Just What Do You Mean,
Pagan or Heathen?
By John B
What do you think of when you hear the word “pagan”? In my mind, it conjures up scenes of roaring bonfires on a dark night, hooded figures mumbling mysterious chants, and some kind of graven image where many people are bowing down to worship. The next page in that scenario features worshippers tossing live babies into the flames to appease their god. Does that sound familiar?
Christianity in general, and the Worldwide Church in particular, have nothing good to say about pagan people. In Worldwide Church of God they were especially slandered, and I suspect that in today’s xCOG’s they still are.
Worldwiders had a phobia about paganism. Everyone was on the lookout for things that were pagan, so we could avoid them. Everyone knew that Christmas and Easter were pagan, along with Halloween, April Fool’s Day, and Sunday. But it didn’t stop there. Certain kinds of music were considered pagan, certain foods (e.g., pretzels and hot cross buns) were pagan. You couldn’t cross your fingers, knock on wood, or say “bless you” when someone sneezed (but nose-picking was okay). Tons of research was done to determine what had pagan origins, and if such an origin was found, the subject in question had to be avoided.
It got ridiculous.
What is Paganism?
But just what do you mean, pagan??
I remember a lot of Worldwide ministers loved dictionaries. Any time they wanted to make a point about something, they would trot out a dictionary definition so we knew what they were talking about. (Not a bad idea, actually, but it was somewhat ironic that they claimed the dictionary was wrong when it defined “Christian”!) So let’s do the same thing:
1. One who is not a Christian, Muslim, or Jew, especially a worshiper of a polytheistic religion.
2. One who has no religion.
3. A non-Christian.
4. A hedonist.
5. A Neo-Pagan.
Hm. Well, that’s interesting, but rather vague. It really only tells us what a pagan is not, and says nothing about the origins of the word.
A little further research brings us to the following information:
The word 'pagan' is derived from a Middle English word, which itself comes from the from the Latin word paganus, which means 'country dweller'. This is derived from the Latin word pagus, which means 'country' or 'rural area'.
Soon a nice little word that described nice people who lived outside the cities began to have all sorts of connotations. Today, people who live in metropolitan areas usually look upon those who do not with disdain. The same was probably true in the days of the Roman Empire as well.
Back then, as now, things always seemed to begin in the cities, and eventually trickled down into the country villages. The country villages were always behind in the latest news, fashion and spiritual revolutions. Whatever religion that may have been sweeping across the cities probably was not practised out in the country right away. Therefore the pagani were probably out of step whenever a new religion came along. It just took longer for the missionaries to convert the farmers who were spread out in the country than it did the centralised population centres of the cities. So the result was the pagani would continue practising the old religion after the new religion had supplanted it in the cities.
From their point of view, the metropolitan population had many reasons to disdain a pagan. For them, a pagan dressed strangely, worked in the dirt all day, was ignorant, illiterate, and uneducated. To top it off a pagan even worshipped the wrong gods.
Now we’re getting somewhere! The word “pagan” doesn’t sound so sinister now, does it? No more sinister than “hick”, “hayseed, or "country bumpkin”. And then there’s the companion word “heathen”. Worldwide Church of God never used that word much, but other religions do, and it means the same thing – pagan and heathen are interchangeable. But what does “heathen” really mean?
Once again the dictionary definition is rather disappointing:
pl. hea·thens or heathen
a. One who adheres to the religion of a people or nation that does not acknowledge the God of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.
b. Such persons considered as a group; the unconverted.
a. One who is regarded as irreligious, uncivilized, or unenlightened.
b. Such persons considered as a group.
Nothing here about the origin of the word. Further research leads us to this website: http://paganandproud.bravepages.com/Wariofthedictionaries.html
About a third of the way down the page we find this nugget:
Usage: Pagan, Gentile, Heathen. Gentile was applied to the other nations of the earth as distinguished from the Jews. Pagan was the name given to idolaters in the early Christian church, because the villagers, being most remote from the centers of instruction, remained for a long time unconverted. Heathen has the same origin.
Simply stated, “heathen” refers to ‘heath dwellers”, which means essentially the same thing as “pagan”. Country people. Nothing sinister there at all. Nothing evil. Just plain, ordinary folks, a whole lot like the majority of people who were attracted to the Worldwide Church of God.
So Why All the Fuss?
So why all the hysteria over things pagan? To be fair, it wasn’t the Worldwide who started it -- Protestants have been obsessed with paganism forever – but Worldwide Church of God certainly capitalized on it. But when you realize what “pagan” actually means, the whole thing starts to sound a little silly.
Of course, it wasn’t the word “pagan” that we were afraid of; it was the practices of idolatry and child sacrifice, et al. We didn’t want to offend God, and by keeping us scared that we would accidentally do so, resulting in a horrible pox on our houses, Worldwide Church of God was better able to control us and squeeze out a few more dollars. So they began to emphasize everything that remotely sounded pagan, and urged us to avoid it. Many of us began looking for other things they hadn’t mentioned, like...does the red letter S on Superman’s chest stand for Satan? After all, Superman has power over the air, doesn’t he?
As for pagan practices, we were basically misled. Pagans still exist today, lots of them. You can run a search for their websites and learn a great deal about them. What you will find is that they are very much like you and me. They pay their bills and love their kids and obey the law to the same degree that anyone else does. There is nothing demonic about them. They believe and practice a variety of things, but primarily they worship nature; and since we are all a part of nature, and nature feeds and provides for us, I don’t see a great deal wrong with that. I don’t subscribe to it myself, but it makes just as much sense as worshipping an invisible man in the sky when the only evidence we have of his existence is a book as flawed as the Bible.
We were taught to avoid paganism in all its forms, at all costs. I submit to you that it’s impossible to do that. In order to completely avoid paganism, you have to not only shun certain foods and holidays, avoid certain phrases and sayings, but you also must cut everything out of your vocabulary that has pagan roots. Doing that is going to leave you pretty much speech-impaired (also known as “dumb”). To illustrate this, let’s ignore the foods and holidays and sayings and just look at the language itself.
Things to Avoid
If one is to completely avoid paganism, the following words must never again be uttered:
Pagan Word Pagan Source Sunday Venerable Day of the Sun.
Monday day of the Moon .
Tuesday Tiu’s Day (Mars’s Day).
Wednesday Woden’s Day (Anglo Saxon god).
Thursday Thor’s Day (Norse god of thunder).
Friday Freya’s Day (Norse goddess of love and beauty).
Saturday Saturn’s Day.
January month of Janus, Roman god of gates and doorways.
February februa (expiatory offerings).
March month of Mars.
May month of Maia, an italic goddess.
June month of Juno, wife of Jupiter, goddess of marriage, childbirth, and the moon. Latin name Mensis, from which we get the word “menstruation”.
July named for that pagan emperor Julius Caesar.
August named for that pagan emperor Augustus.
Mercury Roman god of commerce, travel, and thievery. (You can never again speak of the planet Mercury, drive a Mercury car, or use a thermometer.)
Venus Roman goddess of Love and Beauty. (You can never say “venereal” again, as it is a disease caused by sex. Nor can you ever “venerate” anyone.)
Mars Roman god of war.
Jupiter The supreme Roman god, patron of the state and brother and husband of Juno. He came to be identified with the Greek Zeus. Also called Jove. (Don’t forget to cancel your email account at juno.com!)
Saturn Roman god of agriculture. (You can’t drive your Saturn any more. I’ll have to sell my Vue!)
Uranus The earliest supreme Greek god, a personification of the sky, who was the son and consort of Gaea and the father of the Cyclopes and Titans. (No more jokes about “If you touch my Saturn, I’ll kick Uranus”.)
Neptune Roman god of water, later identified with the Greek Poseidon.
Pluto Roman god of the dead and the ruler of the underworld. (No more Mickey Mouse cartoons!)
Calendar The calendar has all sorts of pagan connotations. Not only does it contain all those pagan words above, it contains months, which are divisions of time based on the moon. Remember, pagans worship nature, and astronomy in particular. Anything associated with the division of time and/or the heavens is pure paganism! Therefore, 19-year time cycles are PAGAN!
Atlas A Titan condemned by Zeus to support the heavens upon his shoulders. (No more map books in the glove compartment – throw them out!)
Titan One of a family of giants, the children of Uranus and Gaea, who sought to rule heaven and were overthrown and supplanted by the family of Zeus. (Never again watch Titanic!)
Well, that's a short list, but maybe you get the idea. To do a comprehensive list would require months with a dictionary, and I have to work for a living, so you'll just have to finish the list yourself. While you're at it, don't forget all the medical terms, such as pharmacy, and terms related to sex, such as pornography -- lots of pagan roots in there.
The whole point is that we are at the tail end of history (so far -- but by no means the end of history!). Thousands of years have preceded us, and we don't exist in a vacuum. Everything around us has evolved based on earlier events and ancient cultures. That includes not only our habits, holidays, and sayings, but our very language. When I was a kid I used to wonder why NASA named so many of its modules things like Apollo, Gemini, and Atlas. I didn't realize they had significance in Greek mythology, which any Worldwider will quickly tell you is pagan to the core. The reason, of course, is that we are, individually and collectively, merely a composite of all that has gone before. To try to root out any part of that from our language and our customs is not only narrow minded, but impossible. It's also ridiculous.
How successful do you think you'd be if you decided to eliminate all the words listed above (never mind all the words I didn't list)? Someone asks for your date of birth, and you tell him, "I was born on the 27th day of the 8th month on the 6th day of the week, in 1961." You're going to feel a little foolish, aren't you? And you're going to look very foolish.
Give yourself a break. Forget about all this pagan nonsense. It's there. You can't avoid it. You don't have to practice it -- in fact, I advise you not to. But don't get all haired out over it. It's just history, and it doesn't mean a thing. Go rent a movie instead. May I recommend The Poseidon Adventure?
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