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Timothy Beal, in his 2008 book Religion in America: A Very Short Introduction, reports:

“The fastest growing religion is Wicca, closely followed by Paganism, although both are still very small in numbers.”

Paganism is a generic term often used to refer to religious traditions which are indigenous and/or polytheistic. Thus pagans are non-Christians.

In English, the emergence of “pagan” as a word that somehow indicates or implies “non-believer” comes from Christianity. As Christianity spread through the Roman Empire, it spread more rapidly in the cities than in the countryside. Thus the people living in the country—known as “pāganus” in Latin, meaning “villager”—were the last to be reached by the new religion and hence most likely to be unbelievers. In English today, the Latin “pāganus” has become “pagan.”

The Latin “pāganus” is also the source of our English word “peasant.”

Looking farther back, “pāganus” comes from an earlier *pāg- meaning “fix,” which produced the English “page,” “pale” (meaning “stake”), and “pole.” The Latin noun “pāganus” was based on a metaphorical extension of the concept of *pāg- to mean “country area, village.”

There is, however, an alternative but related history of the origin of “pagan” according to some authorities. They claim that the Roman Caesars used “pagan” as a way of referring to civilians as opposed to soldiers (“milites” in Latin). Since the Christians referred to themselves as “Soldiers of the Lord,” all others—meaning non-believers—were pagans.

The emergence of “heathen” meaning “non-believer” is inspired by “pagan.” Etymologically, “heathen” refers to “someone who lives in the heather.” The heather is, of course, the wild, upcountry area which is inhabited by those who are uncivilized and savage. Thus, as “pagan” meaning “country person” came to mean non-believer, so did “heathen.”

“Heathen” seems to come from the proto-Germanic *khaithiz meaning “hearth.” Some linguists point to the etymological origins of “heathen” in the Old English hæðen and the Old Norse heiðinn.

Today, adherents to monotheistic religions such as Christianity and Islam use both “pagan” and “heathen” as pejorative terms indicating a non-believer. From a Christian perspective, “pagan” has been used for all non-Abrahamic religions. The Christian missionaries in Europe and in North America were determined to stamp out all vestiges, signs, and memories of the earlier paganism. Much to their surprise, paganism started to re-emerge during the nineteenth century in the form of reconstructed religions and pagan revivalism.

Pagan

Shown above is a pagan handfasting ceremony at Avebury, England.

Hammer of Thor

Shown above is one of the primary symbols of Germanic Neopaganism, the hammer Mjöllnir.  

Neopaganism is a modern movement which revives and reconstructs pre-Christian religions. These would include Wicca and Neo-Druidism.

Note: the * indicates that the Indo-European or prehistoric word has been reconstructed by historical linguists.

Originally posted to Ojibwa on Sat Mar 16, 2013 at 08:11 AM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks, PaganKos, Street Prophets , and Cranky Grammarians.

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