What is ‘pagan’

Language is powerful. Words carry connotations and conjure images that are sometimes correct … and sometimes not. One such word is ‘pagan‘.

The word pagan for many people conjures images of animal sacrifice, devil worship and inverted pentagrams. My family generally doesn’t announce our paganism for precisely this reason. As most people don’t fully understand what it means to be pagan, or have grown up believing the church’s definition, they fear what they don’t fully understand. This leads to one of two responses: avoidance or vilification.

Additionally, as words carry definitions, applying the label ‘pagan’ applies those standard sets of rules and beliefs carried by the definition and prevents me being or doing something different or outside of that definition. So I choose not to apply the label. I am what I am and it doesn’t need a word to describe it.

In any event, this misunderstanding of a simple word became apparent to us this week when our child came home from school with an interesting tale…

‘Heathen’ was a word in their challenge spelling list. When completing a crossword the clue was ‘Another word for pagan’. (Technically this is incorrect as a heathen is someone who is godless; pagans can have one, none or many gods.) One of the children asked “What’s a pagan?” Our child’s hand shot up, she was told to put it down and the teacher then explained that pagans were around before Jesus was born. Naturally enough our child protested “But I’m pagan!” (This announcement in the past has actually led to her being picked on by her classmates and told in no uncertain terms that she was ‘going to hell’. Side Note: Pagans actually have no hell. ‘Hell’ is a post-Christian construct.)

After class – luckily – the teacher took an interest and talked to our child about what that meant – Did we do rituals? (Perhaps she was thinking goats and chickens?) – and then told our child “You know that means you’re wiccan?” Our child tried to argue but the teacher then told the librarian “Did you know they’re wiccan?”

So consequently I’m off to school to ‘right some wrongs’ before the whole place gets a perception of us that’s totally off the scale!

But this highlighted for me the misconception people still have about the word ‘pagan’ and how they happily interchange it with words like ‘heathen’ and ‘wiccan’.

Of course all wiccans are pagan – but not all pagans are wiccan. And pagans are definitely not ‘godless’ as the word heathen suggests.

Image: Jonathon Earl Bowser

So what is pagan? Pagan means different things to the various people who classify themselves as such.  For me being pagan is not a religion but a way of living. It’s not something that can be defined by anyone but the individual who chooses to be it and follow that path. But here’s the definition before the Crusades made paganism something to be feared and reviled.

Pagan comes from the Latin paganus – meaning country dweller or rustic. Later this developed into ‘peasant’ – again meaning one from the countryside, and when these areas were Christianised it became a word with religious connotations but generally used in derogatory terms to symbolise the ‘victory’ of the church over the ‘heathens’.

Once upon a time all people were pagan. It is the oldest ‘religion’ (though I prefer the word ‘spirituality’). Post-ascension of the church it defines anyone who is not part of one of the Abrahamic monotheistic religions (the three majors being Judaism, Christianity and Islam) – so technically this would cover Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, Druidism – and the possibly hundreds – if not thousands – of dissenting religious views.

For my family ‘being pagan‘ means simply that we walk lightly on the earth – who is revered as Mother – respecting Her bounty and honouring her changing seasons by marking the Sabbats – eight festivals that celebrate the solstices and equinoxes (Lesser Sabbats) and the harvests and midpoints between seasons (Greater Sabbats). And no, we don’t sacrifice goats or chickens to do so! Celebrations generally involve getting together with friends for feasts and enjoying each other’s company and the place we hold in each other’s lives. It involves teaching our children respect for the Earth, for each other and for themselves.

Our beliefs are, I guess, ‘typically Christian’ – though unfortunately not always practiced by those who define themselves as such. We don’t differentiate on the basis of colour, sex or religion but accept all people as people of the Universe – all made up of the same particles as the Universe, and all part of each other. (This is a concept picked up by metaphysics: As I breathe out, small particles of me are carried into the atmosphere to be breathed in by others, and vice versa. Therefore, we are literally each part of the other. If you don’t believe this … think of how airborne viruses are transferred.)

We also believe in the cyclical nature of life: birth-life-death-rebirth. We believe the Earth should be honoured – not plundered for greed or power – but sustained, nurtured for the future generations.

(Any of this sounding familiar?)

We love life, beauty (in all its forms), nature, all people regardless of differences – and in our house at least tend not to use the word ‘tolerance’ because it pre-supposes one school of thought is right whilst another is wrong. We believe there is room for all thought.

Some of our friends believe in one god; others in many; and some, like us, in no ‘god’ as such at all – meaning no ‘Deity’ sitting in a ‘heaven’ … and conversely no ‘Devil’ sitting in a ‘hell’. We definitely acknowledge good and evil – but as part of the duality of nature:  good/bad; light/dark; day/night; male/female. We don’t consider human beings as the top of the pyramid but view all life as equally valuable, and the planet as a living, breathing organism.

One of the best, most complete, ‘definitions’ (for want of a better word) that I have read is by Norman G Geldenhuys, penned in 1975. Due to its length I am going to reproduce it as a separate post.

© Earth Goddess Wisdom


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