The subject of “the last pagans” or “the end of paganism” in the Greco-Roman world has interested scholars for over a century but begs the question “What is paganism?” Is the term usable as a tool of analysis? It originates from the Latin paganus, meaning “villager,” “rustic,” and reflects the way that Latin speakers viewed early Christianity as a phenomenon of the countryside, much as the English heathen, or German Heide, derives from a root meaning “heath.” Greek-speaking Christians, by contrast, used a variety of terms, but their favored one was Hellene, which reflected the perception that their main opposition came from Greeks who remained faithful to their traditional culture and beliefs. Hence paganism, when used by a modern author, is implicitly one-sided and also obscures the very real gap in perception between Greek speakers and Latin speakers of antiquity. Accordingly, some recent authors have tried to replace pagan with polytheist, but the latter term has the disadvantage that many pagans tended toward monotheism, or to a modified monotheism that regarded one god as vastly superior to all others (“henotheism”). Heathen is similar in being an insider's term, current when Christianity was the default position of religious discourse, and now largely obsolete. It is best to retain the word pagan but to concede that it is merely a pis aller.
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Christopher P. Jones; THE FUZZINESS OF “PAGANISM”. Common Knowledge 1 April 2012; 18 (2): 249–254. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0961754X-1544932
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