How do you say “pagan” in Pagan?

“Pagan”, of course, is how one says “pagan” in Cowan; it’s a name bestowed on us by outsiders. We're certainly not the first people in history to take a name bestowed in scorn and to wear it with pride, nor, we may be sure, will we be the last. But ultimately it’s an outside-looking-in (or etic) name, rooted in someone else’s perspective and thought.

The question then arises: what is our inside-looking-out (or emic) name for ourselves? What is our term of self-description rooted in the internal logic of our own worldview?

Here as elsewhere, I think, the heathens have the right of it ("heathen" being, of course, the Anglo-Saxon loan-translation of the Latin paganus, "hick"). Like every other tribe in the world, we call ourselves the True people. We are the True.


If we wish to understand the internal logic of this name, we must first unyoke true from its dualistic pairing with false. (That this pairing was not an original part of the concept is confirmed by the fact that true stems from an Anglo-Saxon root and false from a Latin one.)


The first and oldest sense of the word true meant “loyal, faithful.” (Trust, truth, and betroth are all related words.) The original root would seem to have meant “be firm, steadfast, solid.” What is solid is something that can be trusted, relied upon. (Interestingly, the word tree comes from this same root.) So we are True because we have remained true—loyal, faithful, steadfast—to the gods and ways of our ancestors.

This, then, is how paganism looks from the inside. Because we have kept faith with the Old Gods and the Old Ways, we are the True. (Note that keeping faith with something is distinct from having faith in it. Faith—in the sense of belief—is not numbered among the pagan virtues. Faithfulness, however—in the sense of trustworthiness—stands foremost among them.) It is we who have remained true to the ways of the ancestors; those who have departed from them have then become in some sense unTrue. One must, then, ask: is this too loaded a term? What are the implications for inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations if non-pagan peoples are other than True?

But here once again we have departed from the logic of the tribal worldview. Every people is, in its own eyes, True. All peoples are True insofar as they are faithful to their own ways. To every people, its own ways.

The paganisms make no claim to universal status; they are all, by definition, local, tribal. In the Wonderful World of the Many, all peoples can be True together.

Just differently True.


Those who wish for a deeper understanding of the thought-world of the ancestors can hardly do better than to dive into Calvert Watkin's magisterial The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (Third edition, 2011), where every word's a story.

For more on the pagan virtues, see chapter 5 of Ceisiwr Serith's Deep Ancestors: Practicing the Religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans (ADF Publishing, 2007), in my opinion (for what it's worth) the single best treatment of pagan ethics in the modern literature.