Defining Paganism: Paleo-, Meso-, and Neo-

(Version 2.5.1)

Copyright © 1979, 2007 c.e., Isaac Bonewits

The term “Pagan” comes originally from the Latin “paganus,” which appears to have originally had such meanings as “villager,” “country dweller,” or “hick.” The Roman army used it to refer to civilians. The early Roman Christians used “pagan” to refer to everyone who preferred to worship pre-Christian divinities, whom the Christians had decided were all “really” demons in disguise, based on the habit of rural folks holding on to their old faiths longer than city folks, as well as because the polytheists were unwilling to enroll in “the Army of the Lord.” Over the centuries, “pagan” became simply an insult, applied to the monotheistic followers of Islam by the Christians (and vice versa), and by the Protestants and Catholics towards each other, as it gradually gained the connotation of “a false religion and its followers.” By the beginning of the twentieth century, the word’s primary meanings became a blend of “atheist,” “agnostic,” “hedonist,” “religionless,” etc., (when referring to an educated, white, male, heterosexual, non-Celtic European) and “ignorant savage and/or pervert” (when referring to everyone else on the planet).

Today there are many people who proudly call ourselves “Pagan,” and we use the word differently from the ways that most mainstream Westerners do. To most of us, “Paganismis a general term for polytheistic religions old and new, withPaganused as the adjective as well as the membership term. The overwhelming majority of all the human beings who have ever lived were or are Pagans, and we believe that there is an enormous wealth of spiritual insight and strength to be gained from following a Pagan path. There are three important points to be noted here, however:

  • Like the members of every other religious community, we Pagans have the right to define ourselves and to demand that our definitions, rather than (or in addition to) those invented by individuals and institutions hostile to us, be quoted or referenced when we are discussed by the mass media.
  • Like the names of all other religions and their followers, “PaganandPaganismdeserve a capital letter, just as “Buddhist,” “Christian,” “Protestant,” or “Bahai” do.
  • Like other general terms for religions, “Pagan/Paganismrequires modifying prefixes or adjectives in order to communicate specific approaches, denominations or sects. The following are the ones I have settled upon over the last thirtyfive years:

“Paleopaganism” or “Paleo-Paganism” is a general term for the original polytheistic, nature-centered faiths of tribal Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas, Oceania and Australia, when they were (or in some rare cases, still are) practiced as intact belief systems. Of the so-called “Great Religions of the World,” Hinduism (prior to the influx of Islam into India), Taoism and Shinto, for example, fall under this category, though many members of these faiths might be reluctant to use the term. Some Paleopagan belief systems may be racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. There are billions of Paleopagans living and worshiping their deities today.

“Mesopaganism” or “Meso-Paganism” is a general term for a variety of movements both organized and nonorganized, started as attempts to recreate, revive or continue what their founders thought were the best aspects of the Paleopagan ways of their ancestors (or predecessors), but which were heavily influenced (accidentally, deliberately and/or involuntarily) by concepts and practices from the monotheistic, dualistic, or nontheistic worldviews of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or early Buddhism. Examples of Mesopagan belief systems would include Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, Spiritualism, etc., as well as those forms of Druidism influenced by those movements, the many Afro-Diasporatic faiths (such as Voudoun, Santeria, Candomble, etc.), Sikhism, several sects of Hinduism that have been influenced by Islam and Christianity, Mahayana Buddhism, Aleister Crowley’s religion/philosophy of Thelema, Odinism (some Norse Paganism), most “Family Traditions” of Witchcraft (those that aren’t completely fake), and most orthodox (aka “British Traditionalist”) denominations of Wicca.

Also included as Mesopagans would be the so-called “Christo-Pagans,” those who call themselves “monotheist Pagans,” and perhaps those Satanists who worship the Egyptian deity Set, if there really are any. The Satanists who insist that they don’t worship anything other than themselves but who like to use the name Satan because it’s “scary,” are simply Christian heretics, along with the Secular Humanists and other Western atheists, because the God and Devil they don’t believe in are the ones defined by Christian doctrine. Some Mesopagan belief systems may be racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. There are at least a billion Mesopagans living and worshiping their deities today.

“Neopaganism” or “Neo-Paganism” is a general term for a variety of movements both organized and (usually) nonorganized, started since 1960 c.e. or so (though they had literary roots going back to the mid-1800’s), as attempts to recreate, revive or continue what their founders thought were the best aspects of the Paleopagan ways of their ancestors (or predecessors), blended with modern humanistic, pluralist and inclusionary ideals, while consciously striving to eliminate as much as possible of the traditional Western monotheism, dualism, and puritanism. The core Neopagan beliefs include a multiplicity of deities of all genders, a perception of those deities as both immanent and transcendent, a commitment to environmental awareness, and a willingness to perform magical as well as spiritual rituals to help both ourselves and others. Examples of Neopaganism would include the Church of All Worlds, most heterodox Wiccan traditions, Druidism as practiced by Ár nDraíocht Féin and the Henge of Keltria, some Norse Paganism, and some modern forms of Buddhism whose members refer to themselves as “Buddheo-Pagans.” Neopagan belief systems are not racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. There are hundreds of thousands of Neopagans living and worshiping their deities today. As “Neo-Paganism,” this term was popularized in the 1960’s and 1970’s by Oberon Zell, a founder of the Church of All Worlds.

The term “Neopaganism” has nothing to do with the Catholic Church’s recent use of “neo-paganism” to refer to Hitler’s Germanic Mesopaganism, which incorporated nineteen centuries of Christian anti-semitism and dualism. Hitler, after all, considered himself a good Christian and was perceived as such by many, if not most, German Christians at the time. The Catholic Church is simply trying to distract attention away from its responsibility for creating the Western cultural environment that dehumanized Jews, and from its pathetic record in opposing the Holocaust while it was going on (not to mention the value to the Church in trashing competing new religions by associating us with the Nazis).

These three prefixed terms do not delineate clear-cut categories. Historically, there is often a period, whether of decades or centuries, when Paleopaganism is blending into Mesopaganism, or Mesopaganism into Neopaganism. Furthermore, the founders and members of Mesopagan and Neopagan groups frequently prefer to believe (or at least declare) that they are genuinely Paleopagan in beliefs and practices. This “myth of continuity” is in keeping with the habits of most creators and members of new religions throughout human existence, and should not be taken too seriously.

When doing searching on the Net, you should be aware that some people do and some don’t hyphenate these terms, especially “Neo-Paganism,” that many Neopagans drop the “Neo-” entirely (especially in casual use), and that many outsiders refuse to capitalize the names of our religions. More confusingly, many Mesopagans and Paleopagans refuse to use the term “Pagan” for themselves at all, having accepted the mainstream Christian definitions. One sign of progress, however, occured when the publishers of Hinduism Today — a fabulous monthly journal published in a dozen languages around the globe — printed an editorial a few years back in which they proudly accepted the term “Pagan” on behalf of the one billion Hindus in the world!

Obviously, the use of this vocabulary is currently in flux, and you may need to try variant spellings, capitalizations, and hyphenizations to find what you’re looking for.

Some of this material is taken from my Pagan Glossary of Terms, elsewhere on my website. I will eventually have a page here listing definitions for Paganism and Neopaganism written by other Pagan authors and groups.

Copyright © 1979, 2007 c.e., Isaac Bonewits. This text file may be freely distributed on the Net, provided that no editing is done, the version number is retained, and everything in this notice box is included. If you would like to be on one or more of Isaac Bonewits’ emailing lists, click here to get subscription information.

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