What is a pagan?
- one of a people or community observing a polytheistic religion, as the ancient Romans and Greeks.
- a person who is not a Christian, Jew, or Muslim.
- an irreligious or hedonistic person.
- pertaining to the worship or worshipers of any religion that is neither Christian, Jewish, nor Muslim.
- of, pertaining to, or characteristic of pagans.
- irreligious or hedonistic.
The original meaning came from the latin ‘pagani’ which means country dweller, as opposed to ‘urbani’ for those living in the cities and towns. When Christianity came to the Roman Empire it was first embraced by the more cosmopolitan citizens. The folk living in the countryside, not having the contact or the need to keep with what was fashionable, stuck to their old ways.
As time progressed, Pagan came to mean “not Christian, Jewish or Muslim”, and eventually, its use became a derogatory term for those considered to be irreligious, profane or sometimes ‘not worshiping in the same manner as me’.
Over the last century though, there has been an upsurge of people claiming it as their own. Proud to wear the word, and each having, it seems, their own definition of just what it means to be Pagan.
Earth-based Religion or Nature-based Religion is often used, and almost as often disputed by those who consider themselves Pagan, but follow a tradition that is not so earth-based, the focus is more on personal growth, or on the Solar or Cosmic aspects of the Divine.
Religion as a description gets a lot of argument. Many Pagans see Religion as being associated with something organised and dogmatic, they often found paganism as a way to escape structure and rules around their spirituality. Some see religion as being your personal relationship with the Divine, others call this spirituality and say it’s totally different, and yet others call their practises philosophy.
I like to describe Pagan as “one who has a reverence for the Old Gods”. Please note, the word ‘worship’ wasn’t used. While some do, many of us don’t worship Gods, but we do have a relationship with Them and work with Them.
Clear as mud right?
Pagan is also an umbrella term – like Christian. Within Christianity there are Catholics, Protestants, Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and many more, all with the same core to their faith, but differing on the details. Paganism is much like that – within Paganism there are Druids, Wiccans, Witches (not the same thing), Shamans, Asatru and still more.
While there are subsets, there are also those who like to use the term Pagan and not be defined further, and there are also those who will use the term Pagan if they have to, but don’t really like being labelled in any way.
But I guess, most of this isn’t helpful. So, I’ll head into some generalisations, and while I know I’ll offend a few, and upset others (we’re a fiercely individual bunch) they should help somewhat.
Pagans often have a reverence for the Earth. For some this can mean being environmentally aware, or even being activists, for others it’s as simple as composting, picking up litter in parks, recycling, or shopping with awareness of packaging, or of the human rights practises and genetic modification practises of the brand names they buy from.
Pagans believe in the Old Gods. Some are genuinely polytheistic, believing that there are a multitude of Gods, each with their own domain. Some are monolatrous, believing that the various Deities are faces or aspects of the One Divine Source. Some will dedicate themselves wholly to one God or Goddess and make that one their exclusive focus. Some will extend that to one pantheon or cultural family of Gods.
Pagans ‘do’ magic. Magical practise is the living core of most Pagans’ practises. Magic, as defined by Aleister Crowley, is the Art of creating change in accordance with Will. This may be as simple as prayer, meditation, visualisation, or as complex as kabalistic ritual.
Pagans celebrate the ‘Turning of the Year Wheel’. The Wheel of the Year is how we phrase the progression of the Sabbats, our holy days and festivals. The lesser Sabbats are the Solstices and Equinoxes and mark the quarters of the year – the seasonal changes. The Fire Festivals come between, and while they’re also seasonal, they each have a different focus.
Each Pagan will give you a different answer of how to define Pagan, about what it is to be Pagan, and what it means. It is important to be aware that each is giving their answer from their own perspective, and while many may think that they are speaking for all, just as many will disagree with them.
We are a fiercely individual group, as I said above, many found this path attractive because we have no structure or written rules, and each is free to make their own choices and be personally responsible for those choices.