On Paganism and Hellenism etymology

Further to the latest Mary Beard’s post regarding a modern pantheistic religion apparently reborn in Greece and to the consequent interesting remark by Philip A. Harland on pagan rituals I wish here to add some of my findings as to the etymology of the root pagan and its implications and relations with Hellenism.

According to the most diffused etymological explanation pagan derives from Latin paganus: literally inhabitant or dweller of a little countryside village (pagus). Pagus itself comes from the root pag- meaning to tie, to bind, to join or to unite, which in later Latin would give pangere meaning to secure, to make steady.


However another etymology theory wants pagan as deriving from Greek παγος which means hill, mount-top or cliff, coming from the very same root of Αρειος Παγος (the “Hill of Ares”). This interpretation is based on the assumption that the παγος was in a particular separate position compared to the rest of the city, and this particularly because of the characteristics of the landscape: higher and secluded.

This was a place where families of the rural area used to gather either for religious purposes or to escape from invasions and ransacks so often happening in those days – thus with time this became the centre of villages’ life. As this soon developed into an unplanned usual urban layout choice Pagus began to be used to identify the village and its surrounding area and Pagans its inhabitant, partly also to distinguish them from the soldiers.

As Christianity broadened, Pagans were named the idolaters, partly because the villagers of the rural areas were the most reluctant to conversion and the very last to abandon their creed and also because the only one way to escape from the persecution of the Christian Roman Empire was to retire in small countryside village and keep lurking and practising the ancient cults, sacrifices and rituals.


What is also interesting to add is that in Later Antiquity (around the III-IV centuries of our era) the word Paganism was also expressed as Ηλληνισμος, Hellenism started being almost an equivalent term for Paganism in that age, since the Greek language was able to convey numerous and diverse pantheistic ideas and concepts within many different areas of the Eastern part of the Roman Empire. Actually during the said period Ηλληνισμος may have meant also Greek culture, as well as Ηλληνες were sometimes named the pagans. Nonetheless, considering that the two concepts – i.e. Greek culture and Paganism – are very much different, the explanation resides in the evolution of the idea from a Greek culture and life style to a Pagan creed and ritual. This evolution is principally due to the incredible power of expression and diffusion of Greek language, culture, rhetoric, philosophical doctrines during the Constantine Age in the Eastern Mediterranean Empire, where Christianity was still far to be accepted and where the old gods were still vastly worshipped and their rituals still performed if not multiplied. Thus Greek language, through its flexibility, became a sort of Esperanto of Eastern Paganism, by which old local myths and indigenous gods could be translated in order to gather more worshippers even – and above all – from far and secluded Middle East districts of the Roman Empire.

Later, as Greek became also the official language of the Byzantine Empire, the pagan holy sites and the pagan sacred personalities were creatively re-tranlsated and re-converted in order to suit the new and widely diffused religion: Christianity.

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