Pagan Metaphysics 104 – Pagan Metaphysics & Shamanism – Excerpt
What Is The Meaning Of Pagan
What Does The Word Mean?
This is a personal pet peeve and one that continually arises. Why? Because everyone has their own “interpretation” of words instead of researching the definitions and etymology of language. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s not really a good thing either. It’s human nature to view all things in life from one’s own perspective, but quite often, that’s where we get into trouble. If people would simply acknowledge the need for common definitions, then it would be much easier to develop a common understanding, or perhaps even acceptance of varying views.
The purpose for defined definitions is to develop that common language and understanding. Aristotle wrote many books of thought in his day. It’s interesting to note that the first 8 of those books are based on defining words and what he means when he says this word or that word. Even then the great thinkers of our world, understood the deep importance of common meanings of words, even in 300BC.
One of the other problems we face, is researching words based on their origin, meaning and, this is the important part, English translation. We get even further confused when a word is both English and an ancient dialect. Say for example neo-pagan. We’ll get to this word later.
Etymology of Pagan
Some say pagan means “country dweller”. Unfortunately that is very inaccurate. The word pagan -translates to- country dweller, it doesn’t mean one who dwells in the country.
Look at this word further and you’ll find by definition pagan means ‘any person who does not espouse to Christian, Muslim or Jewish doctrine’. That’s a big open field of beliefs. But that is what the word means and not what it translates to.
The word pagan is associated to pagus, which is a middle English (1100 to 1500 AD) word that further translates to ‘country dweller’. Just for further understanding, Old English was a spoken dialect between 400 AD to 1100 AD.
The academic etymology of Pagan:
circa 1375, from L.L. paganus “pagan,” in classical Latin “villager, rustic, civilian,” from pagus “rural district,” originally “district limited by markers,” thus related to pangere “to fix, fasten,” from PIE base *pag- “to fix”.
Religious sense is often said to derive from conservative rural adherence to the old gods after the Christianization of Roman towns and cities; but the word in this sense predates that period in Church history, and it is more likely derived from the use of paganus in Roman military jargon for “civilian, incompetent soldier,” which Christians (Tertullian, circa 202; Augustine) picked up with the military imagery of the early Church (e.g. milites “soldier of Christ,” etc.).
Applied to modern pantheists and nature-worshipers from 1908. Paganism is attested from 1433.
Today’s Meaning Of Pagan
Many people want this word to mean something special to their spiritual path that they’ve changed the meaning of the word. Now word evolution isn’t a bad thing, as long as you keep in mind the origination of the word. But very often, a word evolves from it’s defined meaning to a slang term. If you need an example, try Bitch. The meaning of the word is a female dog. The use of the word has evolved to be associated with a mean woman or it has become slang to mean a complaint, or anything unpleasant or difficult.
But looking at the academic definition of Pagan, it differentiates between Abrahamic religions (Christian, Muslim and Jewish Doctrine) and early pagan beliefs. The Christians see Jesus as their savior who died on the cross for their sins. The Jews see Jesus as a teacher and prophet, but not the savior promised by their elders. The Muslims see Jesus as their savior (along with others) who was crucified, but was taken off the cross by the hand of God before he died. Please don’t confuse Muslim with Islam. Though these 2 religions are attached today, they were centuries apart during the time periods discussed here.
Keeping that in mind, why does the word pagan translate to country dweller? Well, during the 4th century BC to 13th century AD, most people who lived in cities or large communities had been exposed to at least one of the major religions. Quite a few were followers of one of these faiths, were agnostic or the beginning followers of the sciences. Country folk were more often uneducated in the formalized religions. They were people of nature, farming and living their lives by the breath of the earth, sun and moon. Very few practiced one of the 3 major religions, and thus they were considered pagan.
Carry this further and you’ll find the word neo-pagan. Now many people today don’t like this word at all, because they feel that it implies new age paganism. Unfortunately this again is an inaccurate interpretation and once more because people view the translation of the word neo as it’s definition. Neo is Greek for new. But the key to that sentence is, neo is Greek. At the time the word neo-pagan was created, sometime between the 400th century BC and 4th century AD, the new pagans were people who were defined as pagan, but further defined themselves as nature or earth based believers.
In their writings about physics/metaphysics and spiritual concepts the early Greek thinkers discuss the differences between pagans and pagan communities. Or perhaps a better way to put it is they differentiate between their brand of paganism and others they discuss as nature specific pagans. What we might think of as the early pagans of Celtic origins.
Keep in mind the timing of this word’s origin. The Hellenes Greeks reigned from the 8th century BC to the 3rd century AD when Alexander the Great died. Greece was at it’s height in scientific knowledge. Explorations across Europe and Asia had begun by both the Greeks and the Romans. The Romans reigned their corner of the world between the 2nd century BC to almost the 4th century AD. The Druids reigned Britain, Ireland and France from about the 2nd century BC to the 4th century AD. Although there is much debate on the age of the Druids, anthropological work can at least place the Druids in the 2nd century. All the while the Christians and the Hebrews were making their own ways in the world.
All this confusion about who is pagan and who is a nature pagan got very confusing. The Greeks in their wisdom to categorize and educate developed the concepts of pagan and neo-pagan. I say concepts, because.. Remember at the beginning of this I said we further confuse the definitions of a word by it’s English translation. Well, here you go.
© 2012 Springwolf, D.D., Ph.D., Springwolf Reflections / Spring’s Haven, LLC. All Rights Reserved.