What is Paganism?

So what is “paganism?”

back design from Robert M. Place’s Alchemical Tarot

It’s important to begin by repudiating the search for The One True Paganism. That search only leads to dogmatism and intolerance. So let’s stipulate that there are many ways to approach this question, and I’ll just offer my own answers to a couple of them. These are not the same answers every historian or every modern pagan would give.

The first approach is from a historical point of view. “Pagan” comes from Latin paganus, which has various meanings in classical Latin. The one that interests us is “peasant, villager,” which was sometimes used as an insult: “rustic, ignorant.” This derogatory use was adapted by Christians to speak about non-Christian worshippers. This meaning was well established by the time of Augustine (354-430 CE), who uses it all the time. Interestingly enough, the Latin and Greek New Testaments and the Greek “Septuagint” Old Testament use much vaguer terms: gentes, ἔθνη, meaning “the peoples”; or alienigenus, ἀλλοτρίος, ἀλλόφυλος, meaning “foreign” or “of a foreign people.” Similarly, the original King James English translation never uses the word “pagan,” but it appears in many later English translations. This is interesting because these other terms follow the Jewish precedent of distinguishing between themselves and all other peoples, whatever their religious practices. From a Jewish perspective today, for instance, that includes Christians, Buddhists, atheists, and so on. But no one refers to Christians or Buddhists as “pagans.”

I want to suggest two takeaway points from this historical perspective. The first is that the concept of “paganism” inherits the Jewish distinction between followers of the monotheistic Abrahamic God and everyone else. The second is that “paganism” came to designate worshippers of traditional Greek and Roman gods in particular (in state religion, mystery cults, Neoplatonism, rural shrines and rituals, etc.), simply because those were the main competitors to early Christianity. Later it was easy to extend this derogatory term to the polytheistic religions of northern Europe, such as those of the Saxons or the Finnic and Baltic tribes.

Now let’s switch to a modern perspective. In order to narrow the focus, I’m going to concentrate on Anglophone paganism today. The principal movements involved are Druidry, Wicca, goddess worship, Germanic or Nordic reconstructed religions, and shamanism. Okay, this is where I’m going to get a little controversial. I want to suggest that these continue to be defined in opposition to Abrahamic monotheism. Often they’re explicitly described as “pre-Christian.” Different participants naturally have different points of view; I personally know Druids who describe themselves as Jewish, Buddhist, and Christian. But there’s a widely shared narrative, even if it’s rarely spelled out, which holds that mainstream religions are one-sided, exhausted, or somehow unhealthy for both individuals and societies. Since Anglophone countries are predominantly Christian and post-Christian, this applies first and foremost to Christianity. Paganism attempts to solve this problem by revalorizing what it often represents as an older form of spirituality — a family of practices (and sometimes beliefs) oppressed or mistakenly abandoned, and now renewed. All of this helps to explain the inclusion of shamanism in “paganism.” As we read in Ronald Hutton’s guest post, many European shamanic practitioners claim that theirs is an archaic and universal religion. You can’t get much more “pre-Christian” than that.

A second broadly shared feature of modern paganism might be described as “attunement to nature.”  Most of them follow a seasonal cycle called “the wheel of the year,” for example. It is worth remarking that the concept and emotional resonance of “nature” here isn’t entirely spontaneous; it’s a construction of Romanticism and nineteenth century German anthropology of religion, which posited “natural religion” as an early category in a supposed sequence from lower to higher religiosities. The specifics of the wheel of the year also owe a lot to James Frazer’s spectacular Golden Bough (1st ed. 1890), at least as they are enacted by many groups. Today we’d say that Frazer’s book is at least much an inspired (and inspiring) fiction as an accurate analysis of the origin of all religions. Finally, I can’t forgo noting that according to Philippe Descola, one of today’s most brilliant anthropologists, the conceptual dichotomy between “nature” and “culture” only belongs to western common sense: it’s unintelligible to the Achuar of Ecuador or the Chewong of Malaysia, for example.

To be clear, I should say that I’m absolutely not trying to delegitimize paganism. Rather, in keeping with the spirit of this project, I’m trying to balance sympathy and open-mindedness with historically and theoretically informed reflection. Perhaps I haven’t been very sympathetic yet, so I’d better add that I think modern paganism’s implicit (and sometimes explicit) critical dialogue with monotheism is philosophically, psychologically, and even socially and politically important. It makes a great difference whether you think there exists one God or an indefinite plurality of spirits, daemons, powers, and gods. It matters whether you think God’s truth is transcendent and absolute or mediated, created, and partial. As for the historical construction of pagan “nature,” well — all symbolic experience is culturally constituted. (Even Jung insists that the archetypes can never be experienced directly.) That doesn’t stop it being psychologically powerful. And if there are any transcendent powers out there to touch, that doesn’t stop pagan rituals from touching them.

See P. Descola’s magisterial Beyond Nature and Culture.  Eventually I’ll post something here about anthropological theory and paganism. For an alternate perspective on what paganism is, see the British Pagan Federation.






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