In The Desert Of Seth

By G. B. Marian

The Word “Pagan”

The word “pagan” (with a lowercase “p”) originates from the Latin paganus (“country dweller”) and was used by ancient Romans in much the same way that modern Americans use “bumpkin,” “hillbilly” and “redneck.” It was not a religious term at all, but simply a slur that was used for people who lived in rural areas, who were poor and who had little to no education. As Christianity began to spread, Christians started using the word “pagan” in reference to people who didn’t convert to the new faith. The insinuation was that anyone who didn’t accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior was an inbred backwards hick. After Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, it became more common for Westerners to refer to ancient pre-Christian and non-Judaic peoples as “pagan civilizations.” This came to include the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Mesopotamians, the Romans, and the Northern European peoples.

It’s important to understand that none of these civilizations referred to themselves as “pagan” and that this derogatory term was only imposed upon them by Europeans much later on. Until fairly recently in history, “pagan” has always been used by people in reference to others (and never to themselves). Furthermore, the designation of all non-Abrahamic religions as “paganism” has also led to the rather silly assumption that all such faiths are exactly the same. The common perception depicts “pagans” as being primitive barbarians who know nothing of true spirituality and who stupidly sacrifice animals and children to man-made idols for strictly material benefits. Advances in archaeology and anthropology have shown this perception to be provably false; the so-called “pagan” civilizations each had very strong concepts of piety, many of them found human sacrifice to be as deplorable as we do today, and those who used statues to represent their various Deities did so in much the same way that modern Hindus and Roman Catholics do.

More importantly, it’s become clearer to us now that while the so-called “pagan” religions shared many similarities, they were also very different from each other. Many used statues to represent their Deities, but some – like the Celtic religion and the Egyptian cult of the Aten – did not, choosing to represent their Deities in more abstract ways instead. Furthermore, the practices of animal and human sacrifice aren’t limited to ancient polytheists by any means. Prior to the fall of the Second Temple of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the Jewish priesthood often practiced korban, which involved sacrificing animals to the God of Abraham. Muslims continue to practice animal sacrifice during their Eid al-Adha festival today, and the entire point of Jesus Christ is that He offered Himself as a blood sacrifice for the sins of humanity. At the same time, there have been (and continue to be) plenty of Jews, Christians and Muslims who’ve murdered other people in the name of their God. The notion that these faiths are somehow less prone to fanaticism or violence simply because they’re monotheistic rather than polytheistic is ludicrous.

The derogatory usage of the word “pagan” didn’t start to change until after the Romantic movement of the 18th century. During that time, certain Westerners became inspired to develop new religions that were based on pre-Christian customs and beliefs. These people started referring to themselves as “Pagans” (with a capital “P”), and such was the first time in history that anyone had ever claimed the label as part of their own religious identity. Since then, the Pagan subculture has blossomed into a wide variety of spiritual paths that includes (but is not limited to) Asatru, Discordianism, Druidism, Hellenismos, Kemeticism, Religio Romana, Stregheria, Thelema, and Wicca. Paganism is and should always be distinguished from indigenous polytheistic faiths that have survived intact into the present day (e.g., Hinduism, Mazuism, Shinto) or that have been syncretized with one or more of the monotheistic religions (e.g., Santeria, Vodun, Yazidism). Generally, Pagans take most of their inspiration from European (e.g., Celtic, Germanic) and/or Mediterranean (e.g., Greek, Egyptian) traditions that have been extinct for thousands of years, but this is not to say that we practice these traditions exactly as they were practiced in history.

For instance, 19th century Druids were commonly monotheistic, and this was certainly not the case with their pre-Christian counterparts. Wicca is largely based upon the “Witch-Cult Hypothesis,” which posited that European witchcraft was an organized indigenous cult that had survived into modern times (and which is now considered pseudohistorical). And Discordianism, while being based on the ancient Greek Goddess Eris (i.e., the Goddess of discord), has also been influenced by Taoism, Zen Buddhism, absurdist philosophy and conspiracy theories about the Bavarian Illuminati. Even forms of Paganism that attempt to reconstruct ancient religions as faithfully as possible (e.g., Kemeticism, Religio Romana, etc.) find themselves having to adapt to the contemporary world and being influenced by post-modern Western ideas. For these reasons, sociologists often refer to Pagans as “Neopagans” to distinguish us from ancient “pagans” – and while some of us actually embrace that term (e.g., Oberon Zell Ravenheart), I reject it. Personally, I think it’s redundant and even a little insulting. For one thing, we’re already the first people in history to call ourselves “Pagans” (with a capital “P”), so I think that should be enough already. For another, “Neopagan” sounds too close to things like “neo-Nazi” or “neo-conservative” for my liking.

According to the Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Survey (n = 35,556), Pagans – who are included in the “Other Faiths” category – make up no more than 1.2% of the entire U.S. population. Most of us are white and are between the ages of 30 and 49. Only slightly more of us are male, and we tend to be working or middle class. Many of us have gone to college but have never graduated, and we tend to agree that there’s more than one “true way,” that morality is secular and distinct from one’s personal religion, and that all religious scriptures are written by fallible people (not by infallible Gods). While most of us are married, most of us don’t have children. Many Pagans are also politically liberal and support the legalization of abortion and same-sex marriage. In their own research, Jorgensen & Russell (1999) found that the majority of Pagans live in urban or suburban areas (which is ironic in light of what the word pagan means), but that we prefer to meet for religious activities in rural areas (e.g., public parks, forests, etc.). Furthermore, the vast majority of us are converts and are initially socialized in other religions. We’re slightly more likely to be former Protestants and we’re slightly less likely to be former Catholics.

I should point out that not all Pagans are polytheists. Some are a more inclusive type of monotheist, believing that all Deities are really one supreme Deity under multiple forms. Some are dualists who think that all Gods are one God and that all Goddesses are one Goddess. Others are agnostics or atheists who regard all Deities as man-made archetypes. For these reasons, I tend to describe myself first and foremost as a polytheist and to use the word “Pagan” in a secondary context. I haven’t disowned the label by any means, but I feel a greater attachment to the word “polytheist” because it’s at the heart of my personal belief system. I firmly believe in the existence of many separate and individual Deities who work and/or fight with each other for a variety of reasons, and it’s important to me that this belief be made clear right from the beginning. I’m a polytheist who happens to worship Seth-Typhon as his tutelary Deity (which also entitles me to call myself a “Sethian” or “Typhonian”), and I’m just one of many different kinds of Pagan.

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