pagan

1 of 2

noun

pa·​gan ˈpā-gən How to pronounce pagan (audio)
plural pagans
1
: a person who practices a contemporary form of paganism (such as Wicca) : neo-pagan
… thousands of people … flock to the iconic prehistoric stone monument of Stonehenge in Wiltshire, southwestern England to celebrate the solstice in a tradition that has been observed for millennia and still carries spiritual importance for modern-day pagans.Aristos Georgiou
Greece's pagans have found an unlikely champion in James O'Dell, a Croydon-born chartered surveyor who gave up his job to "serve the gods". Through the internet he has brought Apollo-loving pagans together in Britain …Helena Smith
2
a
old fashioned + often offensive : a person who is not religious or whose religion is not Judaism, Islam, or especially Christianity : heathen
b
history : a follower of a polytheistic religion (as in ancient Rome or Greece)
We are not ancient Greek pagans who saw death as the gateway to Hades.Christopher Howse
… responses that reveal how [ancient] Roman pagans responded to the withdrawal of administrative support for traditional Roman religion.R. E. Winn
… he added, with the air of a man who believed what he was telling, "but the first that went astray here was a pagan of old Rome, who hid himself in order to spy out and betray the blessed saints … "Nathaniel Hawthorne
3
literary : one who has little or no religion and who delights in sensual pleasures and material goods : a nonreligious hedonistic person
He himself is a pagan of the decadence. He … prefers a well-ordered dinner to a dissertation on the immortality of the soul.Charles Dudley Warner
paganish adjective

pagan

2 of 2

adjective

: of, relating to, or having the characteristics of pagans
pagan customs/beliefs
Reuse of Roman objects was not uncommon during the Middle Ages, although the discovery of ancient sculpture was usually a momentous event, and pagan images in particular provoked fearful responses.Peter Scott Brown
In addition to moon-rituals, wiccans celebrate pagan seasonal holidays …Scott McMurray

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The Uses and Origins of Heathen and Pagan

Heathen is a dated term used primarily of someone who is not religious, or whose religion is not Judaism, Islam, or especially Christianity. It is also sometimes used disapprovingly of someone who is not cultured; this use is also dated.

In current use, pagan is most commonly used of someone who practices a contemporary form of paganism, such as Wicca, making the word synonymous with neo-pagan. But pagan also has meanings identical to those of heathen; in those uses it too is dated. Additionally, pagan has literary use referring to a nonreligious person who delights in sensual pleasures and material goods.

The origins of heathen and pagan are semantically similar. Heathen likely comes from a term for a country inhabitant—in particular, a “heath dweller.” The Latin source of pagan, paganus, originally meant “country dweller” or “civilian;” it was used at the end of the Roman Empire to refer to people who practiced a religion other than Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, and especially to those who worshiped multiple deities. It’s believed that the religious meanings of paganus developed either from the enduring non-Christian religious practices of those who lived far from the Roman cities where Christianity was more quickly adopted, or from the fact that early Christians referred to themselves as “soldiers of Christ,” making nonbelievers “civilians.”

Examples of pagan in a Sentence

Noun the temple was built by pagans in the 4th century as a place to worship their idols
Recent Examples on the Web
Noun
Church officials decided to recognize Dec. 25 as his birthday, probably to coincide with the date of pagan festivals in an attempt to get pagans to accept Christianity as the official religion. Atlanta Life, ajc, 10 Nov. 2017 While plague stalks the land, paranoid peasants swap cautionary folk tales about evil spirits, pagans, Jews and other outsiders. Stephen Dalton, The Hollywood Reporter, 9 Oct. 2017 Thomas Jefferson had strong views on religion, but his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom disestablished the Church of England and established religious liberty for Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, even pagans. Jonah Goldberg, National Review, 27 Sep. 2017 Thomas Jefferson had strong views on religion, but his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom disestablished the Church of Englandand established religious liberty for Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, even pagans. Jonah Goldberg, Alaska Dispatch News, 27 Sep. 2017 Lance Wallnau, a Christian author, claimed God spoke to him and showed him that Trump was like King Cyrus, who followed God’s will despite being a pagan. Colby Itkowitz, Washington Post, 23 Aug. 2017 To do Trumpzilla justice, the film should be blustery, spectacular, gold-garish, and neo-pagan, a Circus Maximus Cecil B. DeMille might have whipped up with his riding crop after a fever dream. James Wolcott, HWD, 19 June 2017
Adjective
Baldwin and Rozzi had alleged that members of Odinism, a pagan Norse religion hijacked by white nationalists, are the real killers who ritually sacrificed the teens ― a theory that Allen's new defense team believes has merit. The Indianapolis Star, 12 Jan. 2024 The Prophet Muhammad, having conquered all of Arabia in 630, clearing Mecca of its pagan idols in the process, went back two years later on a triumphant pilgrimage. Aatish Taseer, New York Times, 9 Nov. 2023 Freud died the next day, surrounded by his pagan gods. Elizabeth Winkler, The New Yorker, 23 June 2023 Of having been blessed, in the most pagan sense of that term. Amia Srinivasan, The New Yorker, 17 Aug. 2020 There is something distinctly pagan in the possibility that consciousness might accidentally emerge from our communications networks, like the Athenians spontaneously arising out of the mud. Meghan O'Gieblyn, Wired, 16 Sep. 2020 Answer: Halloween-type behavior dates back centuries to the Celtic festival Samhain, which was a pagan New Year of sorts celebrated from October 31 to November 1. Elizabeth Berry, Woman's Day, 8 July 2022 The art form is believed to have pagan roots and predates when Christianity was introduced in Ukraine. Dallas News, 15 Apr. 2022

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'pagan.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

Etymology

Noun

Middle English, from Late Latin paganus, from Latin, civilian, country dweller, from pagus country district; akin to Latin pangere to fix — more at pact

First Known Use

Noun

15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 2

Adjective

15th century, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of pagan was in the 15th century

Dictionary Entries Near pagan

Cite this Entry

“Pagan.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pagan. Accessed 24 Jun. 2024.

Kids Definition

pagan

noun
pa·​gan ˈpā-gən How to pronounce pagan (audio)
1
: a person who does not know about or worship the God of the Bible
2
: a person who is not religious
pagan adjective
paganism
-gə-ˌniz-əm
noun
Etymology

Noun

Middle English pagan "heathen," from Latin paganus (same meaning), from earlier paganus "person who lives in a rural area," from pagus "village, district"

Word Origin
In ancient Rome a person living in a rural area or village was called paganus, a word derived from the Latin noun pagus, meaning "village, district." In time paganus came to refer to a civilian as opposed to a soldier. When Christianity became generally accepted in the towns and cities of the empire, paganus was used to refer to a villager who continued to worship the old gods. Christians used the term for anyone not of their faith or of the Jewish faith. The word in Old English for such a person was what is now heathen. In the 14th century, English borrowed the Latin paganus as pagan, and used it with the same meaning. In time both heathen and pagan also took on the meaning of "a person having no religion."

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