Cernunnos,"The Horned One" - Paganism

The true meaning of Paganism


The word "paganism" has come to refer to various pre-Christian religions belonging to a number of ancient cultures—those from Greece, Rome, Egypt, Scandinavia, and so on.  It has come to also represent, in some circles, the modern ideology of Wicca and the followers of revived versions of the old practices.  The truth about "paganism", however, is that it is a historically inaccurate phrase in the context of these aforementioned faiths.  Although it is now the accepted term for these religions, it is important to examine where the word truly came from and what it initially meant, allowing for a better, all-inclusive understanding of the world's religious past.

The term "paganism" was revived during the Renaissance when writers were trying to differentiate the old traditions from their contemporary Christian faith.  The term itself stems from the Latin paganus translated loosely along the lines of "country dweller" or "rustic"; thus it was initially a word describing a person of locality rather than a religion.  However, because of its usage in ancient texts, medieval authors mistakenly believed it referenced a religious sect and thereby gave it the corresponding connotation.  In actuality, there was a different word used to describe the "pagans" as they are called today, and that word too stemmed first and foremost from the location of the religious supporters.

According to scholar Peter Brown of Princeton University, "Hellene" was initially utilized in place of "paganism".  "Hellene" was a reference to Ἕλλην (Hellas), the native ancient Greek name for what is now called Greece.  Brown explains that when Christianity started making appearances in the eastern communities, "Hellene" was used to differentiate the non-Christians from the Christians.  Those from Hellas tended to remain faithful to the old religions, but with the strife between Judaism and Christianity beginning, the Jewish faction needed to ensure they were not incorrectly associated with them.  As they were not from Greece, "Hellene" became the perfect title.

An ancient temple devoted to the god Zeus

An ancient temple devoted to the god Zeus. Credit: MM, Public Domain

In the Latin west, it was more common for the various religions to refer to themselves by their ethnic origins rather than by the gods they worshipped—they simply referred to themselves (in their own language) as Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, etc., simultaneously insinuating their religious factions as well.  This form of labeling was largely due to the fact that the political and religious aspects of life were a unified entity.  Thus, the tradition of ethnic titling appears to have been continued by the early Christians.  As far as ancient sources can tell, it wasn't until the Late Roman Empire that the term "pagan" began to be used instead, as it was an easy way to lump all the non-Christians together in conversation, decrees, etc.   It rose to popularity as a matter of convenience rather than of accuracy and respect. 

It is important to note that "paganism" is not intended to differentiate the polytheistic religions from the monotheistic.  The number of gods does not apply to the term because many so-called "pagans" would have not considered it important to differentiate themselves based on the number of gods they worshipped.  Followers of the ancient religions did not necessarily have anything against Christianity based on its preference for a singular deity—many cults within each sect had a primary deity at the center of the religion, beneath which subordinate deities were also worshipped.  "Paganism" as a title was intended only to reference the non-Christians (and the non-Jews), isolating them into one solitary category that could be more easily destroyed and replaced.

The Triumph of Civilization

‘The Triumph of Civilization’ by Jacques Reattu ( Wikimedia). Many ancient religions were polytheistic and believed in a pantheon of gods.

This effort of combining all non-Christian religions under one umbrella was, in fact, a clever strategy by the early Christians to remove the "pagan" faiths altogether.  Using the Norse traditions as an example, the Vikings of the early medieval period had no true name for their religious following.  In truth, the word religion would have been an unknown, foreign term to them.  The Nordic tribes preferred the word "customs" as—like the Greeks and Romans—their rituals, beliefs, and traditions were undefined and fluidly interpreted, orally passed down rather than rigidly studied.  There was no all-encompassing word for the belief in the Aesir and Vanir, and the various other beings and deities the ancient Norse worshipped, and there was no written text discussing their practices until the Christian author Snorri Sturluson wrote their mythology down in the 13 th century. 

Detail of Runestone 181

Detail of Runestone 181, in Stockholm. Norse gods Odin, Thor and Freyr are represented as three men. Credit: Berig, Wikipedia

According to Gareth Williams in Viking: Life and Legend , what is now considered the Norse religion is actually the "legacy of the Christian missionaries", their textual product a "concentrated target" that is much easier to remove and erase than the amalgamation of gods liberally worshipped.  Consolidating the various Norse—and every other "pagan"—tradition into a simplified faith with recorded rules and codes provided the early Christians with a more straightforward target to remove and replace.

Though the phrase "paganism" is widely used to describe followers of the various ancient religions, it is important to understand from where the term originates and the misconceptions behind its usage.   Too many centuries have passed now—the word "paganism" will continue to label these supporters despite its original meaning.  But it is never too late to be informed of the origins of the term, thereby allowing a better comprehension of the history of the ancient followers.

Featured image: Cernunnos,"The Horned One", ancient god of nature and fertility. ( Source)


Brown, Peter. Late Antiquity: a guide to the postclassical world (Harvard University Press: Massachusetts, 1999.) s.v. "Pagan".

Cameron, Alan G. The Last Pagans of Rome (Oxford University Press: New York, 2011.)

Davies, Owen (2011). Paganism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press: New York, 2011.)

Robert, P. & Scott, N. A History of Pagan Europe (Barnes & Noble Books: New York, 1995.)

Swain, "Defending Hellenism: Philostratus, in Honour of Apollonius," in Apologetics, p. 173

Williams, Gareth, Peter Penz, and Matthias Wemhoff. Vikings: Life and Legend (Cornell University Press: New York, 2014.)

York, Michael. Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion (New York University Press: New York, 2003.)

By Ryan Stone


I was once a Christian untill i found out that all the holidays such as christmas was pagan holidays along with words such as lord god which means baal gad. And the name jesus christ is also pagan jesus came from the name of the greek god zues and they worship on sunday sun god not sabbath friday evening to Saturday evening. And christ came from the goddess Kristin then became christeos then christ. I still believe in the heavenly father his name is Yahuah and his son his name is Yahusha. I no longer want to be called a christian because christ is not his name christians are followers of christ i am a natserim natserims are followers of the messiah Yahusha HaMashiack that is his true name. And the law was never abolished. In Jeremiah Yahuah said not to follow the ways of the heathen by decorating christmas trees which back then pagans would sacrafice their own children and the set up their trees to worship their sun god whose birthday was on dec 25th not our true messishs birthday. Pagans worship so many diffrent things they mixed the religion of the natserims and jewdism in with the other stuff they worship and thats why Christians today celebrate christmas thinking its a godly thing to do not knowing where that holiday came from or even knowing the true names of the father and the son. A lot of things have been corrupted by pegsnism. You wont know the truth unless you ask Yahuah for it and search for it. There is a most high Aluah and his true name is Yahuah it means I Am I Was I Will Be. And their is a massiah his true name is Yahusha it means Salvation on Yahuah. Even the word bible is the name pagans used to call one of their goddesses biblica. If you want the truth look for it and fir scripture look for it in ainctiant hebrew we all must follow it from Geneses to Revilation keep in mind some of pauls teachings contridict what Yahuah and Yahusha tought. We should not eat pork Yahusha never said we should he did not say pork was clean. And he also said he didnt come to abolish the law but fulfill it and we are to follow what he did. Shalom

Thoth101's picture

True and great points.

Can you provide me with some information on The Consort of Ashera?


Yes, occasionally when I get annoyed with their followers, I'll point out that Yahweh was once part of a larger pantheon and was known as "The Consort of Ashera".

All three of the Abrahamic religions are a mish-mash of older Pagan religions. The older Pagan religions are condemned as evil and are not to be studied because Abrahamic institutions don't want their followers to know the origins of their belief systems.


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