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What is paganism:

There is an old saying among pagans: "Ask ten different pagans to define 'paganism' and you'll get thirteen different answers."

It's a joke, but like most good jokes, it is humorous because it is true. For many reasons, the term 'paganism' defies any simple, unambiguous definition. One reason for this is that the word was not invented by pagans.(1) So, if you'll bear with me, I'll explain a little about the history of the word before attempting to define it.

The word comes to us from Latin. In classical times, the people of Rome worshiped many gods. But in the waning days of the empire, there came a Christian emperor. It was common in those days for people to worship (or at least give lip service to) whatever religion the ruler of the land did. Thus, many of the people of Rome converted to Christianity when the emperor did. However, people outside of the city of Rome, not terribly concerned with keeping up appearances, tended to continue to worship the traditional Roman gods. The Latin word "paganus" means "country dweller" (the plural is "pagani"), and it wasn't long before Roman Christians began using the word to describe anyone who continued to worship the traditional gods, the gods of the pagus (locality or countryside), whether the lived in the country or not. And eventually the word came to be applied to anyone who believed some religion other than Christianity.

In more modern times, the word has come to mean something more specific than simply any non-Christian religion. Islam and Judaism, for example, are not generally considered forms of paganism. After that, though, the modern meaning starts to get fuzzy. Different people will use the term in different ways, and what some people consider to be pagan, others might not. For example, some people would consider both Buddhism and Hinduism to be pagan religions, some would consider neither, and some one but not the other. Such arguments do nothing to clarify the term, but they can narrow down what each speaker means by it.

Having acknowledged that there is no unambiguous definition to be found, I shall now present one. Actually, in the finest Discordian(2) tradition, I shall present five largely incompatible definitions to confuse and thereby enlighten the reader.

Many pagans use the term paganism to apply to any "earth-centered" religion, religions which many would characterize as "nature-worship" or at least Earth or nature oriented. This is the definition you see used most often by the most pagans, since it's true of the majority and thus a good rule of thumb, but it's extremely stereotypical and you shouldn't assume that anyone who calls himself or herself pagan matches this definition.(3)

Many other pagans use the term to apply to any religion that is polytheistic, either literally (they believe in multiple, individual gods) or in a more pantheistic manner (they believe everything is a part of the divine, but that the divine has multiple aspects).

Many other pagans use the term to apply to any religion other than "The Big Five": Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism.

Many others use the term for any non-Abramic religion (the Abramic religions are Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), thus including Buddhists and Hindus as pagans.

Some use the term to apply to any aboriginal or animistic religion, belief systems that are filled with spirits and essences. Note that by this definition, even some Christians, those who believe in guardian angels and spirit guides, could be (and often are) considered pagan.

What are some examples of paganism:

Often, it is easier to understand a term by looking at examples of it, rather than trying to define it. Thus, to better understand paganism, it may be a good idea to look at the most common pagan religions.

Wicca is probably the most popular and certainly the most organized pagan religion in America today. It has been officially recognized as a religion by various federal and state agencies and courts. I could not do justice to Wicca in a single paragraph, but some of the highlights are: it is duotheistic, worshiping a goddess and a god, and (usually) insisting on the importance of balance between these and other opposites. It's highest ethical principle is usually expressed as, "If you harm none, do as you will." Followers of Wicca frequently practice witchcraft(4) (but note that not all practitioners of witchcraft are Wiccan, nor do all Wiccans necessarily practice witchcraft). Wicca has many traditions (something like denominations), such as Gardnerian, Alexandrian, Dianic, and Celtic, among others. These days, many Wiccans (particularly solitaries) do not belong to any one tradition and are best described as Eclectic Wiccans.

The two next most organized groups of pagans in America are the Druids and the Asatru. Both of these could be considered reconstructionist, as they generally attempt as much as possible to be true to the beliefs and practices of their ancient counterparts. The Druids follow the path of the ancient Celts, whereas the Asatru worship the traditional northern European (Norse/Anglo-Saxon/Germanic) gods and follow the Nine Noble Virtues. Other less organized but fairly common reconstructionist pagans include Hellenic pagans (who worship the Greek gods), Kemetic (Egyptian) pagans, and others.

Shamanism is frequently considered a pagan religion, although strictly speaking shamanism is a technique that could be used by anyone, regardless of their religious beliefs. Indeed, many Wiccans and other pagans practice shamanism. However, many shamanic practitioners do not follow any other particular religion (pagan or otherwise). Shamanism is generally animistic, believing many or all things have spirit, and many shamans believe that reality has several levels -- most commonly shamans believe in the existence of an Upper and a Lower World in addition to this world, the Middle World. Whereas Wiccans usually call forces or spirits to themselves in rituals, shamans do the reverse, journeying into the spirit world, going to the spirits rather than calling the spirits to them. According to most shamanic practitioners, the highest ethical principle is to aid others.(5)

Worldwide, paganism tends to be a minority religion in most countries. However, in Japan, the majority of the population believes in or at least occasionally participates in Shinto rituals. Shinto is Japanese folk paganism. And aboriginal people in many countries have essentially pagan belief systems. Some would simply define paganism as "natural religion", since it's what most people tend to believe in the absence of an organized religion (or in the presence of a tolerant one, witness the many Japanese who are both Shinto and Buddhist).

Many modern pagans follow an eclectic path, including elements from several or all of the above, as well as elements from other sources. There's an almost scientific mindset among many pagans. They refuse to swallow dogma, and thus rather than ever believing any one religion, they experiment, find what works in each and discard the rest, moving on to see what's worth picking out of the next belief system they come across. Thus, many pagans cannot identify any specific religion they believe in, even a pagan religion, and can describe their beliefs with no word more specific than "pagan". That the term itself is ambiguous perhaps makes it all the more fitting.


1. Okay, technically, the word was invented by pagans, as it was a part of the Latin language while Romans were mostly pagans, but they did not use the word to describe someone's religious beliefs, they simply used the word to describe where someone lived. But in the context of describing someone's religious beliefs, that use of the word was invented by Christians.

2. Discordians believe in Eris, Greek goddess of chaos and confusion. The name comes from 'Discordia', the Latin name for Eris. Modern Discordians are known for their belief in the sacredness of humor. With Discordians, it's important to not confuse a lack of seriousness with a lack of sincerity. Quite the opposite, in their case.

"...and false be every 'truth' that has not been accompanied by laughter."
-- Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

3. Some people insist that anyone who doesn't match this definition isn't a real pagan. Alas, even pagans have their fundamentalists...

4. Witchcraft is usually defined as the practice of casting spells or otherwise doing magick. It should be noted that most Wiccan spells involve the invoking of various gods or spirits to help in accomplishing some goal. Christians do the exact same thing all the time, but they refer to their spells as "prayers".

5. One technoshaman once expressed the shaman's highest ethical principle as: "IF required(help) THEN provide(help)." I agree with the semantics but object to the syntax -- it looks too much like BASIC.

Written by GT, fall semester 2001.