Early Developments

Sketching the historical development of Paganism, in its many forms, would require an encyclopedia of the religious history of humankind. This is because Paganism refers not only to a particular religious tradition, but also to a particular religious type. The Pagan "type" involves religions that are magical, polytheistic, and/or animistic, and often anchored in agricultural or fertility rituals. In this sense, every culture has some form of "Pagan" religion in its background, although such primal Paganism in many cases occurred in prehistoric times - in other words, prior to the onset of written records.

While the Pagan religious type can be found around the world, this essay will concentrate on the history of a particular Pagan religious tradition-specifically, the traditions of Indo-European (and, to a lesser extent, Egyptian) polytheism. The modern Pagan movement-the recreation/revival of Paganism that emerged in Europe and in the English-speaking world in the mid-20th century-draws largely (although not exclusively) from Indo-European and Egyptian religions, particularly as those spiritualities shaped the religious life in Europe up until the arrival of Christianity (and, in hidden ways, even into the Christian era).

The Indo-Europeans were the ancestors of virtually all European cultures, as attested by the many European languages that belong to the Indo-European family. But not only did the earliest Indo-Europeans (or "Proto-Indo-Europeans") bequeath a common root language, but they also generated common religious practices, which can be pieced together through the study of language, archaeology, and comparative mythology. Such efforts are highly speculative, and as such scholars vary widely in terms of what is accepted as likely fact versus what is regarded as theory.

The Proto-Indo-Europeans were polytheists, worshiping a variety of gods, such as a father-god of the sky (who eventually emerged as the Greek god Zeus or the Roman god Jupiter); a god of abundance and wealth (who became the Irish god Dagda); a goddess of love (the Greek Aphrodite or the Norse Freya); a river goddess (who emerged as the Irish goddess Danu, but for whom the Danube river is named); a water or sea god (the Irish Nechtan or the Roman Neptune); as well as many others.

Comparative mythologists have speculated that the Proto-Indo-Europeans had a foundational creation myth that may have involved the creation of the cosmos from the body of a giant. Another myth suggests the slaying of a dragon or serpent by a god or a hero; the dragon represented chaos and/or the underworld, while the god or hero represented cosmic order and well-being. Many myths also hint at conflict between the gods (or between two families or tribes of gods) that took place at a central tree, representing the axis of the cosmos, which survived as Yggdrasil (the Great World Tree) of Norse mythology or the Banyan Tree within Hinduism or the Oak Tree within Celtic mythology, all emblematic of a sacred center around which the cosmos revolves.

Like the gods and the myths, our knowledge of the ritual practices of the Proto-Indo-Europeans is sketchy. Scholars cannot identify words for "religion" or "temple" within Proto-European language, but words do exist for concepts such as prayer, holiness, cosmic order, consecration, sacred meals and libations, and sacred groves or enclosures. Meanwhile, archaeological evidence suggests ceremonial practices particularly associated with burial and with astronomical observances. For example, one of the most impressive of prehistoric ceremonial sites, Stonehenge, is built according to astronomical alignments. The evidence suggests that the ancient forebears of European Paganism had a clear understanding of gods and goddesses, generally aligned with aspects of the natural world, to whom they would offer sacrifices, pour libations, and conduct ceremonies, presumably to curry the favor of the gods.

It is out of this mysterious matrix of ancient, largely unknown religious practices that the classical Paganism of mythology emerges.

Study Questions:
     1.     What is involved in being a “Pagan type” of religion? What cultures have had these “types”?
     2.     Describe the relationship between Paganism and Proto-Indo-Europeans.
     3.     What are some of the various myths for the creation of the universe?

Back to Religion Library