The Evolution of Paganism: From Ancient Times to Modern Day


Graphic drawing of paganism in gold and black main

The term “Pagan” was coined by Christians to categorize those who didn’t adhere to their specific belief system of the one true God. Pagans are polytheists, believing in many gods.  It is not one specific religion, but a variety of beliefs including animism (spirits), Hinduism, Buddhism, and the canon of gods of Ancient Greece and Rome.  Many still believe in some form of paganism, including modern-day religions such as Wiccans. “Neopaganism” is a new form of paganism.

Religion 

Religion is a system of beliefs, often involving the supernatural and the afterlife, that provide meaning to our lives and guidance on how to be a good person and obtain happiness. 

Religion is an important social institution.  Religious beliefs are a basic part of being human.  There are many types of religions.  Paganism is a term that applies to many of them. What is it? 

What is Paganism? 

The word “pagan” comes from Latin and means “those who live in the country.”  There are various theories about the origins of the word.  There does seem to be some dismissive flavor to it.  Basically, pagans were country bumpkins with ignorant beliefs.  

Christians first used the word to describe those people who did not believe in the “one true God.”  Christians thought Jews and Muslims were mistaken about their beliefs in various ways.  But, they are not usually called “pagans” because they all worship the same god

Pagans are basically non-Christians who believe in many gods.  The term usually means polytheism, belief in many gods.  It is the opposite of monotheism, the belief in one god.  

Pagans might broadly include everyone not a Christian, Jew, or Muslim. This would include those who do not believe in any gods (atheists) or who do not know if god exists (agnostics).  

Pagans themselves did not see themselves as some “other” religion. They just saw themselves as people with a range of beliefs.   Be aware some consider “pagan” offensive. 

Over time, some people grew to accept the term, and proudly label themselves “pagans.”  Modern-day paganism is sometimes labeled “neo-paganism” or new paganism.  

Earliest Pagans: Animism  

Early humans tried to determine their place in the world and how it worked.  They were amazed at the wonders of nature, including often scary events out of their control such as rain and eruptions of volcanoes.  Nature itself seemed to be full of life and special power. 

Many people believe humans have souls, some separate essence that makes them more than an object or living thing like a plant.   But, should we stop there?  

Animists believe all things have such a soul. Humans, animals, objects, geographic features such as mountains and the moon, and natural phenomena such as wind or rain all have some sort of soul.  “Anima” is Latin for “soul” and is where the word came from.  

Native Americans such as the Inuits sometimes still practice a form of animism.  They have a special respect for nature and believe it is holy.  Dreams and visions are believed to provide special meanings.  Many animists have special personal relationships with specific animals.  

They practice many ceremonies to honor nature and celebrate major life events such as puberty.  A shaman is a person who they believe is specially skilled to do religious tasks.  

Pantheism (“everything is divine”) is the belief that God or some sort of divine stuff is found in all things.  It can be understood as a form of animism.  

Hinduism  

Hinduism is the third-largest religion in the world. In 2021, about fifteen percent of the world’s population (over a billion people) are Hindu, with over two million in the United States.  

Hinduism is sometimes labeled the oldest religion in the world.  The roots of the religion arose in India.  The word “Hindu” arises from the Indus Valley.

Hinduism believes there is an order and purpose to the universe; happiness is obtained by accepting this and living by its dictates.  This is the concept of “dharma,” rightful living. 

The Vedas (knowledge) is an important collection of Hindu holy writings dealing with the nature of existence and human’s place in the universe.   

Hinduism recognizes a caste system, a moral and practical division of roles (priests, warriors, tradespersons, and laborers).  This can result in inequality and injustice if abused.

Hinduism has various gods.  Brahman is the supreme god, the source of all creation.  The complexity of Hindu belief makes some wonder if it is monotheistic or polytheistic.  

Hindus believe in reincarnation, the rebirth of the soul after death.  

LEARN ABOUT THE AUM SYMBOL

Buddhism 

Siddhartha Gautama was a prince who lived around 600 BCE in the area now bordering the countries of India and Nepal.  Siddhartha was concerned about the suffering in the world.  He became “enlightened” (“Buddha” means the “enlightened one”) about the meaning of life.  

Buddhism is a religion based on Buddha’s teaching on how to live a happy life and obtain true happiness. 

Buddhism teaches an eightfold path of rightful living that can be used to obtain nirvana or true happiness.  Buddhists believe in the concept of karma or “what goes around, comes around.”  

Buddhism also believes in reincarnation.  The soul of a person is reborn after death.  There is a cycle of life until a person lives a proper life and reaches nirvana.  

There are many types of Buddhism.  Some Buddhists do not believe in what most people would consider to be a “god.”  There is a good argument to be made that Buddhism and Christianity can be believed together.  Many Buddhists do believe in many gods. It is not mandatory.  

Buddhism is one of a collection of beliefs sometimes labeled “Eastern religions.”  They are a mixture of philosophy and religion concerned with our place in the universe and the forces that guide us.  Taoism, which includes the familiar “ying and yang” opposite forces concept is another.  Another is Confucianism, concerned with how to live a moral life.  

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Traditional Polytheists (Greece and Rome)

When early Christians in the first few hundred years of the Common Era talked about “pagans,” they usually were talking about the polytheism of Ancient Greece and Rome.  

The people of the Ancient Middle East believed that the universe was ruled over by a collection of gods.  They had intricate creation stories explaining how things started.  

Everything did not have a soul.  Still, many gods and supernatural beings were found in rivers, watching over homes, and everywhere else you can imagine. And, people had the duty to properly worship them.  Religion was often concerned about the right rituals and religious duties. 

There was no one set of beliefs.  People had many different personal gods.  The Greeks and Romans eventually determined there were a set of twelve gods that ruled over everything.  For instance, the great Greek city of Athens had a special affinity with Athena.  

Many others had their own canons of gods, including the Vikings and Aztecs.  Some people today, including Native Americans, still worship a form of this type of polytheism.  

Shinto

Shintoism is the traditional religion of Japan.  It is often translated as “the ways of the gods.”

Shintoism is the Japan-based devotion to kami (spirits) believed to be found in all things.  The devotion includes honoring the spirits with shrines and other rituals.  

Shintoism is concerned about this world.  It does not focus on an afterlife though respect for ancestors (now kami) is important.  Many who practice believe in an afterlife.

Shinto ethics try to obtain harmony and purity in life.  Respect for the ancestors is very important.  Many people practice Shinto along with other religions.  

There are something like 80,000 Shinto shrines in Japan today.  

Modern Nature Religions

The term “pagan” today often is used to describe a range of polytheistic religions that are based on the deep respect and worship of nature.  

Nature is good and has a life force that should be honored.  Chants, prayers, and ceremonies can be used to have a special connection between humans and nature.  Certain items such as crystals can also have special powers to take advantage of the energy around us.  

Wicca is a modern-day pagan religious movement organized into small groups (covens). It believes in the magical power of nature. Wiccans often emphasize the feminine force of nature and emphasize the celebration of the seasons and cycles of life.  

And Many More 

Christians come in many shapes and sizes.  This was true when they first labeled others “pagans” and it is true today.  So, it is unsurprising there are so many different types of pagans.  This discussion could only give a taste of the range of groups out there.  

Pagans as a whole are like Christians. They have beliefs, rituals, and guides to have a moral life.  Some have beliefs that people disagree with but the basic goodness of each person remains.  Some religious beliefs, like other types of beliefs, can be harmful.  Overall, the United States honors religious diversity, protecting religious liberty as instructed by the First Amendment.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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