Paganism

Paganism is defined as the practice of religion other than Judaism, Christianity or Islam, three religions that believe in one God, who is the creator of the universe. Jews and Muslims have been known to refer to anyone that practices religion outside their belief system to be pagan worshipers.

Paganism was the main religion of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. The word pagan comes from the Latin word paganus, which means country dweller. The pagan usually believes in multiple gods. In ancient societies, people commonly believed in many gods, goddesses and deities. Paganism is firmly rooted in idol worship and the belief that everything has a spirit. There are gods of the forest, sea and nature.

There are many forms of paganism. The most popular were Celtic, Greco-Roman, ancient Egyptian and Norse. Native-American cultures practice Shamanism, a technique used in traditional societies. The shaman is believed to reach out to the realm of the spirit. Members of the community try to reach out to a spirit to find out information about the spiritual and healing needs of the community.

Paganism dates back 4,000 years to ancient Egypt during the time of the pharaohs. Sacred texts have been discovered revealing some of the rituals that were performed. Egyptian paganism centered on the interaction with many deities. These deities were believed to control the forces and elements of nature. Always seeking to appease the gods, Egyptian practices were efforts to gain the favor of the deities.

All religious practices centered on the pharoah, king of Egypt. Although the pharaoh was a human being, he was believed to descend from the gods. The only way the gods could be sustained and appeased was through the pharaoh. Magnificent temples were built where people could perform religious rituals. The people could also contact the gods through personal prayer and magic.

Animal sacrifices were part of pagan ritual. The most common form of slaughter was of tame/farm animals including goats, cows and sheep, which would be eaten afterwards.

Halloween has pagan origins. It is also referred to as All Saints' Day (November 1). Halloween corresponds to the time on the Christian calendar for honoring saints and the recently departed. Because of its association with the supernatural, Halloween is considered to have strong pagan roots. Many people have traced its origins to the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds.

Celtic paganism began in Western Europe during the Iron Age (500 BCE to 500 CE). Little is known about the Celtics, but Roman history reveals that human sacrifices were a main part of their religion. The Celtics believed in many gods, both male and female. Greco-Roman paganism, also known as Hellenistic religion, dates back to the Roman Empire (300 BCE to 300 CE). Religious practices were passed down from Greek culture during the Hellenistic period and the Roman Empire. Some change came from the influence of religions of other countries. With the development of astrology, the sun, moon and planets were used to determine a person's character.

Norse paganism came from the Germanic people living in the Nordic countries. It is a branch of Germanic paganism, practiced in Northern and Central Europe during the age of the Vikings (8th to the 11th centuries CE). Archaeological findings have provided clues as to how the religion was practiced. Norse paganism did not focus around the temple; in fact, very few temples were built. Norse paganism most closely identified with Celtic paganism. Ritualistic ceremonies were practiced in a home or on a simple altar. Archaeological evidence suggests that there was some kind of hierarchy similar to priesthood, with women performing magic.

The Norse performed two types of human sacrifice: one for the gods at a religious festival and a sacrifice performed at a funeral. An account by an eyewitness confirms that slave girls would sometimes volunteer to accompany their masters to the next world. In an effort to prolong his life, a Swedish king named Aun sacrificed nine of his sons. He was going to sacrifice his last son, but he was stopped by his men.

The chief god of the Norse, Odin, was the god of death by hanging. Perfectly preserved bodies discovered in modern-day Norway, are believed to be some of the victims of death by hanging.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Last Pagans of Rome
Alan Cameron.
Oxford University Press, 2011
Christianity and Paganism, 350-750: The Conversion of Western Europe
J. N. Hillgarth.
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986 (Revised edition)
European Paganism: The Realities of Cult from Antiquity to the Middle Ages
Ken Dowden.
Routledge, 2000
Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity
Polymnia Athanassiadi; Michael Frede.
Oxford University Press, 1999
When the Norns Have Spoken: Time and Fate in Germanic Paganism
Anthony Winterbourne.
Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2004
Her Share of the Blessings: Women's Religions among Pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Greco-Roman World
Ross Shepard Kraemer.
Oxford University Press, 1993
Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions
H. R. Ellis Davidson.
Syracuse University Press, 1988
Marx, Moses, and the Pagans in the Secular City
Sunic, Tomislav.
CLIO, Vol. 24, No. 2, Winter 1995
Anselm and the Unbelievers: Pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Cur Deus Homo
Asiedu, F. B. A.
Theological Studies, Vol. 62, No. 3, September 2001
From Constantine to Julian: Pagen and Byzantine Views; a Source History
Samuel N. C. Lieu; Dominic Montserrat.
Routledge, 1996
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "Constantine's 'Pagan Vision'"
Religion in Late Roman Britain: Forces of Change
Dorothy Watts.
Routledge, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "The Pagan Revival of the Late Fourth Century AD 360-90" and Chap. 4 "Further Evidence for the Revival of Paganism"
The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories
Robert Poole.
Manchester University Press, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 11 "Wicca, Paganism, and History: Contemporary Witchcraft and the Lancashire Witches"
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