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On the definition of the term “Pagan”

As there are many different nations in Europe, so too are there many different traditions among these nations. Before Christianity, there was no single unified term for the spirituality of these nations, as each spirituality was literally “the way of the nation” (for instance in Roman tradition “the Roman way to the Gods”), the following of the teachings and precepts transmitted by the ancestors and spirituality being fundamentally ethnic in character. In this way, every nation, people or tribe mainly adhered to the Gods and to religious forms of his kind. While reception of a new deity from other traditions was not uncommon, these adoptions did not provoke a rejection of the native traditional pantheon, but lead to the search for an “interpretation” of the new divine figure within what was already known from one’s own culture.

An example of the definition of a native European tradition would be the religion of the Norsemen, which in contemporary sources was called forn siðr, “the old way”, as opposed to kristinn siðr “Christ’s way”. This is but one variation of the many names used to describe just Germanic spirituality. Many native European spiritual traditions are nowadays called by their adherents with a name referring to their folk roots, such as in Slavic languages rodnoverie or rodizmowiarstwo “faith/religion of the people; folk religion”[1]. This is a terminological question that each nation has answered individually, exploring its own roots and consolidating the essence of its ways in the name of the religion. It is also related with the time and the level of contrast with Christianisation.

Apart from the specific terminology of the single traditions, which was unified in contemporary times, the general perception of the ethnic religions that people had in the Antiquity is strongly connected with their particular kind and nation. If we look at the Ancient Roman era, it was obviously clear that, for instance, a Greek person would have mostly worship the Greek Gods, while a Celt, the Celtic ones.

Another interesting perspective of an external definition for the Roman religion was given in the Christian Bible. In the Latin translation of the Bible, the Roman polytheists are called gentiles, which means 'non-Jewish or non-Christian'. This word is related to the Latin word gens, that means basically 'kinship, tribe'. In other words, the non-monotheistic people were addressed as “the people of the(ir own) tribe”, the ones who follow the religion of their kinship, of their nations and ancestors. The word gens is related to the word generation, and the idea that a kindred, a nation, is a group of people who share a mythical[2] ancestor and has a separate and specific religious tradition.

With the coming of Christianity as a set of different, alien and new religious concepts in a different context, it was felt that there was a need for a definition of the more ancient, traditional, native faith. Such a need did not arise before the time of religious struggles and clashes of civilisations, as in the case of wars between native European people. Their polytheistic or henotheistic nature of the ways to the divine did not place the battleground on a mutually exclusive fideistic level, that is, the existence of “my Gods” against the existence “your Gods”. On the contrary, there are even examples of Roman priests who offered sacrifices also to the Gods of their enemies before battles against Germanic or Celtic people, in order to show reverence towards them and possibly invite them to change sides.

This change in the definition of religion in favour of an intolerant monotheism has resulted in the current situation that the ethnic traditions have been forced to be defined in contract to Christianity, in a form of negating that what is Christian[3]. Even traditional values of ethnic religions became looked down upon. But in fact, when looking at the context in which Christianity developed, we can actually find the essence of what is so different in European spirituality from the worldview of Christianity.

Christianity spread first in the urban surroundings of the Roman Empire, in the beginning being appealing to the poor underclass, slaves and servants. The environment they lived in was miserable and contemporarily, by the time Christianity became more and more popular, Roman citizens were more and more poisoned by the lead pipes of their water systems, becoming delirious. As the cities of today, so too were, in some way, the Roman urbes of the late Empire dirty, overcrowded and dangerous. People lost touch with reality, not only because of lead poisoning, but also because of the urban lifestyle, full of vice and abstractions out of touch with reality.

Yet despite the urban nature of the Roman Empire, Rome was more than its cities. It too, like any other kingdom, republic, empire and civilisation relied on its farms, villages and hamlets for survival. The countryside was from where the source of stability and prosperity for the Roman Empire came. Ever since the Republican times of Rome, the countryside was considered to withhold the ideal way of life. Stoic philosophers praised the villas, the hard-working farmers and the preservation of tradition in the small settlements scattered across the land. Rome, the eternal city, was built on a sacred area, but the physical facades of the city should not be confused the metaphysical realm of Rome. On the contrary, the symbolism of the village, the pagus (meaning also 'region, country, rural community') was where the Roman could live his ideal life, being connected to his region and his countrymen.

Christianity spread in the cities and barracks of the Empire, gaining more and more momentum. This trend did not reach the entire country, leaving many areas outside of the influence of this new “fashionable” cult. Such an area was especially the place that was respected in Roman philosophy, the countryside. The countryside was where life still kept moving in its cycles, year after year, upholding the ancient rural way of life. And yet this rural way of life was what Christians mocked. Roman citizens who lived in the countryside and followed their ancestral ways were ridiculed with the word paganus, “villager”, equating the countryside with a backward way of life and gnawing at the foundation of society that the new Christian philosophy opposed, which was that of fellow countrymen of the same region and therefore of the same religion.
Oh how we can see the lies of such a smear! Even during the later times of the Roman Empire itself we can archaeologically see how the cities were abandoned, people moving to the countryside, away from societal upheavals, plagues and diseases and foreign invasions. Turned out that the way of life that the Christian preachers had belittled became yet again appealing for parents to raise their children in, make an honest living and retire in peace, enjoying the fruits of one’s labour. This ideal lifestyle is the true meaning of paganus, from which the word “Pagan” comes. The village with its self-sustaining, independent way of life, respecting one’s ancestors and living with nature is what we should strive for.

When we look at the many European traditional religions, we see that they are intimately connected to two fundamental basic truths: respect towards one’s ancestors and harmony with nature. This harmony with nature is expressed in a complex of rituals and ceremonies aimed at aligning the interiority of man, and thus of the human society, with the external changes of the natural world deriving from the solar and lunar cycles.

The European nations were pre-modern in their ways of life up to very recent times, with the majority of each nation living in the countryside and continuing ancient traditions. In many places the meaning of these traditions was forgotten, but this isn’t against the character of rituals. Traditions in themselves are important. They are what kept the villagers together, so they can survive as a whole in our ever-changing world.

This is the reason we will use the word “Pagan” to describe our spirituality and philosophy throughout Via Electri. The word “Pagan” reminds to us of the ideal that we should always strive for, that is, a return to the way of life that honours our ancestors and the Gods of the natural world.

[1] Actually, in Slavic languages there is a term that means a concept of vernacular rituals, beliefs, signs and superstitions. It’s called язычество (‘yazychestvo’) in Russian . If following its very own etymology, we can say it means something like “to be with one's own folk“ or “following folklore/national tradition“. It comes from the ancient Old Russian root языцы and it naturally means 'a nation/nations'. This word is very popular in the Bible in Old Russian where the term is being used literally.
In short, this may have some differences with the classic definition of Paganism in European languages since the word pagan came from a Latin root where it defines a social class separated from urban citizens.
In modern Russian, this word has long meant ancient beliefs; it does not matter whether it is about Slavic or some other beliefs. It is worth pointing that philologically it is considered normal to distinguish between Paganism and Neopaganism. The last term appears to be more actual and objective to define modern Pagan worshipers, meantime “Paganism“ means something ancient and passed away, despite the modern Pagan belief that exists for ages among native Siberian people or native Americans.
Nonetheless, modern Slavic pagans prefer to call themselves родноверы (‘rodnovery’) to emphasise this as a term self-belief and interpreting it the way that “Paganism“ used to be a term that Christians used against Slavic Pagans in ancient times.

[2] The word “myth” is fundamental to the understanding of the Pagan world, and it requires a separate discussion. Here we use the adjective mythical ancestor in the meaning of “an ancestor whose heritage is related to the Gods, in a time situated before the starting of the human story”.

[3] The inner nature of every monotheistic belief is expressed by the view that a plurality of Gods is a mistake, and that polytheistic cults are an error of a less enlightened part of humanity, that it is not able to recognize the magnificence of the “only one true God”. In this article we will address the contraposition between Paganism and Christianity, as it developed in Europe. But Christianity is only one of the most relevant monotheistic religions that from the first half of the previous millennium started to actively fight for religious and material mastery of a large, if not entire, portion of the planet. The analysis of monotheisms, and its theological fallaciousness will not be examined here, but the reader is referred to subsequent studies.
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