The word "pagan" has come to mean many things, depending on who is speaking. It is derived from the Latin word paganus, meaning country dweller. Though some have explained that the term took on a synonymous meaning as a pejorative, akin to "hick", other scholars have explained that the word was most likely used to mean civilian, as opposed to soldier.
Different forms of pagan religions existed in ancient times, including the Celtic Druids, the Norse Asatru, and ancient forms from Egypt, Greece, and the Romans. In addition, the Christian religion has historically classified anyone who was not Christian as "pagan", used interchangeably with the word "heathen", meaning Godless souls in need of salvation.
In our Christianized society, the word "pagan" still strikes some with an uneasy feeling, and is sometimes used to refer to those who do not follow the status quo. So, it's understandable why there might be some confusion when someone says that she or he is a pagan. What exactly does that mean?
Sometimes it's easier to start with what Paganism is not. It is not Wicca, or witchcraft, or voodoo, or Satanism, or atheism, or godlessness. Often confused with Paganism, Wicca is a fast-growing group gaining popularity in recent times. Its modern form was created by a man named Gerald Gardner, who wrote a book in 1951 named Witchcraft Today.
Paganism is a broad term that covers several different sub-categories, similar to the way in which many people who are Christians have different denominations. Wicca is a denomination, if you will, of Paganism.
While there are many smaller sub-sects of Paganism, the most common form in the United States might be referred to as modern paganism, or neopaganism. While there are differences even within these groups, there are some fundamental commonalities. Most modern pagans believe that there is a life force, or spirituality, within the earth and the natural world.
Those who believe that there are deities feel that the gods and goddesses are present in the earth. There is no specific moral code, or set of scriptures to follow, other than to revere the earth, and everything that is of the earth, including plants, animals, and other humans. Many pagans feel a spiritual responsibility toward environmentalism.
Pagans believe that everything as part of the earth is divine; therefore, they don't use pastors or priests or any kind of "mediator" to the divine. It is to be found within by connecting to the earth. Because the earth is focal to the belief, the four elements of water, earth, air, and fire often take up central roles in the cyclical ceremonies.
Most pagans celebrate rituals timed to coincide with the natural cycle of the earth. Almost all pagan groups celebrate the seasonal equinoxes and solstices, in addition to others like Beltane (known to the Western world as May Day) and Samhain, a version of Halloween in which the veil between the concrete and spiritual worlds is lifted.
Though several Christian dates of significance are said to have been borrowed from the pagan calendar, like Christmas, Easter, etc., there are significant differences in the belief systems of the two. Christian belief tends to be linear, i.e., Christ came to the earth on one specific day, life is lived on earth, and after death there is Heaven.
Pagan belief is circular, i.e., the rituals are celebrated to mark yearly passing of an unending natural cycle. In fact, most pagan rituals are performed in a circle. Christians often believe that transcendence of this life is ideal, whereas pagans believe that there is nothing to transcend and all the spiritual answers they seek are here on earth.
Another departure from Christianity is that pagans firmly believe the spiritual force of the earth is female, and both male and female energies are honored in their ceremonies. In fact, it is seen as necessary for there to be the presence of both masculine and feminine for balance.
Most pagans will tell you that there is nothing to be uneasy about in their faith. They simply try to live in harmony with the earth, and that means you too.