The Problem With Paganism

06 Dec

Actually, there is no problem with paganism itself, I’m becoming concerned with the term, in particular the “ism” part.

A long while back, when I was first getting started on this Medieval History thing, I read Susan Reynolds’ Fiefs and Vassals. This was very much a revision of what was often called feudalism or the feudal system. To contract a book of over 500 pages into a couple of sentences, she argued that there was no such thing as a feudal system, or feudalism. Land tenure arrangements varied widely from place to place and over time, making use of terminology such as “system or “ism” flawed. Good book and if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. Or at least read Elizabeth Brown’s 1974 American Historical Review article. I consider Reynolds one of the most influential Medieval History books I’ve read.

I’m just getting started on reading on Early Christianity but before I even get going on this, it seems to me that the term “paganism” suffers from the same problem. First, there was no “ism” about it. Different people revered different Gods and Goddesses and each of these cults had their own rituals (though I’m certain some were very similar). Some pagans revered one deity, such as Sol Invictus, others several. Some pagan cults engaged in ritual sacrifice (animal — claims of Human sacrifice, at least during the period of the Empire — should be considered baseless accusations, often by Christians who misinterpreted what went on at games) others used incense and/or wore laurel wreaths. An initiate into the cult of Mercury would have undergone a very different ritual from one entering that of Mithras. And this is before we get into all of the local cults and designated Gods for specific cities, or private ritual.

The only time this “ism” seems to be appropriate is in a discussion of how contemporary Christians viewed things. They do not seem to have made much of a distinction between one form of pagan practice and another. Otherwise, lumping all pagan practices under one label is a gross oversimplification of the multiple cults and practices that were followed and engaged in during the Roman Empire.

This is a problem, but IMO it isn’t the largest one. This “ism” infers, at least to me, that there was some sort of cohesiveness to pagan practice. In my mind, the term suggests the concept of large pagan congregations highly involved in their cult, receiving lessons in doctrine and worship and actively promoting their beliefs.

This wasn’t the case. Active paganism was largely the concern of the elites who were selected for various offices and priesthoods within their respective cults. State support was used for maintenance of temples and the “professionals” involved in promoting the cults (Vestal Virgins are probably the most well-known of these – their maintenance wasn’t free, or cheap). Until the later 4th century state funds supported temples and rituals. Large-scale participation among the populace was largely restricted to festivals. One of the reasons paganism (see — I’m doing it too — tried substituting pagan practices and it just didn’t seem right) sort of just faded away without any sort of epic battle against Christianity is that large numbers of the populace weren’t that concerned with it. This contrasts with Christianity with its organizational system based on bishops, involving the widespread teaching of doctrine and practice, and the ability to influence large numbers of people. The large scale religious responses seen in the fourth and fifth century were largely restricted to Christianity, an ancient form of “get out the vote” which could be translated to “take it to the streets.” The populace was very capable of demonstrating about other things. Food shortages, closure of games (they didn’t seem to much care if games were to honor a God or not so long as they were held), and opposition to/support for an Emperor all brought people out. But paganism was unable to inspire this sort of reaction.

I don’t have a substitute term for paganism — I wish I did. As I learn more about this I may find that someone has written on this, an Ancient History version of Elizabeth Brown’s article. For me the use of the term paganism carries the risk of oversimplifying the wide range of polytheistic and monotheistic practices carried out in the Empire as well as implying that there was a high degree of cohesiveness among practitioners and followers. Neither of these is true. There should be something better, or, unless used in the context of what contemporary Christians believed about non-Christians, these beliefs should be explained in more detail rather than being summed up with an imprecise 8-word term.1

I shall now tell my pedantic self to go sit in a corner. He may escape again though. Unfortunately, I’m reasonably certain I’ll use paganism myself from time to time, as I have in this very post. Might be a case where I’ll need to resurrect my self-policing through fines.

1 There are a couple of exceptions to this. A statement such as “Symmachus wrote a letter defending paganism and urging Theodosius to restore state support for the temples as well as the Altar of Victory.” seems OK because it would be an instance of referring to the entire scope of practice, where the specifics are relatively unimportant. Another acceptable use would be if used in a discussion of specifics. For example, “Paganism associated with Jupiter included …” or “The form of paganism most strongly favored by the Symmachi involved …” However even in these cases, substituting “pagan practices” (or something) for “paganism” seems preferable to me.

Brown, Elizabeth A. R., (1974). “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe”, The American Historical Review 79, 1063-1088.

Reynolds, Susan, Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1996). ISBN: 9780198-206484.


Posted by on December 6, 2011 in Historiography, Religion


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7 responses to “The Problem With Paganism

  1. Curt Emanuel

    December 6, 2011 at 11:16 am

    Sometimes I have to laugh at myself. Just took a look at Wikipedia's page on Paganism which says, For these reasons, ethnologists avoid the term "paganism," with its uncertain and varied meanings, in referring to traditional or historic faiths, preferring more precise categories such as polytheism, shamanism, pantheism, or animism.Evidently someone has beaten me to this, probably by several decades. Oh well – I'll leave this up anyway.

  2. edmund

    December 8, 2011 at 2:20 am

    It's an interesting problem. On one hand, I sometimes think that people take the anti -ism position a little too far; as long as someone who recognizes how problematic paganism (or feudalism) is as a term, I perversely don't have a problem with them using it. I still think those terms capture something relatively specific, even if there are many exceptions or indeed if there's a lack of anything really regulated and stable enough to except from.One of the phenomena that "paganism" may capture speaks to a point you made in this post: where "paganism" faded away in the competition against Christianity. I've been thinking a lot about how rare the claim of one and only one god really is in terms of historical religions – isn't it limited to the Abrahamic faiths? I wonder if the fervor they've been able to inspire and their general success in the face of various "pagan" competitors isn't related to the fact that they claim to be the only game in town; it seems to me that most of the religions they were competing with, at least in the Middle Ages, were folkish paganisms which were very willing to acknowledge limited jurisdiction and incorporate alternate religious systems. That's the trait I'm usually thinking of when I think of "paganism" these days. Pretty rambling, I know. Wonder what you think about this mess?

  3. Curt Emanuel

    December 9, 2011 at 1:00 am

    I think using paganism depends on the context of the discussion. There's a lot of validity if you're talking about the evolution of Christianity (or much of anything) from the Christian perspective because they viewed all of these folks as pretty much the same. But if, for example, someone really wants to explore the culture of Rome through the later 4th century, it's useless. If you're going to talk about a Roman's religious belief, say he or she was a follower of Vesta or Jupiter or whoever – calling a third century Roman a pagan rather than defining his or her cult isn't really exploring that person – the term's meaningless in that period's context – and anachronistic besides.

  4. Curt Emanuel

    December 9, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    I do this all the time – didn't address the second part of your post. Must be wearing blinders. By the Middle Ages most of what gets described as paganism or pagans isn't really paganism but remnant pagan practices. I'm thinking mainly of Gregory of Tours but what bugs him are Christians who may place some sort of offering such as flowers at a shrine or hold a festival. Most of the 6th century and later authors probably had a very vague concept of what went on in Rome so the term paganism is OK as describing how these sources viewed things though again, I'm afraid use of the term gives the false impression I mentioned in the post; that there was a high degree of commonality across the board with pagan practices and that pagans were some sort of cohesive group. I'd prefer someone who's analyzing this to talk about "… holdover pagan practices such as …" rather than breaking out the "ism."I just think there should be a better way.

  5. theswain

    December 10, 2011 at 5:46 am

    Hey Curt, Yes, not a new idea, but still a problem. As you've noticed histories of early Christianity continue to use the term, as do histories of the late Empire, Late Antiquity, and the Early Middle Ages! And I think you are quite right that the term paganism is as problematic as "feudalism". I've long ago stopped using it whenever possible in favor of specificity, or where specificity isn't possible, I refer to "pre-christian beliefs and practices." Not sure I'll start a revolution, but it's the best I've come up with for our little world.

  6. Curt Emanuel

    December 10, 2011 at 12:29 pm

    Thanks Larry. Not a bad term, far better than "ism." I have to come up with terminology for my use and what you have may work nicely.


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