Origin of the word “pagan”

This word defines the spirituality and beliefs of so many people, myself included.  But do we understand what this word means?  I think too many people do not understand or truly even care about the origins of the words that define them, whether they want to admit to labels or not.  In some way we all are “labeled” because we all try to define ourselves in words, even if it is just in our own minds.

The word “pagan” comes from Latin.

  • As a noun: “paganus, pagani”= pagan; countryman, peasant; civilian (non-soldier); civilians/locals (pl.)
  • As an adjective: “paganus, pagana, paganum”= pagan; of a pagus (country district); rural/rustic; civilian (not military)

In origin, this word had no reference at all to religion or spirituality.  It was used by city-dwellers (Romans) to refer to those people from the country, and often in a slightly derogatory way.  In ancient Rome, if you were pagan, you were a country person, a rustic.

Much later, after the fledgling religion of Christianity began to appear in the Roman Empire, the word “pagan” still referred to country dwellers, but also took on an added meaning.  In many cases, the emerging Christian faith was referred to as pagan, largely because it rose in the countryside.  It was also called pagan because it differed so greatly from the Roman religion and was not polytheistic.  There is little actual surviving documentation of this use, but the usage of “pagan” to refer to strange, backward, or “uncivilized” beliefs has survived in documents dating as early as the 1460s.

In the 1400s we find that the word “pagan” no longer means a country person, but rather has taken on a wholly religious meaning.  However, it does not refer to Christians, but rather it refers to a non-Christian, aka “heathen.”  Although the Oxford English Dictionary cites that the word refers to people who are not of any established or major religion, in the examples cited the religion is supposed to be Christianity.  Also, in the late 1400s that portion of history is still in the end stages of the Middle Ages, and for a long time beyond the Dark Times even the other monotheistic religions (Judaism and Islam) were often considered to be “infidels” and pagan religions by fanatics and Crusaders.  I think the case can be made, therefore that between the times of roughly 1000 to about 1700, the word “pagan” referred to any non-Christian, and not just any unrecognized religion.  Of course, this is open to interpretation.

The interpretation that “pagan” also referred to someone of backward beliefs has persisted to as late as the 1980s, according to OED citations and examples.

It wasn’t until roughly 1927 that “pagan” took on the connotations it holds today.  Today we tend to use “pagan” to mean: “a follower of a pantheistic or nature-worshiping religion; a neopagan” (OED).  Another way some people define the word today is as a belief system that is not a part of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam and worships nature.  For some groups, the world still holds many negative connotations that are not valid, such as devil worshiper or witch (here with the idea of green-skinned witches casting curses and spells over their foul bubbling cauldrons–thanks Hollywood).

Oxford English Dictionary entry on “pagan”.


3 responses to “Origin of the word “pagan”

  1. Pingback: Stereotype #7: Black Pointy Hats | A Witchy Life

  2. Double Double toil and trouble…

    It’s interesting to see how the usage of the word pagan has changed drastically over the ages. I find it quite funny that it even referred to Christianity at one point…

    • I’m pretty sure that it did at one point refer to Christians. I took a class on ancient Roman Religion and I’m almost positive that’s where I heard that tidbit, but since my textbooks are in storage, I can’t confirm it, and haven’t been able to find it on the internet (though not surprised at that).

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