What is “Pagan”?
I’ve been an agnostic-atheist since I was about twelve years old. I grew up on videos of Carl Sagan and Bill Nye explaining evolution and the big bang, and my worldview has since been colored by skepticism and empiricism. So when I decided to take “Pagan” as a label, eyebrows raised- aren’t Pagans people who cast spells and pray to forest fairies? Don’t Pagans believe in absurd superstitions and nature gods? Are you a Wiccan? While many reconstructionists and New-Age Pagans have developed creative reconstructions of religious practices, rituals, and superstitions, I believe the term can be much more meaningful, and that a ‘Pagan’ philosophy can be applicable and helpful in the modern age and to secular people. In this post, I’m going to write about what ‘Pagan’ means in a historical sense and contrast it with the Monotheistic religion that came to replace it. In a later post, I will talk more about what being “Pagan” means to me and how to apply these ideas in the modern age.
It is thought that the term “pagan” derives from the Latin word paganus, which just means “villager”. One can reasonably assume that this arose from the surge of Christianity into Europe, where it first found acceptance in cities and later became the prominent religion in all but the most rural of places where people still practiced old traditions and prayed to old gods out of either defiance or ignorance. Those silly pagans! would have meant “those silly rural folks”, much like the way we describe small-town folks today, though maybe not so mean-spirited.
The original meaning doesn’t seem relevant now, but if we think of “pagan” (adjective) as literally meaning “pre-Christian”, and of “Pagan” (noun) as meaning “one who adheres to a pre-Christian worldview”, it becomes easier to imagine what a real pagan worldview would look like, or at least what would NOT be a part of it- we just need to look at the value system of Christianity and the structure monotheism in general.
Indo-European Polytheism (including Germanic, Celtic, Slavic, and Greco-Roman Polytheism) itself was fundamentally a religion of nature worship. The gods of polytheism represented natural forces, which are often in opposition to each other as well as to humans, who were trying to survive in unpredictable climates. The gods represented forces of weather, nature, and fate- gods of the sea, gods of thunder, gods of war, and even more abstract ideas like gods of wisdom (and, often, gods had multiple functions- Germanic Woden, for example, was a god of war, a god of poetry, a god of wisdom, and a god of death all at once). These gods, though greater than humans (just as forces of nature are greater than humans), were not supreme beings. They had limits, they had character flaws, and they had enemies with which they constantly struggled. These enemies were usually other gods, or giants (Jotuns in Germanic polytheism, Titans in Greco-Roman polytheism), who were equally entitled to respect and possessed powers of equal importance. It was a view of the natural world as full of necessary and opposite forces, that could be good or bad—the sea could carry you to new lands, or it could kill you. Worshiping these gods was about hoping for their blessing, which could mean safe travels, a bountiful harvest, or victory in battle. If worshiping these gods didn’t produce results, it wasn’t because the god is bad or because the followers didn’t worship correctly, but rather because the opposite god was stronger, or because the god simply didn’t care. They were gods after all, and had concerns and battles of their own. The respective pantheons wove complex mythologies that are beyond the scope of this post, but are worthy of their own research.*
Monotheism brought with it a massive change in the meaning of the concept of “god”. Where polytheism required many gods to represent the varied and contradictory forces of nature, fate, and luck, monotheism created a god that was no longer subject to nature, contradiction, or conflict. The monotheistic god is, metaphysically, something else entirely- it is perfect, it knows everything, it controls everything, and it transcends everything. By definition, it is otherworldly- while the world is full of forces in competition with each other, the monotheistic god is in competition with nothing. In their own words, Christians will describe that which is bad or in opposition to God as “worldly”. The only divine conflict is between the world and God.
The otherworldliness of the monotheistic god necessitates a kind of dualism- the separation between this world and the otherworld, or the ‘holy’. This takes place on multiple levels: the world and God are separated, just as the mundane, the natural, must be separated from divine, the supernatural. The entire concept of supernatural itself is derived in this way.
While Pagans had superstitions and fantastical tales that could be called “supernatural” in our language, this separation between ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ was not a part of their world view. The fantastical beings of their mythologies were not separate from the world, they were the forces of the world, both literally and metaphorically. Even the afterlife for a Pagan, looking otherworldly on its surface, was not something unattainable or supernatural. It was somewhere that they believed that they could sail to if they had a big enough boat, or climb to if they had a ladder that reached beyond the clouds. Their mythology was not their religion and was not otherworldly- it was how they understood the world. It was their own attempt at natural philosophy.
Monotheism also had drastic implications for ethics. Christianity brought with it a completely new concept, which was alien to Pagans of all stripes before- the concept of sin. The monotheistic god of Judeo-Christian mythology was a god who was incredibly concerned with the lives and actions of humans (very different from Pagan gods, who were usually indifferent at best), so concerned in fact that he gave them the Ten Commandments, as well as the truly authoritarian set of laws written down in Leviticus. These laws, passed down by the perfect God, were not guidelines, nor were they open to interpretation- they were absolute and binding, and were very specific in their language, and since they were passed down by God, they were otherworldly and supernatural. These laws were considered mandatory, and though they may have been pragmatic and agreed-upon by the ancient Israelites, when Christianity came to Europe, these laws became absolute because, and only because, they came directly from God.To break these laws was not only to be a criminal, but it made the lawbreaker ungodly. To be ungodly was to be a sinner. The new Judeo-Christian ethics brought about a completely new view of “good” and “bad”, “right” and “wrong”- it created moral absolutes that made specific actions wrong, or evil, by definition, and it gave individuals the capacity to be good or evil based on their behaviors, regardless of their consequences. More importantly, it gave people the ability to judge another person to be bad on the basis of the sins they had committed. One could interpret what St. Thomas Aquinas says about living the good life as such: to be a sinner is to be less human, because to be a good human being in this worldview is to try to be closer to God and to be more God-like. The notion that God is angry when you masturbate comes out of this mindset. The very meaning of “good” and “bad” would never be the same- to be “good” now meant “to follow God’s laws”, and to be “bad” meant to be “unGodly”, or to be “evil”, with no other qualifications.
This doesn’t sound quite so outrageous, but it is in stark contrast to the picture of ethics that Pagans would have painted before they heard of Christianity. With no concept of sin and no concept of moral absolutes, Pagan ethics took on a much more pragmatic approach. What was good was that which brought an individual or a tribe success. This does not mean that they were complete moral relativists, as we have examples of pre-Christian codes of ethics from all over the world. Rather than moral absolutes, ethics were guided by a single first principle- excellence. Arete (ἀρετή). What was “good” was to live in such a way that one brought about excellence in their own life, and what was good for a community was to promote, inspire, and teach virtuous excellence among its people.** A codified ethics would contain standards, or virtues, that were thought to be habits which led to excellence. The Nine Noble Virtues of Asatru (a Germanic reconstructionist religion, though the virtues are based off of the ancient Aesirian Code of Nine) are derived this way- self-reliance, perseverance, truth, honor, fidelity, hospitality, industriousness, courage, and discipline. The idea that one should strive to make these virtues habitual, BECAUSE they will lead to an excellent life, is much less binding than “Thou Shall Not Covet”.
The change from Polytheism to Monotheism changed everything. It has been nearly 1000 years since the last Pagan Europeans were converted to Christianity, and most were converted more than 600 years before that.
As people living in the twenty-first century, after nearly two thousand years of Christianity, in a world which has experienced great advancements in scientific knowledge and which has aggrandized ideas about peace, unity, and humanism that have never existed before, it is important to remember that we cannot go back to the way things once were. We cannot pretend that Monotheism never existed and that it hasn’t completely changed the world. We cannot pretend to believe in nature gods and old superstitions as though the scientific revolution never happened. We cannot live as though we were eighth-century Norwegian pagans in a heroic society and we cannot claim to be free of Christian influence.
What we can do is allow the past to inform our worldview. We can look to the writings, relics, and histories of pre-Christian peoples and attempt to understand their mindset. We can try our best to overcome the influence of Judeo-Christian dualism by rejecting supernatural ethics and by aspiring to excellence in this life rather than to divine asceticism. We can accept that the universe is indifferent to us, that suffering is a necessary part of life, and that things which are unpleasant for us are often necessary and not “evil”. We can stop pretending that our enemies or people who are different from us are “evil” just because we don’t like the things they do. We can be wary of the influence of Christian morality and of dualistic thinking on our lives and think critically about the assumptions that we make (even those assumptions which we may not even realize are assumptions). Whether you are approaching this from a secular way or not, I think we can also strive for a more polytheistic way of thinking.
So let us finish off this overly long post with a concise definition of the word “Pagan”, or at least what we mean by it here at Arete in Action: A modern Pagan is a person who tries to view the world through a pre-Christian lens, who rejects moral absolutism, the concept of sin, the concept of “good versus evil”, and the separation of the divine from the world (or rather, the existence of an unworldly “divine” at all). A Pagan also rejects the notion that a “good life” is achieved by denying human instincts and spirit, or by “controlling” them. A Pagan does believe that a good life (eudaimonia: ευδαιμονία) is achieved through excellence, and that excellence is achieved through living virtuously. A Pagan believes that nature, whether it is the entire Universe or the growth of life on Earth, is indifferent to human idealism, and that we shouldn’t bother ourselves with things that we cannot change.
That, briefly, with a lot of generalizations, and with a lot of short-changed references to brilliant philosophers, is what we mean by “Pagan”. In a follow-up post, I’ll talk about what being Pagan means to me, Neo-Pagan reconstructionism, and the importance of mythology.
*This overview of European Paganism is rough and lacks specifics, but I don’t think anyone wants to read a blog post long enough to explain it in great detail. A FANTASTIC book on the subject, with encyclopedic information on various deities and customs as well as a track of the history and development of pre-Christian Europe, is Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by H.R. Ellis Davidson, available for less than $10 on Amazon
**“Excellence” is a fairly vague term that can mean different things in different contexts, but in the context of virtue ethics, ‘to be excellent’ means to be flourishing or to be successful. There is room for cultural relativism in determining exactly what qualities are excellent, but the first principle is the same: to be excellent, to be virtuous, one must do what is required to further one’s own well being. That could mean being the best carpenter you can be, or it could mean raising many healthy children, or it could mean being a great warrior- all of which require different life paths and different actions. The actions themselves are not virtuous or unvirtuous without any context. Further, “well-being” doesn’t merely mean “self-interest”, but also refers to having good character and good relationships. This is a dissertation or two on its own and will be discussed at length in future posts.
For a more nuanced and detailed exploration of the change from pre-Christian ethics to Monotheistic ethics, read Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, first essay: “Good and Evil, Good and Bad.” For the most important philosophical sketch of virtue ethics, read Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. I’ve linked to good translations, though both texts can be found in public domain in less-good forms.