The Grammarphobia Blog

Why early religions are ‘pagan’

Q: I love reading and watching documentaries about archeology, but not when they belittle the religions of previous civilizations as “pagan.” This gives us airs that we are more civilized than earlier cultures.

A: It’s true that “pagan” is a negative term in that it has always defined people as what they are not, rather than what they are. So it carries a connotation of “not like us.”

The word (both noun and adjective) has been part of English since the 1400s, and historically it’s been used to dismiss or even condemn people.

But today “pagan” has four principal meanings, not all of them derogatory. Here’s what it means in modern English, according to standard dictionaries.

In speaking of past civilizations, “pagan” refers to the polytheistic people and religions of ancient times, before the Judeo-Christian era. This is how archeologists and historians use the term. And in our opinion, this isn’t a demeaning usage—or at least it isn’t labeled as such in standard dictionaries.

In speaking of the present, “pagan” is used for believers and beliefs that fall outside the mainstream religions, as in contemporary Druidism, nature worship, and such (more on this later). That use isn’t considered demeaning either.

However, many dictionaries say that “pagan” is “disparaging,” “derogatory,” or “offensive” when used in reference to contemporaries who are neither Christian, Jewish, nor Muslim—that is, “heathen” in the missionary’s sense of the word. This use of “pagan,” however, is labeled “dated” or “historical” in some dictionaries.

And “pagan” is derogatory when it refers to someone who behaves in an irreligious, unorthodox, or uncultivated way. As some dictionaries note, this usage can be meant humorously.

Ultimately, of course, any word can be taken amiss, since offense is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. And certainly “pagan” has been used disparagingly in past centuries—especially in Christian religious tracts.

Interestingly, the ancestral roots of “pagan” have nothing to do with religion. The ultimate source of “pagan” is the classical Latin pāgus, meaning a rural district (it’s also the source of “peasant”).

From pāgus were derived the classical Latin noun and adjective pāgānus, which had two meanings to the Romans, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It originally referred to country dwellers (that is, rustics as opposed to city dwellers), but in later classical Latin it more commonly referred to civilians (as opposed to soldiers).

Religion entered the picture in early Christian times, when pāgānus acquired a new meaning. In post-classical Latin, probably in the fourth century, the OED says it came to mean “heathen, as opposed to Christian or Jewish.”

So how did a word for a rustic or a civilian come to mean a heathen in the later Latin of the early Christian era? The development isn’t clear, but there are competing theories, according to the OED. We’ll condense them here:

(1) The earlier “country dweller” meaning may be responsible, because the towns and cities of the Roman Empire accepted Christianity before the rural villages and hamlets. Or it may be that the “country dweller” meaning was interpreted as “not of the city,” and thus came to mean an outsider.

(2) The later “civilian” meaning may be the key, since “Christians called themselves mīlitēs ‘enrolled soldiers’ of Christ, members of his militant church,” Oxford says. So non-Christians were those “not enrolled in the army.”

The OED doesn’t take sides here, and neither does the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. But John Ayto, in his Dictionary of Word Origins, comes down on the side of #2. The post-classical sense of pāgānus as a heathen, he says, arose from its “civilian” meaning, “based on the early Christian notion that all members of the church were ‘soldiers’ of Christ.”

Regardless of how its “heathen” sense developed, pāgānus was adopted into English in the early 1400s as “pagan.” This is the OED’s earliest known use of the noun:

“I sall … euer pursue the payganys þat my pople distroyede” (“I shall ever pursue the pagans that destroyed my people”). From a manuscript, dated circa 1440, of Morte Arthure, a medieval poem that was probably composed some time before 1400.

And this is Oxford’s earliest use of the adjective:

“More deppyr in the turmentis of helle shall bene … the crystyn Prynces than the Pagan Pryncis, yf they do not ryght to al men” (“More deeper in the torments of hell shall be … the Christian princes than the pagan princes, if they do not do right by all men”). From a manuscript, dated sometime before 1500, of James Yonge’s 1422 translation of the Secreta Secretorum (“The Secret of Secrets”).

In its entries for “pagan,” the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t differentiate between two of the uses given in standard dictionaries—the neutral, pre-Christian sense used in reference to antiquity, versus the outdated, pejorative use of the term for religions other than one’s own.

This is the OED definition of the noun (the one for the adjective is similar): “A person not subscribing to any major or recognized religion, esp. the dominant religion of a particular society; spec. a heathen, a non-Christian, esp. considered as savage, uncivilized, etc.”

The dictionary says this use of “pagan” is now chiefly historical, meaning that it refers to people and cultures of the past, not the present. Here, for example, is a modern citation:

“Religion helped structure the networks of power that shaped or informed the relationships between pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Greek East” (from Douglas R. Edwards’s book Religion and Power, 1996).

However, the OED does have entries for the other two definitions found in standard dictionaries—referring (sometimes humorously) to the uncultivated, and to modern religions that are outside the mainstream.

This is how Oxford defines the “uncultivated” sense of the noun “pagan” (the adjective closely corresponds): “A person of unorthodox, uncultivated or backward beliefs, tastes, etc.; a person who has not been converted to the current dominant views of a society, group, etc.; an uncivilized or unsocialized person, esp. a child.”

Some of the dictionary’s examples, which date from the mid-16th century, are almost affectionate, like these:

“Said t’was a pagan plant, a prophane weede / And a most sinful smoke” (a reference to tobacco, from George Chapman’s 1606 play Monsieur D’Olive).

“That bloodless old Pagan, her father” (from Macleod of Dare, an 1879 novel by William Black).

“So much like wild beasts are baby boys, little fighting, biting, climbing pagans” (from The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, John Muir’s 1913 memoir).

Finally, the dictionary’s definition for the modern religious use is “a follower of a pantheistic or nature-worshipping religion; esp. a neopagan,” and the adjective’s definition is similar. Here’s the latest OED example for the noun:

“Paganism … is a belief in which nature is revered and its views on ecology are very attractive to teenagers. Pagans and witches recycle, are against GM foods and are likely to be vegetarian” (from the Express on Sunday, London, Feb. 4, 2001).

A final word about modern paganism (or neopaganism), which is more widespread than you might think and which some standard dictionaries define more specifically than the OED.

For example, Oxford Dictionaries Online defines today’s “pagan” as “a member of a modern religious movement which seeks to incorporate beliefs or practices from outside the main world religions, especially nature worship.”

The phrase “outside the main world religions” would mean principally a faith that is not among the Abrahamic (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Bahá’í), the Dharmic (Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Jain), or the East Asian families of religions (Taoist, Confucian, Shinto, and others).

These newer pagan religions are very diverse (ranging from Wicca and Neo-Druidism to Goddess worship and varieties of religious naturalism), and they often defy definitions. But scholars of religion generally categorize them under the umbrella of Contemporary Pagan or Neopagan.

And adherents generally do not feel belittled by such labels. For instance, the current president of Latvia, the Green Party member Raimonds Vējonis, identifies himself as a Baltic Neopagan.

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