Ecco, March 2015
Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
In antiquity, the Latin word “pagan” simply meant peasant. For example, Cicero wrote a phrase about pagani et montani, “peasants and mountain-folk.” It was loosely derogatory, in the way a military man would use the word civilian. But it had nothing to do with religion. In fact, the word pagan did not come to be used in the way we habitually use it today until the late 4th century. Before then, someone who practiced “paganism” would not have any idea what you were talking about. No one would have called himself a pagan, and certainly not a polytheist. There were gods, dozens of them, and in order to gain their favors you worshipped and offered sacrifices to their images. The question of belief in their existence was irrelevant. In very ancient times, there were human sacrifices, but as time progressed this became unfavorable, at least in the Mediterranean, and animals were sacrificed instead. Apparently, people were under the impression that gods wanted blood, or smoke from the burning of fat, or songs of devotion. If you found fortune or power, you’d honor the god who helped you. If you failed or were defeated, you abandoned the god who had abandoned you. The gods were not interested in ethics or morality or sin—such matters were only the concern of humans. It was pretty simple. That is, until Christians came along.
It could be said to have started with YHWH, the tribal god of the Jews. He was somewhat a strange god, in that he demanded his followers worship no other gods. While in practical regards, Judaism fit seamlessly and indistinguishably into the plethora of ancient religious cults, the Jews claimed to stand apart from others, simply in that, unlike all other peoples of the time, they thought themselves to be separate and distinct, because they worshipped the most powerful god and no other. They were the Chosen People. But no one besides the Jews really gave this idea much credit. As James J. O’Donnell writes in his book Pagans—an easily readable overview of the political and religious world of the Mediterranean and Middle-East at the time Christianity was establishing itself—this “claim to have a single god of unique power was self-evidently laughable—who could that god be, how old, how venerable, how powerful? Where has he been all this time?”
This idea of uniqueness only gained credibility with the emergence of Christianity, and along side it, the concept of paganism, which did not exist until Christianity had established itself as the dominant religion of the Roman Empire—and that was after centuries of Christian evolution, collapse, and reinvention. Only then, in the late 300s, did the idea of an “other” make sense, because then everyone who was not Christian had to be grouped together. In the same way Jews used the word Gentile to designate everyone who wasn’t Jewish, “pagan” was suddenly used as a term to designate everyone who wasn’t Christian. As O’Donnell writes, “People became pagans when it was convenient to Christians for them to do so. Calling the others by the name made it clear just how special, unique, and different Christianity claimed to be.” Whereas other cults of worship were associated with local deities, Christianity was unique in that it was universal, or “catholic.” Its god was the one, true God, while all the other gods were simply demons. These ideas were spread by writers such as Augustine, and enforced by edicts of the emperors Constantine and Theodosius, who banned all forms of pagan worship. In reality, “outside of Christian imaginations, there was no such thing as paganism, only people doing what they were in the habit of doing.” Yet within a century, Christians all but eradicated the old ways of worship.
Tradition, however, is a difficult if not impossible thing to stamp out, and so practices we think of as pagan, and which O’Donnell calls “traditional,” have continued to this day. Just think of the “offerings” we make to Santa Claus. Or that we still celebrate our major holidays around the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, just like the “pagans” did. Even the title pontifex maximus, originally used by the kings of pre-Republican Rome, was later adopted by the pope. And just as Christians abandoned the old gods, who were no longer needed and who, O’Donnell reminds us, never actually existed outside of peoples’ minds, we moderns have abandoned the Christian God, whom we similarly find useless and who also has never existed outside the minds of humans.
This might sound like an atheist’s perspective, but keep in mind that the original “atheists” were first Jews and then Christians themselves, because they were the only people in antiquity that did not honor and respect the gods. In O’Donnell’s words, “If there are many gods, people who claim to believe in exactly one god, a god few had heard of, a newcomer, a god without temples and signs of power—are, functionally speaking, atheists.”
My, how the meaning of words become inverted over time. And things that once were, remain so today, albeit in different guises. We like to think of religion in clean categories and divide history into neat periods, but everything is much more wishy-washy than we’d like them to be. And it’s by understanding this that we can begin to understand everything else. Pagans will help us understand.