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  1. forms of religious practices regarded as heathen by Christianity.
  2. (by analogy with l) the practice, advocated by Jean Francois LYOTARD, of judging in the absence of criteria (Just Gaming, 1985). This is anathematical to traditional accounts of knowledge, ethics and art which have striven to delimit stable and coherent criteria. As a theorist of POSTMODERNISM, Lyotard rejects this project which he sees as impossible, primarily due to an increasing lack of faith in science and GRAND NARRATIVES. Though he does not shy from the not inconsiderable problems that arise here (e.g. how to judge between the claims of patriarchy and feminism, or between fascist and socialist) he maintains that paganism, with its emphasis on feelings, offers a viable way to engage with the current myriad of changes (see DIFFEREND and PERFORMATIVITY).
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a term used in Christian literature to designate the non-Christian religions and, broadly speaking, polytheism.

The pagan deities personified the natural elements. For example, the ancient Greeks’ Zeus, the Indian god Indra, the Celtic Taranis, the Scandinavian Thor, the Baltic Perkunas, and the Slavic Perun were all gods of thunder and of the heavens; the ancient Greeks’ Helios, the Egyptians’ Ra, and the Slavic god Dazhbog were sun gods; Neptune and Varuna were gods of the waters, respectively, in Greece and in India. Lesser deities included the lower demons and the spirits of forests and springs, such as nymphs, dryads, leshii (forest demons), and the vodianoi (water spirit).

The essence of pagan cults is the influence of magic over nature. In the pagan view, the cycles of nature’s constant rebirth and the biological and economic life of the group (that is, of the clan or community) are mutually connected. For this reason, agricultural “calendar” holidays also included such “family” celebrations as wedding ceremonies and feasts. The pagan cults (such as those of classical antiquity) were replaced by the “world religions”—Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism.

The clan and tribal cults did not meet the ideological requirements of advanced class societies. In Kievan Rus’, the unsuccessful attempt by Prince Vladimir Sviatoslavich to establish a pagan pantheon for the entire state (A.D. 980) led to the Christianization of Rus’ in 988–89. The cities became the centers of the new religion; in the villages, according to archaeological findings, Christian burial was replacing the pagan ritual of burial under mounds by the 13th century. The pagan gods of folk beliefs were personified by the Christian saints (for example, Perun was identified with the prophet Elijah, and Veles, protector of cattle, with Vlasii), but belief in the household spirits and forest demons persisted.

Official religion pushed paganism into the realm of folk culture; the observance of Christian rituals (including church services and fasts) was combined with the communal exercise of agrarian cults and participation in feasts and games. The clergy fought against such practices, and they also branded as pagan various forms of art and of folk art. On the other hand, the church incorporated the principal pagan holidays into various Christian ones in order to make the communal cults subservient to church influence. This kind of “dual belief” persisted until the early 20th century.


Anichkov, E. V. Iazychestvo i Drevniaia Rus’. St. Petersburg, 1914.
Propp, V. Ia. Russkie agrarnye prazdniki. [Leningrad] 1963.
Rybakov, B. A. “Iazycheskoe mirovozzrenie russkogo srednevekov’ia.” Voprosy istorii, 1974, no. 1.
Nosova, G. A. lazychestvo v pravoslavii. Moscow, 1975.

V. P.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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