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Definition: paganism from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(15c) 1 a : pagan beliefs or practices b : a pagan religion 2 : the quality or state of being a pagan


Summary Article: paganism from Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained

A form of spirituality generally characterized by a reverence for nature and a belief in the female divine principle in the form of a Goddess, as well as a God. Paganism can be understood to include a wide range of spiritual practices including Wicca, Druidism and shamanism.

The word ‘pagan’ comes from the Latin paganus, which originally meant ‘a country-dweller or rustic’. As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, people in the rural communities of the empire tended to hold on to their traditional earth- and season-centred spiritual practices, rather than embracing the new belief of Christianity – the word ‘pagan’ came to be used synonymously with ‘non-Christian’. In later centuries it took on the additional and more negative sense of ‘primitive and savage’.

The word ‘paganism’ came into the English language during the 17th century. Until the spread of freedom of religion in the Western world, the term ‘paganism’ was almost exclusively used in a disparaging way of any religion outside Christianity, Judaism or Islam. However, with 19th-century Romanticism came a resurgence of interest in pre-Christian religions. The occultism and theosophy which characterized the beginning of the 20th century also played a part in the re-awakening of interest in old beliefs. Consequently, attempts at a restoration of indigenous religions, especially those of ancient Europe, have become increasingly popular over the last hundred years, and the word ‘paganism’ is no longer simply used as a negative term.

‘Paganism’ is now used as a descriptive term for a broad range of belief systems, including wicca, druidism (see druids) and shamanism. The spiritual paths that might be included under the banner of paganism are generally characterized by being earth-centred, with a reverence for nature and the sanctity of the planet. Many pagan religions or spiritual systems also incorporate the idea of a female divine principle in the form of a goddess, as well as (or in a few traditions, instead of) a male God (see horned god). Pagan practice usually involves living in harmony with the earth and observing and celebrating its cycles – these are represented by the pagan ‘wheel of the year’, a calendar of festivals which honour the changes in the seasons. The eight major pagan festivals, or sabbats, mark the winter solstice, summer solstice, the vernal equinox, autumnal equinox, and four ancient Celtic festivals known as samhain, imbolc, beltane and lughnasadh (many of which were later absorbed into the Christian calendar and renamed). The cycles of the moon are also often honoured.

Modern pagan practice is frequently characterized by polytheism and animism, and the use of ancient mythologies. Spiritualism is seen as a matter of personal experience, and while some pagans regard ‘Spirit’ as a single, unified and universal deity, others see it as something with male–female polarity, with a God and Goddess, whose many aspects and facets are represented by the gods and goddesses of different religions. Some pagan groups draw on only one tradition, such as Egyptian, Celtic or Norse, while others incorporate elements from more than one tradition and merge various religious practices, customs and rituals (see syncretism). Many, but by no means all, pagan movements include a belief in magic and occultism. Most groups do not have temples as such, but perform their rituals at home or at outdoor locations. It is not necessary to belong to a pagan community in order to practise paganism, and many people follow their faith as solitary practitioners.

While some modern pagan traditions try to claim a direct continuity between the old, original forms of paganism and their own practice, other pagans accept or even prefer the alternative ‘neopagan’ (see neopaganism), holding that theirs is a new spiritual system based upon and adapted from what we know of the true, pre-Christian pagans.

© Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd 2007

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