Paganism: The Lesser-Known First Step of Our Belief System


Burak Eldem:
I would firstly like to correct the misconceptions of a word that is used now mostly as a term. This is a slight but essential conceptual correction. The word “pagan” is not a term that was devised to define a homogeneous belief system with specific content and limits. In technical literature, it is used as a negative word for people with institutional belief systems to call nonbelievers. In the briefest sense, I think that’s what it is.

The word “pagan” defined people who lived in rural areas rather than cities during the late antiquity period from the fifth century. It literally means “villager.” When Christianity, the first global institutional monotheist religion, became the official dominant religion of the Roman Empire from the 5th century, a methodical suppression of the ancient belief systems began. Although this new official religion gained popularity in the cities, the ruling authorities had difficulty influencing the people in rural areas, so they started calling these people “pagans,” meaning “those who do not give up their ancient beliefs.”

The etymological meaning of “pagan” is “peasant,” just like the word “paisan,” which is still used in French. However, the word also gained a philosophical meaning when the authorities imposed the dominant religion on people. The word lost its social and demographical meaning and started to define people who resisted monotheist dogmatism and kept their ancient beliefs.

In fact, the words pagan and paganism have their roots in rural areas and rurality, not only literally but also socially, because people left the suppression of the cities and migrated to rural areas to preserve their beliefs and way of life. Even during the eighth century in many European countries, intellectuals who were loyal to their ancient beliefs had to move from the cities to rural areas, keeping the practices of paganism alive like a cult of resistance. In this respect, we can easily say the word is quite specific and has political overtones. To be more specific and avoid any confusion in terminology, the word pagan today refers to groups who hold to the ancient beliefs from before the monotheist religions, and the word paganism refers to their philosophy. However, this definition leads to a problem by causing an incorrect distinction between monotheism and polytheism, but we can discuss this later. For now, I would like to end my introduction with a summary. The belief system called paganism is used to define groups of people who had their own tradition of common ancient beliefs prior to the dominant, centralized, and institutional religions. This philosophy is not a religion but rather a way of thinking. It is not polytheism, but it does favor a plural and heterogeneous system of cosmic power and energy. Cem, I think this introduction will ease the flow of our conversation.

Cem Şen:
I think we need to examine the development of belief systems and fill the gaps with assumptions in order to understand paganism clearly. I say “assumptions” because we have very limited information about the times before writing was developed. This field of study generally deals with legends and myths, and their sources are mostly oral, and oral sources are believed to be fictional, while written sources are believed to be more credible.

Animism is humanity’s oldest spiritual or religious experience. The philosophy of animism is that all visible or invisible existences in nature have a soul, and they are alive and constitute the parts of the whole. As far as we know, sophisticated people in prehistoric times used to follow animism. The animist way of living was similar to the description of the Garden of Eden: One could never be alone as an individual in a world where every existence was alive with a soul, and one could live safely in this world united with everything.

From today’s viewpoint, historians define this period as a horrific time where people lived in the woods in fear of wild animals. As a result, those times sound horrendous to the people of today. In reality, however, the truth was completely different. We are sure about this thanks to some tribes who still live like the ancient people of the Stone Age. Although their numbers are small, they still provide information that shows the universe is alive, and they live safely in this universe. After a while, the animist view evolved and replaced itself with a new belief system called shamanism. In some respects, shamanism still embraces the animist view, but the notion of being united with the universe changed into a new point of view where a distinguished person, chosen by the spirits, was charged with finding the balance between people and the spirits.

This point of view was still not an oppressive one, and it still considered humanity to be in communication with the whole universe. The rich frescos found in a cave in France define this view particularly well. One fresco in particular is called “shamanic” by today’s scientists and historians.

It comprises a deer’s horn, an owl’s eye, a human body, and parts of many other animals, combining a human with other living creatures. What’s more, these living creatures were mostly the ones they hunted, so in other words, when a human hunts and eats an animal, the animal lives on in the human in some way.

As the thinking and belief system underwent more change, we encountered a system called paganism or polytheism by today’s world. In this system, we see the universe and its power as a kind of god. The thing we call god is actually the great holy deer, which comprised all the deer of those days, or the great female that comprised all the female spirits, or the great mother, such as Kyble, Isis, and Kwan Yin. So the gods are still close to us. “We” and “they” are parts of the whole. All of us are in the same unity. However, right at this point, the next step caused the animist point of view to decline as the monotheistic belief system arose. This has been explained with many different legends all over the world. The  best known of these legends is that of Merlin. As the monotheistic belief appears, a situation arises between God and the people, and the people drift apart from God. Now let me pass back to Burak again.

Burak Eldem:
When we look at the subject from a social anthropological point of view, we can observe that organizational and structural changes in human societies are reflected towards the spiritual world by direct or indirect associations. In fact, the famous universal hermetic motto “As above, so below” appears to be true in reverse (“As below, so above”), because the dominant figures of the social structure frequently refer to “the above” in order to legitimize their presence and power.

Cem, let me please arrange your words in chronological order. The initial comprehension of the universe of the thinking human in nature long walked hand in hand with animism, and this dates so far back that we don’t know when it began. Later on, as more regular social groups started to develop, the position of spiritual leadership emerged parallel to the existing hierarchy. Individuals with the knowledge/wisdom turned into natural spiritual leaders called shamans. When the first settled groups emerged—or in other words, when The Neolithic Age began—the change that occurred gradually over a very long period created the first rooted, systematic, and universal view: The view of the Mother Goddess and the approach where nature, the universe, life, and regeneration are managed by the universe in a cyclical system. The universe was regarded as a fertile, protective, and caring mother among settled farming groups, and their related social structure was completely in accordance with this view.

This was a stage where both men and women lived equally without any gender discrimination, but in terms of spiritual leadership, the woman, as a fertile creator, came into prominence during this long period. It should also be considered that agriculture, which brought a sedentary lifestyle, was developed by women in this social structure.

This stage lasted at least six or seven thousand years before different variables, such as migration and natural disasters, came together and brought around the male-dominated structure at a serious breakpoint. Belief and thinking systems were also seriously affected by this change. With her various appearances and expressions, “The Great Mother,” as the ultimate sovereign of the universe, started sharing her position with an assistant male god, and then the male god and his various appearances started to overshadow the goddess. Consequently, female status in society also deteriorated significantly during this period.

Systematic polytheistic groups, defined as pantheons with a Greco-Roman perspective by today’s academics, were seen in several parts of the ancient world. In fact, these thinking and belief practices, which are regarded as religions by an incorrect point of view, varied depending on the time and local environment, even within the same civilization. Leo Oppenheim, a leading Assyriologist, wrote in his sensational article of the 60s how wrong it would be to discuss a “Mesopotamian religion.” Besides, many pioneering Egyptologists have tried to highlight there was no common homogeneous prototype religion in Egypt. However, those who preferred to look at social subjects from today’s perspective discussed the “religions” of every ancient civilization. However, no certain, permanent prototype model of a “pantheon” ever existed in the ancient world, except for some enforced attempts. In the south of Upper Egypt, Khnum, the god of creation, dominated, while Amen was stronger in the Theban theology of the more northern areas. Similar rituals and myths about Ptah in Memphis could be seen in Heliopolis for the deities Atum and Ra, and none of these theologies conflicted with each other. Eridu was the home of Enki in the Sumerian civilization, while Uruk was the home of the Sumerian goddess Inanna. However, there was no dominant religion or unique pantheon in Mesopotamia either, although it was more organized than Egypt.

A significant change began after the great central states (which were “global” within the scope of those days) were established. After the Romans made Christianity the official religion and began persecuting those who stuck to ancient beliefs toward the end of the following century, the concept of religion emerged as the primary instrument for dominating power. From that time on, the ancient world came across this way of thinking and said, “Only my belief system is right. All the others are wrong. Only my God is real—the others are fake.” The word paganism is the result of this way of thinking that claimed, “Those not on my side are all infidels, and those sneaks in the countryside are pagans who reject our religion!” In fact, this view—which already existed in Judaism in terminology such as “Goyim” (other nations, non-Jews, or infidels)—started dominating vast areas for the first time in the hands of the great official authorities. This critical change affected the flow of history significantly. Cem, could you continue from here?

Cem Şen:
Actually, the transition from paganism to monotheistic belief systems is closely related to the beginning of the agricultural revolution. By agricultural revolution, I don’t mean the invention of tools or the improvement of agriculture. What I mean is the perspective that started the agricultural revolution. Before this breaking point, humanity was totally dependent on God. I say “God” because all gods were like various attributes of a single god, rather than being many different gods. But at this point, a group of people started saying, “What if one day the gods stop letting us live? What if they stop providing us with food? If our destiny depends on them, they will decide how long we will live and when we will die.”

They then decided to take control of their destinies rather than leaving the decisions to the gods. The agricultural revolution was the first consequence of this decision. Through this, they would stock food in case God didn’t send them any game animals. While taking control of its own destiny, humanity started to control the destinies of all other living creatures as well.

This was also the starting point of environmental damage. Even the holy books of the monotheistic religions state that nature and all living things exist to serve humanity. However, as this point of view grew stronger, a trio emerged that consisted of a god somewhere far away with nature serving human beings, who existed between them.

God was at the top, humanity was below him, and nature was at the very bottom. The three were not equal anymore, and, more tragically, as humanity started to control nature and all natural powers, he set his eyes on God’s throne. The story of the Tower of Babel is an example of this. However, the first monotheistic religions implemented a brilliant strategy by taking the stories that were critical of them, injecting them into their own doctrines, and using these stories against pagans. The monotheistic view, announcing paganism as polytheism, observed that paganism was actually a monotheistic belief system. Monotheism also obscured the fact that all living things were a part of God and instead made a distinction between God and humanity. However, the essential ingredient of paganism was that there was nothing in the universe other than God, no other material other than God, so God could only use his ingredients to create. Everything is therefore created from God himself.

This tells us there is nothing other than God, everything is equal and united, and God is one. However, the first monotheistic belief systems tell that there is a presence called God, and this presence created humanity from a different material, so God and humanity are two different things. This view destroys the unity while causing a duality between humanity and God. This duality also points to the perspective that started the agricultural revolution and destroyed paganism: Taking control of your destiny by using tools such as science and philosophy, clearing away all obstacles on the way and eventually ascending to the throne of God, the biggest obstacle. So while the monotheists defined pagans as monotheists and nonbelievers, pagans defined the monotheistic view as polytheistic infidels depending on the above-mentioned reasoning. In the end, the agricultural revolution became the winner, and since then, we have lived in a world affected by this victory. This world emerged in the last 5,000–7,000 years of humanity’s 100,000 years of formerly peaceful life.

Burak Eldem:
At this point, while we discuss monotheism and polytheism, I would like to make a simile. In western languages, there is the concept and categorization of the countable and uncountable. When talking about intangible elements, you don’t make quantitative definitions such as 1, 2, 5, 100, and so on, because it doesn’t make sense either theoretically or practically. In my opinion, the ancient belief systems regarded the subject matter of “divinity” just like this. On the other hand, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the concept of “God” was used as the equivalent of dynamic, modifying, transformative, and regulatory powers. When you approach the matter from this aspect, there is no “countability” of the universe and its power, so there is neither singularity nor plurality because these definitions and categorizations cannot be applied to universal powers. Within this cosmic formation, it is impossible to know the number or even the “type” of power creating everything, including life itself. On the other hand, you sense, feel, or know that this power and its effects belong to the same whole.

The common characteristic of this heterogeneous and varied system of thinking, which is called “paganism” today, is how it considers the universe consistently as a whole. In this respect, there is “the unity,” namely the universe as the whole of everything. There is also the epiphany that this unity’s power and essential principles are such that you can never estimate its numbers and transformations.

To be more precise, the concept of the creative God did not exist in the human thinking system some thousands of years ago. If you pay attention to the myths, you can easily observe how the power that we interpret as “God” actually refers to the regulatory dynamics of the universe. Also, in etymology, most words, names, and terms that refer to “God” in ancient thinking systems actually point to cosmic powers and principles. For instance, the Egyptian Neters were the observers and controllers that later took the form of “Nazir” in Arabic, while the notion of “Din.Gir” and “Ilu” in Mesopotamia referred to cosmic powers and principles.

In many ancient cultures, divinity refers to features of the universe, such as infinity, cycles, endless power, and transformation. In this respect, the thinking systems that we call paganist are related to cosmology and philosophy. The notion of divinity above and beyond the universe is an intellectual breaking point caused by the monotheistic view. This is exactly what I emphasized in the last book of “The Hidden History” series. In terms of the quality and transformation of the universe, the point where modern science and cosmology stand today is not much different than the cosmologies of the Egyptian, Indian, Mesopotamian and Chinese civilizations five thousand years ago. With the help of today’s science, technology, research, databases, and various experiments, we are nearly at the same point of the “cosmic theory” that was developed five thousand years ago in an “intuitive” way. I believe we should carefully emphasize this matter. Humanity, obviously not with today’s knowledge but rather through intuition, had already discovered the cosmic theory at least five thousand years ago. This cosmic theory was very flexible and had nothing to do with dogma. It included the theories of the Big Bang, thermodynamics, and entropy. I think we should dwell on the subject from this point of view.

Leave a Reply