What Does Pagan Mean?

Nearly every book on the subject, nearly ever person asked, has a different idea of what defines "Pagan." Of course the word is derivative of "pāgānus," old Latin for "Country Dweller" and Church Latin for non-Christian. We need, though, an agreed upon definition that is suited to the modern nomenclature, to the current cultural phenomenon and to the family of faiths that have been gaining momentum in the Western world for more than a half century.

Through the decades, a number of individuals and organizations have, in mission statements, in charters, in workshops and in craft publications offered a myriad of definitions of the word "Pagan." Though I confess these explanations are so prolific that I cannot have read them all, most that I have read seem inelegant or incomplete. Many are phrased in opaque language, full of empty signifiers. Many are addressed to those already familiar with the Pagan community, family of faiths and way of thinking. Many are lists of grievances against more populous religions. Many are constructed expressly to separate one Pagan sect from another rather than to define the community as a whole.

While I understand that we are a spiritually amorphous lot, often seeming to defy definition entirely, and that not every single practitioner's beliefs will fall perfectly within, I propose the following.

A Pagan faith will generally have four characteristics:

1. Polytheism.

There must be a plurality of deity or spirit. This can take many forms, as a literal cadre of Gods, as multiple but distinct aspects to a single being, as an ephemeral essence that manifests in many ways.

2. Pantheism &/or Animism

Those plural deities must be deities of something. Again, this can take many forms, literal Gods of fire, war and harvest, in deification of the life cycle, spirits that dwell within object and creatures.

3. Attention to the Earth or to a natural cycle.

We are embedded in the world, part of it, made of it, rather than masters of it. Again, this belief has many incarnations but the moral and philosophical ramifications of this truth are never far from mind.

4. Self-Identification

I understand that this final tenet is debatable, but it seems important that a faith define itself as Pagan in order to be thus. This is first because we cherish self-determination and second because it delineates us from some other world faiths that would generally not be regarded as Pagan in this sense, Hinduism and Shinto as examples.

I confess that I have some issues with the language. Abrahamian monotheism is so ingrained in Western culture that it can be difficult to talk about modern Paganism without resorting to oppositional terminology, without explaining ourselves based on what we are not rather than what we are. I ask my fellow Pagans to help me make the verbiage more precise.

While I would never suggest any sort of canonicity, the above is, to my mind, the simplest definition that addresses the largest segment of the community while being easily explainable to non-Pagans.

I invite criticism, suggestion and discussion.

1 comment:

John Myste said...

When Pentecostals, my unfortunate background use the term pagan, they mean anyone who does not believe in the "real" God. It is pretty simple.

They ignore the fact that Christianity is the marriage of Greek, Roman, Zoroastrian and Jewish religions, which themselves had Egyptian roots.

They ignore the fact that Paul and the Church Fathers designed Christianity to appease the very "pagans" they denigrate. They ignore the fact that Christmas is a pagan holiday by their own definition.

They ignore the fact that if pagan refers to anyone who worships a false God, Christians themselves are unwitting pagans.

I guess they don't ignore the facts. They run from them.

With respect, of course.