Romanticized depiction from 1887 showing two Roman women offering a sacrifice to a pagan goddess. Ritual sacrifice was an integral part of ancient Graeco-Roman religion[1] and was regarded by many early Christians as a determiner of whether a person was pagan or Christian.[1]

Paganism is a term first used in the fourth century by early Christians for populations of the Roman Empire who practiced polytheism, either because they were increasingly rural and provincial relative to the Christian population or because they were not milites Christi (soldiers of Christ).[2][3] Alternate terms in Christian texts for the same group were hellene, gentile, and heathen.[4]

Pagan and paganism were pejorative terms for the same polytheistic group, implying its inferiority.[4] Paganism has broadly connoted the "religion of the peasantry",[4] and for much of its history was a derogatory term.[5] Both during and after the Middle Ages, pagan was a pejorative term that was applied to any non-Abrahamic or unfamiliar religion, and the term presumed a belief in false god(s).[6][7]

There has been much scholarly debate as to the origin of the term pagan.[8] In the 19th century, paganism was adopted as a self-descriptor by members of various artistic groups inspired by the ancient world. In the 20th century, it came to be applied as a self-description by practitioners of Modern Paganism, Neopagan movements and Polytheistic reconstructionists incorporate beliefs or practices, such as nature worship, that were different from those in the main world religions.[9][10]

Contemporary knowledge of old pagan religions comes from several sources, including anthropological field research records, the evidence of archaeological artifacts, and the historical accounts of ancient writers regarding cultures known to Classical antiquity. Forms of these religions, influenced by various historical pagan beliefs of premodern Europe, exist today and are known as contemporary or Modern Paganism, also referred to as Neopaganism.[11][12]

While most pagan religions express a world view that is pantheistic, polytheistic or animistic, there are some monotheistic pagans.[13]

Nomenclature and etymology

Reconstruction of the Parthenon, on the Acropolis of Athens, Greece


It is crucial to stress right from the start that until the 20th century, people did not call themselves pagans to describe the religion they practised. The notion of paganism, as it is generally understood today, was created by the early Christian Church. It was a label that Christians applied to others, one of the antitheses that were central to the process of Christian self-definition. As such, throughout history it was generally used in a derogatory sense.

— Owen Davies, Paganism: A Very Short Introduction, 2011[14]

The term pagan is derived from Late Latin paganus, revived during the Renaissance. Itself deriving from classical Latin pagus which originally meant 'region delimited by markers', paganus had also come to mean 'of or relating to the countryside', 'country dweller', 'villager'; by extension, 'rustic', 'unlearned', 'yokel', 'bumpkin'; in Roman military jargon, 'non-combatant', 'civilian', 'unskilled soldier'. It is related to pangere ('to fasten', 'to fix or affix') and ultimately comes from Proto-Indo-European *pag- ('to fix' in the same sense).[15]

The adoption of paganus by the Latin Christians as an all-embracing, pejorative term for polytheists represents an unforeseen and singularly long-lasting victory, within a religious group, of a word of Latin slang originally devoid of religious meaning. The evolution occurred only in the Latin west, and in connection with the Latin church. Elsewhere, Hellene or gentile (ethnikos) remained the word for pagan; and paganos continued as a purely secular term, with overtones of the inferior and the commonplace.

— Peter Brown, Late Antiquity, 1999[16]

Medieval writers often assumed that paganus as a religious term was a result of the conversion patterns during the Christianization of Europe, where people in towns and cities were converted more readily than those in remote regions, where old ways lingered. However, this idea has multiple problems. First, the word's usage as a reference to non-Christians pre-dates that period in history. Second, paganism within the Roman Empire centred on cities. The concept of an urban Christianity as opposed to a rural paganism would not have occurred to Romans during Early Christianity. Third, unlike words such as rusticitas, paganus had not yet fully acquired the meanings (of uncultured backwardness) used to explain why it would have been applied to pagans.[17]

Paganus more likely acquired its meaning in Christian nomenclature via Roman military jargon (see above). Early Christians adopted military motifs and saw themselves as Milites Christi (soldiers of Christ).[15][17] A good example of Christians still using paganus in a military context rather than religious is in Tertullian's De Corona Militis XI.V, where the Christian is referred to as paganus (civilian):[17]

Apud hunc [Christum] tam miles est paganus fidelis quam paganus est miles fidelis.[18] With Him [Christ] the faithful citizen is a soldier, just as the faithful soldier is a citizen.[19]

Paganus acquired its religious connotations by the mid-4th century.[17] As early as the 5th century, paganos was metaphorically used to denote persons outside the bounds of the Christian community. Following the sack of Rome by the Visigoths just over fifteen years after the Christian persecution of paganism under Theodosius I,[20] murmurs began to spread that the old gods had taken greater care of the city than the Christian God. In response, Augustine of Hippo wrote De Civitate Dei Contra Paganos ('The City of God against the Pagans'). In it, he contrasted the fallen "city of Man" to the "city of God" of which all Christians were ultimately citizens. Hence, the foreign invaders were "not of the city" or "rural".[21][22][23]

The term pagan is not attested in the English language until the 17th century.[24] In addition to infidel and heretic, it was used as one of several pejorative Christian counterparts to gentile (גוי‎ / נכרי‎) as used in Judaism, and to kafir (كافر‎, 'unbeliever') and mushrik (مشرك‎, 'idolater') as in Islam.[25]


In the Latin-speaking Western Roman Empire of the newly Christianizing Roman Empire, Koine Greek became associated with the traditional polytheistic religion of Ancient Greece, and regarded as a foreign language (lingua peregrina) in the west.[26] By the latter half of the 4th century in the Greek-speaking Eastern Empire, pagans were—paradoxically—most commonly called Hellenes (Ἕλληνες, lit. 'Greeks'). The word almost entirely ceased being used in a cultural sense.[27][28] It retained that meaning for roughly the first millennium of Christianity.

This was influenced by Christianity's early members, who were Jewish. The Jews of the time distinguished themselves from foreigners according to religion rather than ethno-cultural standards, and early Jewish Christians would have done the same. Because Hellenic culture was the dominant pagan culture in the Roman east, they called pagans Hellenes. Christianity inherited Jewish terminology for non-Jews and adapted it in order to refer to non-Christians with whom they were in contact. This usage is recorded in the New Testament. In the Pauline epistles, Hellene is almost always juxtaposed with Hebrew regardless of actual ethnicities.[28]

The usage of Hellene as a religious term was initially part of an exclusively Christian nomenclature, but some Pagans began to defiantly call themselves Hellenes. Other pagans even preferred the narrow meaning of the word:from a broad cultural sphere to a more specific religious grouping. However, there were many Christians and pagans alike who strongly objected to the evolution of the terminology. The influential Archbishop of Constantinople Gregory of Nazianzus, for example, took offence at imperial efforts to suppress Hellenic culture (especially concerning spoken and written Greek) and he openly criticized the emperor.[27]

The growing religious stigmatization of Hellenism had a chilling effect on Hellenic culture by the late 4th century.[27]

By late antiquity, however, it was possible to speak Greek as a primary language while not conceiving of oneself as a Hellene.[29] The long-established use of Greek both in and around the Eastern Roman Empire as a lingua franca ironically allowed it to instead become central in enabling the spread of Christianity—as indicated for example by the use of Greek for the Epistles of Paul.[30] In the first half of the 5th century, Greek was the standard language in which bishops communicated,[31] and the Acta Conciliorum ("Acts of the Church Councils") were recorded originally in Greek and then translated into other languages.[32]


Heathen comes from Old English hæðen (not Christian or Jewish); cf. Old Norse heiðinn. This meaning for the term originated from Gothic haiþno (gentile woman) being used to translate Hellene (cf. Mark 7:26) in Wulfila's Bible, the first translation of the Bible into a Germanic language. This may have been influenced by the Greek and Latin terminology of the time used for pagans. If so, it may be derived from Gothic haiþi (dwelling on the heath). However, this is not attested. It may even be a borrowing of Greek ἔθνος (ethnos) via Armenian hethanos.[33]

The term has recently been revived in the forms Heathenry and Heathenism (often but not always capitalized), as alternative names for the Germanic neopagan movement, adherents of which may self-identify as Heathens.

Other Languages
Afrikaans: Paganisme
Alemannisch: Heidentum
العربية: وثنية
azərbaycanca: Paqanizm
تۆرکجه: پاقانیزم
башҡортса: Мәжүсилек
беларуская: Язычніцтва
беларуская (тарашкевіца)‎: Паганства
български: Езичество
Boarisch: Heidntum
bosanski: Paganizam
català: Paganisme
čeština: Pohanství
Cymraeg: Paganiaeth
dansk: Hedenskab
Deutsch: Heidentum
eesti: Paganlus
Ελληνικά: Παγανισμός
español: Pagano
Esperanto: Paganismo
euskara: Paganismo
فارسی: پاگانیسم
français: Paganisme
Frysk: Heidendom
galego: Paganismo
한국어: 이교 (종교)
hrvatski: Poganstvo
Bahasa Indonesia: Paganisme
íslenska: Heiðni
italiano: Paganesimo
עברית: פגניות
ქართული: პაგანიზმი
Kiswahili: Upagani
kurdî: Paganî
Latina: Paganismus
latviešu: Pagānisms
lietuvių: Pagonybė
Limburgs: Heidendóm
lumbaart: Paganesim
magyar: Pogányság
македонски: Паганизам
Bahasa Melayu: Paganisme
Nederlands: Heidendom
norsk: Paganisme
norsk nynorsk: Heidenskap
Nouormand: Pagannisme
occitan: Paganisme
oʻzbekcha/ўзбекча: Paganizm
Plattdüütsch: Heidendom
polski: Pogaństwo
português: Paganismo
română: Păgânism
русский: Язычество
Scots: Pauganism
Seeltersk: Heedendum
shqip: Paganizmi
sicilianu: Paganèsimu
Simple English: Paganism
slovenčina: Pohanstvo
slovenščina: Poganstvo
српски / srpski: Паганизам
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Paganizam
suomi: Pakanuus
svenska: Hedendom
Tagalog: Paganismo
தமிழ்: பாகால்
татарча/tatarça: Mäcüsilek
తెలుగు: పాగనిజం
Türkçe: Paganizm
українська: Язичництво
اردو: پاگانیت
Tiếng Việt: Pagan giáo
walon: Payinnisse
Winaray: Paganismo
ייִדיש: אפגאט
粵語: 異教
Zazaki: Paganizm
žemaitėška: Paguonībė
中文: 異教