Pre-Christian Paganism – The Sociology of Religion

This is the first of a series of blog posts on paganism being posted by a student in my Sociology 427 reading course. This post, which is a formal assignment submitted for marking, introduces and discusses paganism. It points out several key aspects of paganism including its links to nature, its respect for all life, its polytheistic nature, and its empowered ritualistic systems.

Welcome to the first in a series of six blogs I will be writing to talk about what I have learned in my research on Paganism and some of what it encompasses. For this blog, I will not be focusing so much on the modern version of Paganism, known as Neopaganism, which translates to “new paganism”. This form of paganism is for modern people who wish to reconnect with nature, using imagery and practices from other types of pagans, and adjusting the ceremonies and rituals to the needs of today. However, for this blog, my interest lies more on the pre-Christian form of paganism.

As some of you may already know, Paganism covers several different belief systems under the same umbrella. This is not an extensive list by any means, but the most popular religions that you may have heard of are Druidism, Shamanism, and Heathenry and all make up parts of the Pagan community. Today, some say that paganism is anything that is not a part of the three Abrahamic Faiths, which includes Christianity, Judaism and Islam. You must also be wondering why I left out Wicca. Well, much to my own surprise, I learned that Wicca is a Neopagan religion that came into existence in the 1950’s through studies done by a gentleman by the name of Gerald Gardner from research that he and his research team had been done on English Folklore. So, based on that, I’ve had to adjust my thinking somewhat and decided that I will include Neopagan religions and rituals in my subsequent blogs.

This being my first blog, I will provide you with an overview of Paganism, then in sub-sequential blogs, I will discuss Wicca, Druidism, Festivals and Sacred Locations, the Holy Days, and finally I will end with the Goddess Movement where I will discuss the past and present form of the religion. So without further ado, please join me on my journey of discovery into Paganism.

First, let’s start with what the definition of Pagan is. The word ‘Pagan” itself comes from the Latin paganu(m), for “someone who is not from the city, rather from the country.” In Late Latin, this turned into pagensis, “one who is from the country, ” and this ultimately became the French pays and the Spanish Pa’s, both meaning “nation.”-(From Etymologically Speaking at

The origin of paganism includes myths, histories, and lore from a wide variety of pre-Christian sources, which include practices of the Celts and Norse as well as the Greeks and Romans. Although they were devoted to one or many gods or goddesses, it was not a universal system that can be described as having a single body of beliefs. However it only takes looking to the Greek and Roman traditions that do have surviving material written by those who live in the times to realize that Pagan faiths were often very organized and specific in how they approached different aspects of their practice. Each of the different faith groups had their own systems and ways of doing things. It was not a formal religion in the same way as the Abrahamic faiths are, nor was there an authority figure attached to it. From what has been learned historically, each culture had specific way of expressing their faiths and beliefs though for the Norse and Celts specifically much of that is still being reconstructed. Norse paganism was mostly based on local traditions with a common set of beliefs and myths. Mostly everything that was written about Norse paganism was either done by Christian monks who had a very biased outlook towards paganism, or it was written hundreds of years after the Scandinavian countries became Christianized.

The Pagan religion is a nature-based religion that teaches the practitioner to honour all life. A Pagan is a person who believes that everything has a soul or spirit. This is called Animism, and all Pagan religions share this belief in common. Rivers, animals, rocks, trees, and land are all filled with their own unique spirits for people who are Pagans. Many environmentally conscious Christians today share the belief with Pagans that all forms of life have a soul. Pagans see the divine spirit in all life, as do some members of other religions. Traditionally, Christians believe that only humans have souls or spirits.

Pre-Christian Pagans would have worshiped one or a small number of gods and goddesses, while often recognizing the validity of other people’s deities. The Goddess represents all that is female and the God represents all that is male. But because nature is seen as female, the goddess has a broader meaning. Often called Mother Earth, she is seen as the creator and giver of life, the mother of us all, which in essence means to a Pagans we are all connected to one another. There are sub-groups of named Gods and Goddesses called Pantheons. For example Isis, the Goddess of magic and giver of life and Osiris the god of the afterlife both of which are from Egypt or from the Norse religion and mythology, there is Thor, god of thunder and battle, lightening and storms, and fertility and agriculture. His father Odin was chief of Aesir and a war-god and Freya, the goddess of fertility and love, just to name a few. Even after the Scandinavian pagans t were forced to convert to Christianity, some continued to practice their Pagan rituals because they were too devoted to their gods.

While each had it’s own approach toward the rituals they practiced, their beliefs and how they celebrated those beliefs, they shared many qualities in common. Pagan rituals were the way they expressed their connection with divinity and each other. There are many kinds of Pagan Rituals. Generally, rituals were handed down from elders or created by the individual when deemed necessary. These ritually enacted changes in consciousness and were believed to facilitate further changes in the practitioner’s life circumstances and/or relationship with the gods or goddesses. Depending on the beliefs of the individual or group performing the ceremony, the rituals would be ceremonies focused towards one or more specific deities, toward ancestral or fairy spirits, toward nature in general (sometimes personified as Mother Earth), or towards the gods and/or goddesses. The ritualistic ceremonies would be enacted with the purpose of being either devotional, worshipful or through commanding the spirits to invoke magic if they are performing a magical ritual. Blessing rituals for the family, for healing the sick, for initiating a new home, or for cleansing were all performed either alone or with others. There are even protection rituals, and banishing rituals. Because paganism is a nature based religion, more often then not, the ceremonies were held outside, in fields, wooded groves, near a lake, or anywhere that promoted a connection with nature.

Contrary to some beliefs, pagans were not sexual deviants, their practices did not involve harming people or animals, and they did not worship the devil, nor did they practice ‘black magic’.

Even contemporary Pagans can not be said to share a universal belief system, just as in the past, they do share general beliefs, values and practices that are significantly more similar to each others faiths than they are to the Abrahamic religions. These beliefs migrated to Europe from the Middle East, which in my opinion is the prime reason that most people who look to the ancient pre-Christian faiths for direction and guidance continue to use the word Pagan to describe our general approach toward religion and spirituality.

Today, being Pagan means learning to look at nature and honour all living creature and the cycles of the earth. Whether it’s by celebrating the phases of the Moon or spending time in nature, becoming aware of the magic of the natural world around, that’s what paganism is all about.

Cite This Article

(2015). Pre-Christian Paganism. The Sociology of Religion. []

By: Dr. S.

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