The Etymology of the Word Pagan

Greek illustration of a bull being sacrificed.
Odysseus sacrifices a bull to Poseidon in Homer's "Odyssey". Culture Club / Getty Images

The term pagan is used, today, to signify people who do not believe in the monotheistic god of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. It is used much like "heathen." It also refers to pantheists and neo-pagans.

Origins of the Word Pagan

Pagan comes from a Latin word paganus, meaning villager, rustic, civilian, and itself comes from a pāgus which refers to a small unit of land in a rural district. It was a demeaning Latin term (like the word hick), that originally lacked a religious significance.

When Christianity came on board the Roman Empire, those who practiced the old ways came to be called pagans. Then, when Theodosius I banned the practice of the old religions in favor of Christianity, he obviously banned the ancient (pagan) practices, but new forms of paganism crept in via the barbarians, according to the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages.

Aside on the Ancient Barbarian

Herodotus gives us a look at the term barbarian in an ancient context. In Book I of Herodotus' history, he divides the world into Hellenes (Greeks or Greek-speakers) and Barbarians (non-Greeks or non-Greek speakers)

These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feuds.

Etymology Online says pagan comes from a PIE base *pag- 'to fix' and related to the word "pact". It adds that the usage to refer to nature worshipers and pantheists dates from 1908.

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Gill, N.S. "The Etymology of the Word Pagan." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, August 27). The Etymology of the Word Pagan. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "The Etymology of the Word Pagan." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).