Paganism is commonly used to refer to various, largely unconnected religions that existed during Antiquity and the Middle Ages, such as the Greco-Roman religions of the Roman Empire, including the Roman imperial cult, the various mystery religions, monotheistic religions such as Neoplatonism and Gnosticism, and more localized ethnic religions practiced both inside and outside the Empire. During the Middle Ages, the term was also adapted to refer to religions practiced outside the former Roman Empire, such as Germanic paganism, Slavic paganism and Baltic paganism.
From the point of view of the early Christians these religions all qualified as ethnic (or gentile, ethnikos, gentilis, the term translating goyim, later rendered as paganus) in contrast with Second Temple Judaism. By the late Middle Ages, Christianity had eliminated those faiths referred to as pagan through a mixture of peaceful conversion, persecution, and military conquest of pagan peoples; the Christianization of Lithuania in the 1400s is typically considered to mark the end of this process. The term "pagan" was typically not used to refer to non-Christian peoples with whom Christians interacted after that point, such as during colonization.
Early Christianity arose as a movement within Second Temple Judaism, following the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. With a missionary commitment to both Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews), Christianity rapidly spread into the greater Roman empire and beyond. Here, Christianity came into contact with the dominant Pagan religions. Acts 19 recounts a riot that occurred in Ephesus, instigated by silversmiths who crafted images of Artemis, and were concerned that Paul's success was cutting into their trade.
By the 2nd century, many Christians were converts from Paganism. These conflicts are recorded in the works of the early Christian writers such as Justin Martyr as well as hostile reports by writers including Tacitus and Suetonius.
Christianity was persecuted by Roman imperial authorities early on in its history within the greater empire. By the early part of the second century Christians are no longer viewed as part of a Jewish sect, but are considered as belonging to one of many foreign cults that infiltrated the Empire. They gradually become conspicuous by their absence from festival activities where ritual sacrifices for the health of the emperor and well-being of the empire take place, behavior that carried a "whiff of both sacrilege and treason".
The first documented case of imperially-supervised persecution of the Christians in the Roman Empire begins with Nero (37–68). In 64 AD, a great fire broke out in Rome, destroying portions of the city and economically devastating the Roman population. Nero himself was suspected as the arsonist by Suetonius. In his Annals, Tacitus (who claimed Nero was in Antium at the time of the fire's outbreak), stated that "to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians [or Chrestians by the populace" (Tacit. Annals XV, see Tacitus on Jesus). Suetonius, later to the period, does not mention any persecution after the fire, but in a previous paragraph unrelated to the fire, mentions punishments inflicted on Christians, defined as men following a new and malefic superstition. Suetonius however does not specify the reasons for the punishment, he just listed the fact together with other abuses put down by Nero.
By the mid-2nd century, mobs could be found willing to throw stones at Christians, and they might be mobilized by rival sects. The Persecution in Lyon was preceded by mob violence, including assaults, robberies and stonings (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.1.7). Further state persecutions were desultory until the 3rd century, though Tertullian's Apologeticus of 197 was ostensibly written in defense of persecuted Christians and addressed to Roman governors.
There was no empire-wide persecution of Christians until the reign of Decius in the third century. A decree was issued requiring public sacrifice, a formality equivalent to a testimonial of allegiance to the Emperor and the established order. Christians who refused were charged with impiety and punished by arrest, imprisonment, torture, and/or executions. Some Christians complied and purchased their certificates, called libelli, which certified their compliance; others fled to safe havens in the countryside. Several councils held at Carthage debated the extent to which the community should accept lapsed Christians.
The persecutions culminated with Diocletian and Galerius at the end of the third and beginning of the 4th century. Beginning with a series of four edicts banning Christian practices and ordering the imprisonment of Christian clergy, the persecution intensified until all Christians in the empire were commanded to sacrifice to the gods or face immediate execution. This persecution lasted until Constantine I, along with Licinius, legalized Christianity in 313. It was not until Theodosius I in the later 4th century that Christianity would become the State church of the Roman Empire. Between these two events Julian II temporarily restored the traditional Greco-Roman religion and established broad religious tolerance renewing Pagan and Christian hostilities.
The New Catholic Encyclopedia states that "Ancient, medieval and early modern hagiographers were inclined to exaggerate the number of martyrs. Since the title of martyr is the highest title to which a Christian can aspire, this tendency is natural". Attempts at estimating the numbers involved are inevitably based on inadequate sources, but one historian of the persecutions estimates the overall numbers as between 5,500 and 6,500, a number also adopted by writers including Yuval Noah Harari:
In the 300 years from the crucifixion of Christ to the conversion of Emperor Constantine, polytheistic Roman emperors initiated no more than four general persecutions of Christians. Local administrators and governors incited some anti-Christian violence of their own. Still, if we combine all the victims of all these persecutions, it turns out that in these three centuries, the polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians."
The Edict of Milan of 313 finally legalized Christianity, with it gaining governmental privileges and a degree of official approval under Constantine, who granted privileges such as tax exemptions to Christian clergy. In the period of 313 to 391, both paganism and Christianity were legal religions, with their respective adherents vying for power in the Roman Empire. This period of transition is also known as the Constantinian shift. For the first two centuries of the Byzantine Empire, official policy towards paganism was cautious and tolerant. In 380, Theodosius I made Nicene Christianity the state church of the Roman Empire. Paganism was tolerated for another 12 years, until 392, when Theodosius passed legislation prohibiting all pagan worship. Pagan religions from this point were increasingly persecuted, a process which lasted throughout the 5th century. Hover, even with the closing of the Neoplatonic Academy by decree of Justinian I in 529, its philosophers were permitted to remain within the Empire without converting to Christianity, although many of its scholars choose to move to the more tolerant Sassanid Persia.
Lay Christians took advantage of these new anti-pagan laws by destroying and plundering the temples. Theologians and prominent ecclesiastics soon followed. One such example is St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. When Gratian became Roman emperor in 375, Ambrose, who was one of his closest advisors, persuaded him to further suppress paganism. The emperor, on Ambrose's advice, caused the statue of Victory to be removed from the senate house at Rome (382). In this same year, he abolished all the privileges of the pagan pontiffs and the grants for the support of pagan worship. Deprived of the assistance of the State, paganism rapidly lost influence.
When Gratian delegated the government of the eastern half of the Roman Empire to Theodosius the Great in 379, the situation became worse for the Pagans. Theodosius prohibited all forms of Pagan worship and allowed the temples to be robbed, plundered, and destroyed by monks and other enterprising Christians and participated in actions by Christians against major pagan sites. Pagans openly voiced their resentment in historical works, such as the writings of Eunapius and Olympiodorus. Some writers blamed the Christian hegemony for the 410 Sack of Rome, provoking Saint Augustine, a Christian bishop, to respond by writing The City of God, a seminal Christian text. Christians destroyed almost all such pagan political literature and threatened to cut off the hands of any copyist who dared to make new copies of the offending writings.
In the Eastern Empire, up until the time of Justinian, the Byzantine emperors practiced a policy of toleration towards all religions. This pertained to both devotions to the Greco-Roman gods and the religion of barbarians living within the empire. Although there were anti-pagan laws, they were not always enforced.
Depictions in the catacombs suggest that Christians readily adapted common motifs such as the "Good Shepherd", which in Roman culture represented "philanthropy", and the "orans" image, which indicated "piety". That said, both symbols are ancient Jewish motifs as well, which are much older.
The transition from paganism to Christianity took place very gradually and unevenly in late antiquity and in the early Byzantine world. Customary funeral rituals remained. These included the belief that at the time of death angels and demons contest for the decedent's soul. Macarius of Egypt writes of such a contest, which is only resolved by the intervention of the person's guardian angel -roughly equivalent to Plato's daimon. A second belief was that the soul was weighed in the scales of justice; a concept that Eustathius of Thessalonica found in the Iliad. Both ideas precipitated loud lamentation, which Gregory of Nyssa and others attempted to modify to the singing of psalms and hymns.
In 609 Pope Boniface IV obtained leave from the Byzantine Emperor Phocas to convert the Pantheon in Rome into a Christian church, a practice similar to that recommended eight year earlier by Pope Gregory I to Mellitus regarding Anglo-Saxon holy places, in order to ease the transition to Christianity. According to Willibald's Life of Saint Boniface, about 723, the missioner cut down the sacred Donar's Oak and used the lumber to build a church dedicated to St. Peter. Around 744, Saint Sturm established the monastery of Fulda on the ruins of a 6th-century Merovingian royal camp, destroyed 50 years earlier by the Saxons, at a ford on the Fulda River.
Following Bede, it was for a long time thought that the name of the Christian holyday of Easter derived from the Anglo-Saxon goddess "Eostre". Later scholars considered it unlikely that Anglo-Saxon churchmen would name their holiest feastday for a pagan goddess, and that it was more probable that the name comes from the Anglo-Saxon eastan, meaning east.
From very early in the Christian era, the Feast of the Annunciation has been celebrated on March 25, commemorating both the belief that the spring equinox was not only the day of God's act of Creation but also the beginning of Christ's redemption of that same Creation. The earliest source stating December 25 as the date of birth of Jesus was Hippolytus of Rome (170–236), writing very early in the 3rd century, based on the assumption that the conception of Jesus took place at the Spring equinox which he placed on March 25, and then added nine months. While the Roman cult of Sol had existed in Rome since the early Republic, it was on 25 December AD 274, the Roman emperor Aurelian made it an official cult alongside the traditional Roman cults.
Accordingly, the Church celebrates the birth of John the Baptist by a festival of his "nativity", assigned exactly six months before the Nativity of Christ, since John was six months older than Jesus. By the late sixth century, the Nativity of John the Baptist (24 June) had become an important feast, counterbalancing at midsummer the midwinter feast of Christmas. With the spread of Christianity, some of the local Germanic solstice celebrations (Midsummer festivals) were incorporated into St. John's Day festivities, notably for the evening before.
Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival in honour of the god Saturn, held on 17 December of the Julian calendar and later expanded to 23 December. The popularity of Saturnalia continued into the 3rd and 4th centuries, and as the Roman Empire came under Christian influence, many of its customs were recast into or at least influenced the seasonal celebrations surrounding Christmas and the New Year. Many observers schooled in the classical tradition have noted similarities between the Saturnalia and historical revelry during the Twelve Days of Christmas and the Feast of Fools William Warde Fowler notes: "[Saturnalia] has left its traces and found its parallels in great numbers of medieval and modern customs, occurring about the time of the winter solstice."
Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote about this connection while in late 1949 or early 1950, noting that the place at Bethlehem selected by early Christians as Jesus's birthplace was an early shrine of a pagan god, Adonis. After the Bar Kokhba revolt (c. 132–136 CE) was crushed, the Roman emperor Hadrian converted the Christian site above the Grotto into a shrine dedicated to the Greek god Adonis, to honour his favourite, the Greek youth Antinous.
Justin Martyr was a pagan who studied Stoic and Platonic philosophy, and became a Christian around 132. In his First Apology, Justin used the Stoic concept of the "Logos" to his advantage as a way of arguing for Christianity to non-Jews, as did John the Apostle in his gospel and apocalypse. Since a Greek audience would accept this concept, his argument could concentrate on identifying this Logos with Jesus. Clement of Alexandria was also influenced by Plato and the Stoics.
Augustine of Hippo (354–430), who ultimately systematized Christian philosophy after converting to Christianity from Manichaeism, wrote in the late 4th and early 5th century: "But when I read those books of the Platonists I was taught by them to seek incorporeal truth, so I saw your 'invisible things, understood by the things that are made'." Until the 20th century, most of the Western world's concept of Manichaeism came through Augustine's negative polemics against it. According to his Confessions, after eight or nine years of adhering to the Manichaean faith (as an "auditor", the lowest level in the sect's hierarchy), he became a Christian and a potent adversary of Manichaeism. When he turned from Manichaeism, he took up skepticism. In AD 386, he published Contra Academicos (Against the Skeptics). J. Brachtendorf says Augustine used the Ciceronian Stoic concept of passions, to interpret Paul's doctrine of universal sin and redemption.
The Cathars were dualists and felt that the world was the work of a demiurge of Satanic origin. Whether this was due to influence from Manichaeism or another strand of Gnosticism has been impossible to determine. The Bogomils and Cathars, in particular, left few records of their rituals or doctrines, and the link between them and Manichaeans is unclear. Regardless of its historical veracity the charge of Manichaeism was leveled at them by contemporary orthodox opponents, who often tried to fit contemporary heresies with those combated by the church fathers. Only a minority of Cathars held that The Evil God (or principle) was as powerful as The Good God (also called a principle) as Mani did, a belief also known as absolute dualism. In the case of the Cathars, it seems they adopted the Manichaean principles of church organization, but none of its religious cosmology. Priscillian and his followers apparently tried to absorb what they thought was the valuable part of Manichaeaism into Christianity.
The conversion of Æthelberht, king of Kent is the first account of any Christian bretwalda conversion and is told by the Venerable Bede in his histories of the conversion of England. In 582 Pope Gregory sent Augustine and 40 companions from Rome to missionize among the Anglo-Saxons. "They had, by order of the blessed Pope Gregory, brought interpreters of the nation of the Franks, and sending to Æthelberht, signified that they were come from Rome, and brought a joyful message, which most undoubtedly assured to all that took advantage of it everlasting joys in heaven, and a kingdom that would never end with the living and true God." Æthelberht was not unfamiliar with Christianity because he had a Christian wife, and Bede says that there was even a church dedicated to St. Martin nearby. Æthelberht was converted eventually and Augustine remained in Canterbury.
The Anglo-Saxon conversion in particular was a gradual process that necessarily included many compromises and syncretism. A famous letter from Pope Gregory to Mellitus in June 601, for example, is quoted encouraging the use of pagan temples by converts to Christianity, though festivals should be held on significant Christian dates.
Tell Augustine that he should be no means destroy the temples of the gods but rather the idols within those temples. Let him, after he has purified them with holy water, place altars and relics of the saints in them. For, if those temples are well built, they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God. Thus, seeing that their places of worship are not destroyed, the people will banish error from their hearts and come to places familiar and dear to them in acknowledgement and worship of the true God. Further, since it has been their custom to slaughter oxen in sacrifice, they should receive some solemnity in exchange. Let them therefore, on the day of the dedication of their churches, or on the feast of the martyrs whose relics are preserved in them, build themselves huts around their one-time temples and celebrate the occasion with religious feasting. They will sacrifice and eat the animals not any more as an offering to the devil, but for the glory of God to whom, as the giver of all things, they will give thanks for having been satiated. Thus, if they are not deprived of all exterior joys, they will more easily taste the interior ones. For surely it is impossible to efface all at once everything from their strong minds, just as, when one wishes to reach the top of a mountain, he must climb by stages and step by step, not by leaps and bounds.
After his death, King Oswald of Northumbria came to be regarded as a saint, and the spot where he died was associated with miracles. Reginald of Durham mentions one, saying that Oswald's right arm was taken by a raven to an ash tree, which gave the tree ageless vigor; when the bird dropped the arm onto the ground, a spring emerged from the ground. Both the tree and the spring were, according to Reginald, subsequently associated with healing miracles. Aspects of the legend have been considered to have pagan overtones or influences and may represent a fusion of his status as a traditional Germanic warrior-king with Christianity. The cult surrounding him gained prominence in parts of continental Europe.
Some time prior to 655, Œthelwald of Deira gave Chad of Mercia land upon which to build a monastery. According to Bede, Chad felt it necessary to fast for forty days in order to cleanse the place. This ritual purification indicates that the new monastery was likely built on the site of a pre-Christian cult.
The Saxons were one of the last groups to be converted by Christian missionaries. Some missionary work had been carried out among them by Boniface of Wessex, but the mission had limited long-term success. The Saxons converted mainly under the threat of death by Charlemagne, although some concessions to pagan culture were made by missionaries. The Massacre of Verden was less about conversions than retaliation for a rebellion which cost the death of a number of his ministers and nobles. The Saxon conversion was difficult for a number of reasons including that their pagan beliefs were so strongly tied to their culture that conversion necessarily meant massive cultural change that was hard to accept. Their sophisticated theology was also a bulwark against an immediate and complete conversion to Christianity.
The first recorded attempts at spreading Christianity in Norway were made by King Haakon the Good in the tenth century, who was raised in England. His efforts were unpopular and were met with little success. In 995 Olaf Tryggvason became King Olaf I of Norway. Olaf I then made it his priority to convert the country to Christianity. By destroying temples and torturing and killing pagan resisters he succeeded in making every part of Norway at least nominally Christian. Expanding his efforts to the Norse settlements in the west the kings' sagas credit him with Christianizing the Faroes, Orkney, Shetland, Iceland, and Greenland. After Olaf's defeat at the Battle of Svolder in 1000 there was a partial relapse to paganism in Norway under the rule of the Jarls of Lade. In the following reign of Saint Olaf, pagan remnants were stamped out and Christianity entrenched.
Armed conflict between the Baltic Finns, Balts and Slavs who dwelt by the Baltic shores and their Saxon and Danish neighbors to the north and south had been common for several centuries. The Christianization of the pagan Balts, Slavs and Finns was undertaken primarily during the 12th and 13th centuries, in a series of uncoordinated military campaigns by various German and Scandinavian kingdoms, and later by the Teutonic Knights and other orders of warrior-monks, although the paganism of the inhabitants was used as justification by all of these actors. The lands inhabited by the Wends were rich in resources, which played a factor in the motivations of those who participated in the crusade.
It involved the destruction of pagan polities, their subjection to their Christian conquerors, and frequently the wholesale resettlement of conquered areas and replacement of the original populations with German settlers, as in Old Prussia. Elsewhere, the local populations were subjected to an imported German overclass. Although revolts were frequent and pagan resistance often locally successful, the general technological superiority of the Crusaders, and their support by the Church and rulers throughout Christendom, eventually resulted in their victory in most cases - although Lithuania resisted successfully and only converted voluntarily in the 14th century. Most of the populations of these regions were converted only with repeated use of force; in Old Prussia, the tactics employed in the conquest, and in the subsequent conversion of the territory, resulted in the death of most of the native population, whose language consequently became extinct.