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What Is The Meaning Of Pagan

 What Does The Word Mean?
This is a personal pet peeve and one that continually arises. Why? Because everyone has their own "interpretation" of words instead of researching the definitions and etymology of language. That's not a bad thing, but it's not really a good thing either. It's human nature to view all things in life from one's own perspective, but quite often, that's where we get into trouble. If people would simply acknowledge the need for common definitions, then it would be much easier to develop a common understanding, or perhaps even acceptance of varying views.
The purpose for defined definitions is to develop that common language and understanding. Aristotle wrote many books of thought in his day. It's interesting to note that the first 8 of those books are based on defining words and what he means when he says this word or that word. Even then the great thinkers of our world, understood the deep importance of common meanings of words, even in 300BC.
One of the other problems we face, is researching words based on their origin, meaning and, this is the important part, English translation. We get even further confused when a word is both English and an ancient dialect. Say for example neo-pagan. We'll get to this word later.
  Etymology of Pagan
Some say pagan means "country dweller". Unfortunately that is very inaccurate. The word pagan -translates to- country dweller, it doesn't mean one who dwells in the country.
Look at this word further and you'll find by definition pagan means 'any person who does not espouse to Christian, Muslim or Jewish doctrine'. That's a big open field of beliefs. But that is what the word means and not what it translates to.
The word pagan is associated to pagus, which is a middle English (1100 to 1500 AD) word that further translates to 'country dweller'. Just for further understanding, Old English was a spoken dialect between 400 AD to 1100 AD.
The academic etymology of Pagan:
circa 1375, from L.L. paganus "pagan," in classical Latin "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".
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, circa 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-worshipers from 1908. Paganism is attested from 1433.
  Today's Meaning Of Pagan
Many people want this word to mean something special to their spiritual path that they've changed the meaning of the word. Now word evolution isn't a bad thing, as long as you keep in mind the origination of the word. But very often, a word evolves from it's defined meaning to a slang term. If you need an example, try Bitch. The meaning of the word is a female dog. The use of the word has evolved to be associated with a mean woman or it has become slang to mean a complaint, or anything unpleasant or difficult.
But looking at the academic definition of Pagan, it differentiates between Abrahamic religions (Christian, Muslim and Jewish Doctrine) and early pagan beliefs. The Christians see Jesus as their savior who died on the cross for their sins. The Jews see Jesus as a teacher and prophet, but not the savior promised by their elders. The Muslims see Jesus as their savior (along with others) who was crucified, but was taken off the cross by the hand of God before he died. Please don't confuse Muslim with Islam. Though these 2 religions are attached today, they were centuries apart during the time periods discussed here.
Keeping that in mind, why does the word pagan translate to country dweller? Well, during the 4th century BC to 13th century AD, most people who lived in cities or large communities had been exposed to at least one of the major religions. Quite a few were followers of one of these faiths, were agnostic or the beginning followers of the sciences. Country folk were more often uneducated in the formalized religions. They were people of nature, farming and living their lives by the breath of the earth, sun and moon. Very few practiced one of the 3 major religions, and thus they were considered pagan.
Carry this further and you'll find the word neo-pagan. Now many people today don't like this word at all, because they feel that it implies new age paganism. Unfortunately this again is an inaccurate interpretation and once more because people view the translation of the word neo as it's definition. Neo is Greek for new. But the key to that sentence is, neo is Greek. At the time the word neo-pagan was created, sometime between the 400th century BC and 4th century AD, the new pagans were people who were defined as pagan, but further defined themselves as nature or earth based believers.
In their writings about physics/metaphysics and spiritual concepts the early Greek thinkers discuss the differences between pagans and pagan communities. Or perhaps a better way to put it is they differentiate between their brand of paganism and others they discuss as nature specific pagans. What we might think of as the early pagans of Celtic origins.
Keep in mind the timing of this word's origin. The Hellenes Greeks reigned from the 8th century BC to the 3rd century AD when Alexander the Great died. Greece was at it's height in scientific knowledge. Explorations across Europe and Asia had begun by both the Greeks and the Romans. The Romans reigned their corner of the world between the 2nd century BC to almost the 4th century AD. The Druids reigned Britain, Ireland and France from about the 2nd century BC to the 4th century AD. Although there is much debate on the age of the Druids, anthropological work can at least place the Druids in the 2nd century. All the while the Christians and the Hebrews were making their own ways in the world.
All this confusion about who is pagan and who is a nature pagan got very confusing. The Greeks in their wisdom to categorize and educate developed the concepts of pagan and neo-pagan. I say concepts, because.. Remember at the beginning of this I said we further confuse the definitions of a word by it's English translation. Well, here you go.
  Pagan vs. NeoPagan
How does neo-pagan relate to the religion of Witchcraft? Witchcraft, by definition is a neo-pagan classified religion. Today's practitioners do not practice in the strictest form of ancient paganism which would include animal sacrifice, a matriarchal hierarchy and other archaic practices. Nor would we want to. Neopaganism, although centuries old, is based on accumulated and progressive knowledge and understandings of the world and universe. We know today that the Earth is not the center of the Universe, the Earth is round, the Universe was formed through a Big Bang and subsequent evolution.
All this knowledge has evolved our perspectives and allowed practitioners to incorporate knowledge from other centuries and origins into our understanding of metaphysics and belief. It is a melding of many beliefs into a nature based spiritual perspective that works toward bringing balance in all aspects of life; and for that matter, death.
Let's take this a little further. According to
"The roots of Neopaganism begin with the Renaissance, and the reintroduction of Classicism and the resurgence of interest in Graeco-Roman polytheism in the wake of works like the Theologia mythologica of 1532.
The Romantic movement of the 18th century led to the re-discovery of Old Gaelic and Old Norse literature and poetry. Neo-druidism can be taken to have its origins as early as 1717 with the foundation of The Druid Order. The 19th century saw a surge of interest in Germanic paganism with the Viking revival in the British Isles and Scandinavia. In Germany the Völkisch movement was in full swing. These Neopagan currents coincided with Romanticist interest in folklore and occultism, the widespread emergence of pagan themes in popular literature, and the rise of nationalism.
Occultic Revival: During this resurgence in the United Kingdom, Neo-druidism and various Western occult groups emerged, such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Ordo Templi Orientis, who attempted to syncretize "exotic" elements like Egyptian cosmology and Kabbalah into their belief systems, although not necessarily for purely religious purposes. Influenced by the anthropologist Sir James George Frazer's The Golden Bough, several prominent writers and artists were involved in these organizations, including William Butler Yeats, Maud Gonne, Arthur Edward Waite, and Aleister Crowley. Along with these early occult organizations, there were other social phenomena such as the interest in mediumship, magic, and other supernatural beliefs which was at an all time high in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
Another important influence during this period was the Romantic aesthetic movement, which venerated the natural world and frequently made reference to the deities of antiquity. The Romantic poets, essayists, artists and authors who employed these themes in their work were later associated with socially progressive attitudes towards sexuality, feminism, pacifism and similar issues.
During the Witchcraft Revival in the 1920s Margaret Murray theorized that a Witchcraft religion existed underground and in secret, and had survived through the Witchcraft prosecutions that had been enacted by the ecclesiastical and secular courts of the Inquisitions. Historians now reject Murray's theory, as she based it partially upon the similarities of the accounts given by those accused of Witchcraft; such similarity is now thought to actually derive from there having been a standard set of questions laid out in the witch-hunting manuals used by interrogators. Murray's ideas nevertheless exerted great influence on certain Neopagan currents."
In the 1940s, Englishman Gerald Gardner claimed to have been initiated into a New Forest coven and began his training with other practitioners such as Aliester Crowley and the OTO. In the mid to late 1950s Gardner created his brand of Witchcraft in a tradition he labeled Gardnerian Wicca. Gardner's Wicca is a modern version of Neopaganism that adheres closely to Gardner's teachings, differentiating it from similar traditions, such as Alexandrian Wicca or more recent Wiccan offshoots.
In addition to these historical events, modern Witchcraft also incorporates Shamanistic concepts. Relation to the animal kingdom, animal sign, psychic abilities and connecting to not just the Divine, but to each other through energy are all refined through the basic practices of Shamanism.
  Using Pagan/NeoPagan Today
Today, in all it's forms, paganism is not what it was in the beginning, back then or even 100 years ago. And thankfully so. This is one of the greatest assets about pagan beliefs. We have the ability and let's call it room within our beliefs to take in new information and apply it to our beliefs in such away that we can expand our perspectives without discounting our beliefs. One might argue that in some ways science is beginning to catch up to some of our beliefs, such as the concept that energy never dies, it fades, changes forms and the re-emerges. Many believe this is scientific evidence of reincarnation. We have adapted not only scientific information, but even cultural evolution into our belief structure allowing it to evolve and grow as well.
Let me add a side note, this is one of my pet peeves with some purist pagans who insist their tradition is one of the original "pagan" practices, or traditions that are 200 years old. Horse hockey! And if it is, why would someone want to practice a belief system that's rooted in the past and hasn't grown as human existence has grown and evolved? Change is the only constant in the universe and even religions must evolve or they become stagnate and perhaps even detrimental.
Paganism or neo-paganism or what some are now calling Pagan Metaphysics is a mish mash of many different religions. We talk about karma and chakras as if they're solely European concepts, but these ideas hold a large influence from the East as well. We have successfully merged these concepts into our beliefs, or because indo-Europeans had similar concepts with slight differences or with different names. But that's not true for all subjects. And I don't think it's a bad thing to merge beliefs, no more than it's a bad thing to merge practices from different Traditions to create new Traditions that fit into our world today. We don't sacrifice goats anymore, or run cows through the fire to purify them; nor would I want us to.
In the final analysis, be what you are comfortable with being. If you wish to be pagan, be pagan. If you wish to be neo-pagan, be that. If you desire to expand into a new world, step into Pagan Metaphysics. In the end, you are the only person who has the right to label who and what you are.

Source: 1, c3, c4, c8, c13, s1, s2, s4, s5, s6, s7, s11, s14, m1, m4, m5, m7, m10, m16, m18, m23, m36
Created: 09/29/2004         Updated: 05/14/2009


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