I hope this isn't offensive, but I was recently talking to someone who said that the word "pagan" is derogatory. is there any truth to this? I never thought of pagan as being negative or hurtful in any way. thank you for your time <3
I don’t believe you’re being offensive at all. I have also heard some people say that.
First off, I apologize for not giving you a simple yes/no answer. In order to understand what “Pagan” means, we have to go back pretty far into history. Plus, this is an area I know an uncanny amount about, ever since I took that Paganism & Early Christianity class
I always knew that would come in handy someday. So, sit back, get comfy, and enjoy another round of Yunan’s Deluge of History Facts™.
To begin, let’s define Paganism. Paganism does not stand for one religion but many, and is an umbrella term used similarly to the way we use Judeo-Christian. These religions are normally polytheistic, flexible, open, and nature-focused–just to name a few qualities.
Back when Pagan religions were the majority, there was no name for them. It was universally understood that there are many Gods, and that nature should be respected. Based on what little texts we recovered from those periods, Gods were often defined by the region their worshippers lived in. This is why we know many pantheons as “Greek Gods” or “Germanic Gods”, since the region was the only way to differentiate these respective religions.
In 380, the Edict of Thessalonica established Rome as an official Christian state. Historians estimate that less than 40% of the Roman population was Christian at the time that Edict of Thessalonica passed. This is mainly due to a method of conversion called the “top-down effect”, where the rulers of a kingdom are converted, and slowly the court and the population follow after. However, these noblemen were mainly in cities and less than 10% of the population. The elite didn’t outlaw paganism (yet), but they did restrict pagan worship and put their effort into converting the population.
Around the 400s, Chrisitan writers began coining the Latin word paganus, which I can roughly translate as “countrymen”, or “of the countryside”. Remember that the top-down effect focused on converting Romans in the elite. During this time, Rome underwent rapid urbanization, so most of its higher classes were in the cities. As a result, In Roman society city folk were seen as “enlightened” and “progressive”, whereas those in the rural ares who mostly worshipped the indigenous Pagan religion were suggested to be “backwards” or “uncivilized”. Thus, Christian writers at the time used the word “pagan” to reference the people in rural areas who still practiced their old religion.
I also want to add that the conversation of Europe took hundreds of years, until roughly 1500. When the Church began sending out friars and preachers to scope out heresy in rural areas, you better believe that the word “pagan” was use a lot, and not in a very nice tone.
But to get back on track: All Pagan religions were simply dubbed “Paganism” until the 20th century, when the Neo-Pagan movement arose. Then, people found a need to distinguish the different Pagan religions. This is where we’ve seen the rise of terms like Kemeticism, Hellenism, and even Wicca (whose practitioners were originally called “witches”, but later their faith was given a name). I believe the reason many websites and articles simply say “Paganism” because Paganism is an ancient, common, and easily understandable term for most audiences.
That begin explained—Is “pagan” a derogatory term? In its original conception, yes, it was. Is it derogatory now? I personally believe, no. Although the Romans aimed to move away from the countryside and into cities, nowadays people are aiming to move away from urbanization and back towards nature. As John Muir said, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity … and that mountain parks are useful not only for the foundations of timber … but the foundations of life.”
Pagans take great pride in their name. And despite centuries of submission of these religions, I see no reason to see it otherwise.