PM5425: On Paganism

Paganism is a term which refers to the pre-Christian religions of Europe. The distinguishing feature of these religions was their polytheism, their worship of many gods. It is also often used to refer to the pre-Jewish, pre-Christian and pre-Islamic polytheistic religions of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. The term is generally not used to refer to polytheistic religions further afield (such as those of Sub-Saharan Africa, India, East or South-East Asia, or the Americas), despite the many structural similarities - and in some cases a common historical origin.

The term derives from Latin paganus, meaning farmer. It dates from a period in the Late Roman Empire which the cities had become predominantly Christian, but the pre-Christian religion was still dominant in the countryside.

The success of Christianity largely destroyed the ancient Pagan religions of Europe; although some elements of them have continued in various forms. For example, the names of the days of the week in English are named for ancient Saxon gods and goddess; while several of the English names of months are derived from those of Greek or Roman deities. Knowledge of the myths of these religions (especially the Greek and Roman) was maintained by Christians, even thought they were no longer believed in literally - but even in the later pre-Christian period, the trend for educated pagans had been to interpret them symbolically/allegorically rather than literally.

The term is also extended to include those in the contemporary period who seek to revive ancient paganism, or more specifically neopaganism. In that context, the historical pagan religions are sometimes referred to as palaeopaganism.

G. K. Chesterton wrote in Heretics:

There is only one thing in the modern world that has been face to face with Paganism; there is only one thing in the modern world which in that sense knows anything about Paganism: and that is Christianity. All that genuinely remains of the ancient hymns or the ancient dances of Europe, all that has honestly come to us from the festivals of Phoebus or Pan, is to be found in the festivals of the Christian Church. If anyone wants to hold the end of a chain which really goes back to the heathen mysteries, he had better take hold of a festoon of flowers at Easter or a string of sausages at Christmas.[1]

But actually, G. K. Chesterton doesn't understand Paganism at all; and his comment here just proves it. Algernon Swinburne - now he understands Paganism!

Let us distinguish between a proper and improper polytheism:

  • a proper polytheism acknowledges there are many movements of the heart, corresponding to different forms of the divine; therefore, it is fitting that we worship the divine in many forms, that the many movements of the heart be exercised
  • a proper polytheism sees beauty as divine and the divine as the beautiful; beauty takes many disparate and contrary forms – even though we believe, by faith, that these disparate and contrary forms ultimately constitute one single beauty, we are as yet unable to see this unity, though we believe by faith it must exist – therefore it is proper that we worship the divine in forms corresponding to the disparate beauties. If we seek to force our hearts into a false premature unity, that is no benefit to our relationship with the divine, but rather a detriment
  • an improper polytheism imposes false expectations upon the divine, and when one form fails to meet those expectations, goes searching for another form that will. It is the will of the divine that we endure hardship, and even succumb thereto – war, famine, pestilence, and so forth. If we endure these things, we should not think that prayer or worship or sacrifices shall purchase for us an early end to them – they shall end when the divine wills that they end. If we pray or worship or sacrifice, with the false presumption that doing so will buy an early end to our sufferings, then we will inevitably be disappointed – many then will go looking for another form to worship instead, thinking – if this form does not work, maybe another will? This is an improper polytheism, which must be rejected.
  • Similarly we ought reject, as improper polytheism, the idea that deities exist to help us in particular troubles, and that the type of trouble we endure should determine which deity to which we turn for help. It is an error to turn to the fertility god if one wants a child, and the sea goddess if one fears a storm at sea, and the rain god if one is suffering a drought.
  • But when we suffer from inner turmoils, it is not inappropriate to turn to a deity with a particular expertise in that type of turmoil.