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Pagan Influences in Christian Culture: The Hidden Legacy By Douglas M. Painter, Photographs By Kelly ReedGo Back to Table of Contents
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Photography by: Kelly Reed

The belief in a universal language which served as the genesis of many ancient and modern languages is recounted in the Bible in the legend of the Tower of Babel. An unsuccessful attempt to build a tower to heaven resulted in divine retribution for pride and effrontery.
This universal language was confounded into a great proliferation of babble and confusion. For modern linguists, the original language was proto-Indo European: a language which, like shards of ancient artefacts strewn across the temporal maelstrom of history, has left numerous vestiges in vocabularies ranging from Western Europe to India.

The word for God in the Western tradition, for example, derives from the Pagan religious tradition of the Indo European world. The name for the chief sky-god, diw-os (meaning to shine) became Zeus for the ancient Greeks, and deus in Latin. From deiw-os comes as well dyeu pater (Father and god of the bright sky) which is the root of the Romans chief god Jupiter. Deus becomes Tiu in Germanic dialects (the root of Tuesday). A term used by Teutonic tribes, ghu-tiu (meaning the invoked), later becomes in old German, Got--and in Old English, God.


Just as cultures are connected through time-space through languages, rituals and ideas--so are bodies of thought, religious beliefs and even institutions. The relationship of Christianity to paganism is no exception.

In the pre-Christian Roman world, for example, the word ‘paganus’ had only a secondary religious connotation. It referred to rustic country bumpkins, or village dwellers who did not particularly share in the urbane Roman way of life. The word was associated with the Paganalia which was a rural annual feast. This term for a village or rural resident finally came to mean a civilian, or non-military individual--especially when the Roman legions were in ascendence.

A pagan was simply someone not connected to the army, and who venerated, in all likelihood, household gods and nature deities rather than the more cosmopolitan gods and goddesses officially recognized by the state. Such pagan deities had evolved from even older pre-urbran religious conceptions holding that certain stones, animals, plants, or geologic structure had mysterious powers. In this super-nature, many minerals, animals, or mountains were identified with the divine. Plants were understood to have a kind of divine efficacy in healing, as did places the gods frequented on earth. In religious matters the Roman Empire was rather tolerant of such beliefs, and of the plurality of religions in general.

Despite this multi-cultural approach to religion, the Romans were insistent that the Emperor be venerated, basic laws of civilization upheld (i.e. no cannibalism), meetings were not too boisterous or too furtive (thus giving rise to suspicion of political revolutionary activity) and taxes paid. All this was required for the subjects of the Empire to remain “religiously correct,” as it were.

Some of these strictures, however, presented certain problems for the Jews and early Christians. The veneration of the emperor was strictly taboo under Mosaic law, and the conception of the ultimate state as founded in a covenant with the God of Israel, which would be restored with the coming of a Messiah, seemed to the Romans potentially seditious. Early Christians were often identified with radical Jewish sects fighting for independence from Roman hegemony--especially after the Jewish wars.

Under a veil of suspicion, the Christian Eucharist was rumored to be a covert cannibalistic feast. To the uninitiated, the transubstantiation of the body and blood of Christ into bread and wine seemed a metaphor for cannibalism, and consequently Christians were intermittently persecuted by officials, or accosted by mobs, for their “irreligion.” The worship of Christ was rumored to have been the cause of plagues, drought, or some barbarian invasion of the Empire.

Official persecution of Christianity was only occasional, however (the worst period being probably the last half of the first century and the last half of the third). Perhaps because history is written by the winners, these periods of persecution have received a great deal of sympathetic press in subsequent centuries, and are often depicted as a long and continuous struggle of Christianity against an evil Empire.

In this struggle, however, the Christians, despite persecution, were gradually winning. They continued to gain adherents throughout the Empire--in Asia, North Africa, and even among some settled barbarians in Europe. Eventually, Christianity achieved official tolerance with the advent of Emperor Constantine, a convert whose legions fought under the waving standard of the cross at the end of the fourth century. The dominance of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire was achieved in the next century, and the word ‘paganus’ took on a far more ominous definition.

Paganism came to represent the unbelievers, the heathen cults of polytheism and superstition, as well as the various schools of philosophy that proliferated throughout the Empire. All such sects were persecuted. There were book burnings, the destruction of temples as well as schools of philosophy. At best, the pagan was to be considered non-religious or superstitious; at worst, he was a tool of satanic forces.

The remaining pagans spoke up, warning that the social and political dissolution that they were witnessing in what proved to be the waning years of the Empire was the result of a turning away from the “old time religion” of their polytheistic forefathers. The Christian response was to reform, convert, absorb or destroy rival belief systems.

Representative of the new strategy of assimilation or destruction of pagan beliefs is an episode that took place around the year 400 C.E. with an imperial order to destroy the main pagan temple: the Marneum. The task was difficult because the structure was quite substantial. It would take an act of divine intervention to bring it down; and this took place in the form of a Greek-speaking peasant boy who informed the Bishop of Graz how the temple could be toppled. This was considered a “miracle” because it was generally well-known that the boy had previously only spoken Syriac, the oral expression of commoners. Greek was the language of business and higher culture. The boy also had no training in engineering or architecture, so that knowing the structure’s weak spots, and how to dismantle it, must have been born of divine revelation.

Rather than miraculous acts of destruction, however, Christians more often simply moved into pagan structures-- having reconsecrated them for Christian usage. This was particularly true as the Church grew and the little houses or complexes that had served for meetings no longer sufficed. New structures that were built were often modeled after pagan prototypes, such as the ecclesiae basilica, and the various memorial shrines built to honor Christian martyrs.

Confronting the beliefs and practices of the heathen masses presented other problems. Textual and rational arguments were rarely the best reproach against superstition, non-Christian miracles, augury, magic, and other forms of supernatural participation. Such practices, without the mediating powers of the now established Church, were deemed to be little more than devil-worship. The Church acted to suppress such beliefs and practices. Over the span of a thousand years, they were to succeed beyond their wildest hopes.

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