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etymology of 'pagan'

From: Kerry Delf 

On 6 May 1997, lorax wrote:

> :# pre-Christian religions of Europe.  "Neo-Pagan" simply means "new
> :# pagan" (derived from the Latin _paganus_, "country-dweller") 

> you may wish to check into this further.  it may relate originate in 
> other usage (such as 'bumpkin', a slander).

FYI:  My dictionary of etymology (Ayto's _Dictionary of Word Origins_)
gives the following as the development of the word "pagan":

PAGAN: The history of 'pagan' is a bizarre series of semantic twists and
       turns that takes it back ultimately to Latin 'pagus' (source also
       of English 'peasant').  This originally meant 'something stuck in
       the ground as a landmark' (it came from a base *pag- 'fix' which
       also produced English 'page,' 'pale' [stake], and 'pole' [stick] 
       and is closely related to 'pact' and 'peace').  It was extended
       metaphorically to 'country area, village,' and the noun 'paganus'
       was derived from it, denoting 'country-dweller.'  But then this
       in its turn began to shift semantically, first to 'civilian' and 
       then (based on the early Christian notion that all members of the
       church were 'soldiers' of Christ) to 'heathen' -- whence English


From: (lorax)

49970510 AA1  Hail Satan!

Kerry Delf :
>And it should be pointed out that not only is Paganism non-Christian,
>"non-Christian" IS THE DEFINITION OF "pagan."  A slightly less inclusive
>definition is "non-JCI."

you recently posted something to me about the 'original' definition
of 'pagan'.  I sought after a source I respect which indicates to the
contrary and received an email response.  here it was [my comments]:
From: Bill Heidrick 
Subject: Re: etymology of 'pagan'

93 [nocTifer] et nomina plurissima,

[I have secured permission to repost BH's things; nocTifer wrote:]

>recently you derived the etymology of 'pagan' from something earlier than
>the Neopagan favor 'paganus, country-dweller', and I wondered if you might
>repeat that and its source again to me for the benefit of Usenet.

Ok.  I've been playing with that one for a little over a year.  Although
it is the actual origin of the usage, it is so contrary to modern
prejudices that neither Christian nor Neo"pagan" can usually tollerate
it.  The only significant response I got to it was on AOL from U.Wolfe,
the Mason.  He confirmed it, but most folks can't take it.  :-)

Here's my post to the Masonic debate forum on AOL:

   Just to make things a little interesting.  Has anyone really considered
what "Pagan" signifies?  I suggest reading Plutarch's Lives, Life of Numa,
p.88 in the Modern Library Edition.  The original usage meant "parish", as a
division of the country side under authority of an official.  If we stuck
with that original definition, to be a pagan you would have to live in a
parish and go to church!

Plutarch lived in the first century of the Christian era.  Numa founded the
original state religion of Rome, c. mid 1st century after the founding of the
City.  Many of the terms for Christian clergy and functions were borrowed
from Numa's statutes.

So, what is "Pagan"?  Non-Christian seems to be the common usage.
"Christian" seems to be not far removed from the oldest usage, as
Christianity emerged under the Roman state, until Constantine's time.  Using
the term in origin, it would appear that the early Christians became settled
"pagans" as soon as they could be accepted.

This one is from the Thelema Lodge Calendar, 11/96 issue:

   On the issue of the origin of the word "Pagan":

   Many dictionaries state that this term derives from the Latin "paganus" and
signifies in origin: a peasant or civilian.  This is not correct.  The
characterization is in the nature of a "glancing blow" at the facts,
complicated by over generalization.  Sources giving this and related origins
for the term "pagan" sometimes state that the source for this information in
antiquity is "Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans", a 1st
century biography collection.  Specifically, this comes from Plutarch's
account of the life of Numa Pompilius, founder of the ancient state religion
of Rome, but not the city-state itself.

   The following is therefore the primary source on the origin of the term
"pagan", via English translation of Plutarch's book (John Dryden translation,
revised by Arthur Hugh Clough), Modern Library edition, page 88:

   "Numa, therefore, hoping agriculture would be a sort of charm to captivate
the affections of his people to peace, and viewing it rather as a means to
moral than to economical profit, divided all the lands into several parcels,
to which he gave the name of pagus, or parish, and over every one of them he
ordained chief overseers; ..."

   Thus, although one can positively say that the Latin "paganus", does mean
"peasant" or country dweller, this term derives from the usage that a "pagus"
was an administrative division of the Roman countryside, not simply that all
rural indigenous people were classed as such -- in fact, since the Romans
were colonists, it never simply meant "indigenous people" in the old usage.
Bluntly, the Roman Christians became pagans and mustered under "parishes" from
this original usage.  If you wanted to ignore all the twists and turns of
usage over the centuries and to stick with the original, you could say that
anyone living in a parish and going to the parish church was a pagan.   The
modern American word for Numa's "pagus" is "county", except in Louisiana,
where these land divisions are still called "parish".  Of course, in the USA,
the connection to a religious hierarchy and temple has been removed from
these governmental divisions, by the 1st amendment to the Constitution in
the Bill of Rights.
   Incidentally, one might be tempted to pursue the origin of "pagan" in the
Greek, e.g. in the Athenian usage "Areopagus", for the Supreme Court of
Justice on the Hill of Aries at Athens, but that means "Aries
mount", emphasizing the coldness of the elevation.  The Latin apparently
derives from the judicial usage, not the word root.

Feel free to quote as you please.

93 93/93
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Date: Wed, 18 Jun 1997 19:04:46 CST
From: (abark)
Newsgroups: soc.religion.paganism,alt.satanism
Subject: Re: [Question] Is Satanism Pagan? What is Satanism?....
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Xref: Supernews soc.religion.paganism:8993 alt.satanism:71617 (J. Hunter Heinlen) wrote:

>That's the Marian Webster's version of reality.  However, in the academic
>community, and the collection of people studying religion, 'pagan' now
>refers to something very different.  There are a few definitions in use,
>most falling into one of three broad catagories:  1) a nature based religion,
>(incidently, this could, depending on the interpritation, include Native
>American spirituality and some forms of modern Physics 2) a pre-Christian
>European religion (and their derivatives), and 3) a native religion of
>Indo-European peoples (incidently, this would then include Hinduism and
>Buddhism.... and most people that I've talked to who ARE Hindi or Buddhist
>go along with or support this).  As you can see, there are some problems with
>all of these definitions (personally, I tend to use '2 out of 3 ain't bad'),
>but they are not nearly as out-dated and unworkable as the dictionary version.

actually the definitions you gave are not far from what I said, only a
bit more elaborated.  The definition you give is not far from "a
non-christian religion".  My point was that many people use the term
"pagan" to refer to a specific religion, most often wicca it seems,
which it really isnt. It is a broad term.

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Date: Wed, 18 Jun 1997 10:14:34 CST
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From: (J. Hunter Heinlen)
Subject: Re: [Question] Is Satanism Pagan? What is Satanism?....
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abark ( wrote:
: Pagan, actually refers to any non-christian religion (or a religion
: other than ones own depending on point of view I suppose).  Though I
: do not particularly favour dictionary's Websters define(using a sort
: of circular logic) pagan as"heathen" and heathen as "an infidel"

That's the Marian Webster's version of reality.  However, in the academic
community, and the collection of people studying religion, 'pagan' now 
refers to something very different.  There are a few definitions in use,
most falling into one of three broad catagories:  1) a nature based religion,
(incidently, this could, depending on the interpritation, include Native 
American spirituality and some forms of modern Physics 2) a pre-Christian 
European religion (and their derivatives), and 3) a native religion of 
Indo-European peoples (incidently, this would then include Hinduism and
Buddhism.... and most people that I've talked to who ARE Hindi or Buddhist
go along with or support this).  As you can see, there are some problems with
all of these definitions (personally, I tend to use '2 out of 3 ain't bad'),
but they are not nearly as out-dated and unworkable as the dictionary version.

From  Wed Aug  6 12:37:34 1997
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Date: Wed, 6 Aug 1997 12:32:09 -0700 (PDT)
From: "R. Brzustowicz" 
To: Silver Chalice 
Subject: "Pagan" -- the OED again 
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On Fri, 1 Aug 1997, Ayse Tuzlak wrote:

> > #   PAGAN:
> > # 
> > #               From paganus, "those of the earth."
> This is certainly a loose definition.  "Paganus", in Latin, simply means
> "rustic" (as an adjective) or "countryman" (as a noun).  It probably had
> the slightly negative connotation that, say, the English word "hick" would
> have today.  After Christianity became a state religion, educated
> city-folk were quick to join the Church, while illiterate country folk
> would cling more tenaciously to their old ways.
> > as I understand it the term 'pagan' is
> > a rough comparative to 'goyim' and, whether merely factual or in some
> > condemnatory significance, meant and generally still means 'not one of
> > our tribe or religion'.
> The term certainly had an "othering" function, such as you describe here. 
> But do not forget that it had a specific reference to a specific social
> class, and it was not *merely* a word for "other" (like "goy" or "gentile"
> might).

Well, not exactly.
 [ad. L. pagan-us, orig. `villager, rustic; civilian, non-militant',
 As opposed to miles `soldier, one of the army', in Christian L.
 (Tertullian, Augustine) `heathen' as opposed to Christian or Jewish.  The
 Christians called themselves milites `enrolled soldiers' of Christ,
 members of his militant church, and applied to non-Christians the term
 applied by soldiers to all who were `not enrolled in the army'.  Cf.
 Tertullian De Corona Militis xi, `Apud hunc [Christum] tam miles est
 paganus fidelis quam paganus est miles infidelis'.  See also GIBBON xxi.
  Cf. PAYEN.
>  The explanation of L. paganus in the sense `non-Christian, heathen', as
> arising out of that of `villager, rustic', (supposedly indicating the
> fact that the ancient idolatry lingered on in the rural villages and
> hamlets after Christianity had been generally accepted in the towns and
> cities of the Roman Empire: see Trench Study of Words 102, and cf.
> Orosius I Praef. `Ex locorum agrestium compitis et pagis pagani
> vocantur') has been shown to be chronologically and historically
> untenable, for this use of the word goes back to Tertullian c 202, when
> paganism was still the public and dominant religion,
> and even appears, according to Lanciani, in an epitaph of the 2nd cent.]

etc, ewtc, etc

R Brzustowicz (

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