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The word Pagan

Native American "Indian" tribes usually did not choose the names we know them by, but were named by rival tribes, and those names were often derogatory. Likewise, pagan is not a name that we chose for ourselves, and it was not meant as a compliment. 

"...paganus, the root of 'pagan' as well as 'peasant,' is consistently pejorative.." [1]  

In the contemporary community of Ællinismόs (Hellenismos; Gr. Ἑλληνισμός), the ancient Greek religion, the word triggers varying reactions depending on who uses it (and who receives it). The name should be avoided for several reasons. It is usually in relationship to people outside the tradition that the objections arise. The word conjures images of "devil-worship" and magic. Hellenic practitioners would be wise to refrain from identifying with the word so as to distance themselves from other non-Christian groups such as Wicca, Neo-Druidism, Heathens, New Age practitioners, or even atheists, who are sometimes also referred to as pagans.

In the West, we have these various words: pagan, Christian, and atheist. In the eyes of some Christians, all people who do not worship their God are pagans and outsiders. This is an indication of the weight that Christians give to the refusal to believe their doctrine. An interesting fact is that the term 'atheist' was first used by the ancient practitioners of our religion to describe Christians. The Christians did not believe in the Gods of the ancestral tradition; they only believed in one god. 

"In the early Christian period, atheism, in our sense, was not an option. 'Atheists' were either Epicureans who denied the Gods' providence, but not their existence, or Jews and Christians who worshipped their own god, while denying everyone else's." [2]

One thing is quite certain, the word pagan in antiquity referred to worshipers of the ancient Gods of the Roman Empire. Jonathan Kirsch in his book God Against The Gods says 

" 'Pagan' is a word invented by early Christians to describe anyone who refused to recognize the Only True God, and no self-respecting pagan ever described himself as one." [3] 

According to Robin Lane Fox in Pagans and Christians, it was the Christians who first used the term to refer to the adherents of the old tradition: 

"Pagani were civilians who had not enlisted through baptism as soldiers (Latin: milites) of Christ against the powers of Satan." [4]

The word pagan comes from the Latin paganus [1].  According to Pierre Chuvin: 

"A paganus is the inhabitant of a pagus, a country district, a man whose roots, unlike a soldier's, are where he lives." [5] 

Further, Chuvin goes on to say that pagans are those who...

"preserved their local customs, whereas the alieni, the 'people from elsewhere,' were increasingly Christian." [6]  

And Chuvin states that the use of the term is consistently pejorative. [1]

After Ællinismόs was suppressed by Christian compulsion, the term pagan increasingly began to take on the meaning of "peasant," not unlike the modern slang-word "hillbilly." This is due to the fact that in late antiquity the practitioners of the ancient religious traditions were becoming confined to rural areas, areas much more difficult for state and religious authority to control. In fact, the majority of "pagans" at this time were indeed peasants, the intellectuals in the cities having been forced into secrecy or to convert to the new religion.

"Theod. xvi. ro. 4, 6), forbidding all sacrifices on pain of death, and still more by the statutes of Theodosius (Cod. Theod. xvi.10.12) enacted in 392, in which sacrifice and divination were declared treasonable and punish-able with death; the use of lights, incense, garlands and libations was to involve the forfeiture of house and land where they were used; and all who entered heathen temples were to be fined." [7]

This identification of pagan with the uneducated is particularly annoying to contemporary Hellenic worshipers, given that Ællinismόs is a sophisticated tradition with considerable intellectual achievements.

The name pagan, rightly or not, has become identified in the modern mind with all kinds of negative associations, baggage which we should in no way identify with. If you call yourself pagan, the assumption is that you promote evil and believe in magic, superstition, and eclecticism. While in some cases this may be an unfair criticism of religious groups who identify themselves as pagan or neo-pagan, it is better to let them fight their own battles and to dissociate our religion from practices which are foreign to it.

The word Hellene

Another word from antiquity used by some in the modern Ællinismόs is Hellene (Hellene; Gr. Έλληνες). A Hellene is a person of Greek heritage, for the Greeks are the descendants of Hellen (Gr. Ἕλλην), the son of Deucalion (Gr. Δευκαλίων). During the early Christian era, the word Hellene was used by the Emperor Julian to identify those like himself, who followed the ancient polytheistic religion regardless of ethnicity, to differentiate themselves from the new Christian religion.

"He (ed. Julian) encouraged the Hellenes, the term he uses to describe what Christians called 'pagans,' ..." [8]

After he was assassinated and his attempt to restore the ancient religion failed, ethnic Greeks avoided identification with the name Hellene to escape persecution by the church and the Empire. 

" 'Hellene' in the sense of 'pagan' was as widely used by 'upholders of the ancient religion' as by their adversaries, with the occasional qualification of 'in matters of faith.' This term is deceptive, for in the mouths of Christians it seems to include in the same censure both paganism and Greco-Roman culture, whereas long before the fifth century both Christians and pagans admired and studied the same classical texts. As a matter of fact, the term Hellene had primarily negative implications: pagans were no longer 'Romans,' the legitimate heirs of the Empire." [9]  

Much later, during the period of the Crusades, this practice was reversed because the Byzantines suffered much at the hands of western countries. On account of this abuse, ethnic Greeks began again to adopt the name Hellene, but with no connotation of belief in the ancient Gods, but, rather, as a matter of pride. This tradition continues to this day in that Hellene simply means "Greek," as it originally did. The word Hellene is used in modern times by some people who worship the ancient Greek Gods to refer to themselves and from the above, the reader can see that there is historical precedent for this use of the word, but this usage presents problems to ethnic Greeks who feel that it robs them of their identity.

Other names

Other words and phrases have problems also. Some prefer the term Hellenist, but to the majority of people, a Hellenist is a classical scholar, this word having no connotation of anything about worship or philosophy at all. Hellenic polytheist is a bit technical and is flawed merely for it's length. Some are using Hellenic Gentile to describe themselves. Gentile comes from the Latin gentilis, a clan or tribe; although the word has come to mean "not Jewish," this was not it's original meaning

When this author is asked what his religion is, I simply say that I practice Ællinismόs, the ancient Greek religion. Yes, it is a mouthful. And if someone wants to know more of what that means (a rare thing), it is a good opportunity to explain something of our beautiful religion.


[1] A Chronicle of the Last Pagans by Pierre Chuvin, 1990, Harvard University Press, p. 7.

[2] Pagans and Christians by Robin Lane Fox, 1986/1987, Knopf, p. 30.

[3] God Against the Gods by Jonathan Kirsch, 2004, Viking Compass, p.14.

[4] Pagans and Christians by Robin Lane Fox, 1986/1987, Knopf, pp. 30-31

[5] A Chronicle of the Last Pagans by Pierre Chuvin, 1990, Harvard University Press, p. 8 last paragraph.

[6] Chuvin, p. 9.

[7] Classic Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Edition.

[8] God Against the Gods by Jonathan Kirsch, 2004, Viking Compass, p. 255.

[9] Chuvin, p. 7.

The story of the birth of the Gods: Orphic Rhapsodic Theogony.
We know the various qualities and characteristics of the Gods based on metaphorical stories: Mythology
Dictionary of terms related to ancient Greek mythology: Glossary of Hellenic Mythology.
Introduction to the Thæí (the Gods): The Nature of the Gods.
How do we know there are Gods? Experiencing Gods.

The logo to the left is the principal symbol of this website. It is called the CESS logo, i.e. the Children of the Earth and the Starry Sky. The Pætilía (Petelia, Πετηλία) and other golden tablets having this phrase (Γῆς παῖς εἰμί καὶ Οὐρανοῦ ἀστερόεντος) are the inspiration for the symbol. The image represents this idea: Earth (divisible substance) and the Sky (continuous substance) are the two kozmogonic substances. The twelve stars represent the Natural Laws, the dominions of the Olympian Gods. In front of these symbols is the seven-stringed kithára (cithara, κιθάρα), the lyre of Apóllohn (Apollo, Ἀπόλλων). It (here) represents the bond between Gods and mortals and is representative that we are the children of Orphéfs (Orpheus, Ὀρφεύς).

PLEASE NOTE: Throughout the pages of this website, you will find fascinating stories about our Gods. These narratives are known as mythology, the traditional stories of the Gods and Heroes. While these tales are great mystical vehicles containing transcendent truth, they are symbolic and should not be taken literally. A literal reading will frequently yield an erroneous result. The meaning of the myths is concealed in code. To understand them requires a key. For instance, when a God kills someone, this usually means a transformation of the soul to a higher level. Similarly, sexual union with a God is a transformation.

The story of the birth of the Gods: Orphic Rhapsodic Theogony.
We know the various qualities and characteristics of the Gods based on metaphorical stories: Mythology
Dictionary of terms related to ancient Greek mythology: Glossary of Hellenic Mythology.

SPELLING: uses the Reuchlinian method of pronouncing ancient Greek, the system preferred by scholars from Greece itself. An approach was developed to enable the student to easily approximate the Greek words. Consequently, the way we spell words is unique, as this method of transliteration is exclusive to this website. For more information, visit these three pages:

Pronunciation of Ancient Greek        


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