Paganism – What is it?

(Compiled by Jenwytch in 2004 from sources which I forgot to cite when I put this together for my personal “hard copy” BOS, and updated with info from

The word ‘pagan’ is derived from a Middle English word, which itself comes from the Latin word paganus, which means ‘country dweller’. This is derived from the Latin word pagus, which means ‘country’ or ‘rural area’. Most modern Pagan sources interpret the word to have meant rustic, hick, or country bumpkin – a pejorative term. The implication was that Christians used the term to ridicule country folk who tenaciously held on to what the Christians considered old-fashioned, outmoded Pagan beliefs. Those in the country were much slower in adopting the new religion of Christianity than were the city folks. They still followed the Greek state religion, Roman state religion, Mithraism, various mystery religions, etc., long after those in urban areas had converted. From their point of view, the metropolitan population had many reasons to disdain a pagan. For them, a pagan dressed strangely, worked in the dirt all day, was ignorant, illiterate, and uneducated. To top it off a pagan even worshipped the wrong gods. The word ‘pagan’ came to mean ‘an unenlightened one’.

One important thing to remember is that Paganism isn’t a religion any more than Monotheism is a religion. Both Paganism and Monotheism are collective terms used to group very different religions that happen to share a few important classifying traits in common. For example, Monotheism includes all the various forms of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (and many minor faiths). The beliefs of the individual religions grouped under the term ‘Pagan’ probably vary even more than, for instance, Reform Judaism differs from Shiite Islam.

Today ‘Pagan’ is used as a general term for the followers of magical, shamanistic, polytheistic and pantheistic religions that have a reverence for nature, with the meaning often narrowed further to include only those nature oriented religions which recognize the male and female duality which is found within nature. However, this is a very narrow definition and is only true of some pagan religions. The common dictionary definition of Paganism is: a religion that isn’t Jewish, Christian, or Islamic. With a slight modification, that’s probably the best definition: A Pagan religion is a religion that is not Jewish, Christian, or Islamic and self-identifies as Pagan. The term ‘pagan’ is sometimes used by Christians as a pejorative term to indicate a person who doesn’t believe in Christianity. ‘Paganism’ is also sometimes used to mean the lack of (an accepted monotheistic) religion, and therefore sometimes means essentially the same as atheism. ‘Paganism’ frequently refers to the religions of classical antiquity, most notably Greek mythology or Roman religion, and can be used neutrally or admiringly by those who refer to those complexes of belief. However, until the rise of Romanticism and the general acceptance of freedom of religion in Western civilization, ‘paganism’ was almost always used disparagingly of someone else’s beliefs. It has more recently been used admiringly by those who find the monotheistic religions confining or colourless. However, the word pagan is often still used in a derogatory sense and because of this many people and religions which might otherwise be considered to be ‘Pagan’ do not refer to themselves as such. ‘Heathen’ is an alternative word for ‘Pagan’ that some groups, especially those of Northern European origin, for example Asatru/Odinism, prefer to use.

As Wicca is currently the most well-known modern Pagan religion, many people tend to assume that all modern Pagans share the specific beliefs of Wicca (e.g. belief in a God and Goddess, the eight festival “wheel of the year,” the Wiccan Rede, etc.). That assumption is incorrect. People who make that assumption generally end up very confused when they encounter some of the many modern Pagan religions that are not based on Wicca.

A Pagan or Neo-Pagan is someone who self-identifies as a Pagan, and whose spiritual or religious practice or belief fits into one or more of the following categories:

  • Honouring, revering, or worshipping a Deity or Deities found in pre-Christian, classical, aboriginal, or tribal mythology; and/or
  • Practicing religion or spirituality based upon shamanism, shamanic, or magical practices; and/or
  • Creating new religion based on past Pagan religions and/or futuristic views of society, community, and/or ecology; and/or
  • Focusing religious or spiritual attention primarily on the Divine Feminine.

Types of Paganism

Paleo-paganism: the standard of paganism, a pagan culture which has not been disrupted by “civilization” by another culture – Bushmen modern (who are probably becoming meso-pagans), ancient Celtic religion (Druidism), the religions of the pre-patriarchal cultures of Old Europe, Norse religion, pre-Columbian Native American religions, etc.

Civilo-paganism: the religions of “civilized” communities which evolved in paleo-pagan cultures — Classical Greco-Roman religion, Egyptian religion, Middle-Eastern paganism, Aztec religion, etc.

Meso-paganism: a group, which may or may not still constitute a separate culture, which has been influenced by a conquering culture, but has been able to maintain an independence of religious practice — many Native American nations, etc.

Syncreto-paganism: similar to meso-pagan, but having had to submerge itself into the dominant culture, and adopt the external practices and symbols of the other religion — the various Afro-diasporic traditions (Voudoun, Santeria, etc.), Culdee Christianity, etc.

Neopaganism: The term ‘neo-pagan’ – literally, a ‘new-pagan’ – refers to the attempts of modern people to reconnect with nature, using imagery and forms from other types of pagans, but adjusting them to the needs of modern people.


  • Wicca – in all its many forms
  • Neo-Shamanism
  • Neo-Druidism
  • Asatru and other forms of Norse neopaganism
  • No-Native American practices
  • The range of things labeled ‘Women’s Spirituality’
  • The Sabaean Religious Order
  • Church of All Worlds
  • Discordianism
  • Radical Faeries and other “Men’s Spirituality” movements
  • Certain people within Thelema and Hedonistic Satanism
  • Some of eco-feminism

Not only are there many other Pagan religions besides those listed here, but many of these religions have sub-divisions (denominations/sects/traditions) within them.

It is important to note that modern Paganism is ‘non-Christian’ as opposed to ‘anti-Christian’. For the most part, Wiccans and other Pagans are not ‘anti’ any religion.

The sources from where most pagan reconstructionists adapt their beliefs and practices are usually well known ancient mythologies. However, while Pagans draw enthusiastically from old religious traditions, they also adapt them. The mythologies of the ancient civilizations are not generally considered to be literally factual or historical in the sense that the Bible is claimed historical by fundamentalists. Nor are they considered to be scripture, as Paganism specifically rejects the concept of scripture: they are generally not “People of the Book,” and value oral and custom-based traditions.

The mythological sources of Paganism are many, including Celtic, Norse, Greek, Roman, Sumerian and others. There is probably no significant mythology or religious tradition that has not been used as a source by some group at some time. Some groups focus on one tradition; others draw from several or many. All mythologies are believed to contain truth, seen from different perspectives; eclectic Pagans feel free to borrow or adapt from any tradition where they find it useful. For example, the Charge of the Goddess, a widely loved inspirational text by Doreen Valiente, used materials from the ‘Gospel of Aradia’ by Charles Leland (1901), and Aleister Crowley’s writings. It is commonly used to invoke the Goddess, beginning with the words: “Listen to the words of the Great Mother, Who of old was called Artemis, Astarte, Dione, Melusine, Aphrodite, Cerridwen, Diana, Arionrhod, Brigid, and by many other names”, showing a glimpse of Pagan eclecticism. Some eclectic Pagans also draw inspiration from external traditions, including Christianity, Buddhism and others. Since Paganism does not demand absolute loyalty or exclusivity, Pagans can and do practice other faiths in parallel.

Many people do not necessarily identify with a specific religion, and just use the broad term ‘Pagan’ to define their spiritual path. Pagan religions are distinct and separate from each other, and it should not be assumed that they are just different names for the same faith.