What is a "Pagan" anyway?

The Etymology of the Word “Pagan”: From Villagers to Ancient Religions

The word “pagan” has a fascinating history, spanning centuries and cultures. Let’s explore its origins, evolution, and the ancient pagan religions it encompasses.

1. Latin Roots

  • Late Latin Origins: The term “pagan” finds its roots in Late Latin. Initially, it referred to a villager or someone from the countryside. The Latin word “pagus” meant “country people” or a “rural district”.
  • The adjective form of “pagan” indicated something related to the countryside or a village.
  • The concept of fixing or fastening (from the Latin root “pangere”) is also associated with this word.

2. Evolution of Meaning

  • 14th Century Shift: By the 14th century, “pagan” took on a new dimension. It referred to a person who followed a non-Christian or non-Jewish faith.
  • The religious connotation wasn’t the original intent; instead, it likely emerged from Roman military jargon, where “paganus” denoted a civilian or an incompetent soldier.
  • Early Christians adopted this term, using military imagery such as “soldiers of Christ”.
  • Over time, “pagan” expanded to include those who adhered to old gods even after Roman towns and cities embraced Christianity.

3. Heathen vs. Pagan

  • Subtle Distinction: “Pagan” and “heathen” are often used interchangeably, but there’s a subtle distinction:
    • Pagan: Applied to more cultivated nations (like the Greeks and Romans) who worshiped false gods.
    • Heathen: Refers to uncivilized idolaters, such as certain African tribes.
  • Interestingly, a Mohammedan (a Muslim) isn’t considered a pagan, let alone a heathen.

4. Ancient Pagan Religions

  • Let’s explore some of the ancient pagan religions:
    1. Greek Polytheism: The worship of gods and goddesses like Zeus, Hera, and Athena.
    2. Roman Polytheism: Similar to Greek beliefs but with different names (e.g., Jupiter, Juno, Minerva).
    3. Norse Paganism: The faith of the Vikings, centered around Odin, Thor, and Freyja.
    4. Celtic Paganism: Druidic traditions, honoring deities like Cernunnos and Brigid.
    5. Egyptian Polytheism: Worship of Ra, Isis, and Osiris along the Nile.
    6. Mesopotamian Religions: Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian pantheons.
    7. Hellenistic Mystery Cults: Initiatory practices like the Eleusinian Mysteries.
    8. Mesoamerican Religions: Aztec, Maya, and Inca beliefs.
    9. Vedic Religion: Ancient Indian traditions with gods like Indra and Agni.
    10. Slavic Paganism: Deities tied to nature and fertility.


The word “pagan” has traveled through time, encompassing both rural origins and religious contexts. Its evolution reflects the rich tapestry of language and culture.

Remember: Labels change, but the human quest for meaning remains eternal.

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published