Pagan etymology and usage

The word ‘pagan’ comes from the Latin words ‘pagani’ meaning ‘rural’, and ‘pagus’ meaning ‘country-district’. It was used in a Christian inscription of the early fourth century to describe rural civilians of Rome who had not converted to Christianity.

The general use of the word in ancient Rome however made no direct reference to religion at all. A pagan was simply a person who dwelt in the country, and in this Roman context, may have referred equally to members of very divergent belief systems and spiritualities.

Within a fourth century Christian context ‘a pagan’ referred specifically to non-Christians not only in Rome, but throughout the Mediterranean world. Subsequent global Christian colonization through the work of Christian missionaries broadened the usage of the words paganism and pagan to include pre-Christian and non-Christian religions and peoples of Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas.

The reader should bear in mind however that adherents of these religions did not refer to their faiths as paganism, and did not identify themselves as Pagans.

The common noun ‘paganism’ is a term used as a form of derision by Christian missionaries and Churches when referring to pre-Christian religious belief systems and practices, and today the term is commonly used to collectively define divergent pre-Christian cultures and religions, cultures and religions which do not identify themselves as Pagan.

The proper noun ‘Paganism’ refers to the modern revival / re-emergence and reconstruction of several distinct religious belief systems and spiritual and ritual practices of pre-Christian peoples.

Modern Pagans have reclaimed the Roman~Christian word ‘Paganism’ as an over-arching term for many different reconstructed pre-Christian European religions, also referred to as ‘European Ethnic or Folk Religions’, including (but not restricted to) Druidry, Heathenism (Asatru, Vanatru, and Odhinism), Kemeticism, Romano Religion, and Hellenismos. The term also incorporates diverse post-Christian (neo-Pagan) syncretic religions and belief systems, including the Western Magic Tradition, Wicca and Traditional Witchcraft.

SAPRA NOTE: ‘Witchcraft’ is a term defining a number of different religio-magical, polytheistic and/or animistic belief systems, that employ the use of divination, herbalism, sympathetic magic and religious ritual.


Pagan academics refer to Paganism as a modern religious movement containing several distinct and separate religions. Modern Paganism is characterized by a diversity of spirituality, belief and religious practice, and by tolerance of religious and theological diversity.


Part II. Paganism and Pagans