Depending on your background, the word ‘pagan’ can mean a variety of things. It may mean one who is not Christian, Muslim or Jewish, or one who has o religion. It could simply mean one who isn’t Christian, or conjure fantastic hedonistic images of orgiastic rites. These definitions have had their place n the past, but definitions have a way of changing with time depending on usage and culture.
Our modern word ‘pagan’ comes from the Latin paganus, meaning ‘country-dweller’. Similarly, the word ‘heathen’, which has come to mean one who does not acknowledge the Christian, Muslim, or Jewish god, literally means ‘heath-dweller’. Both these words refer to someone from the country or rural district, as opposed to more urban folk.
The initial spread of Christianity took place in major urban areas, leaving the countryside continuing to practice folk magick and adhere to the local customs. It wasn’t long before the word became synonymous with the idea of rustic folk tradition and those who were not followers of the Christian god, thus giving rise to many of the more modern meanings we understand today.
More recently, however, the definition of Paganism has evolved yet again to become a general term for the followers of magickal, shamanistic, and polytheistic religions which hold a reverence for nature as a central characteristic of their belief system. It’s also given rise to the term neo-pagan (literally ‘new pagan’), which refers to a follower or sympathizer of one of the newly formed pagan religions now spreading throughout the world. It is with this latter modern definition that this section will be predominantly concerned.
First published on Suite101.com on 11 March 2006. (Unfortunately.)