Use of Pagan by Christians

I recently read a reference to Cleopatra being the “pagan queen.”

Since she lived every moment of her life B.C. she didn’t hardly have much choice in this. Dictionary definitions make a point of Classical Greece and Rome being pagan, but we seldom if ever speak of King Tut being the pagan king or Julius Caesar being the pagan emperor. Pagan is not used in the Bible, since it doesn’t seem to have become a word until much later.

Two questions. 1) The use looks to me to be technically correct, but it is? 2) How odd does the use of Cleopatra the pagan queen seem to your ear?

Is the title “pagan queen” a historical quote, or more modern ?

I ask because while “pagan” has become a shorthand for “non-Christian”, it did not start out as such. The word derives from the Latin “paganus”, meaning “peasant” or “rural”; and back then it quickly morphed to carry the same connotations of slackjawed ignorance as “rural”, “redneck” or “hick” do in English.
So, when the edumacated city dwellers became Christians, but the po’ folk out in the sticks ostensibly converted too but still paid their respects to the Old Gods or told tales of werewolves and witches and stuff like that, they were derisively dismissed as “mere pagans”. Hence pagan = not-Christian, later on.

So, how does that apply to Cleo ? Well, despite being superduperextra rich and providing much of the bulk wheat shipments the Roman Empire needed to run; unlike other Roman provinces the Ptolemaic Egyptians clung on to their traditional identities and mythologies as local bigwigs, god-kings descended from the Sun and such. Which affluent Romans, naturally, scoffed at. Cleopatra was a big fish in a small pond, if you will. So that might be why a chronicler of the era might have dissed her as the “pagan queen”.

But if the origin of the quote is more modern, my guess would be a sly reference to the whole Shakespearian, Cleopatra As The Sulfurous Temptress of Noble Emperors angle. In which case the connotation would be more like Non-Christian woman = painted whore :rolleyes:.

It was part of the cover blurb on an old (30s? 40s?) biography. Painted whore, indeed.

The common modern connotation of “pagan”, as best I understand it, tends to refer to idol-worship (as done by the ancient Babylonians, for example), or polytheism in the style of the Greek, Roman, Hindu, or Norse gods. (ETA: Or various forms of spiritism, ancient or modern, involving animal spirits, tree spirits, lake spirits, etc.) While the word is sometimes used (very loosely) to mean any non-Christian, I think it more connotes any non-Abrahamic belief. I don’t think Jews are ever described as “pagan”, and probably not Muslims either. (If Muslims are ever called “pagan”, I’d bet it derives more from modern Western bigotry and hatred against them.) And I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard “pagan” being used to describe the more “mystical” Eastern religions like Buddhism, Shinto, and the like.

Sorry, no cites. I’m just describing how I think I’ve heard and seen the word commonly used.

In Middle English all non-Christians were pagans or paynims (an alternative spelling). Also Saracens or sarazins could be used with the same sense. It can take one aback at first when reading the early Arthurian metric romances to hear of Arthur or Lancelot du Lac battling a host of Saracens in England (whose kings often swear by Mahound). In fact here the term designates the pagan Saxons. This usage of pagan for all non-Christians whatever their era continued long in English

Many (not all) Christians believed in witches, too. This included both “edumacated city dwellers” and “po’ folk out in the sticks.”

Egyptian religion was actually quite popular in ancient Rome, despite the occasional crackdown. Julius Caesar didn’t mind a li’l bit of Isis worship going down; neither did Caligula, Vespasian, Domitian, Titus, Trajan, Hadrian or Galerius, all of whom either tolerated it or actively participated in it.

I would definitely consider Shinto to be an example of paganism, just like Hindu beliefs. I sometimes use the term “Japanese paganism” to refer to Shinto.

Why is that? Because it’s a non-Christian religion, or because it’s non-Abrahamic, or some for some other reason?

Neither of those reasons. I wouldn’t consider Buddhism to be a form of paganism, for example.

Giving the Japanese folk belief system a name like “Shinto” and calling it a religion can be a bit misleading. For the Shinto of the shrines, or of the palace, that’s fine; they are closer to what we think of as “a religion”.

I think calling it “Japanese paganism” can sometimes be more descriptive and emphasises similarities over differences.

I am no expert on Hinduism, but I once read that it was an invention of the British - a name imposed on a pre-existing complex of belief systems.

The way I am using the term “paganism” in this case is to refer to animistic or polytheistic beliefs, where objects in the everyday world (such as trees, rivers or foxes) are inhabited by spirits or gods. And lest there be any doubt, I do not mean it as any kind of insult; this kind of religion has greater appeal for me than any other kind.

They were not Saxons, but (a poorly-imagined version of) actual middle-eastern Muslims.

Pagan, derived from paganus “rural person” as mentioned above, came to be used by Christians after the official Christianization of the Roman Empire. It referred to the followers of the traditional Roman religion, first. It was generalized to “all polytheistic religions” much later. This does not include belief in witches and magic, or (especially) demons, which was a very widespread belief (indeed almost universal) amongst all peoples of the Roman Empire.

Whilst it does look odd to see Cleopatra referred to as a “pagan queen”, late antique Christian writers did use the term for Romans and other polytheists who lived BC. In this case though, it looks more like an artifact of (pseudo-)Victorian style.

It all depends of context.

If there’s no context, “the pagan queen Cleopatra” sounds odd, as would “the pagan emperor Trajan” or “the pagan king Nebuchadnezzar.”

If the chapter or essay the phrase appeared in could show some relevance, it wouldn’t bother me.

I do not think it is just Victorian style, as I would still not expect to hear of the pagan King Tut. I think it’s being applied to Cleopatra to make her seem more exotic and foreign. She’s being Romanticized.

I know that, when I first learned of her, it wasn’t as a true queen in her own right, but as a sort of Helen of Troy of that time period, the woman everyone wanted to be with. Later I heard it changed into her being some sort of seductress, enticing these men for her own purposes. It was never about her as a legitimate ruler.

Granted, I don’t know if this fits the work in question, but that’s always the way the term made me feel.

Cleopatra was a pagan, though, in the original sense of the word. She was Greek, not Egyptian.

IIRC, the problem with Christians in the early Roman empire was that they would not worship the emperor as god, nor even go through the motions. The Egyptians, it seems, like most other polytheistic religions around Rome did not have a hangup about the exclusivity of their pantheon. They were willing to concede there were other gods looking after things outside the Nile valley.

The problem was both more and less specific than that. Christians refused to make animal or incense sacrifices at all. They also specifically refused to sacrifice to any of the Roman gods, and refused to sacrifice “on behalf of” the emperor to their own deity, as the Jews did. Of course the Christians did not worship the emperor as a god, but (most) Roman citizens and subjects also did not worship the living emperor. “Pagans” (Romans, Greeks, Egyptians and other polytheists) might sacrifice to deified (dead) emperors, or to the emperor’s genius, or sort of “animating force”, a nebulous concept but not equivalent to deification.