Pagan, Pantheism, Polytheism,
"Oh, Those P Words!"

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master--that's all."

--Lewis Carroll, Alice Through the Looking Glass
pagan: noun [Middle English, from Late Latin paganus, from Latin, "country dweller," from Latin, pagus "country district"] 1. A heathen; especially a follower of a polytheistic religion (as in ancient Rome); 2. One who delights in sensual pleasures and has little or no religion; an irreligious or hedonistic person; 3. When capitalized Neo-Pagan; a follower of a recreation of a pre-Christian polytheistic religion which venerates nature.

pantheism: noun [from English pantheist, from Greek pan ("all") + theos ("god/gods")] 1. A doctrine that equates God, or the Divine, with the forces and laws of the universe; the belief that deity is indwelling or manifest in nature; 2. The worship of all gods of different creeds, cults, or peoples indifferently; also toleration of worship of all gods (as at certain periods of the Roman empire)--pantheist noun, an adherent of pantheism.

polytheism: noun [French polytheisme, from Late Greek polytheos, from "of many gods," from poly ("many") + theos ("god/gods")] belief in or worship of more than one god.

It's a funny thing about words and labels, for doctrines and people. Some folks don't just opt for a different word to use as their label when they feel that a certain label is inadequate. They want to throw out labels altogether on the grounds that a label--in fact all labels, not just a certain label--is ultimately inaccurate.

It's my personal opinion that these people have missed the point of labels, as well as words and language1 in general.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary states the modern word, pagan,derives from the Late Latin word, paganus, which in turn derived from the Latin pagus. A pagus was a "country district," therefore, paganus meant "country dweller." In the Langenscheidt Latin-English Dictionary, which covers the Latin vocabulary up through the second century c.e., the word paganus is defined as meaning "of the village, rustic" and pagus, from whence it derived, is defined as "district, canton, or village."

Words and their meanings in a living language mutate through time and use. The process continues today in modern languages, though it is slowed somewhat by dictionaries. Still, new words are invented, they move from slang into mainstream use and into dictionaries, at which point they are recognized as part of the language. American dictionaries don't proscribe our language use of words. They describe it. Old words may fall out of general use and become obsolete, or else they may acquire new meanings. Many of these meanings may retain vestiges of older meanings.

"Thrill," for example, which now means "excitement" or "fun," derived from the Middle English thrillen, "to pierce" or "drill a hole." Hence, someone who is "thrilled" is "pierced by a sudden shivery, tingly excitement." Think of those old novels in which the heroine described riding along the beach on horseback with her beloved: "as the roar of the surf muffled the pounding of the horses' hooves in the sand, the cold sea breeze thrilled me."

Returning to paganus, several theories have evolved about how the word for "country dweller" evolved into "a follower of a polytheistic religion (as in ancient Rome.)"

One theory was that the Roman soldiers used paganus as a derogatory slang term for a civilian or farmer--someone who stayed on the farm rather than becoming a soldier for Rome. In 320 c.e., Emperor Constantine began to promote Christianity over the older polytheistic Roman religion. For example, he allotted government money to Christian congregations to build or rebuild church buildings. He encouraged bishops to formalize the Christian doctrine during the councils of Aries and Nicaea. Indeed, once the council of Nicaea declared the teachings of Arius a heresy, Constantine banished Arius2 from the Empire and ordered "...if any book written by Arius be found, it is to be consigned to the fire..."

Constantine's favoritism of Christianity began in 312 c.e. when he had an oracular dream3, just prior to a battle with a rival for the emperorship outside Rome. In Constantine's dream Jesus Christ appeared and showed him the Greek letters, X and P, and told him to place them on his soldiers' shields. This sign is known as the chi-rho monogram and refers to the first two letters in the Greek spelling of Christ. Constantine's victory convinced him about the truth of the dream4.

It is true that under Constantine the soldiers in Rome's legions began openly converting5 to Christianity. It is also possible that early Christians adopted the Roman soldiers' derogatory slang term paganus and used it in a slightly different context.

By the time Christianity became a legal and then state-sanctified religion, Christians envisioned themselves as Soldiers of the Holy Cross, engaged in a war for salvation. If true, paganus meant anyone not enlisted in the army dedicated to Christ.

The theory is certainly plausible. Although it is somewhat odd to think any Roman would speak contemptuously about a farmer or "country dweller," it was apparently a dream of many Roman soldiers to retire to a little farm, or country estate depending on their class.

There is another theory that paganus was actually a term of contempt meaning "country bumpkin, hillbilly, rustic, hick," and was used by people in Latin-speaking cities and towns. Later, paganus was applied to those really backward folks in the countryside who stubbornly clung to the beliefs of the old religion.

The ancient Romans were, however, a very pious people, deeply religious, and very nostalgic for "the good old days."

Early Roman religion involved the hearth and family rituals and offerings to the personal household gods, including the Lar, the Penates, the family patriarchs, Genius spirit, the lady of the household's Iuno, etc.

The most venerable community rituals predated the magnificent temples of Rome. These community rituals included processions and ceremonies held outdoors involving groves and cultivated fields. There were references to circumnambulating the fields thrice to bless them, as well as rites blessing boundaries, animals, and petition to the powers for good fortune and health.

Various Roman writers spoke with great reverence about garlanding a tree or laying on an offering upon a stone to the numen or genius locci of an area.

As Amra the Lion, a modern practioner of Italian Paganism, wrote: "...the Romans really respected farming and considered it to be most honorable. I doubt highly many Italian Romans would refer to the country folk in a derogatory way. I don't know for a fact, but I am guessing the concept of the pagani as 'hillbillies' came from the Greeks, or at least early Christians who were from or were educated in Greece held more of these views."6

Amra has a very good point. The sturdy Italian peasant farmer as well as the patrician of a larger Italian estate would have been viewed as honest and honorable, because they were the bedrock of Roman tradition, and they were maintaining a pious connection with the traditional divine. Christianity, however, was thriving in several small, Greek-speaking communities throughout the empire. Many scholars agree that the author of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles was not Peter's companion, Luke, but was a Greek-speaking Christian of the well-to-do/upper merchant class. Rome ruled the world and Latin was the common tongue. However, Greek was a merchant/upper class language, and Greek was the language the New Testament was written in. Hence, it likely would have been those educated Christians in Greek-speaking towns outside of Rome who started using the Latin term, paganus, in a derogatory way toward pious Romans.

However this term evolved--as words do--by the 4th century, it referred to anyone who offered devotion to local spirits or deities. The making of offerings to household gods or local spirits was a practice the Christian church worked long and hard to eradicate after Christianity became the primary religion of the empire.

Off and on through the Middle Ages, the term pagan was used as an insult. In the Rennaissance, the Latin church writings used it as a label of something they disapproved of.

By the time of the 20th century, the term pagan acquired an almost neutral meaning. Pagan referred to the great pre-Christian works of Homer, Hesiod, Plato, etc., which Western 20th century civilization revered. However, I say almost because it was used to refer to those "silly, superstitious, non-Christian people who worshipped idols and strange gods." I once read a badly written paperback novel from the 1950's entitled, Pagan Island. It was a fictional story about a tiny island where the non-Christian natives had a different set of sexual mores than 1950's white middle-class America. The story never mentioned religion.

Many traditions of older cultural practices openly disliked the word pagan applied to them, including Hindus, Native American Indians, and other people practicing tribal religions.

Nevertheless, there were large numbers of people who read a lot of classical pagan mythology and found this animistic world view as intriguing, as they found their birth religions dull.

Eventually, the capitalized terms, Neo-Pgagan and Pagan began to be applied to a new religious movement which involved the veneration of nature, Mother Earth, and other female and male divinities.

Interestingly, there are critics who frequent celebrations and gatherings which are labeled on flyers as "Pagan" with a capital P and yet insist that the "Pagan" label is wrong.7

To quote one: "There are no actual historical records of the word paganus ever meaning anything but 'an irreligious person'." Therefore, since the term was never used by people to describe themselves, Neo-Pagans ought not to use it to describe themselves either.

True, ancient Italians didn't label themselves as pagani or an individual as a paganus when referring to their religious path. They referred to themselves by whatever name was used for their cultus or deity or, more likely, their community.

I once asked an individual what label ought to be on the flyers, if not Pagan. This critic responded, "We shouldn't use anything. Labels are too limiting."

Nevertheless, other labels have been proposed and adopted by communities. Pantheist, spellsed with a capital P, was used quite a bit, though it never usurped Pagan. Pantheism is a term that began to be used in more than one geographic area of the USA in the 1980's. I was a proponent of its use in a community in the DelMarVa area.

Free Spirit Alliance (FSA) was founded in 1986 and the founding members desired to acquire legal recognition as a section 501(c)(3) non-profit religious corporation. Of course, whenever legal paperwork is involved, actual words have to be written on those papers, and that involves labeling the religious path being trod. Among those at the early meetings, we had a few "Wiccans," numerous "Neo-Pagans," and a couple of "mystic Christians." Several labels were discussed as being too vague or too specific.8 "Neo-Paganism" and "Paganism" were rejected by the group, because back in 1986, none of the mainstream dictionary definitions included an explanation of Neo-Paganism. The mystic Christians also stated they weren't offended by the terms, "Neo-Pagan" or "Pagan," but they did feel excluded by them.

Pantheist, however, was in the dictionary. Different dictionary definitions of pantheist said nothing about "irreligious" or "irreverent." Everybody seemed to find the label acceptable.

Of course, in later years, the term, "Pantheism," did cause some confusion. One young man wrote FSA, explaining we were not allowed to use the label "Pantheism." "Pantheism," he stated, meant monotheistic worship and the men's circle he attended was clearly polytheistic worship. He explained this particular ritual had evoked deity under a long string of male god names. Clearly this celebration was not at all what this young man expected.

Nevertheless, Pantheism is a useful term to describe the perception that the Natural world is sacred and the spark of the Divine can be found indwelling in the cosmos.

Polytheism is another term used, but not as frequent as Pantheist. Our community, whether called Pagan or Pantheist, has lots of theology and theaology, but no universally recognized dogma or official canon. Hence there are a number of conflicting opinions about the nature of deity. One view is monism. To misquote Dion Fortune: "All the gods are one God and all the goddess are one Goddess and there is one Source." Monism is a form of syncretism or a assimilation of deity forms taken to an extreme. An example of syncretism would be the temple of Zeus-Amon.

Around the time of Alexander the Great, many of the Egyptian deities acquired Greek pronunciations of their names. Others were syncretized to Greek deities. Aside from Zeus and Amon both being heads of their pantheons, they have many differences. They ruled over different spheres. Zeus was a sky god, the lord of the thunderbolds, who controlled the rains. Amon was the hidden god, sometimes associated with air, but only in the sense that air cannot be seen.

The Romans were famous for syncretism. The Roman goddess Lucina was identified with Juno, as Juno-Lucina. In this aspect, Juno welcomed newborns into the light of day. Yet, Lucina was also viewed as a separate goddess. The Romans absorbed numerous deities from other cultures into their own pantheon, some of which they assimilated with their own deities. Zeus was assimilated into the figure of the patriarch of the Roman pantheon, Jove Pater. The powerful figure of Artemis was assimilated into the complex character of Diana.

Synchretization of deity forms tending toward monism seems to have been encouraged by the ancient pagan mystery cults. There are Latin inscriptions to Isis's consort, Serapis and Liber, which address him as Serapis Panthus and Liber Panthus. The epithet Panthus meant "All God." In the ancient Mediteranean, a powerful deity could be chosen to represent the one Source of the Divine. Thus Mediteranean pagans could worship the ultimate Divine through any particular god or goddess who appealed to them without being in contradiction with others who chose a different divine face. The pagan scholar Celsus wrote:

It matters not a bit what one calls the supreme God--or whether one uses Greek names or Indian names or the name used formerly by the Egyptians.
--as quoted by Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries 1999, p. 79
There are two fairly old examples of monism involving Isis. In the ancient Roman novel, The Golden Ass, Isis has a long speech in which she recounts the names that she is known by among other people. Isis, known in Egyptian as Aset, was known throughout Egypt as the Great Goddess or the Goddess of Ten Thousand Names. She absorbed the titles, attributes and names of many Egyptian goddesses, including Hathor, Renenutet, Sothis, etc. By the Grecco-Roman period, all other Goddesses were considered to be manifestations of Isis by her devotees.

Engraved on a pillar of the Faiyum temple to Isis-Thermouthis was a hymn. A portion of it read:

All mortals who live on the boundless earth,
Thracians, Hellenes, and all that are barbarians,
Call you by your beautiful name, greatly honored among all,
Each in his own tongue, each in his own land.
The Syrians call you Astarte, Artemis, Anaia,
And the Lycian tribes call you Leto, the Sovereign,
The Thracians call you also Mother of the Gods;
The Hellenes call you Hera of the Great Throne and Aphrodite,
And good Hesta and Rhea and Demeter;
But the Egyptians call you Thiouis [the Only One] because you alone are all other Goddesses named by the races of men.
--as quoted by M. Isidora Forrest's Isis Magic, 2001, p. 89
The modern Fellowship of Isis, located in Ireland, continues to view all goddesses as manifestations of Isis. Feminist Dianic Wiccans also define their "wimmin's religion" as the worship of the Great Goddess, who is manifest in nature, in Her many guises.

Many modern Wiccan Traditions, in turn, worship the Goddess and God in their many forms. Frequently, the Goddess is divided into Maiden, Mother, and Crone. The God is often divided into the Summer Lord and Winter Lord--also known as the Sun King and the Animal Master, God of the Greenwood.9 This concept is the Five-Fold manifestation of Deity. It is also not uncommon for an individual Wiccan to have a Matron or Patron deity.

Neo-Pagans, aka Pagans, may, on the other hand, be pure polytheists, worshipping an entire pantheon of gods. Yet, it is not uncommon for Neo-Pagans to also have a particular Matron or Patron deity. Many Neo-Pagans also embrace the above described Wiccan concepts of deity.

Isaac Bonewits, former ADF archdruid and Pagan scholar, once pointed out that a Neo-Pagan might hold several conflicting beliefs at different times. He also believed this allowed much more personal religious freedom within our community.

If the discussion of these three different terms has left you a bit confused--Good! It's important to give great thought to what labels you use for yourself. There is great power in names, just as there is great power in words. "'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be the master--that's all.'"

Myth Woodling, October 2005

End notes:

1 Language itself is a unique form of abstract symbolism. A woman is not "a red, red rose," yet the symbolic imagery conveyed by these words is clear. Likewise, "a rose by any other name" would smell just as "sweet," but if you called the blossom a "ru-ru-yum" in casual conversation it is unlikely that a listener would be able to connect your intended symbolic meaning with the abstract symbol of the word, "ru-ru-yum."

2 For the idly curious, Arius' great heresy was over the metaphysical nature of Christ: Was Christ one and the same essence as God the Father and the Holy Spirit? According to Arius, if Jesus was the only begotten Son of God, then he could not have co-existed with his Father since before the creation. Christ was the divine Son of God, not the Creator of heaven and earth. Arius, who was a priest in Alexandria, did not question that Christ was the divine Savior or that he was a divine Son of God. Nevertheless Arius was excommunicated and declared a heretic by the Church. As a secular authority, the Emperor Constantine banished him from the Empire.

3 Christian legend later improved on the story of the chi-rho. According to this version, a vision of the chi-rho appeared in the sky just prior to battle, visible to the future emperor and his troops. The chi-rho monogram was accompanied by the Latin words: in hoc signo vinces meaning "in this sign, conquer." Interestingly, the chi-rho monogram is also found in Grecco-Egyptian papyri. Scholars used it to mark prophetic passages indicating the Greek word chreston, meaning "auspicious." Tomothy Freke and Peter Gandy, in The Jesus Mysteries, 1999, wrote: "This symbol therefore had a double meaning, one for Pagans and one for Christians, which suited Constantine's purposes perfectly." (p. 235)

4 In truth, Constantine may have decided that Christianity was a religion to endorse for other reasons. The Roman Empire was losing cultural cohesion. Most of the state cults like Jupiter Maximus were not drawing as much public devotion as they had in the past. Large number of Romans were devoting themselves to foreign cults such as the worship of Mithras and Isis. Constantine himself had been raised with Mithraism. However, the Christians had shown a single-minded devotion in the face of persecution that was almost stoic and, therefore, admirable. Perhaps Constantine believed Christianity would be a new, unifying force of the Empire.

5 How rapid these conversions were is open to debate. It is also debatable as to whether these conversions to Christianity were "career moves" or legitimate religious conversions.

6 This quote is from private correspondence from Amra the Lion to Myth Woodling. Amra the Lion has an article posted on this website: The Two Beneventos The Latin term, pagani, is the plural of paganus.

7 There are, of course, other folks who attend Pagan gatherings, such as Shamans, Gnostic Christians, Mystic Jews, Ceremonial Magicians, who do not use the label, "Pagan." These people are "Pagan-friendly." They enjoy socializing with Pagans, but simply feel this label does not quite define their path. These people are not the same as those who do not want any label. Perhaps it would be accurate to label them the "Labels-Are-Limiting people"?

8 For example, "alternate spirituality," "non-Judeo-Christian religion," and "non-traditional religion" were too vague. "Goddess oriented religion" or "Wicca" were too specific. "Magical Spirituality" was both too vague and too specific. No one suggested "Earth-based religion."

9 Of course, this breakdown of deity forms indicates how the Divine is honored in many coven rituals, not necessarily what individual coveners believe. One Wiccan I know stated that she did not perceive the Goddesses and Gods as all being manifestations of each other, but as largely separate entities. In that same group, another Wiccan largely viewed the Gods as archtypal images manifesting the All.


Amra the Lion, private correspondence, April 10, 2005

Lewis Carroll, Alice Through the Looking Glass

Chas. S. Clifton, Encyclopedia of Heresies and Heretics, 1992

M. Isidora Forrest, Isis Magic, 2001

Timonthy Freke and Peter Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries, 1999

Randall McCraw Helms, Who Wrote the Gospels?, 1997

Judika Illes, The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, 2005

Definitions from Merriam-Webster Online

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