Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Ancient Paganism and Modern Paganism

The words pagan (paganus) and paganism are derived from the Latin and had a number of secular usages in ancient Roman society.1 In early ecclesiastical Latin, however, the terms are used pejoratively by Christians to designate those who do not share Christian faith; hence they are heathens or pagans. The word pagan is used in much the same way that the Greek word ethnos (the nations; usually translated “gentile”) served those of the Jewish faith (and later Christians) to designate those who did not profess faith in the God of Israel. This same word (ethnos) is also used by Paul to designate the prior polytheistic status of the Corinthian members of the Pauline gathering (1 Cor 5:1; 12:2, see also 10:20) where it is translated by the word pagan.2 In the fourth century paganism is broadly conceived as the “religion of the peasantry,” what was practiced in the countryside.3 A pagus was a person who lived in the country out of the city and practiced the old polytheistic ways of the Greco-Roman religions.

            Modern paganism seems to be something different from ancient paganism in the early Christian period. From what little I know about modern paganism it does not worship the ancient Greco-Roman Gods. My limited knowledge comes from a book I ran across in a modern book cemetery (Good Will). I rescued it and brought it home to read.4 The book is by two practicing pagans and appears to be a primer for persons considering a pagan faith and lifestyle (pagan wannabes). The sub-title to the book (see notes) characterizes the basic tenet of modern paganism. According to the authors, modern paganism originates in a particular attitude to the universe of which our earth is representative. The author briefly discusses only what he regards as the two major faith groups (Wiccan and Asatru; he alludes to others). I came to think of the groups, simplistically, as “denominations” in Earth-Centered Religions, similar to the various faith groups in Christianity.

            The authors of Paganism find a set of core principles (pp. 39-41) to Earth-Centered Religions, with which they think most pagans would agree. Three of these they emphasize as integrating “a variety of mystical and scientific perspectives” (pp. 133-34).

“Principle #4: Everything contains the spark of intelligence. Many pagans believe that everything from the smallest subatomic particle to the largest planetary system contains a spark of intelligence, or has some type of consciousness” (p.133). Hence, the universe is alive, has an interconnected sentience, is supportive, and is trustworthy. It operates “not only at levels that are physically grounded in time and space, but also at levels outside of time and space (p.199).

“Principle #5: Everything is sacred” (p.133). Hence the universe has a “sacred nature” and pagans “frequently feel a sense of kinship and connection with the universe”; they “may also believe that Deity permeates the universe and therefore see the universe as holy and blessed” (p. 134).

“Principle #6: Each part of the universe can communicate with each other part and these parts often cooperate for specific ends.” “Herin lies the heart of magick.5 Magick is a natural, not supernatural process, which in its simplest form, is the communication of many consciousnesses” (p. 134). Hence the pagan can engage the universe by the “process of stepping into the universal flow and choosing to participate with it in a deliberative fashion” (p.163) in much the same way that other religions think of prayer, meditation, inspiration, bliss, visions, revelation, miracles, etc. (p. 163).

            Although it may be dismissed as only figurative, Paul also appears to use sentient language of the creation in Romans 8:19-23: the creation waits with eager longing…subjected to futility not of its own will…creation will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God…creation has been groaning in labor pains…Eager longing (i.e., desire), having its own will (i.e., intent); sharing liberty (i.e., participating in redemption); groaning in labor pains (i.e. consciousness of pain and discomfort).

            Some interpreters of Romans seem to take Paul’s sentient language seriously: There is “a mysterious sympathy between the world and man…Creation is not inert utterly unspiritual, alien to our life and its hopes. It is the natural ally of our souls…[Creation] is the world and all that it contains, animate and inanimate…”6

            Does Paul express an attitude similar to that of modern paganism with his description of a sentient universe (κτσις)? Or, put another way, is Paul only using anthropomorphic language poetically and one should not, therefore, take it literally? So, how do you know?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1P. Rousseau, “pagan, paganism” in S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth, Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd ed.; Oxford), 1091.

2C. T. Lewis and C. Short, A Latin Dictionary (London: Oxford, 1922), 1290.


4Joyce and River Higginbotham, Paganism. An Introduction to Earth-Centered Religions (Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn, 2002).

5Pagans use this spelling to distinguish magick from magic, slight-of-hand, and parlor tricks (Paganism, 163).

6W. R. Nicoll, The Expositor’s Greek Testament (5 vols.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), vol. 2. 649.

Sunday, April 7, 2024

Superstitious Survivals from the Ancient Past

What is superstition, anyway? According to one dictionary it is “any belief, based on fear or ignorance, that is inconsistent with the known laws of science or with what is generally considered in the particular society as true and rational; esp. such a belief in charms, omens, and the supernatural, etc.”1 Hence superstitions are beliefs or actions that violate rational thought as conceived in a particular society—which makes superstition relative to what passes as critical thinking in a given community.

Since the rise of human reason in the 18th century many of the superstitious survivals of antiquity have generally lost their influence in our scientific based Western culture—particularly with the rise of modern Western secular education. Yet many superstitions still survive in a kind of underground way in the modern Western world—similar to the survival of paganism in the ancient Roman world. Paganism was edged-out by Christian ascendancy around the fifth century. After 440 CE no pagans are listed among the elite of the City of Rome.2 Yet the ancient religions and superstitions of the Greek and Roman worlds survived in the countryside away from the population centers of the cities, where Christianity had established itself.

            I was reminded of the fact that ancient superstitions still survive in modern society upon reading a sentence from Homer’s Iliad. In a speech Achilles made before the assembled Achaean warriors on the occasion of a pandemic caused by the God Phoebus Apollo over a slight by Agamemnon to Apollo’s priest, Chryses. The Achaeans were pondering why Apollo had sent his arrows of pestilence among them. Achilles suggested that they “should consult some seer (mantis), or priest (iereus), or interpreter of dreams (oneriopolos) to discover the cause.3

A seer in the ancient world (and in the Bible) is one who divines the future and answers other questions from various means, such as observing the flights of birds, for example.4 A priest in the ancient world (and in the Bible) is one who was authorized to perform the sacred rites of a religion, especially as an agent of mediation between people and God.”5 Oneiromancy, the interpretation of dreams, was prevalent throughout the ancient world (and in the Bible). Gods of the ancient world were thought to communicate with people through dreams (Matt 1:20-21; 2:13).

There was a prohibition of such practices in ancient Israel: there should not be found among you “anyone who practices divination, a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer” (Deut 18:10-12 RSV), but such figures were consulted anyway (1 Sam 9:9-12, 18-19).

These three supernatural practices still survive in modern Western society in various forms.  A psychic is a spiritual medium who answers questions dealing with matters beyond the physical world (check their availability on the internet). Priests are in the employ of certain modern religions. They are believed to have the power to mediate between God and people, particularly in the more ritualistic religious traditions (ascribing the divine presence to the elements of the Mass/Eucharist, for example). Dream interpretations are offered by psychics or mediums, who are believed to have the power to interface with the spirit world. Dream interpretation, however, has now also gone mainstream, and is a technique used by medically trained psychotherapists (hopefully not through the powers of spirits).6

Is Christianity’s Holy Spirit, perhaps, only another ancient superstition from the ancient past? It would seem, on the surface, that there is little difference between the ancient pagan belief that certain people communicated with and through spirit (not Holy Spirit) and Christianity’s belief that modern Christians communicate with God through Holy Spirit. Both groups access their Gods through the medium of spirit, what they both channel is a spiritual “reality,” and they are both pre-critical survivals from the ancient past.7 In what way is Christianity’s belief in Holy Spirit not also a survival from the ancient past? Why is it not also superstition, if pagan beliefs in spirit are superstition? If there can be one spirit (Holy Spirit), why can there not be more (pagan spirits)? Luke seemed to think so, when he described Paul as exorcising a spirit of the Pythia (Acts 16:16-18).

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th edition, 2002), s. v. “superstition.”

2Charles Hedrick, Jr., History and Silence. Purge and Rehabilitation of Memory in Late Antiquity (Austin: University of Texas, 2000), 57.

3Homer, The Iliad, Book 1, lines 62-63.

4See Charles W. Hedrick, “Prophecy, Divination and Fate,” The Fourth R 36.2 (March-April 2023), 15-18, 10. For other appearances of a seer in the Bible see 2 Sam 24:11; 2 kgs 17:13; 1 Chron 25:5; 2 Chron 9:29; Isa 29:10; Amos 7:12; Mic 3:7.

5Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1990), s. v. “priest.”

6National Library of Medicine: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3330585/

See also Charles W. Hedrick, “Does God Communicate in Dreams,” Blog: Wry Thoughts about Religion, May 16, 2013: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/2013/05/does-god-communicate-in-dreams.html?showComment=1368794635348

7Hedrick, “Laying on Hands, to Pass on the Holy Spirit,” Blog: Wry Thoughts about Religion, July 8, 2021: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/search?q=the+holy+spirit