Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Peasants, Civilians, and Locals: How Pagans became Pagans

The Latin word paganus has three broad, but distinct, meanings: “peasant,” “civilian,” and “pagan.” How did one word come to bear so many different, and seemingly unrelated, meanings?

French Classicist Pierre Chuvin, in his beautifully-written but depressing study of the end of Classical paganism, A Chronicle of the Last Pagans, has a theory.

It all begins, of course, with the land.

The Pagan as Peasant

A paganus is an inhabitant of the pagus, a country district. (A hick lives in the sticks.) “Peasant” is the original and best-documented meaning of the word; here paganus contrasts with urbanus, rural with urban. (“Heathen,” incidentally, is an early Germanic loan-translation of “pagan” in this sense; it is not, as some have claimed, a Germanicized version of the Greek ethnoi, “nations, gentiles.”)

The Pagan as Civilian

Beginning in the late Renaissance, some scholars became dissatisfied with this explanation of how the word gained its religious sense, since it didn't really mesh with the religious facts on the ground in late antiquity. (In fact, some of the Old Worship's most stalwart supporters were the urban aristocracy.)

In Classical Latin, a second meaning of paganus is “civilian.” Here paganus contrasts with miles, civilian with soldier. Unlike the peasant who works the land, the soldier has no roots in the place where he lives. In 1899, German scholar Theodor Zahn proposed that “pagan” gained its religious sense by implied contrast with the miles Christi, the “soldier of Christ” (Chuvan 8).

Chuvin neatly demolishes this explanation. Use of paganus in the sense of “civilian” had fallen into disuse by the time the word had gained its religious sense.

So much for the militia Christi.

The Pagan as Local

Because a paganus is someone who lives in the pagus, it came to mean “peasant” par excellence, but it can also mean someone who lives in a town as well. Writers from the time of Cicero on use it in this sense. When the poet Persius describes himself as semipaganus, he means that he divides his time between his town house and his country place. The father who eulogized his daughter as “pagana among pagani” was praising her as one who preeminently remained faithful to her origins.

At heart, then, Chuvin sees pagans not as peasants or civilians, but as, quite simply, “the 'people of the place,' town or country, who preserved their local customs” (Chuvin 9). Here paganus contrasts with alienus, the local with the outsider.

The People of the Place

Words change meaning over time. We must beware of the “etymological fallacy,” the mistaken belief that a word's original meaning is its true meaning.

But Chuvin's view of pagans as “the people of the place” reads to me as a rallying cry, a call to origins. If our paganism is nothing more than something out of books, then we have barely begun to be the pagans that we need to become. If as yet we are people of place more in theory than in reality, then we have our work cut out for us. If we know more about the Tarot and the s'firot than we do about the local trees, plants, and birds, then the way ahead is clear.

Because if we are not People of the Place, then we are nothing.

We are the People of the Place. We are the Pagans.


Pierre Chuvin (1990) A Chronicle of the Last Pagans, tr. B. A. Archer. Cambridge: Harvard University Press




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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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