Defining Paganism

What is a pagan? 

The word pagan, according to Mirriam-Webster arises from 14th  Middle English variation of the Latin paganus, meaning civilian or country dweller or from pagus, meaning country district. 


c.1375, from L.L. paganus “pagan,” in classical L. “villager, rustic, civilian,” from pagus “rural district,” originally “district limited by markers,” thus related to pangere “to fix, fasten,” from PIE base *pag- “to fix” (see pact). Religious sense is often said to derive from conservative rural adherence to the old gods after the Christianization of Roman towns and cities; but the word in this sense predates that period in Church history, and it is more likely derived from the use of paganus in Roman military jargon for “civilian, incompetent soldier,” which Christians (Tertullian, c.202; Augustine) picked up with the military imagery of the early Church (e.g. milites “soldier of Christ,” etc.). Applied to modern pantheists and nature-worshippers from 1908. Paganism is attested from 1433.


While the dictionary definitions vary, each generally contains two to three from the following list:
a.   follower of a polytheistic religion as in ancient Greece or Rome
b.   follower of a Non-Abrahamic faith (is not afollower of Judaism, Christianity or Islam)
c.   someone that is hedonistic, or motivated by sensual pleasure
d.   one who is irreligious
e.   a follower of contemporary paganism (also commonly called Neo-paganism)

Generally, among pagans, the definitions of hedonist or a person that is irreligious are not used, and are considered offensive…however, they might be used by someone that is not pagan, who may or may not know any better.  Most of the time, when the term pagan is used, it is in reference to faith that is not Abrahamatic—Judaism, Christianity or Islam.  This means that any number of religions in the world, from Shinto to Hinduism to Wicca follow this definition.

To differentiate members of the modern pagan movement (I hate the term neo-pagan…it gives me weird mental images of the Matrix goes to drumcircle…I prefer contemporary paganism, or just Paganism…) from members other pagan faiths, another definition is needed.  The most accurate and comprehensive definition I have been able to cobble together (and it IS a work in progress) is this:

(Contemporary) Paganism is a term referring to one (or several) of many distinct spiritual paths, rather than one unified religious tradition.  Pagans practice some form of mostly earth-centered, often polytheistic, religious or spiritual path(s) that generally (but not always) incorporates the use of ritual and/or magic(k) that may either be inspired by a reconstruction of, or an eclectic mix of one or multiple pre-Christian pagan faiths and other (little-p) pagan religions such as Buddhism, Hindu, etc.

Within contemporary Paganism the largest tradition is probably Wicca, which is a distinct religious tradition founded by Gerald Gardner in the 1940s, and its various descendent offshoot traditions.  Some other Pagan faiths include–though this is in no way a full list–Druidry, Asatru, Heathenry, Stregheria/Italian Witchcraft, Discordianism/Subgenius, Green Witchcraft, Celtic, Hellenic, Roman and Egyptian Paganism, and (yes, though many will certainly deny it) some forms of Satanism.  Additionally, some individuals of the above paths may choose not to identify as “pagan”, for various reasons that range from disliking the term “pagan” due to its lack real meaning (since it is rooted in the idea of describing what someone is *not*) to the idea that the term holds no purpose and creates an idea of false unity.

 *Notice the use of mostly, often, generally, etc in the above definition.  There is no one working definition for what a pagan *is*.  In fact, a common joke in the pagan community is that “if you ask 10 pagans a question, you will get 20 answers.” *

Other Views and Definitions:

A Pagan or NeoPagan is someone who self-identifies as a Pagan, and whose spiritual or religious practice or belief fits into one or more of the following categories:
  • Honoring, revering, or worshipping a Deity or Deities found in pre-Christian, classical, aboriginal, or tribal mythology; and/or
  • Practicing religion or spirituality based upon shamanism, shamanic, or magickal practices; and/or
  • Creating new religion based on past Pagan religions and/or futuristic views of society, community, and/or ecology;
  • Focusing religious or spiritual attention primarily on the Divine Feminine; and/or
  • Practicing religion that focuses on earth based spirituality.


And this very well thought out and somewhat academic personal opinion which I very much recommend reading in its entirety:

Since the word comes from the Latin paganus, it seems to me that it should apply to religions native to geographic territory of “Western Civilization.” I see it applying to the area covered by the Roman empire at its greatest extent and all the rest of Europe not conquered by Rome, but Christianized by the beginning of the Early Modern Period (about 1500 CE). The Latin term and the subsequent English derivation was applied within the Roman Empire or later, Christendom — Europe, the Middle East and North Africa for 1,000 years or so. It is only relatively recently that “Pagan” has been applied to religions outside that area.[snip]

There are two subclasses of Pagan religions: Neo-pagan religions and Reconstructionist religions. Neo-pagan religions are modern religions. more or less based on historically Pagan religions. and may incorporate beliefs, ideas, and practices from more than one cultural tradition and from non-European or Abrahamic traditions (e.g., Judeo-Christian magical practices or chakra theory). Definitions of “Pagan” that describe Pagan religions as being earth-centric or nature-centric more closely describe many (but not all) Neo-pagan religions than they describe Pagan religions as a whole[snip]

Reconstructionist religions attempt to revive or to recreate ancient native religions from particular places and times. Some attempt to recreate the religious practices strictly as they were known to have been. Others try to envision how that religion may have changed over time if it had been in continuous practice. Yet others, probably the majority, combine these two approaches. [snip]

My definition generally applies to contemporary religions, not ancient ones. I generally use such terms as “ancient,” “pre-Christian native” or “ancient Pagan” to describe pre-modern European or Middle Eastern religions. For cultures outside of the geographic area, I either use the name the religion uses for itself (Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism) or geographically classificatory terms such as “Native American religions” or “Polynesian ethnic religions” or “African-diaspora religions.”


Religious Tolerance’s discussion of Paganism
Wiki Article on Paganism

The brief “elevator definition” of Paganism which I find most helpful is: Paganism is a general term for all the ancient and modern religions which identify Nature as the body of the Divine. Hinduism is the Paganism of India; Taoism the Paganism of China; Shinto the Paganism of Japan; Santeria, Voudon & Macumba are the Paganisms of the African Diaspora; etc.

Pagans often speak of many Gods and Goddesses, but this  polytheistic imagery may be meant metaphorically, since many Pagans are pantheistic. Pagans honor both feminine and masculine images of the Holy.
by Rev Christa Landon @ Pagan Institute


A Pagan is a member of an eclectic, mostly modern, religious movement encompassing a broad array of religions that revere the Divine in nature and/or draw upon the myths and symbols of ancient faiths.
by Larry Cornett @ Pagan Institute

Pagan Federation’s discussion of Paganism

Wicca For the Rest of Us


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