Paganism describes the old religions of the world – before Christianity and Islam came to dominate. We generally use the term in a historical context, especially in areas that are Christian, Muslim or non-religious today. A follower of paganism is a pagan; a modern revivalist is a neopagan.
Pagans did not consider themselves members of a particular ‘religion’ – belief in gods and spirits was simply a part of life. To ancient people, denying the existence of Jupiter or Ra was like denying lightning. There was no concept of ‘religion’ either; religion, society and government were one and the same.
Paganism was not one creed or set of beliefs but a variety of practices and ideas about the natural world. Pagans did, however, have some ideas in common:
- polytheism – belief in many gods
- myths and legends
- animal sacrifice
- sacred places like temples, groves and shrines
- belief in magic
Pagans believed supernatural forces influenced everyday life; these included spirits, ancestors and all-powerful gods. Such forces decided fortune, weather and the elements; everything mortals could not control. Deities could be common across whole cultures or specific to a single region, household, lake or tree.
One could appease a deity by praying to them or offering the life of an animal or (in some cultures) a person. Belief in one god was not exclusive, nor did pagans strictly adhere to gods from their culture. Ancient Rome, for example, had temples to not only its native gods but deities from Greece, Egypt and Persia. Gods represented everything from the sea and sky to abstract concepts like victory or love.
Pagans told stories about their gods but did not treat these stories as gospel truth. Their purpose was less to dictate the origins of the universe than to explain natural phenomena, justify rituals and entertain. It did not matter if narratives contradicted one another.
Most important to pagans were their rituals, for keeping on the good side of the gods was essential to a healthy society. For pagans, what one did was more important than what one believed. In Greece and Rome, in particular, ethics was not the domain of the gods but philosophers.
Many pagans believed in an afterlife. In the Egyptian and Norse traditions, dying and living the right way was immensely important. For others, the afterlife was either dreary, irrelevant, or non-existent. Worshipping gods and spirits were less about benefits in this world than in the next.
The word pagan likely comes from the Latin word paganus, which means ‘country dweller’. When Christianity spread across the Roman Empire, it spread first amongst the urban poor, and then the elite. By the 4th century BC, only the rural population – the pagani- still worshipped the old gods. The name stuck. As pagans did not consider themselves as belonging to a particular religion; the term is best used when distinguishing old believers from the newer faiths which did.
Sources: Bart D. Ehrman – The Triumph of Christianity