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


interesting thought, that GOD had to become man to get y'all to know and worship him. But I'm on thought that GOD don't need human's to worship him if he is really God. Only false gods need human's to worship them.

The Creator is still creating, better and even more intelligent species then humans. Nothing is correct about GOD, that is taught by religions - its all about indoctrination and controlling others. We ain't nothing but seeds and grains of sand made from other creatures who created them.

God's spirit is always active in nature and very alive while the false gods claiming to represent him, are to busy destroying or abusing nature on a daily basis.

How do I know this is truth? Because that's where I live and he speaks to me whenever I pay attention or want answers to my questions.

NO Human needs other humans to educate them - especially those who claim that they speak for GOD.

Rome was built on indulgences. I was just stating facts. You counter with speculation and sentiment.

But you contradict yourself when you say, “...God promised him and sent him….”, then proceed to exemplify all-inclusiveness by saying, ...” and does not favor or disfavor any religion or denomination….” Yet, by your on admission, he was the “Messiah”; The one who said, “no man cometh to the Father except through me”. So your messiah offers only one road to salvation, yet you say God favors all.  You can’t have it both ways.

But this is the reason I left the christian religion; the absolute lack of logic. “God became man, so that He could die, so that He could forgive us.” There you have your christian doctrine in a NUTshell. My God does not ask me to suspend the use of my brain, nor threaten me for not doing so.

Heaven & Hell are both here on this dimension called earth. No other proof exists otherwise, by humans.

Don't blame "threats to you and your family" on Christianity, blame it on Constantine. He was a politician and a ruler of his time whose conversion is now suspected to be insincere, and rather done for political purposes, probably to gain adherents from the growing numbers of Christians. And why was Christianity growing so steadily? Christianity's "appeal" is indeed from the Messiah's words and actions themselves - messages of God's mercy and forgiveness for mankind. But it wasn't just his message, which others had also given, it was his real power to heal, save and forgive, a power he only had because he was the sole, unique, physical manifestation of God on earth and in time. God promised him and sent him, because mankind cannot hope to save himself or survive without him. This is a power lacking in all other religions, pagan and otherwise. Having said that, God is Father of all his human children, and does not favor or disfavor any religion or denomination. We are all precious in his sight, and we will all meet in the same heaven, no matter what any particular religion says.

The book “The Rise of Christianity and the Proscription of Paganism” by Maude Huttman accurately lays out the ‘method’ by which Christianity rose to power. The book is actually a study of ‘economics’, ironically enough.

Between the years 300 and 500 a series of laws and decrees were enacted by Constantine and his successors which effectively outlawed non-christian beliefs to the point that you could be put the death for practicing the old ways. You could not own property or have a will. You could not hold employment of any meaningful position, etc,etc.  It wasn’t the “message of the gentle Prince of Peace” that gave christianity its appeal. It was the threat of death to you and your family.


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