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Paganism is a broad group of indigenous and historical polytheistic religious traditions—primarily those of cultures known to the classical world. In a wider sense, paganism has also been understood to include any non-Abrahamic, folk, or ethnic religion. Modern ethnologists often avoid referring to non-classical and non-European, traditional and historical faiths as "pagan" in favour of less ambiguous labels such as polytheistic, shamanistic, pantheistic, and animistic.
Contemporary or modern paganism, also known as neopaganism, is a group of new religious movements influenced by, or claiming to be derived from, the various historical pagan beliefs of pre-modern, Europe. Contemporary pagan religious movements are diverse, sharing no single set of beliefs, deities, creed, ritual practices, or texts; nor do any claim to be absolutely authoritative. However, there is a great deal of overlap amongst pagan movements and there are a number of beliefs commonly shared by many pagans, including pluralism, pantheism, polytheism, and a general belief that divinity is found in mind and nature.
In the Latin-speaking West of the newly Christianizing Roman Empire, Greek became associated with the traditional polytheistic beliefs of Ancient Greece and regarded as a foreign language (lingua peregrina). By the latter half of the 4th century in the Greek-speaking East, pagans were—paradoxically—most commonly called Hellenes (Ἕλλην, lit. "Greeks"). The word almost entirely ceased being used in a cultural sense. It retained that meaning for roughly the first millennium of Christianity.
This was influenced by Christianity's early membership, who were Jewish. Jews of the time distinguished themselves from foreigners according to religious rather than ethnocultural standards and early Jewish Christians would have done the same. As Hellenic culture was the dominant pagan culture in the Roman east, they called pagans Greek (Hellene). Christianity inherited Jewish terminology for non-Jews and adapted it to refer to non-Christians they were in contact with. This usage is recorded in the New Testament. In the Pauline epistles, Hellene almost always juxtaposed to Hebrew in disregard of actual ethnicities.
Usage of Hellene as a religious term was initially part of an exclusively Christians nomenclature, but some pagans began defiantly calling themselves Hellenes. Other pagans even preferred the narrowed meaning of the word—from a broad cultural sphere to a more specific religious grouping. However, there were many Christians and pagans alike who strongly objected to the evolution of the terminology. The influential Archbishop of Constantinople Gregory of Nazianzus, for example, took offence to imperial efforts to suppress Hellenic culture (especially concerning spoken and written Greek) and openly criticized the emperor.
By late antiquity, however, it was possible to speak Greek as a primary language while not conceiving of oneself a "Hellene". The long-established use of Greek in and around the eastern Roman Empire a lingua franca ironically allowed it to instead become central in enabling the spread of Christianity—as indicated for example by the use of Greek for the Epistles of Paul. In the first half of the 5th century, Greek was the standard language in which bishops communicated, and the Acta Conciliorum ("Acts of the Church Councils") were recorded originally in Greek and then translated into other languages.
The adoption of paganus by Latin Christians as an all-embracing, pejorative term for polytheists represents an unforeseen and singularly long-lasting victory, within a religious group, of a word of Latin slang originally devoid of religious meaning. The evolution occurred only in the Latin west, and in connection with the Latin church. Elsewhere, "Hellene" or "gentile" (ethnikos) remained the word for "pagan"; and paganos continued as a purely secular term, with overtones of the inferior and the commonplace.
The term pagan is from Late Latin paganus, revived during the Renaissance. Itself deriving from classical Latin pagus which originally meant "region delimited by markers", paganus had also come to mean "of or relating to the countryside", "country dweller", "villager"; by extension, "rustic", "unlearned", "yokel", "bumpkin"; in Roman military jargon, "non-combantant", "civilian", "unskilled soldier". It is related to pangere ("to fix", "to fasten") and ultimately comes from Proto-Indo-European *pag- ("to fix").
Medieval writers often assumed paganus as a religious term was a result of the conversion patterns during the Christianization of Europe, where people in towns and cities were converted more readily than those in remote regions, where old ways lingered. However, this idea has multiple problems. First, the word's usage as a reference to non-Christians pre-dates that period in history. Second, paganism within the Roman Empire centred on cities. The concept of an urban Christianity as opposed to a rural paganism would not have occurred to Romans during Early Christianity. Third, unlike words such as rusticitas, paganus had not yet fully acquired the meanings (of uncultured backwardness) used to explain why it would have been applied to pagans.
"Paganus" more likely acquired its meaning in Christian nomenclature via Roman military jargon (see above). Early Christians adopted military motifs and saw themselves as "Milites Christi" ("soldiers of Christ"). A good example of Christians still using paganus in a military context rather than religious is in Tertullian's De Corona Militis XI.V, where Christians are referred to as "paganus" (civilian):
|Apud hunc [Christum] tam miles est paganus fidelis quam paganus est miles fidelis.||With Him [Christ] the faithful citizen is a soldier, just as the faithful soldier is a citizen.|
"Paganus" acquired its religious connotations by the mid-4th century. As early as the 5th century, paganos was metaphorically used to denote persons outside the bounds of the Christian community. Following the sack of Rome to pagan Visigoths just over fifteen years after the Christian persecution of paganism under Theodosius I, murmurs began to spread that the old gods had taken greater care of the city than the Christian God. In response, Augustine of Hippo wrote De Civitate Dei contra Paganos ("The City of God against the Pagans"). In it, he contrasted the fallen "city of Man" to the "city of God" of which all Christians were ultimately citizens. Hence, the foreign invaders were "not of the city" or "rural".
The term "pagan" is not attested in the English language until the 17th century. In addition to infidel and heretic, it was used as one of several pejorative Christian counterparts to gentile (גוי / נכרי) as used in Judaism and to kafir (كافر, unbeliever) and mushrik (مشرك, idolater) as in Islam.
Heathen comes from Old English hæðen ("not Christian or Jewish"); cf. Old Norse heiðinn. This meaning for the term originated from Gothic haiþno ("gentile woman") being used to translate "Hellene" (cf. Mark 7:26) in Wulfila's Bible, the first translation of the Bible into a Germanic language. This may have been influenced by the Greek and Latin terminology of the time used for pagans. If so, it may be derived from Gothic haiþi ("dwelling on the heath"). However, this is not attested. It may even be a borrowing of Greek ἔθνος (ethnos) via Armenian hethanos.
It is perhaps misleading even to say that there was such a religion as “paganism” at the beginning of [the Common Era] ... It might be less confusing to say that the pagans, before their competition with Christianity, had no religion at all in the sense in which that word is normally used today. They had no tradition of discourse about ritual or religious matters (apart from philosophical debate or antiquarian treatise), no organized system of beliefs to which they were asked to commit themselves, no authority-structure peculiar to the religious area, above all no commitment to a particular group of people or set of ideas other than their family and political context. If this is the right view of pagan life, it follows that we should look on paganism quite simply as a religion invented in the course of the second to third centuries AD, in competition and interaction with Christians, Jews and others.—North 1992, 187—88, 
Defining paganism is problematic. Understanding the context of its associated terminology is important. Early Christians referred to the diverse array of cults around them as a single group for convenience and rhetoric. While paganism generally implies polytheism, the primary distinction between classical pagans and Christians was not one of monotheism versus polytheism. Not all pagans were strictly polytheist. Throughout history, many of them believed in a supreme deity. (Although, most such pagans believed in a class of subordinate gods/daimons—see henotheism—or divine emanations.) To Christians, the most important distinction was whether or not someone worshipped the one true God. Those who did not (polytheist, monotheist, atheist, or otherwise) were outsiders to the Church and thus pagan. Similarly, classical pagans would have found it peculiar to distinguish groups by the number of deities followers venerate. They would have considered the priestly colleges (such as the College of Pontiffs or Epulones) and cult practices more meaningful distinctions.
Referring to paganism as "pre-Christian indigenous religions" is equally untenable. Not all historical pagan traditions were pre-Christian or indigenous to their places of worship.
Owing to the history of its nomenclature, paganism traditionally encompass the collective pre- and non-Christian cultures in and around the classical world; including those of the Greco-Roman, Celtic, Germanic, Slavic tribes. However, modern parlance of folklorists and contemporary pagans in particular has extended the original four millennia scope used by early Christians to include similar religious traditions stretching far into prehistory.
Paganism came to be equated by Christians with a sense of hedonism, representing those who are sensual, materialistic, self-indulgent, unconcerned with the future, and uninterested in sophisticated religion. Pagans were usually described within this worldly stereotype, especially among those drawing attention to what they perceived as the limitations of paganism. Thus G. K. Chesterton wrote: "The Pagan set out, with admirable sense, to enjoy himself. By the end of his civilization he had discovered that a man cannot enjoy himself and continue to enjoy anything else." In sharp contrast, Swinburne the poet would comment on this same theme: "Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath; We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fullness of death."
Ludwig Feuerbach (1833) defined "paganism" of classical antiquity, which he termed Heidentum, literally "heathenry" as "the unity of religion and politics, of spirit and nature, of god and man", qualified by the observation that "man" in the pagan view is always defined by ethnicity, i.e. Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Jew, etc., so that each pagan tradition is also a national tradition. Modern historians define paganism instead as the aggregate of cult acts, set within a civic rather than a "national" context, without a written creed or sense of orthodoxy.
Feuerbach went on to postulate that the emergence of monotheism and thus the end of the pagan period was a development which naturally grew out of Hellenistic philosophy due to the contradiction inherent in the ethnic nature of pagan tradition and the universality of human spirituality (Geist), finally resulting in the emergence of a religion with a universalist scope in the form of Christianity,
No modern historian would see the emergence of Christianity as a culmination of a trend towards an exclusive monotheism: favoured deities addressed as "the One" did not preclude their followers, even their priests, from worshiping other gods as well.
The developments of Late Antiquity in the religious thought in the far-flung Roman Empire needs to be addressed separately, as this is the context in which Early Christianity itself developed as one of several monotheistic cults, and it was in this period that the concept of "pagan" developed in the first place. Christianity as it emerged from Second Temple Judaism (or Hellenistic Judaism) stood in competition with other religions advocating "pagan monotheism", including Neoplatonism, Mithraism, Gnosticism, Manichaeanism, and the cult of Dionysus.
Dionysus in particular exhibits significant parallels with Christ, so that numerous scholars have concluded that the recasting of Jesus the wandering rabbi into the image of Christ the Logos, the divine saviour, reflects the cult of Dionysus directly. They point to the symbolism of wine and the importance it held in the mythology surrounding both Dionysus and Jesus Christ; Wick argues that the use of wine symbolism in the Gospel of John, including the story of the Marriage at Cana at which Jesus turns water into wine, was intended to show Jesus as superior to Dionysus. The scene in The Bacchae wherein Dionysus appears before King Pentheus on charges of claiming divinity is compared to the New Testament scene of Jesus being interrogated by Pontius Pilate.
Interest in pagan traditions was revived in the Renaissance, at first in Renaissance magic as a revival of Greco-Roman magic. In the 17th century, description of paganism turned from the theological aspect to the ethnological, and a religion began to be understood as part of the ethnic identity of a people, and the study of the religions of "primitive" peoples triggered questions as to the ultimate historical origin of religion. Thus, Nicolas Fabri de Peiresc saw the pagan religions of Africa of his day as relicts that were in principle capable of shedding light on the historical paganism of Classical Antiquity.
Paganism re-surfaces as a topic of fascination in 18th to 19th century Romanticism, in particular in the context of the literary Celtic and Viking revivals, which portrayed historical Celtic and Germanic polytheists as noble savages.
The 19th century also saw much scholarly interest in the reconstruction of pagan mythology from folklore or fairy tales. This was notably attempted by the Brothers Grimm, especially Jacob Grimm in his Teutonic Mythology, and Elias Lönnrot with the compilation of the Kalevala. The work of the Brothers Grimm influenced other collectors, both inspiring them to collect tales and leading them to similarly believe that the fairy tales of a country were particularly representative of it, to the neglect of cross-cultural influence. Among those influenced were the Russian Alexander Afanasyev, the Norwegians Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, and the Englishman Joseph Jacobs.
Romanticist interest in non-classical antiquity coincided with the rise of Romantic nationalism and the rise of the nation state in the context of the 1848 revolutions, leading to the creation of national epics and national myths for the various newly formed states. Pagan or folkloric topics were also common in the Musical nationalism of the period.
In addition, folklore that is not any longer perceived as holding any religious significance can, in some instances, be traced to pre-Christian or pre-Islamic origins. In Europe, this is particularly the case with the various customs of Carnival like the carnival in the Netherlands or Fasnacht and the Yule traditions surrounding Santa Claus/Sinterklaas. By contrast, in spite of frequent association with Thor's Oak, the Christmas tree cannot be shown to predate the Early Modern period.
Contemporary Paganism, or Neopaganism, can include reconstructed religions such as the Cultus Deorum Romanorum, Hellenic polytheism, Slavic Neopaganism (Rodnovery), Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism, or Germanic religious reconstructionism, as well as modern eclectic traditions such as Discordianism, Wicca and its many offshoots.
However, there often exists a distinction or separation between some polytheistic Reconstructionists such as the Greek or Hellenic Polytheistic Reconstructionists of the Hellenismos religion and revivalist Neopagans like Wiccans. The divide is over numerous issues such as; the importance of accurate orthopraxy according to ancient sources available, the use and concept of magic, which calendar to use and which holidays to observe, as well as the use of the term pagan itself.
Many of the "revivals", Wicca and Neo-druidism in particular, have their roots in 19th century Romanticism and retain noticeable elements of occultism or theosophy that were current then, setting them apart from historical rural (paganus) folk religion. Most Pagans, however, believe in the divine character of the natural world and Paganism is often described as an "Earth religion".
There are a number of Pagan authors who have examined the relation of the 20th-century movements of polytheistic revival with historical polytheism on one hand and contemporary traditions of indigenous folk religion on the other. Isaac Bonewits introduces a terminology to make this distinction,
Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick in their A History of Pagan Europe (1995) classify "pagan religions" as characterized by the following traits:
In modern times, "Heathen" and "Heathenry" are increasingly used to refer to those branches of paganism inspired by the pre-Christian religions of the Germanic, Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon peoples.
In Iceland, the members of Ásatrúarfélagið account for 0.4% of the total population, which is just over a thousand people. In Lithuania, many people practice Romuva, a revived version of the pre-Christian religion of that country. Lithuania was among the last areas of Europe to be Christianized. In originally Anglo-Saxon nations such as Australia, Odinism has been established on a formal basis since at least the 1930s.
Christianity itself has been perceived at times as a form of polytheism by followers of the other Abrahamic religions because of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (which at first glance might suggest Tritheism,) or the celebration of pagan feast days and other practices – through a process described as "baptizing" or "Christianization". Even between Christians there have been similar charges of idolatry levelled, especially by Protestants, towards the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches for their veneration of the saints and images. Some scholars think that the essential doctrines of Christianity have been influenced by pre-Christianity, paganism, or European occults.
Das Wesen des Heidentums war die Einheit von Religion und Politik, Geist und Natur, Gott und Mensch. Aber der Mensch im Heidentum war nicht der Mensch schlechtweg, sondern der nationell bestimmte Mensch: der Grieche, der Römer, der Ägyptier, der Jude, folglich auch sein Gott ein nationell bestimmtes, besonderes, dem Wesen oder Gotte anderer Völker entgegengesetztes Wesen — ein Wesen also im Widerspruch mit dem Geiste, welcher das Wesen der Menschheit und als ihr Wesen die allgemeine Einheit aller Völker und Menschen ist. Die Aufhebung dieses Widerspruchs im Heidentum war die heidnische Philosophie; denn sie riß den Menschen heraus aus seiner nationellen Abgeschlossenheit und Selbstgenügsamkeit, erhob ihn über die Borniertheit des Volksdünkels und Volksglaubens, versetzte ihn auf den kosmopolitischen Standpunkt. ("The essence of paganism was the unity of religion and politics, spirit and nature, God and man. But man in paganism was not the man rough road, but the nationell certain man: the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Jew, and consequently his God a nationell specific, particular, the nature or god other peoples opposing creature - a being thus, in contradiction to the spirit which is the essence of humanity and its nature as the general unity of all nations and people. The repeal of this contradiction in paganism was the pagan philosophy; for she snatched the man out of his nation ellen seclusion and self-sufficiency, raised him above the narrow-mindedness of the people's arrogance and folk beliefs, put him on the cosmopolitan point of view." Google translation)