What is a Pagan?

What Is A Pagan ?

By Steven A. Stone

Copyright 1998

Like so many of us, when I heard a new word as a child I would use the context of the word and make up my own version of a definition. Unfortunately, while many words are easily learned this way, many mistakes are also learned.  As a child I understood the word 'Pagan' to mean people that didn't believe in G-d, and had wild and vicious parties where they practiced arcane religious rites and had wild sex and drink and drugs and so on. Then I started reading comic books and watching movies.  Boy was I amazed!  These evil nasty Pagans were a type of witches and satanists.  They were the ones sacrificing children, controlling good people's minds, and even worshipping the devil!  Boy, I really started to hate and fear these Pagans.

Then, like the Easter Bunny, Santa Clause, and the Tooth Faerie these Pagans became almost mythological to me, 'they don't really exist' I thought.  Imagine my surprise when I met my first self proclaimed Pagan!  My first thought was a bit of fear and loathing, but being who I am, my second thought was curiosity.  I decided I needed to know what this Pagan thing was all about.  I got to know people, I studied old texts (as I always do) and I learned. I learned that the Pagans are not the hedonistic evil beings I thought they were, at least most of them aren't.

I found the definition of 'Pagan' in the Wedster's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary to be (from latin Paganus-country dweller, from pagus-country district) 1: Heathen 1;esp: a follower of a polythiestic religion (as in ancient Rome) 2: one who has little or no religion and who delights in sensual pleasures and material goods: an irreligious or hedonistic person. While the second definition sounded more like the modern yuppie than what I thought of as a Pagan, it still agreed with what I had believed all along.  

The problem was, I had met Pagans, and they were not following the definition. As I re-read the definition, I noticed the very first part of it, the origin of the word.  Pagan comes from the word Paganus, meaning country dweller.  How did this evolution of words take place?  How did the word country dweller come to mean one who worships against G-d when every country dweller I ever met is a truly devout person.  

Again, I went to old books, and I talked to more people.  I found that in the early days of Christianity, many things were done to promote the new religion over the older nature based ones.  Missionaries and early monks would go to the larger towns and first convert the masses while skipping the small country farmhouses and rural lands.  Once most of the city areas were converted to the new religion, the monks wanted to bring religion to the godless farmers, or the godless Pagans in their latin tongue.  Soon Pagan became the new word for unreligious and ungodly.  

The meaning of the word Pagan was changed forever, or was it? The self proclaimed Pagans I spoke to were all very religious people.  The only thing is, they were not generally Christian.  I began to learn many things about Paganism. for example; many people think all Pagans are witches, that is not true.  While all witches are Pagan, not all Pagans are witches. Wicca, which is the modern day version of witchcraft, is only one of many different forms of Paganism.  There was very little hedonism in the members of Pagan community that I have met.  Most of the Pagans I deal with now on a regular basis do not drink or do drugs.  Many of them are vegetarians by choice for religious reasons.  All Pagans seem very tolerant of other religions, but are very annoyed at the intolerance that has been thrust towards them.

I asked many Pagans about their beliefs, and got many of the same answers.  Most of the Pagan beliefs are based on the history of a certain culture.  The most common ones that I have seen in this area (NC) are Celtic (pronounced Kell-Tik), Native American, and Orishas (or Orisa).  Celtic Paganism is Paganism that is based on the history of the Western Europeans and the inhabitants of the British Isles.  Native American Paganism is based on the beliefs of the different tribes of North American 'Indians'.  Orishas is based on the ancient African cultures and beliefs.  Other types include Santa Ria (South American), Voodoo (Haitian), Hindu (East Indian), Buddhist (Chinese), and many more. It seems that Paganism is a religion based on one or more of 3 things: nature, polytheism, and energy movement.  

Nature Paganism has very old roots.  The ancient Druids, the Native American Medicine men and Shamen, the old witch folk from the hills, and many of the healers in the Bible were ancient Nature Pagans.  Nature Pagans are people that believe nature is the temple of G-d.  They may have many names for the individual aspect or Goddess they worship, but it is actually the forces of nature that are their link to their divine spirit.  Nature Pagans will be the ones who understand herbs and their medicinal or reactive effects.  They will also be the ones that understand the effects of our actions on nature. It is rare to see Nature Pagans who do not recycle or compost, or conserve energy in some way.  The holy days for nature Pagans are usually the 8 sabbats.  These same holidays are found in Christian religions as well.  They include Halloween (otherwise known as Samhain, the Celtic new year), Yule (otherwise known as Solstice, the birth of the sun god), Candlemas (otherwise known as Imbolc, the time to invoke future prayers), Easter (otherwise known as Eostare, the celebration of fertility returning to earth), Beltane (otherwise known as May Day, a celebration of spring and life) among others.  They are usually celebrated outdoors in a circle of friends using the nature around them as a church.  Most of the rituals involve letting go of negativity, thanking the powers that be for their help in the past and the future, and so on.  So basically, unlike what I had heard earlier, these outdoor rituals were simply country versions of the rituals that go on in the many churches across the country.  The only difference is the style of the ceremony and the specifics of the wording.

Polytheism is simply the belief in multiple deities.  Polytheism is one of the oldest religious ideas that exists. It doesn’t mean that you worship many gods, only that in your belief system other gods exist.  In the Ten Commandments it says "thou shalt have no other gods before me".  That statement in itself implies that there are other gods. There are even parts of the Bible that use the plural forms when talking about G-d. Please remember that the commandment does not say you should deny the existence of other gods, or even care if they exist or not.  It simply says that you should put no god before the one true G-d.  

In many Jewish discussions it is said that in some ways Christianity is a polytheistic belief.  There is an elder god that created a progeny and a spiritual progeny as well.  So we have the trinity, the father creator god, the son, the progeny, and the holy spirit, a second progeny of the creator that is of different form than the first progeny or the creator.  Sorry to say, but that is plain polytheism.  

(Sorry if I have offended anyone, but this is a paper on different belief systems. Now, lets get back to the discussion of polytheism.) 

Part of polytheism is the worship of aspects (aspect polytheism).  Many of the polytheists I have spoken to believe there is a supreme power, usually in the form of a Goddess, but feel that they cannot conceive of the immensity of that power.  For that simple perception, they feel that they must put a layer between them and their Goddess or G-d.  They worship a being through which they communicate with the ultimate power.  It's the same as the Christian belief that you must communicate with The Father through The Son.  Or the Catholic belief that through The Holy Mother man can communicate to The Holy Spirit. Don't get me wrong, there are polytheists that simply do not believe in any type of supreme power, just multiple gods, but the majority I have met are aspect polytheists.

Energy movement is a very large part of the Pagan religions.  All Pagans believe that there is an energy in all things, and there are ways to move those energies to change your life and lives around you.  If I had to guess, I would say that George Lucas was either a Pagan, or he was very interested in Pagan belief systems.  His description of 'The Force' in his Star Wars movies is straight from Pagan beliefs.  There are energies in all things, and when you learn to focus those energies, you can do amazing things.  

Don't expect every Pagan you meet to move things through the air with the power of their mind.  If they can do things like that they will keep it very private, after all, it is their religion. Many people buy crystals to help them focus the energies.  This use of crystals is a combination of natural Paganism and energy movement.  Many cultures have successfully combined energy beliefs with natural cures.  The Native Americans had a twofold way of dealing with healing.  If there was a problem of the body, the Medicine Man would apply natural and herbal remedies to cure you.  If the remedies did not work, then the Shadow Walker, or Spirit Walker would take over.  The Shadow Walker would send his astral self (his soul or energy form) into the next level of existence and see what your problem is.  He would then repair the problems in the spirit realm so the symptoms could go away.  The Shadow Walker rarely if ever did anything for you physically.  For thousands of years, this type of healing worked for many cultures.  Even today, Christian Scientology cures by prayer, not physical treatment.  

There is no way to truly classify every Pagan belief.  Just as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other religions are vast and unexplainable in brief, so too are the many Pagan religions.  From the Naturalists in Appalachia, to the Native American Church, to the Celtic Druid, to the African Orisa, many shared beliefs link these vastly different religions and make them Pagan.  

Even now new Pagan religions are being formed now.  There are groups that are called Neo-Pagans because they have Pagan beliefs, but they do not follow the older ways, just a new ideal. The best known examples of Neo-Paganism are the Unity and Unitarian religions. Many of the Unity faith are followers of both Christian and Pagan religions. There is even a new slang word that will likely be considered its own type of Paganism in the very near future, the Techno-Pagan.  The Techno-Pagan is one who uses the computer to practice his/her Pagan beliefs.  They may have friends all over the world with whom they worship in online ceremonies, or they may just cruise the web looking at Pagan Websites... kind of like you did...

In Short, Pagans are generally not strange practitioners of evil rites, they are not lurking behind every tree trying to find new sacrifices, they are not trying to convert your children, they are just people like you.  The only difference is people that are Pagans have a different belief system.

© Virtual Reflections 2016