The First Converts to Paganism

The First Converts to Paganism August 12, 2011

Most Pagans living today in the West are converts. We were either raised without religion, or we are apostate Christians, Jews or Muslims. We tend to view the conversion to Paganism as a modern thing, but this is not so. There are two famous converts to Paganism in antiquity.

Flavius Claudius Julianus Augustus


Julian the Philosopher, known to Christians as Julian the Apostate, was raised Christian but abandoned it as young man in favor of Hellenic worship. A half-nephew of the famous Constantine (whose own devotion to Christianity has been questioned by scholars), he became the last Pagan emperor of Rome.

As a relation of the emperor, Julian was given the finest Christian education available. The finest minds in the Church were available to him. He was a learned man, and by careful study and consideration he came to the conclusion that the natural religion of Rome was the correct one. It was Julian who restored Pagan temples, who began work to restore the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, and who outlawed the hypocrisy of teachers praising Pagan philosophers contributions to Christianity with one hand while condemning them as ignorant and vile for their Hellenic religion with the other.

Julian stood on the knife’s edge of history, and had he lived Christianity may have been no more than a curio among the world’s religions. Yet even the wisest of rulers make stupid mistakes, and his was in thinking he could conquer Persia after countless Romans had failed at that over the years. Had he remained content to stay at home and govern rather than brave the battlefield, the entire history of the world would have been very different. For more information on Julian check out The Julian Society.

Georgius Gemistus Plethon


One of the shining intellects of Byzantium, Plethon was raised in a world that was thoroughly Christianized. Yet his love of the Greek philosophers and dedication to their teachings led him to adopt and teach Hellenic polytheism. Despite having rejected Christianity, Plethon was often asked to advise on church matters due to his reputation as a wise and moral man.

Plethon taught, and engaged in a series of opposing lectures with, the Patriarch of Constinople. While the Patriarch, like many church leaders, preferred Aristotle, Plethon was a champion of Plato, opening Platonic schools and advising Platonic ideas to reform the economy, legal system and government. Towards the end of his life he founded a mystery school that taught polytheism. When he died his body was stolen by his Italian students and laid to rest in a temple built by one of his students. Full of geometric and zodiacal figures, the Tempio Malatestiano was declared by Pope Pius II to be “full of pagan gods and profane things.” You can find more on Plethon at Apuleius Platonicus’ Egregores blog.

Julian and Plethon are only the two most famous examples of converts to Paganism in antiquity. Both had their students and admirers. We know of both of them simply because they were too famous to be swept under the rug. Some days when I find it difficult to be a convert, to come to grips with embracing Paganism in an overwhelmingly Christian society, I look back to Julian and Plethon. Both went through the same process every modern Pagan has gone through. Both had to research and reclaim their birthright. Both had to defend it articulately. Both had to find a way to communicate it to an audience predisposed to misunderstand and revile their religion. Both went through the process of self-discovery and anger that conversion entails.

It is true that our movement is but a few generations old, but we are not alone. A path has been blazed for us if we will take the time to look. We are not the first converts to Paganism, nor will we be the last.

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  • Wow! Beautiful article. Thanks

  • Wow! Beautiful article. Thanks

  • Sisterlisa

    What is the pagan view of Hellenic doctrines? I find that some writings about pagan teachings..by Christians, tend to be misinformed. your thoughts?

  • Sisterlisa

    What is the pagan view of Hellenic doctrines? I find that some writings about pagan teachings..by Christians, tend to be misinformed. your thoughts?

  • Well the first monotheistic theologians were Pagans, although they were not monotheists in the way we think of them today.

    Also, some Pagan writers when translated into English also had their polytheism translated into monotheism.

    A Hellenic Pagan could probably explain all of this better. The earliest theologians, whether poly, mono, pan or henotheistic, were Pagans.

  • Well the first monotheistic theologians were Pagans, although they were not monotheists in the way we think of them today.

    Also, some Pagan writers when translated into English also had their polytheism translated into monotheism.

    A Hellenic Pagan could probably explain all of this better. The earliest theologians, whether poly, mono, pan or henotheistic, were Pagans.

  • Thanks for the shout out! And, more importantly, thanks for doing such a nice job of drawing people’s attention to the very important fact that there is nothing new about turning back to the old Gods!

  • Thanks for the shout out! And, more importantly, thanks for doing such a nice job of drawing people’s attention to the very important fact that there is nothing new about turning back to the old Gods!

  • I am not sure that the word “convert” really describes the first or even the second generation of Neopagans here in the West.  There is a lot of reconstruction-ism (as well as deconstructionism) in the post-modern era wherein modern Paganism was born.  Some of us – rather blatantly – made it up (we tend to forget to mention that 50-some years later). Based upon scholarship and sincere spiritual exploration, it is true, and certainly not from whole cloth. -and- It has all grown into something both different and richer than the vision of the first generation of Neopagans as well.  Most of the claims concerning “ye olde religione” that somehow survived the millennium between the Romans and the publication of “High Magic’s Aid” in 1949 have been soundly debunked and/or retracted.  “Conversion” strikes me as a peculiarly monotheistic/Abramhamist notion rather than one that easily describes either modern NeoPaganism or the variety of (Paleo) Paganism practiced in the ancient Mediterranean world.

  • LezlieKinyon

    I am not sure that the word “convert” really describes the first or even the second generation of Neopagans here in the West.  There is a lot of reconstruction-ism (as well as deconstructionism) in the post-modern era wherein modern Paganism was born.  Some of us – rather blatantly – made it up (we tend to forget to mention that 50-some years later). Based upon scholarship and sincere spiritual exploration, it is true, and certainly not from whole cloth. -and- It has all grown into something both different and richer than the vision of the first generation of Neopagans as well.  Most of the claims concerning “ye olde religione” that somehow survived the millennium between the Romans and the publication of “High Magic’s Aid” in 1949 have been soundly debunked and/or retracted.  “Conversion” strikes me as a peculiarly monotheistic/Abramhamist notion rather than one that easily describes either modern NeoPaganism or the variety of (Paleo) Paganism practiced in the ancient Mediterranean world.

  • I can convert from Epicurian philosophy to Stoicism. I can convert from Aristotelian thinking to Platonic worldviews. Just because you don’t like a word doesn’t mean it’s not correct.

    So did the early Christians convert prior to the formalization of Catholic doctrine? Surely their worldview shifted significantly before they had infrastructure.

    I’m confused: in your unnecessary debunking are you somehow claiming Plethon’s polytheism is false? There actually are documented cases of European/Slavic Paganism surviving the past 1500 years. The Mari, Romuva, and Baltic Heathenry to name a few. I know a gent who was raised in the religio Romana in the US in the 1950’s.

  • I can convert from Epicurian philosophy to Stoicism. I can convert from Aristotelian thinking to Platonic worldviews. Just because you don’t like a word doesn’t mean it’s not correct.

    So did the early Christians convert prior to the formalization of Catholic doctrine? Surely their worldview shifted significantly before they had infrastructure.

    I’m confused: in your unnecessary debunking are you somehow claiming Plethon’s polytheism is false? There actually are documented cases of European/Slavic Paganism surviving the past 1500 years. The Mari, Romuva, and Baltic Heathenry to name a few. I know a gent who was raised in the religio Romana in the US in the 1950’s.

  • Excellent perspective!

  • Excellent perspective!

  • odubhain

    I view all religions as being interrelated. Christianity is one of many cults arising out of earlier Pagan practices so I don’t find its ideas and philosophies to be very objectionable, though I do find the actual practices of some who claim to be Christians to be at the least hypocritical. Christ was a better Pagan and Christian than most.

  • odubhain

    I view all religions as being interrelated. Christianity is one of many cults arising out of earlier Pagan practices so I don’t find its ideas and philosophies to be very objectionable, though I do find the actual practices of some who claim to be Christians to be at the least hypocritical. Christ was a better Pagan and Christian than most.

  • Anonymous

    I rarely debunk…and I find it bizarre, frankly, that you read my comment regarding European/Slavic Paganism and Streghira as such! I’m totally for the meeting, embracing, and – certainly – celebrating the traditional paths from Europe who are now making themselves known! (BTW_ are you aware of Bejamin’s books on Latvia & the Goddess?)

  • LezlieKinyon

    I rarely debunk…and I find it bizarre, frankly, that you read my comment regarding European/Slavic Paganism and Streghira as such! I’m totally for the meeting, embracing, and – certainly – celebrating the traditional paths from Europe who are now making themselves known! (BTW_ are you aware of Bejamin’s books on Latvia & the Goddess?)

  • William

    I’m unaware of monotheistic pagan philosophers. Can you expound on whom exactly fits that category? I wasn’t aware that any pagan philosopher made that claim that “there is ONLY one god.”

  • William

    I’m unaware of monotheistic pagan philosophers. Can you expound on whom exactly fits that category? I wasn’t aware that any pagan philosopher made that claim that “there is ONLY one god.”

  • William

    I’m unaware of monotheistic pagan philosophers. Can you expound on whom exactly fits that category? I wasn’t aware that any pagan philosopher made that claim that “there is ONLY one god.”