New Advent
 Home   Encyclopedia   Summa   Fathers   Bible   Library 
 A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z 
New Advent
Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > P > Paganism


Please help support the mission of New Advent and get the full contents of this website as an instant download. Includes the Catholic Encyclopedia, Church Fathers, Summa, Bible and more — all for only $19.99...

Paganism, in the broadest sense includes all religions other than the true one revealed by God, and, in a narrower sense, all except Christianity, Judaism, and Mohammedanism. The term is also used as the equivalent of Polytheism.

It is derived from the Latin pagus, whence pagani (i.e. those who live in the country), a name given to the country folk who remained heathen after the cities had become Christian. Various forms of Paganism are described in special articles (e.g. Brahminism, Buddhism, Mithraism); the present article deals only with certain aspects of Paganism in general which will be helpful in studying its details and in judging its value.

Claims of paganism to the name of religion. — Influence on public and private life

Historians of religion usually assume that religions developed upwards from some common germ which they call Totemism, Animism, Solar or Astral Myth, Nature Worship in general or Agrarian in particular, or some other name implying a systematic interpretation of the facts. We do not propose to discuss, theologically, philosophically, or even historically, the underlying unity, or universal originating cause, of all religions, if any such there be. History as a matter of fact presents us in each case with a religion already existing, and in a more or less complicated form. Somewhere or other, some one of the human elements offered as universal, necessary, and sufficient germ of the developed religion, can, of course, be found. But we would point out that, in the long run, this element was not rarely a cause of degeneration, not progress; of lower forms of cult and creed, not pure Monotheism. Thus it is almost certain that Totemism went for much in the formation of the Egyptian religion. The animal-standards of the tribes, gradually and partially anthropomorphized, created the jackal-, ibis-, hawk-headed gods familiar to us. But there is no real trace of the evolution from Zoolatry to Polytheism, and thence to Monotheism. The monotheistic records are more sublime, more definite in the earlier dynasties. Atum, the object of a superb worship, has no animal equivalent. Even the repression of popular follies by a learned official caste failed to check the tendency towards gross and unparalleled Zoolatry, which was food for Roman ridicule and Greek bewilderment, and stirred the author of Wisdom (xi, 16) to indignation (Loret, "L'Egypte au temps du totemisme", Paris, 1906; Cappart in "Rev. d'hist. relig.", LI, 1905, p. 192; Clement of Alexandria, The Pedagogue III.2; Diodorus Siculus, I, lxxxiv; Juvenal, "Satires", xv).

Animism also entered largely into the religions of the Semites. Hence, we are taught, came Polyd monism, Polytheism, Monotheism. This is not correct. Polyd monism is undoubtedly a system born of belief in spirits, be these the souls of the dead or the hidden forces of nature. It "never exists alone and is not a 'religious' sentiment at all": it is not a degenerate form of Polytheism any more than its undeveloped antecedent. Animism, which is really a na ve philosophy, played an immense part in the formation of mythologies, and, combined with an already conscious monotheistic belief, undoubtedly gave rise to the complex forms of both Polyd monism and Polytheism. And these, in every Semitic nation save among the Hebrews, defeated even such efforts as were made (e.g. in Babylon and Assyria) to reconstitute or achieve that Monotheism of which Animism is offered as the embryo. These facts are clearly indicated and summed up in Lagrange's "Etudes sur les Religions e mitiques" (2nd ed., Paris, 1904).

Nature Worship generally, and Agrarian in particular, were unable to fulfil the promise they appeared to make. The latter was to a large extent responsible for the Tammuz cult of Babylon, with which the worships of Adonis and Attis, and even of Dionysus, are so unmistakably allied. Much might have been hoped from these religions with their yearly festival of the dying and rising god, and his sorrowful sister or spouse: yet it was precisely in these cults that the worst perversions existed. Ishtar, Astarte, and Cybele had their male and female prostitutes, their Galli: Josiah had to cleanse the temple of Yahweh of their booths (cf. the Qedishim and Kelabim, Deuteronomy 23:17; 2 Samuel 23:7; cf. 1 Samuel 14:24; 15:12), and even in the Greek world, where prostitution was not else regarded as religious, Eryx and Corinth at least were contaminated by Semitic influence, which Greece could not correct. "Although the story of Aphrodite's love", says Dr. Farnell, "is human in tone and very winning, yet there are no moral or spiritual ideas in the worship at all, no conception of a resurrection that might stir human hopes. Adonis personifies merely the life of the fields and gardens that passes away and blooms again. All that Hellenism could do for this Eastern god was to invest him with the grace of idyllic poetry" ("Cults of the Greek States", II, 649, 1896-1909; cf. Lagrange, op. cit., 220, 444 etc.)

Mithraism is usually regarded as a rival to nascent Christianity; but Nature Worship ruined its hopes of perpetuity. "Mithra remained", says S. Dill, "inextricably linked with the nature-worship of the past." This connexion cleft between it and purer faiths "an impassable gulf" which meant its "inevitable defeat" ("Roman Soc. from Nero to Aurel.", London, 1904, pp. 622 sqq.), and, "in place of a divine life instinct with human sympathy, it had only to offer the cold symbolism of a cosmic legend" (ibid.). Its very adaptability, M. Cumont reminds us, "prevented it from shaking itself free from the gross or ridiculous superstitions which complicated its ritual and theology; it was involved, in spite of its austerity, in a questionable alliance with the orgiastic cult of the mistress of Attis, and was obliged to drag behind it all the weight of a chimerical or hateful past. The triumph of Roman Mazdeism would not only have ensured the perpetuity of all the aberrations of pagan mysticism, but of the erroneous physical science on which its dogma rested." We have here an indication why religions, into which the astral element entered largely, were intrinsically doomed. The divine stars that ruled life were themselves subject to absolute law. Hence relentless Fatalism or final Scepticism for those sufficiently educated to see the logical results of their mechanical interpretation of the universe; hence the discrediting of myth, the abandonment of cult, as mendacious and useless; hence the silencing of oracle, ecstasy, and prayer; but, for the vulgar, a riot of superstition, the door new opened to magic which should coerce the stars, the cult of hell, and honour for its ministers — things all descending into the Satanism and witchcraft of not un-recent days. Even the supreme and solar cult reached not Monotheism, but a splendid Pantheism. A sublime philosophy, a gorgeous ritual, the support of the earthly Monocracy which mirrored that of heaven, a liturgy of incomparable solemnity and passionate mysticism, a symbolism so pure and high as to cause endless confusion in the troubled mind of the dying Roman Empire between Sun-worship and the adorers of the Sun of Righteousness — all this failed to counteract the aboriginal lie which left God still linked essentially to creation. (See F. Cumont, "Les religions orientales dans le paganisme romain", 2nd ed., Paris, 1909, especially cc. v, vii-viii; "Le mysticisme astral", Brussels, 1909, invaluable for references and bibliography; "Textes et Monuments . . . relatifs aux Myst resde Mithra", I, 1899, II, 1896; "Théol. solaire du paganisme rom.", Paris, 1909.) We do not hint that these elements which have been assigned as the origin of an upward revolution have always, or only, been a cause of degeneration: it is important to note, however, that they have been at times a germ of death as truly as of life.

Social aspect

Christianity first and alone of religions has preached, as one of its central doctrines, the value of the individual soul. What natural religion already, but ineffectually implied, Christianity asserted, reinforced, and transmuted. The same human nature is responsible at once for the admirable kindnesses of the pagan, and for the deplorable cruelties of Christian men, or groups, or epochs; the pagan religions did little, if anything, to preserve or develop the former, Christianity waged ceaseless battle against the latter. As for woman, the promiscuity which is the surest sign of her degradation never existed as a general or stable characteristic of primitive folk. In China and Japan, Buddhism and Confucianism depressed, not succoured her; in ancient Egypt, her position was far higher than in late; it was high too among the Teutons. Even in historic Greece as in Rome, divorce was difficult and disgraceful, and marriage was hedged about with an elaborate legislation and the sanctions of religion. The glimpses we have of ancient matriarchates speak much for the older, honourable position of women; their peculiar festivals (as in Greece, of the Thesmophoria and Arrephoria; in Rome, of the Bona Dea) and certain worships, as of the local Korai or of Isis, kept their sex within the sphere of religion. As long, however, as their intrinsic value before God was not realized, the brute strength of the male inevitably asserted itself against their weakness; even Plato and Aristotle regarded them more as living instruments than as human souls; in high tragedy (an Alcestis, an Antigone) or history (a Cloelia, a Camilla), there is no figure which can at all compare, for religious and moral influence, with a Sara, a Rachel, an Esther, or a Deborah. It is love for mother, rather than for wife, that Paganism acknowledges (see J. Donaldson, "Woman in anc. Greece and Rome, etc.... among the early Christians", London, 1907; C.S. Devas, "Studies of Family Life", London, 1886; Daremberg and Saglio, "Gynæceum", etc.).

Essentially connected with the fate of women is that of children. Their charm, pathos, possibilities had touched the pagan (Homer, Euripides, Vergil, Horace, Statius), even the claim of their innocence to respect (Juvenal). Yet too often they were considered merely as toys or the destined support of their parents, or as the hope of the State. With Christianity, each becomes a soul, infinitely precious for God's sake and its own. Each has its heavenly guardian, and for each death is better than loss of innocence. Education, in the fullest sense, was created by Christianity. The elaborate schemes of Aristotle and Plato are subordinated to state interest. Though based upon "sacred" books, education in ancient times, when organized, found these highly mythological, as in Greece or Rome, or rationalized, as in Confucian spheres of influence. Both Greeks and Romans attached great importance to a complete education, supported it with state patronage (the Ptolemies) state initiative and direction (the Antonines), and conceived for it high ideals (the "turning of the soul's eye towards the light", Plato, "Republic", 515 b); yet, failing to appreciate the value of the individual soul, they made education in fact merely utilitarian, the formation of a citizen being barely more complete than under the narrow and rigid systems of Sparta and Crete. The restriction, in classical Greece, of education among women to the Hetairai is a fact significant of false ideal and disastrous in results (J. B. Mahaffy, "Old Gk. Educ.", London, 1881; S. S. Laurie, "Historical Survey of Pre-Christian Educ.", London, 1900; L. Grasberger, "Erziehung u. Unterricht im klass. Alterum", Würzburg, 1864-81; G. Boissier, "L'instruct. publique dans l'empire romain." in "Rev. de Deux Mondes", March, 1884; 3. P. Rossignol, "De l'educ. des hommes et des femmes chez les anciens", Paris, 1888).

Error in education was conditioned, we saw, by error of political ideal. No doubt, all the older polities were sanctioned directly by religion. The local god and the local ruler were, for the Semites, each a melek (king), a baal (proprietor), and their attributes and qualification almost fused. Or, the ruling dynasty descended remotely, or immediately, from a god or hero, making the king divine; so the Mikado, the Ionian and Doric overlords. Especially the Orient went this way, most notably Egypt. The Chinese emperor alone might pray to the Sublime Ruler whose son he was. Rome deifies herself and her governors, and the emperor-cult dominates army and province, and welds together aristocracy and the masses (J. G. Frazer, "Early Hist. of the Kingship", London, 1905; Maspero, "Comment Alex. devint Dieu en Egypte"; Cumont, "Testes et Monumentsde Mithra", I, p. ii, c. iii; J. Toutain, "Cultes paiens dans l'emp. rom.", I, Paris, 1907). It is hard to judge of the practical effects; obviously autocracy profited, the development of obedience, loyalty, courage in the governed (Rome; Japan) being undoubted. Yet the system reposed upon a lie. The scandals of the court, the familiarities of the camp, the inevitable accidents of human life, dulled the halo of the god-king. Far more stable were the organizations resulting from the subtle polities devised by Greek experiment and speculation, and embodied in Roman law. Aristotle's political philosophy, almost designed — as Plato's frankly was — for the city state, was carried on through the Stoic vision of the City of Zeus, of world-empire, into the concrete majesty of Rome, which was itself to pass, when confronted in Christianity with that individual conscience it would not recognize, into the Civitas Dei of an Augustine. Aristotle and Plato survived in Aquinas, the Stoic vision in Dante; Gregory VII reproduced, in his age and manner, the effective work of an Augustus. And of it all the soul was that Kingdom, Hebrew-born, which, spiritualized by Christ and preached by Paul, has been a far mightier force for civilization than ever was the polis of the Greeks. As long as the ultimate source of authority, the inalienable rights of conscience, and the equality of all in a Divine sonship were unrealized, no true solution of the antinomy of state and individual, such as Paul could offer (Romans 13 etc.) was possible. [Cf. E. Barker, "Polit. Thought of Plato and Aristotle", London, 1906, esp. pp. 237-50, 281-91, 119-61, 497-515; G. Murray, "Rise of the Gk. Epic.", Cambridge, 1907; P. Allard, "Ten Lectures on the Martyrs", tr. (London, 1907); Idem, "Les Persécutions" (Paris, 1885-90); Sir W. Ramsay's books on St. Paul, esp. "Pauline Studies" (London, 1906); "Paul the Traveller" (1897); "Ancient King Worship", C.C. Lattey, S.J., English C.T.S.]

In these systems, the weakest necessarily went to the wall. Even the good Greek legislation on behalf of orphans, wards, the aged, parents, and the like; even the admirable instinct of aidos which shielded the defenceless, the suppliant, the stranger, the "stricken of God and afflicted", could not (e.g.) stop the exposition of sickly or deformed infants (defended even by Plato), or render poverty not ridiculous, suffering not merely ugly, death not defiling. Yet the sober religion of the Avesta preaches charity and hospitality, and these, the latter especially, were recognized Greek virtues. In proportion as travel widened minds, and ideals became cosmopolitan, the barbarian became a brother; under the Antonines charity became official and organized. Always, in the Greek world, the temples of Æsculapius were hospices for the sick. Yet all this is as different in motive, and therefore in practical effect, from the "mutual ministry of love" obligatory within the great family of God's children, as is the counterpart of Christian self-sacrifice, Buddhist Altruism. (Cf. L. de la V. Poussin, "Bouddhisme", Paris, 1909, especially pp. 7-8, where he quotes Oldenberg, "Buddhismus u. christliche Liebe" in "Deutsche Rundschau", 1908, and "Orientalischen Relig.", pp. 58, 266 sqq., 275 sqq.) In slavery, of course, a chasm is cleft between Paganism and Christianity. By proclaiming the rights of conscience and the brotherhood of men, Christianity did for the slave what could never have been accomplished by demanding the instant and universal abolition of slavery, thereby risking the dislocation of society. In Christ, a new relation of master to man springs up (1 Corinthians 7:21; 1 Timothy 6:2): the Epistle to Philemon becomes possible. Yet while it is true that in many ways the slave's lot might be miserable (the ergastulum), and inhuman (the Roman slave might technically not marry), and immoral (Petronius: "nil turpe quod dominus jubet"), yet here too, human nature has risen above its own philosophies, laws and conventions. Kindness increases steadily: even Cato was kind; social motives (Horace), philosophical considerations (Seneca), sheer legislation (already under Augustus), devotion (at Delphi, slaves are manumitted to Apollo: contrast the beautiful Christian emancipation in Ennodius, P.L., LXIII 257; sentiment, and even law protected the slaves' tomb or loculus) answered the promptings of gentle hearts. The contubernium became parallel to marriage; nationality never of itself meant slavery; education could make friends of master and man ("loco filii habitus", says one inscription); Seneca generalizes: "homo res sacra homini; servi, humiles amici." But not all the sense of the "dignity of man", taught by the Roman comedians and philosophers, could supply even the emancipating principles, far less the force, of Christian equality in the service of God and the fellowship of Christ (H. A. Wallon, "Hist. de l'Esclavage de l'Antiq.", Paris, 1847; Boeckh, "Staatshaushaltung d. Athener.", I, 13; C.S. Devas, "Key en." (1906), 143-150 and c. v; P. Allard, "Les Esclaves chrét.", Paris, 1876; O. Boissier, "Relig. romaine", II, Paris, 1892).

Art and ritual

Omnia plena deo: the nearer God is realized to be, the richer the efflorescence of religious art and ritual; and the purer the concept of His nature, the nobler the sense-worship that greets it. Hence the world's grandest art has grown round Christ's Real Presence, though Christ said no word of art. Thus, heresy has always been iconoclastic; the distant God of Puritanism, the disincarnate Allah of Islam must be worshipped, but not in beauty. To Hindus, gods were near, but vile; and their art went mad. To the Greeks, save to a smaller band of mystics, whose enthusiasm annihilated external beauty in the effort after spiritual loveliness, all comeliness was bodily; hence the splendid soulless statues of gods (though for a few choice perceptions — Pausanias, Plutarch — the Olympian Zeus had "expression", and conveyed divine significance); hence their treatment of the inanimate beauty of Nature was far less successful and profound than was that of the austere Hebrew, to whom, in his struggle against nature worship and idolatry, plastic art was forbidden, but whose nature-psalms rise higher than anything in Greek literature. The pure new spirit breathing in the art of the Catacombs disguises from us, at first, that its categories are all pagan — though in human models little was directly borrowed, the Orpheus, Hercules, Aristeas type are given to Christ; strange symbols (the disguised cross, the dolphin speared on trident) occur sporadically; "pagan" sarcophagi were doubtless bought direct from pagan warehouses; most startlingly is the difference felt in the spiritual treatment by early Christian Art of the nude (E. Müntz, "Etudes s. l'hist. de la peinture et de l'iconographie chrétienne", Paris, 1886; A. Pératé, "L'archéologie chrét.", Paris, 1892; Wilpert, "Roma Sotteranca: le pitture, etc.", Rome, 1903).

Christian ritual developed when, in the third century, the Church left the Catacombs. Many forms of self-expression must needs be identical, in varying times, places, cults, as long as human nature is the same. Water, oil, light, incense, singing, procession, prostration, decoration of altars, vestments of priests, are naturally at the service of universal religious instinct. Little enough, however, was directly borrowed by the Church — nothing, without being "baptized", as was the Pantheon. In all these things, the spirit is the essential: the Church assimilates to herself what she takes, or, if she cannot adapt, she rejects it (cf. Augustine, Epp., xlvii, 3, in P.L., XXXIII, 185; Reply to Faustus XX.23; Jerome, "Epp.", cix, ibid., XXII, 907). Even pagan feasts may be "baptized": certainly our processions of 25 April are the Robigalia; the Rogation days may replace the Ambarualia; the date of Christmas Day may be due to the same instinct which placed on 25 Dec., the Natalis Invicti of the solar cult. But there is little of this; our wonder is, that there is not far more [see Kellner, "Heortologie" (Freiburg, 1906). See CHRISTMAS; EPIPHANY. Also Thurston, "Influence of Paganism on the Christian Calendar" in "Month" (1907), pp. 225 sqq.; Duchesne, "Orig. du Culte chrétien", tr. (London, 1910) passim; Braun, "Die priestlichen Gewänder" (Freiburg, 1897); Idem, "Die pontificalen Gewänder" (Freiburg, 1898); Rouse, "Greek Votive Offerings" (Cambridge, 1902), esp. c.v]. The cult of saints and relics is based on natural instinct and sanctioned by the lives, death, and tombs (in the first instance) of martyrs, and by the dogma of the Communion of Saints; it is not developed from definite instances of hero-worship as a general rule, though often a local martyr-cult was purposely instituted to defeat (e.g.) an oracle tenacious of pagan life (P.G., L, 551; P.L., LXXII 831; Newman, "Essay on Development, etc.", II, cc. ix, xii., etc.; Anrich, "Anfang des Heiligenkults, etc.", Tübingen, 1904; especially Delehaye, "Légendes hagiographiques," Brussels, 1906). Augustine and Jerome (Ep. cii, 8, in P.L., XXXIII, 377; "C. Vigil.", vii, ibid., XXXIII, 361) mark wise tolerance: Duchesne ["Hist. ancienne de l'église", I (Rome, 1308), 640; cf. Sozomen, Church History VII.20] reminds us of the occasional necessary repression: Gregory, writing for Augustine of Canterbury, fixes the Church's principle and practice (Bede, "Hist. eccl.", I, xxx, xxxii, in P.L., XCV, 70, 72). Reciprocal influence there may to some small extent have been; it must have been slight, and quite possibly felt upon the pagan side not least. All know how Julian tried to remodel a pagan hierarchy on the Christian (P. Allard, "Julien l'Apostat", Paris, 1900).

Morality, ascesis, mysticism

For an appreciation of pagan religions in themselves, and for an estimate of their pragmatic value in life, it should be noted that, in proportion as a pagan religion caught glimpses of high spiritual flights, of ecstacy, penance, otherworldliness, the "heroic", it opened the gates of all sorts of moral cataclysms. A frugi religio was that of Numa: the old Roman in his worship was cautissimus et castissimus. For him, Servus says, religion and fear (=awe) went close together. Pietas was a species of justice (filial, no doubt), but never superstitio. The ordinary man "put the whole of religion in doing things", veiling his head in presence of the modest, featureless numina, who filled his world and (as their adjective-names show — Vaticanus, Argentarius, Domiduca) presided over each sub-section of his life. Later the Roman virtues, Fides, Castitas, Virtus (manliness), were canonized, but religion was already becoming stereotyped, and therefore doomed to crumble, though to the end the volatile Greeks (paides aei) marvelled at its stability, dignity, and decency. So too the high abstractions of the Gâthâs (Moral Law, Good Spirit, Prudent Piety etc., the Amesha-spentas of the Avesta to be — Obedience, Silent Submission, and the rest), especially the enormous value set by Persian ethic upon Truth (a virtue dear to Old Rome), witness to lives of sober, quiet citizenship, generous laborious, unimaginative, just to God and man. Exactly opposite, and disastrous, were the tendencies of the idealistic Hindu, losing himself in dreams of Pantheism, self-annihilation, and divine union. Especially the worship of Vishnu (god of divine grace and devotion), of Krishna (the god so strangely assimilated by modern tendency to Christ), and of Siva (whence Saktism and Tantrism) ran riot into a helpless licence, which must modify, one feels, the whole national destiny. We cannot pass conventional judgments on these aberrations. It is easily conceded that pagans constantly lived better than their creed, or, anyhow, than their myth; blind terrors, faulty premisses, warped traditions originated, preserved, or distorted customs pardonable when we know their history: astounding contradictions coexist (the ritual murders and prostitution of Assyria, together with the high moral sense revealed in the self-examination of the second Shurpu tablet; the sanctified incest and gross myth of Egypt, with the superb negative Confession of the Book of the Dead). Even in Greece, the terrifying survivals of the old clithonic cults, the unmoral influence (for the most part) of the Olympian deities, the unexacting and far more popular cult of local or favourite hero (Herakles, Asklepios), are subordinate to the essential instincts of aidos, themis, nemesis (so well analysed by G. Murray, op. cit.), with their taboos and categorical imperatives, reflected back, as by necessity, to the expressed will of God. The religion of the ordinary man is perfectly and finally expressed in Plato's sketch of Cephalus (Republic, init.) whose instincts and traditions had carried him, at life's close, to a goal practically identical with that achieved by the philosophers at the end of their laborious inquiry.

All asceticism is, however, founded on a certain Dualism. In Persia, beyond all others dualist, the fight between Light and Darkness was noble and fruitful till it ran out into Manichæism and its debased allies. Certainly, from the East came much of the mystic Dualism, enjoining penance, focusing attention beyond the grave, preconizing purity of all sorts (even that abstention from thought which leads to ecstacy), which inspired Orphism, Pythagoreanism etc., and transfused the Mysteries. Till Plato, these notions achieved no high literary success. Æschylus preaches a sublime gospel: his austere series — Wealth, Self-sufficiency, Insolence, God-sent Infatuation, Ruin — has echoes of Hebrew prophecy and anticipates the "Exercises"; yet even his stern drasanti pathein is calmed into the pathein mathos — a true wisdom, repose, reconciliation. Even in this life Sophocles sees high laws living eternally in serene heaven, a joy for men of obedience. Euripides, in the chaos of his scepticism, lives in angry bewilderment, not knowing where to place his ideal, since Aphrodite and Artemis and the other world-forces are, for him, essentially at war. It is in Plato, far better than in the nihilist asceticisms of the East, that the note — not even yet quite true — of asceticism is struck. The body is our tomb (soma, sema); we must strip ourselves of the leaden weights, the earthy incrustations of life: the true life is an exercise in death, a homoiosis to theo, as far as may be; like the swans we sing when dying, "going away to God", whose servants we are; "death dawns", and we owe sacrifice to the Healer-hero for the cure of life's fitful fever; "I have flown away", (the Orphic magic tablets will cry) "from the sorrowful weary wheel" of existences.

Directly after Plato, the schools are coloured by his thought, if not its immediate heirs. Stoic and Epicurean really aimed at one thing when they preached their apatheia and ataraxia, respectively Anechou kai apechou: be the autarches, master of your self and fate. In Roman days of imperial persecution, this Stoicism, "touched with emotion", passed into the beautiful, though ill-founded religion of Seneca: all philosophy became practical, an ars vivendi: Life is our ingens negotium, yet not to be despaired of. Heaven is not proud: ascendentibus di manum porrigent. Ano phronein, St. Paul was even then enjoining (Colossians 3:1-2), echoing Plato's phronein athanata kai theia (Tim., 90 c), his tes ano hodou aei hexometha (Rep., 621 c.), his "life must be a flight" apo ton enthende ekeise (529 A), and Aristotle's doctrine that a man must athanatein eph oson endechetai (Eth. N., X, vii), written so long ago. The more acute expressions of this mystical asceticism were much occupied with the future life and much fostered or provoked by the developed Mysteries. Impossible as it seems to find a race which believed in the extinction of the soul by death, survival was often a vague and dismal affair, prolonged in cavernous darkness, dust, and unconsciousness. So Babylon, Assyria, the Hebrews, earlier Greece. Odysseus must make the witless ghosts drink the hot blood before they can think and speak. At best, they depend on human attendance and even companionship; hence certain offerings and human sacrifice on the grave. Or they can, on fixed days, return, harry the living, seek food and blood. Hence expulsion-ceremonies, the Anthesteria, Lemuria, and the like. Kindlier creeds, however, are created, and, at the Cara Cognatio, the souls are welcomed to the places set for them, as for the gods, at the hearth and table, and the family is reconstituted in affection. Hopes and intuitions gather into a full and steady light, even before the inscriptions of the catacombs show that death was by now scarcely reason for tears at all. The "surer bark of a divine doctrine", for which the anxious lad in the "Phædo" had sighed, had been given to carry souls to that "further shore" to which Vergil saw them reaching yearning hands.

But the Mysteries had already fostered, though not created, the conviction of immortality. They gave no revelations, no new and secret doctrine, but powerfully and vividly impressed certain notions (one of them, immortality) upon the imagination. Gradually, however, it was thought that initiation ensured a happy after-life, and atoned for sins that else had been punished, if not in this life, in some place of expiation (Plato, "Rep.", 366; cf. Pindar, Sophocles, Plutarch). These mysteries usually began with the selection of initiandi, their preliminary "baptism", fasting, and (Samothrace) confession. After many sacrifices the Mysteries proper were celebrated, including nearly always a mimetic dance, or "tableaux", showing heaven, hell, purgatory; the soul's destiny; the gods [so in the Isis mysteries. Appuleius (Metamorphoses) tells us his thrilling and profoundly religious experiences]. There was often seen the "passion" of the god (Osiris): the rape and return of Kore and the sorrows of Demeter (Eleusis), the sacred marriage (Here at Cnossus), or divine births (Zeus: Brimos), or renowned incidents of the local myth. There was also the "exhibition" of symbolical objects — statues usually kept veiled, mysterious fruits or emblems (Dionysus), an ear of corn (upheld when Brimos was born). Finally there was usually the meal of mystic foods — grains of all sorts at Eleusis, bread and water in the cult of Mithra, wine (Dionysus), milk and honey (Attis), raw bull's flesh in the Orphic Dionysus-zagreus cult. Sacred formulæ were certainly imparted, of magical value.

There is not much reason to think these mysteries had a directly moral influence on their adepts; but their popularity and impressiveness were enormous, and indirectly reinforced whatever aspiration and belief they found to work on. Naturally, it has been sought to trace a close connexion between these rites and Christianity (Anrich, Pfleiderer). This is inadmissible. Not only was Christianity ruthlessly exclusive, but its apologists (Justin, Tertullian, Clement) inveigh loudest against the mysteries and the myths they enshrine. Moreover, the origin of the Christian rites is historically certain from our documents. Christian baptism (essentially unique) is alien to the repeated dippings of the initiandi, even to the Taurobolium, that bath of bull's blood, whence the dipped emerged renatus in æternum. The totemistic origin and meaning of the sacred meal (which was not a sacrifice) wherein worshippers communicated in the god and with one another (Robertson Smith, Frazer) is too obscure to be discussed here (cf. Lagrange, "Etudes, etc.", pp.257, etc.). The sacred fish of Atergatis have nothing to do with the origin of the Eucharist, nor, even probably, with the Ichthys anagram of the catacombs. (See Fr. J. Dölger: ICHTHYS, das Fischsymbol, etc., Rome, 1910. The anagram does indeed represent Iesous Christos Theou Houios Soter, the usual order of the third and fourth words being inverted owing to the familiar formula of the imperial cult; the propagation of the symbol was often facilitated owing to the popular Syrian fish-cult.) That the terminology of the mysteries was largely transported into Christian use (Paul, Ignatius, Origen, Clement etc.), is certain; that liturgy (especially of baptism), organization (of the catechumenate), disciplina arcani were affected by them, is highly probable. Always the Church has forcefully moulded words, and even concepts (soter, epipsanes, baptismos, photismos, teletes, logos) to suit her own dogma and its expression. But it were contrary to all likelihood, as well as to positive fact, to suppose that the adogmatic, mythic, codeless practices and traditions of Paganism could subdue the rigid ethic and creed of Christianity. [Consult Cumont, opp. cit.; Anrich, "Das antike Mysterienwesen, etc." (Göttingen, 1894); O. Pfleiderer, "Das Christenbild, etc." (Berlin, 1903), tr. (London, 1905). Especially Cabrol, "Orig. liturgiques" (Paris, 1906); Duchesne, "Christian Worship", passim; Blötzer in "Stimmen aus Maria Laach", LXXI, (1906), LXXII, (1907); G. Boissier, "Fin du Paganisme" (Paris, 1907), especially 1, 117 sqq.; "Religion Romaine", passim; Sir S. Dill, op. cit.; C.A. Lobeck, "Aglaophamus" (1829); E. Rohde, "Psyche" (Tübingen, 1907); J. Reville, "Relig. à Rome, s. l. Sevèsres" (Paris, 1886); J. E. Harrison, "Prolegomena" (Cambridge, 1908), especially the appendix; L. R. Farnell, op. cit., and the lexicons.]

As strange historical phenomena, we note therefore the coexistence of the highest with the lowest; the sublime tendency, the exiguum clinamen, and the terrific catastrophe: human nature buffeted by the craving for divine union, prayer, and purity, and by the sense of sin, the need of penance, and helplessness of its own powers. Hence, savagery and blood attend the communion-feasts, grotesque myths accompany the loftiest ideals, sensual reaction follows flagellation and fasting. And we admire how, in the Hebrew nation alone, the teleological ascent was constant; sobriety meant no lowered aim; passion implied no frenzy. In the strong grasp of the Christian discipline alone, the further antimony of self-abnegation and self-realization was practically and spiritually solved, though theoretically no adequate expression may ever be discovered for that solution. As historical problems remain certain connexions yet to be more accurately defined between the "dress" of Christian dogma and rite (whether liturgical, or of formula, or of philosophic category) and the circumambient religions. As historical certainty stands out the impassable gulf, in essence and origin, between the moral and religious systems of contemporary Paganism, especially of the Mysteries, and the Christian dogma and rite, formed on Palestinian soil with extraordinary rapidity, and rigidly exclusive of infection from alien sources. [Cf. L. Friedländer, "Roman Life and Manners, etc." (1909-10), espec. III, 84-313; O. Seeck, "Gesch. des Unterganges der antiken Welt", I (Berlin, 1910), II (1901), III (1909), and appendices, B. Allo, "L'Evangile en face du syncrétisme palen" (Paris, 1910).]

Religious philosophy

This, we suppose, is the highest form of human reaction upon the religious datum of which the soul finds itself in possession, or at least may provide it with the purest, if not the most imperative, mode of worship. From this point of view the older rationalizing cosmogonies (as of Greece) are of little interest to us, save in so far as they witness already to that distinction between Zeus, supreme, and Fate, to which he yet is subject, an earlier unconscious attempt, perhaps, to reconcile the antinomies easily seized by true religious instinct in the popular traditions as to the gods. The mythological cosmogonies of Babylon and Assyria will, however, be of surpassing interest to the "comparative" student of Semitic religions. Noteworthy is the curve of Greek tendency — starting in Ionia, monistic, static, and anti-religious; grown dynamic in Heraclitus, whose Fire will pass, as Logos, into the Stoic system; transferred after the Persian wars to Attica, and profoundly dualized in Plato and Aristotle, whose concepts, however, of World-soul and of the Immanent Nature-force were powerful for all time. Through the Stoics, expressed in terms borrowed consistently from the exquisite Egyptian mythology, of Thot, of Osiris, and of Isis, this elaborate system of converging currents is synthesized in Plutarch, while from Plutarch's sources Philo had drawn the philosophy in which he strove to see the doctrines of Moses, and in terms of which he struggled to express the Hebrew books.

Thus was it that the Logos, in theory, impersonal, immanent, blindly evolving in the world, became (transfigured on the one hand by pagan myth, and by too close contact, on the other, with the Angel of Yahweh and the ideals of the Alexandrian sapiential literature) so near to personification, that John could take the expression, mould it to his dogma, cut short all perilous speculation among Christians, and assert once and for all that the Word was made flesh and was Jesus Christ. Yet many of the earlier apologists were to make great trouble with their use of Platonic formulæ, and with the Logos. Two principles emerge as governing Greek thought — God must have the first place, ou gar parergou dei poieisthai ton theon, — and yet the nearer we approach Him, the less can we express Him, theon eurein te ergon, euronta de ekpherein en pollois adynaton (Pythagoras, Plato). To how many answers tentatively given does Euripides's sad prayer witness: "O Thou that upholdest earth, and on earth hast Thy Throne, whoe'er Thou be, hard to guess, hard to know — Zeus, be Thou law of nature, or human thought of man, to Thee I pray: for Thou, moving in silent path, in justice guidest all things mortal." To the immanent, supreme Force, consciously exacting service, or, at least, blindly imposing obedience, Greek philosophy almost inevitably came, and, in spite of itself and its sceptical and mechanical premises, amounted to a religion. In the mouth of Epictetus God is still sung triumphantly — "What can I do, I, a lame old man, save sing God's praises, and call on all men to join me in my song?" — till the Stoic current died out in Aurelius, stunned to acquiescence, no more enthusiastically uniting himself to the great law of God in the world.

But into neo-Platonism, coloured with Persian, Jewish, and even Christian language, the movement passed; already, in the "Isis and Osiris" of Plutarch, a pure mysticism and sublimity of emotion barely to be surpassed had been achieved; in the "Metamorphoses" of Apuleius the syncretistic cult of the Egyptian goddess expresses itself in terms of tenderness and majesty that would fit the highest worship, and, in the concluding prayer of the Apuleian Hermes, an ecstatic adoration of God is manifested in language and thought never equalled, still less surpassed, save in the inspired writers of the Church. But all these efforts of pagan religious philosophy, committed nearly always to a rigid Dualism, entangled accordingly in mechanical and magic practices, tricked out in false mythology, risking and losing psychical balance by the use of a nihilist asceticism of sense and thought, died into the miserable systems of Gnosticism, Manichæism, and the later neo-Platonism; and the current of true life, renewed and redirected by Paul and John, passed into the writings of Augustine. [Consult Zeller, "Phil. der Griechen" (Leipzig, 1879), tr. (London, 1881); Idem, "Grundriss, etc." (4th ed., Leipzig, 1908), tr. (London, 1892); Gomperz, "Gr. Denken" (Leipzig, 1903), tr. (London, 1901); cf. Flinders Petrie, "Personal Relig. in Egypt before Christianity" (New York, 1909), unsatisfactory; J. Adam, "Religious Teachers of Greece" (Edinburgh, 1908); Dill, op. cit.; Idem, "Roman Society in the last century of the Western Empire", especially valuable as a picture of the tenacity of the dying pagan cult and thought; Spence, "Early Christianity and Paganism" (London, 1904); L. Habert, "Doctr. Relig. d. Philosophes Grecs" (Paris, 1909); L. Campbell, "Religion in Greek Literature" (London, 1898); E. Caird, "Evolution of Theology in Greek Philosophies" (Glasgow, 1904), "Evolution of Religion" (Glasgow, 1907); H. Pinard in "Revue Apologétique" (1909); S. Lebreton, "Origines du Dogme de la Trinité", I (Paris, 1910), where the summits reached by Greek and Hellenized Jewish religious endeavour are appreciated. On the general question: de Broglie, "Problèmes et Conclusions de l'hist. des Religions", Paris, 1889.]

Relations between paganism and revelation

Ethnology and the comparative history of pagan religions do not impose upon us as an hypothesis that primitive Revelation which Faith ascertains to us. As a hypothesis it would, however, solve many a problem; it was the easier therefore for the Traditionalist of a century ago to detect its traces everywhere, and for Bishop Huet ("Demonstr. evangelica", Paris, 1690, pp. 68, 153, etc.), following Aristobulus, Philo, Josephus, Justin, Tertullian, and many another disciple of the Alexandrians, to see in all pagan law and ritual an immense pillage of Jewish tradition, and, in all the gods, Moses. The opposite school has, in all ages, fallen into worse follies. Celsus saw in Judaism an "Egyptian heresy", and in Christianity a Jewish heresy, on an equality with the cults of Antinous, Trophonius etc. (Against Celsus III.21); Calvin (Instit., IV, x, 12) and Middleton (A letter from Rome, etc., 1729) saw an exact conformity between popery and paganism. Dupuis and Creuze herald the modern race of comparative religionists, who deduce Christianity from pagan rites, or assign to both systems a common source in the human spirit. Far wiser in their generation were those ancient Fathers, who, not always seeing in pagan analogies the trickery of devils (Justin in P.G., VI, 364, 408, 660; Tertullian in P.L., I, 519, 660; II, 66; Firmicus Maternus, ibid., XII, 1026, 1030), disentangle, with a true historic and religious sense, the reasons for which God permitted, or directed, the Chosen People to retain or adapt the rites of their pagan ancestry or environment, on at least, reproaching them with this, recognize the facts (Justin, loc. cit., VI, 517; Tertullian, P.L., II, 333; Jerome, ibid., XXV, 194, XXIV, 733, XXII, 677, is striking; Eusebius, P.G., XXII, 521; especially Chrysostom, ibid., LVII, 66, and Gregory of Nazianzus, ibid., XXXVI, 161, who are remarkable. Cf. St. Thomas, I-II, Q. cii, a. 2). The relation of the Hebrew code and ritual to those of pagan systems need not be discussed here: the facts, and, a fortiori, the comparison and construction of the facts, are not yet satisfactorily determined: the admirable work of the Dominican school (especially the "Religions sémitiques" of M. J. Lagrange; cf. F. Prat, S.J., "Le Codede Sinai", Paris, 1904) is preparing the way for more adequate considerations than are at present possible.

Whether Paganism made straight a path for Christianity may be considered from two points of view. Speaking from the standpoint of pure history, no one will deny that much in the antecedent or environing aspirations and ideals formed a præparatio evangelica of high value. "Christo jam tum venienti", sang Prudentius, "crede, parata via est". The pagan world "saw the road", Augustine could say, from its hilltop. "Et ipse Pileatus Christianus est" said the priest of Attis; while, of Heraclitus and the old philosophers, Justin avers that they were Christians before Christ. Indeed, in their panegyric of the Platonic philosophy, the earlier Apologists go far beyond anything we should wish to say, and indeed made difficulties for their successors. Attention is nowadays directed, not only to the ideas of the Divine nature, the logos-philosophies, popular at the Christian era, but especially to those oriental cults, which, flooding down upon the shrivelled, officialized, and dying worship of the Roman or Hellenic-Roman world, fertilized within it whatever potentialities it yet contained of purity, prayer, emotional religion, other-worldliness generally. A whole new religious language was evolved, betokening a new tendency, ideal, and attitude; here too Christianity did not disdain to use, to transcend, and to transform.

Theologically, moreover, we know that God from the very outset destined man to a supernatural union with Himself. "Pure nature", historically, has never existed. The soul is naturaliter Christiana. The truest man is the Christian. Thus the "human spirit" we have so often mentioned, is no human spirit left to itself, but solicited by, yielding to a resisting grace. Better than Aristotle guessed, mankind echei ti theion. For Christus cogitabatur. Aei ponei to zoon, said the same philosopher: and all creation groans and travails together until the full redemption; "all nations of men" were by God "made of one blood for to dwell on all the face of the earth . . . that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might grope after Him and find Him." They failed, alas, though they had the epignosis of God (Romans 1:32; cf. 1:19): the higher they went, the more terribly they fell: but, alongside of the tragic first chapter of Paul's Epistle, is the second, and we dare not forget that the elect people, the Eldest Son, the heir of oracles and law fell equally or worse, and made the name of God to be blasphemed among the Gentiles it contemned (Romans 2:24). Yet for all that, God used the Jews in his plan, and none will dare to say He did not use the Gentiles. They reveal themselves in history as made for God, and restless till they rest in him. History shows us their effort, and their failure; we thank God for the one, and dare not scorn the other. God's revelation has been in many fragments and in many modes; and to the pagan king, whose right hand He had holden, He declared: "For Jacob my servant's sake, and Israel my chosen, I have called thee by thy name: I have surnamed thee, though thou, thou hast not known Me: I am Yahweh, and there is none else; beside Me there is no God: (yet) will I guide thee, though Me thou hast not known (Isaiah 45:4 sq.). For still Cyrus worshipped at the shrine of Ahura.

About this page

APA citation. Martindale, C.C. (1911). Paganism. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Martindale, Cyril Charles. "Paganism." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is webmaster at Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.

Copyright © 2023 by New Advent LLC. Dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.