Lately, I’ve been seeing the word paganism bandied about everywhere. From the dismissive (not another magic system based on pagan beliefs) to the worshipful (instructions on how to practice modern witchcraft) to just not getting it (paganism is based on polytheistic beliefs with mass human sacrifice. Huh?).
As I was writing my novel, I too faced the question of coming up with a believable magic system, and I too turned to history as my first port of call.
Magic systems through the ages have drawn a great deal of inspiration from old European civilisations, those which we call “pagan”. But what is paganism, and what does it have to do with magic?
Well, the truth is, paganism is nothing at all.
That’s right, it doesn’t really mean anything.
Wait until you hear that it’s just a propaganda term made up by ancient Christians.
Don’t believe me?
Let’s jump right in.
The etymology of paganism
The term is first attested in English from the fifteenth century as meaning “person of non-Christian and non-Jewish faith”. It originates from the Latin paganus, “pagan”, which originally meant “villager, rustic”, and was also military jargon for “non-combatant, civilian”.
The religious meaning of the word likely derives from the military use, and was adopted with the military imagery of the early church. Roman Christians considered themselves milites (“soldiers of Christ”).
The term came to be used for all non-Christian/non-Jewish civilizations, and existed contemporary to other similar terms (hellene, gentile, heathen).
So who were the pagans?
The Romans used the term paganus to designate any number of cults existing in Europe at the time. Mostly, this was done out of convenience and for reasons of rhetoric; it was easier to describe them as one single people. The truth is that the pagans had little in common. Although many were polytheistic, some were monotheistic. They weren’t united by location or language, either. Many of them were not even religions in the modern sense; instead, they were a collection of customs (rituals, beliefs, traditions) that were fluid and open to interpretation by practisers. Often, they did not have a name for their beliefs, or a written text describing their practices.
In short, the pagans were all other civilisations in and around Europe at the same time as the early Christians were spreading their beliefs. Lumping them together under the single heading of “pagans” made it easier for the Christians to gradually eliminate their belief systems.
What happened to the pagans?
The Christianisation of pagan tribes in Europe began in the Late Antiquity (4th to 5th centuries AD), with the Christians employing a number of different strategies to convert the pagans. In general, Christianisation occurred in a top-down fashion, with rulers being converted first, before Christianity spread to their people. The conversion of rulers was generally voluntary, with the pagan rulers of the Germanic tribes and the Anglo-Saxons admiring the prestige of the Christians. The mass conversion of their people was often performed through Interpretatio Christiana, the practice of adapting pagan rituals and celebrations to Christianity. It is thought that a lot of modern-day Christian traditions may find some of their roots in the pagan practices of the Late Antiquity.
But why was it so popular?
There are two running theories as to why people were so willing to convert. The first is that the church played an important role in helping the poor. The second is that the ideas underpinning the religion were appealing, particularly the concept of the immortality of the spirit.
In any case, by 1000AD large swathes of Europe had been Christianised. Armenia was the first country to declare Christianity its state religion, in 301AD. The Baltic states held out the longest, with most of them only being converted during religious crusades in the twelfth to fourteenth centuries.
Even after Christianity was made the state religion of most countries, it didn’t just suddenly die out. The actual transformation of beliefs occurred much slower, with many of them still evident in the modern traditions and beliefs of individual countries.