What is Paganism? Answering the Layman's Q's

When a conversation turns a certain way and you see its distinct invasive perspective start to shine a mirror on you, an uncomfortable pinch makes itself known in your stomach. You regret not having walked away from the conversation sooner. Why didn’t you drink more water to lubricate your tongue for what is about to become the longest-winded explanation you never imagined in your life you would have to subject others – and yourself – to? Why not pull up a chair so your feet don’t get tired standing there? Because the conversation just turned towards religion and you’ve just been asked what you are. They’re waiting on that decisive noun that will put you in a box forever and you are fully aware that your answer will probably be the death of you one day. They are just four simple words that are going to lock you in this for at least ten minutes:

“I am a pagan.”

Been in this situation? It happens all the time in my life. Whether I’m waiting tables or meeting people out at the bar, this eventually comes to be an arduous discussion that licks the edges of my time consuming definition of spiritual beliefs. I could blame myself for the pentagram necklace that my mother gave me and I never take off, or perhaps the symbols I have tattooed on my knuckles, or maybe it’s just the way my face looks that emboldens strangers to ask me personal questions about what I believe in. Whatever the reason, if I have chosen to respond, I know I’d better pull up my soapbox while I’m at it.

                  “I’m a pagan.”

                  “Oh, you mean a Wiccan?”

                  Enter soapbox.


No, stranger who asks way too personal of questions, I am not a Wiccan! Frankly, I’m not entirely sure what about that assumption rubs me the wrong way the most. I do think everyone has the right to practice whatever religion or spirituality they want without judgment, and yet that big, ole “W” word still stings like a wasp. I’ve been chewing on the feeling for several years now and trying to get to the bottom of why it triggers my temper, and I think it’s fair to compare it to this: If a Christian announced that they believed in God and someone responded, “Oh, so you’re Mormon,” they would be offended, yes? Or, at the very least, confused by such a postulation. Because, just like there isn’t one sole religion that believes in God with a capital G, there isn’t one path for the modern pagan with the capital W. As much as I want to grab the people making these blasé assumptions by the shoulders and shake some sense into them, it’s important to step outside of our differing opinions and recognize that… Well, they might just not actually know.

Let’s be honest, how many of your high school classes talked about what it means to be an actual pagan? The closest you probably got was Hocus Pocus, and we see how ugly that witch interpretation was. The Greeks and Romans had philosophers, which puts them in the history books for young learners, but there’s so much more to the polytheistic world than that!

Taking a Poll on the Maypole

I took a poll on Instagram before writing this blog, inquiring Instafriends about some of the first questions non-pagans usually ask pagans in reference to their beliefs. From the answers I received, the pattern was not surprising in the least.

1626 painting by Granger.

1626 painting by Granger.

A majority of modern America that is not educated on paganism is divided into two categories. The first being those who think you’re an agent of the devil.

“So you worship satan?”

Don’t even get me started on those people. My aunt was one of them. Cue eye roll for Aunt Tanya.

The second, those who think you are a Wiccan. When encountering either of these kinds of people, there are two responses I have prepared, ones that have come a long way since my younger years (which involved more middle fingers). For the first, I politely reply, “To worship the devil, I would have to believe in the Christian God, and I don’t. So no.” Easy enough, right? The conversation usually stops there.

“Oh, so you’re a Wiccan.”

Then, there’s option B, which is handling the Wiccan word. This is, unfortunately, where the explanation becomes much more long winded. When you explain that you’re not Wiccan but, in fact, a different kind of pagan, they usually have no idea what that means, at least not in the actual sense of the word. Paganism doesn’t technically have a connection to the number of gods you worship or whether or not you believe a giant spaghetti monster or some other thing created the universe. In fact, the modern interpretation is far different from its original meaning. But how do you explain it to someone without having to give them an entire history lesson? What ends up spilling out of my mouth isn’t a lovely, easy blanket term, it’s

Well, I’m a nature worshipping pagan witch who practices what few ancient traditions of Irish Celts that have survived viable history.

Then there’s the whole “a pagan can be a witch and a witch can be a pagan, but they do not have to be both” spiel. The number of sentences start to add up.

Folks, I wish I could just say pagan. The scrooge in me won’t do it, though. Because the term “pagan,” while it was coined by early Christians to describe anyone who didn’t believe in the One True God, did not derive from that definition. Out of one of my favorite historical books, God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism by Jonathan Kirsch, I’ve pulled a quote that explains it much more eloquently than I could hope to.

One explanation for the root meaning of “pagan” allows us to see what was at stake in the encounter between monotheism and polytheism in ancient Rome. The word derives from the Latin “paganus,” which originally referred to a “village-dweller” and carried the sense of a “country bumpkin.” But the word was also used in Roman military circles to mean “civilian” and to distinguish one who is ready to fight in war from someone who stays behind. According to some scholars, that’s precisely the meaning of “pagan” that inspired its first use by Christians-the Christian rigorists regarded themselves as soldiers, ready to march forth as crusaders in a holy war, and they characterized anyone who refused to take up arms in the service of the Only True God as a civilian, a slacker, a “paganus.” “Pagan” eventually came to mean anyone who worshipped any god or goddess other than the deity who was recognized as the Only True God in Jewish, Christian and Islamic tradition.
— Jonathan Kirsch

Somewhere between meaning “bumpkin” and then “devil worshipper”, the term “paganus” had a fusion. Rome, in centuries and centuries of different powers coming to rise, spent most of that time flopping back and forth between polytheism and monotheism. Whenever one was in power, it would do its very best to cause as much horrific harm to the other that it could; Christians burning and killing the non converters and then old worshippers burning and killing them right back.

Frankly, the history is a bit of a blood bath for a good duration until, as we know, Orthodox Christianity won its way out of it. But until there was that decisive blow, the word “paganus” took to meaning “outsider” or “other believer”. In short, it described a person’s beliefs that were not in conjunction with the sovereign standard or systematic norm of its time and were entirely situational because of it. One day, you could worship a multitude of gods and you’re good to go; then your king gets killed and Christianity reigns again and, poof, you’re a pagan! Basically, at any point in history, your beliefs would have been considered pagan if they did not correlate to the societal standard. Technically, believing in witchcraft or old celtic beliefs IS pagan, but with the growing popularity of modern “paganism”, it’s might not actually be considered pagan anymore, by definition.

I obviously have to throw the people out there a bone at this point. I only know these kinds of things because it’s part of my personal belief system and I’ve done a lot of research into the history and significance of its construct, including taking anthropology classes on the matter. Clearly, I wouldn’t expect the layman to know all of these things, just as I wouldn’t expect a well-read Christian to have an unrealistic expectation for me, like memorizing the bible (although the Old Testimate isn’t a bad read). Plenty of what people generalize “paganism” as is due to bad information. For example, I came across this lovely meme while on a tryst through Instagram:


First of all, as we already discussed, the definition of paganism is incorrect in this instance. While Wicca technically IS pagan, calling all of the ancient cultures pagan would be false. We’re also seeing how “paganism” is being bent into meaning “nature worship” now. As it were, anthropologists already have a word for this, and it is “animism”.


1.     the attribution of a soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena.
2.     the belief in a supernatural power that organizes and animates the material universe.

Furthermore, they state that Wicca is the oldest religion alongside paganism. Again, this is false. The oldest believed religion is of the Australian Aboriginals based in Dreamtime worship, which dates back 40,000 years. There are theories of Bear Worshippers in Neanderthal caves, although there hasn’t been enough evidence to support a structured religion. The idea that Wicca is ancient is laughable, considering it was formed in 1954.

Scientology is older than Wicca.

Another word many people don’t know is syncretic, which is an anthropological term for a religion that borrows traditions or beliefs from two or more and combines them into one. Wicca would be a perfect example of that, as they combine holidays from modern identities, Nordic traditions, as well as several Oriental religions (for instance, notice the use of the word “karma” in the above meme, something that was not a facet of ancient Occident religions). Halloween is also syncretic (Christian and old Celt beliefs), as is Santeria (Yoruba and Catholic).


Now, this isn’t meant to be a blog bashing Wicca or even explaining all the trappings of what it is. The point I’m making here is that false information is toxic to learning, no matter how little, and creates false identities for things that already have identities. It can also create unhealthy bias that keeps people from being able to have informative conversations with each other about these personal topics. The person who posted this meme has a LOT of followers, including myself, and for someone who’s main audience is of the pagan/witch/wiccan community, it has influence.

Let’s let that lie and return to the curious non-pagan encounters. This is where that incidental and sometimes aching empathy lies. How can you explain to someone who didn’t grow up with your religion what it is when there is so much false information all over? Sometimes it might just be easier not to answer. The important thing is to know where their intentions are coming from and, just as importantly, knowing where yours do. Shows like Vikings have really brought our generation a realistic and entertaining way of understanding some peoples’ current Scandinavian beliefs, while shows like The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina cast very incorrect biases on the witch community. I will say that, in this day and age, we’ve come a long way since the Inquisition or chasing the “snakes” out of Ireland. There’s a higher level of understanding for Folk like us and the best thing we can do is exercise a little patience, enjoy the unique things that lie outside of our personal circle and create an accepting community for all.

Exit soapbox.