentile" of Judaism, and as such has an inherent Abrahamic bias, and pejorative connotations among Western monotheists,[3] comparable to heathen and infidel also known as kafir (كافر) and mushrik in Islam. For this reason, ethnologists avoid the term "paganism," with its uncertain and varied meanings, in referring to traditional or historic faiths, preferring more precise categories such as polytheism, shamanism, pantheism, or animism.

Since the later 20th century, "Pagan" or "Paganism" has become widely used as a self-designation by adherents of Neo-paganism.[4] As such, various modern scholars have begun to apply the term to three separate groups of faiths: Historical Polytheism (such as Celtic polytheism and Norse paganism), Folk/ethnic/Indigenous religions (such as Chinese folk religion and African traditional religion), and Neo-paganism (such as Wicca and Germanic Neopaganism).



The term pagan is from the Latin paganus, an adjective originally meaning "rural", "rustic" or "of the country. As a noun, paganus was used to mean "country dweller, villager."[5] The semantic development of post-classical Latin paganus in the sense "non-Christian, heathen" is unclear. The dating of this sense is controversial, but the 4th century seems most plausible. An earlier example has been suggested in Tertullian De Corona Militis xi, "Apud hunc [sc. Christum] tam miles est paganus fidelis quam paganus est miles infidelis," but here the word paganus may be interpreted in the sense "civilian" rather than "heathen". There are three main explanations of the development:

  • (i) The older sense of classical Latin pāgānus is "of the country, rustic" (also as noun). It has been argued that the transferred use reflects the fact that the ancient idolatry lingered on in the rural villages and hamlets after Christianity had been accepted in the towns and cities of the Roman Empire; cf. Orosius Histories 1. Prol. "Ex locorum agrestium compitis et pagis pagani vocantur." From its earliest beginnings, Christianity spread much more quickly in major urban areas (like Antioch, Alexandria, Corinth, Rome) than in the countryside (in fact, the early church was almost entirely urban, and soon the word for "country dweller" became synonymous with someone who was "not a Christian," giving rise to the modern meaning of "Pagan." This may, in part, have had to do with the closeness to nature of rural people, who may have been more resistant to the new ideas of Christianity than those who lived in major urban centers and were cut off from the cycles of nature and the forms of spirituality associated with them. However, it may have also resulted from early Christian missionaries focusing their efforts within major population centers (e.g., St. Paul), rather than throughout an expansive, yet sparsely populated, countryside (hence, the Latin term suggesting "uneducated country folk") until a bit later on.
  • (ii) The more common meaning of classical Latin pāgānus is "civilian, non-militant" (adjective and noun). Christians called themselves mīlitēs, "enrolled soldiers" of Christ, members of his militant church, and applied to non-Christians the term applied by soldiers to all who were "not enrolled in the army".
  • (iii) The sense "heathen" arose from an interpretation of paganus as denoting a person who was outside a particular group or community, hence "not of the city" or "rural"; cf. Orosius Histories 1. Prol."ui alieni a civitate dei..pagani vocantur." See C. Mohrmann, Vigiliae Christianae 6 (1952) 9ff.

-- Oxford English Dictionary, (online) 2nd Edition (1989)

The post-classical Latin paganismus gave rise to both paganism and to its synonym paynimry.[6] Paynimry may be used of paganism, its practises, and pagans,[7] as well as for the domain or realm of pagans.[8]

"Peasant" is a cognate, via Old French paisent. [9]

In their distant origins, these usages derived from pagus, "province, countryside", cognate to Greek πάγος "rocky hill", and, even earlier, "something stuck in the ground", as a landmark: the Proto-Indo-European root *pag- means "fixed" and is also the source of the words page, pale (stake), and pole, as well as pact and peace.

While pagan is attested in English from the 14th century, there is no evidence that the term paganism was in use in English before the 17th century. The Oxford English Dictionary instances Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776): "The divisions of Christianity suspended the ruin of paganism." The term was not a neologism, however, as paganismus was already used by Augustine.[10]

Less than twenty years after the last vestiges of paganism were crushed with great severity by the emperor Theodosius I[11] Rome was seized by Alaric in 410. This led to murmuring that the gods of paganism had taken greater care of the city than that of the Christian God, inspiring St Augustine to write The City of God, alternative title "De Civitate Dei contra Paganos: The City of God against the Pagans", in which he claimed that whilst the great 'city of Man' had fallen, Christians were ultimately citizens of the 'city of God.'[12]


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 ethne, "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 ethnos.


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 "epicurian" 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, for example, as when 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."[13]

Christianity itself has been perceived at times as a form of polytheism by followers of the other Abrahamic religions[14][15] because of, for example, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, the celebration of pagan feast days,[16] and other practices[17] – through a process described as "baptising"[18] or "christianization". Even between Christians there have been similar charges of idolatry levelled, especially by Protestants,[19][20] towards the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches for their veneration of the saints and images.

Historical polytheism

Bronze Age to Early Iron Age
Classical Antiquity
Late Antiquity to High Middle Ages
(as opposed to Abrahamic religion)

Pagan survivals in folklore

In addition, folklore that is not any longer perceived as holding any religious significance can in some instances be traced to pre-Christian or pre-Islamic origins. In Europe, this is particularly the case with the various customs of Carnival or Fasnacht and the Yule traditions surrounding Santa Claus/Sinterklaas. By contrast, the Christmas tree in spite of frequent association with Thor's Oak cannot be shown to be an innovation predating the Early Modern period.

Early Modern period

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 relics that were in principle capable of shedding light on the historical paganism of Classical Antiquity.[21]


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.[22]

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.


File:YSEE ritual.jpg

A ceremony at the annual Prometheia festival of the Greek polytheistic group Supreme Council of Ethnikoi Hellenes, June 2006.

Neopaganism includes reconstructed religions such as Hellenic polytheism, Celtic or Germanic reconstructionism as well as modern eclectic traditions such as Discordianism, or Wicca and its many offshoots.

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.

Neopaganism in the United States accounts for roughly a third of all neopagans worldwide, and for some 0.2% of US population, figuring as the sixth largest non-Christian denomination in the US, after Judaism (1.4%), Islam (0.6%), Buddhism (0.5%), Hinduism (0.3%) and Unitarian Universalism (0.3%).[23]

In Iceland, the members of Ásatrúarfélagið account for 0.4% of the total population[24], which is just over a thousand people.

There are a number of Neopagan 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,[25]

  • Paleopaganism: A retronym coined to contrast with "Neopaganism", "original polytheistic, nature-centered faiths", such as the pre-Hellenistic Greek and pre-imperial Roman religion, pre-Migration period Germanic paganism as described by Tacitus, or Celtic polytheism as described by Julius Caesar. Among extant "major religions", Bonewits would count as Paleopagan Hinduism as it stood prior to the Islamic invasions of India, Shintoism and Taoism.
  • Mesopaganism: A group, which is, or has been, significantly influenced by monotheistic, dualistic, or nontheistic worldviews, but has been able to maintain an independence of religious practices. This group includes aboriginal Americans as well as Australian aboriginals, Viking Age Norse paganism and New Age spirituality. Influences include: Freemasonry[26],Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, Spiritualism, and the many Afro-Diasporic faiths like Haitian Vodou, Santería and Espiritu religion. Isaac Bonewits includes British Traditional Wicca in this subdivision.
  • Neopaganism: A movement by modern people to revive nature-worshipping, pre-Christian religions, or other nature-based spiritual paths. This definition may include anything on a sliding scale from Reconstructionism at one end to non-reconstructionist groups such as Neo-druidism and Wicca at the other.

Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick in their A History of Pagan Europe (1995) classify "pagan religions" as characterized by the following traits:

  • polytheism: pagan religions recognise a plurality of divine beings, which may or may not be considered aspects of an underlying unity (the soft and hard polytheism distinction)
  • "nature-based": pagan religions have a concept of the divinity of Nature, which they view as a manifestation of the divine, not as the "fallen" creation found in Dualistic cosmology.
  • "sacred feminine": pagan religions recognize "the female divine principle", identified as "the Goddess" (as opposed to individual goddesses besides or in place of the male divine principle as expressed in the Abrahamic God.[27]


Paganism has been previously defined broadly, to encompass many or most of the faith traditions outside the Abrahamic monotheistic group of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The term has also been used more narrowly,[28][29][30] 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[31][32] (though by no means all[33][34]) 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 Neo-paganism is insignificant in comparison, amounting to 0.02% of world population at the most, or some 0.4% of the "ethnoreligious" population.


  2. - Robinson, B.A (2000). "What do "Paganism" & "Pagan" mean?" at
  3. "Pagan", Encyclopedia Britannica 11th Edition, 1911, retrieved 22 May 2007.[1]
  4. "A Basic Introduction to Paganism", BBC, retrieved 19 May 2007.
  5. Word History
  6. OED etymology for paynim: < Anglo-Norman paenisme, painisme, paienime, painnim, peinime, paenime, etc., and Old French paienime, paienisme heathen lands (c1150-74), heathen religion (1160) < post-classical Latin paganismus (see PAGANISM n.), probably influenced by Old French paien (see PAYEN n.).
  7. OED entry for 'paynimry'.
  9.,pagus Harry Thurston Peck, Harper's Dictionary of Classical Antiquity, 1897; "pagus"
  10. Divers. Quaest. 83. Augustine makes clear that, in his time, paganus was the term in Vulgar Latin synonymous to educated gentilis "gentile".
  11. "Theodosius I", The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1912
  12. "The City of God", Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite DVD, 2003.
  13. 'Hymn to Proserpine'
  14. Jewish Encyclopedia
  15. Shirk
  16. Christianised calendar
  17. Christianised rituals
  18. The Pope, The Emperor and the Persian Leader
  19. 'Philip Melanchthon 'Apologia Confessionis Augustanae'
  20. Jean Seznec 'The Survival of the Pagan Gods'
  21. "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]
  22. Jack Zipes, The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm, p 846, ISBN 0-393-97636-X
  23. ARIS 2001 figures.
  24. Statistics Iceland - Statistics >> Population >> Religious organisations
  25. "Defining Paganism: Paleo-, Meso-, and Neo-" (Version 2.5.1) 1979, 2007 c.e., Isaac Bonewits
  27. Jones, Prudence; Pennick, Nigel (1995. A History of Pagan Europe. Page 2. Routledge.
  28. Meanings of the terms Pagan and Paganism
  29. Eisenstadt, S.N., 1983, Transcendental Visions -- Other-Worldliness -- and Its Transformations: Some More Comments on L. Dumont. Religion13:1-17, at p. 3.
  30. 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).
  31. Catholic Encyclopaedia (1917 edition) on paganism
  32. Hindu rites at a famous Catholic shrine shocks many Catholics
  33. David Scott, Christian Responses to Buddhism in Pre-Medieval Times, Numen, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Jul., 1985), pp. 88-100
  34. Audrius Beinorius, Buddhism in the Early European Imagination: A Historical Perspective, ACTA ORIENTALIA VILNENSIA 6:2 (2005), pp. 7–22
This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Paganism. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.