Where does the word ‘pagan’ come from?

This blog post will focus on the etymology and historical usage of the word ‘pagan’. If you would like more information about what constitutes a pagan religion today, please visit the What is Paganism? section of the PAN website.

There is consensus among pagans, scholars and amateur historians that the word pagan comes from the Latin word paganus which means country dweller (Marriam-Webster 2017; Cavendish & Conneeley 2012; Boin 2014; Wikipedia 2017). To understand why a spiritual persuasion is associated with a geographic location, it is necessary to remember that pagan religions worship nature. Agrarian cultures worshipped natural features such as the sun and the seasons because these early societies depended on them. Fertile earth and calm whether were essential to a good harvest, and without the scientific knowledge today, it is easy to see why the early farmers asked for favour from these unpredictable and mighty forces.

Now that we’ve explained why pagan religions are nature-based religions, we can address how a location came to be associated with spirituality. Until 380AD, the Roman Empire had been reasonably tolerant of multiple religions coexisting within its parameters. Indeed, as the Roman Empire came in contact with other cultures, their deities were often absorbed into Roman culture. Think, for instance, of the Cult of Isis or the worship of Mithras. The turning point came in 380AD when Emperors Theodosius, Gratian and Valentinian II issued the Edict of Thessalonica. This edict made Christianity the official religion of the future emperors and the entire Roman Empire (Cavendish & Conneeley 2012; Petts 2016). Initially, this edict had the strongest effect in the city of Rome where it was easier to enforce due to the proximity of the rulers to their subjects. Conversely, the people in the countryside were slower to embrace Christianity as they were further away from the eye of the Emperors and the churches. During this time, paganus or, country dweller, became synonymous with non-Christian.

So there we have it. Pagans were originally the country dwellers who were slow to let go of their traditional, nature-based worship. For further reading on this topic, please refer to the following texts.



Boin, D 2014, ‘Hellenistic Judaism and the social origins of the Pagan-Christian debate’, Journal of Early Christian Studies, vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 167-196, Project Muse, viewed 18 September 2017, DOI: 10.1353/earl.2014.0017

Cavendish, L & Conneeley, S 2012, Witchy Magic, Blessed Bee, Newtown, NSW

Marriam-Webster 2017, Origin and Etymology of Pagan, viewed 18 September 2017, <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pagan>

O’Donnell, JJ 2015, Pagans: the end of traditional religion and the rise of Christianity, ECCO, Manhatten, NY

Petts, D 2016, ‘Christianity in Roman Britain’ in The Oxford Handbook of Roman Britain, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 89-96

Wikipedia 2017, Paganism, viewed 18 September 2017, <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paganism>

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