20 Modern Traditions with Pagan Origins
We have so many traditions in the modern day that it would be near impossible to consider the origins of them all. But that being said, some of these traditions came from downright surprising places–including paganism.
Many of the things we do every day don’t seem to have any connection to religion at all, but they still got their start in the world of polytheism. Even more surprising, there are traditions that we associate with specific religions (like Christianity) that most definitely got their start in other religions.
Today, we’re taking a look a 20 modern things with pagan origins. Which one surprised you the most?
Our Obsession with Cats
When we ooh and ahh over our temperamental and adorable furry friends, we’re taking place in a tradition that stretches back to ancient Egypt.
Although cats have known it since the beginning of time, it was the Egyptians who elevated felines to the status of gods in their religion. In fact, the goddess Bastet was depicted as having the head of cat. But don’t worry dog lovers, there’s plenty of pagan fun for you too in the dog-headed Egyptian god, Anubis.
Knocking on Wood
These days, knocking on wood is a way to ward off bad luck. But for the ancient Celts, there was a deeper meaning.
In traditional Celtic religion, there was the belief that trees were home to spirits, fairies, or other supernatural beings. Knocking on wood was a way to curry favor with good spirits or distract bad spirits from foiling your plans.
Considering that Christmas is a time when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, it may seem a little odd that it has connections to paganism, but those links are there.
Because the date of the birth of Jesus is not given in the Christian Bible, December 25th seems like a random pick. But some have theorized that this was done so that the holiday corresponded with the pagan winter solstice–as a way to wean new Christians off of the festivities.
Halloween–a pagan holiday? Who would have thought? (We’re kidding!)
The pagan holiday of Samhain also occurs on the 31st, and it is a time for honoring the dead. It’s also considered to be a time when the boundary between our world and the next is at its weakest. Slowly over time, this festival sparked the interest of non-pagans as well, and now we have Halloween as we know it today.
Days of the Week
So it turns out that we’re all pagans seven days a week–at least if we’re going by day names.
For example, Friday (everyone’s favorite day of the week) comes from the name Freya–Norse goddess of love. Even those dreaded Mondays are pagan. That word comes from “monandaeg”–day of the moon goddess. Turns out, the name for every day of the week comes from some tradition of European paganism.
Months of the Year
Just like the names for the days of the week have pagan origins, so do our names for the 12 months on the calendar.
For example, June is named after Juno–Roman queen of the gods and wife to Jupiter. These naming conventions apparently troubled the early Christian church enough to attempt to replace them with more “wholesome” names, but we all know how hard it is to get people to try something new. They ultimately failed in this attempt, and we’ve kept the traditional names ever since.
Covering Your Mouth to Yawn
Covering your mouth to yawn is just a common courtesy, right? No one wants your warm breath on them! Turns out, that’s not entirely true–even covering your mouth to yawn has pagan origins.
In pagan Rome, doctors had a clever (but completely wrong) theory about yawning and infant mortality. They noticed that lots of children died young, and they also noticed that babies were unable to cover their mouth when they yawned. Their diagnosis? Yawning allowed a person’s vital life essence to escape their body. And apparently covering your piehole with your hand was the only way to stop an untimely death.
While wedding rings themselves are not explicitly pagan, the fact that we place them on our ring fingers most certainly is.
In traditional Greek and Roman beliefs, your fourth or “ring” finger was thought to have a vein that ran directly to your heart. By placing your wedding ring here, you were making a strong and eternal commitment to love.
Easter is an important Christian holiday when believers celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. That’s just good Christian fun, right? Nope, sorry. It’s pagan.
First up is the name. The term Easter is derived from Eostre–a germanic pagan goddess. And even the Easter bunny has a little pagan streak to him too! As the goddess Eostre is sometimes associated fertility, followers would sometimes present her with colored eggs as a way to encourage pregnancy.
When we cross our fingers, we’re wishing for luck (or we’re telling a lie). But this practice is a far cry from the pagan tradition that it originated from.
In ancient times, it wasn’t one person who would cross their fingers. Rather, two people would use their index fingers to make a cross. This was done as an attempt to harness the power of any good spirits that might be hiding nearby.
You’re most likely to see flower crowns at Coachella these days, but in ancient Greece, they helped bring worshippers closer to specific deities.
Different plants were associated with different gods, so wearing a specific kind of flower wreath would help bring you favor with a specific deity. For example, Zeus was associated with oak, while Aphrodite was associated with myrtle.
We’ve all heard nightmare stories about the difficulties of being a bridesmaid. There’s usually a pushy bride and a hideous dress involved. But in pagan times, it’s a surprise that anyone agreed to be a bridesmaid!
In ancient times, bridesmaids wore identical dresses and veils to that of the bride–so at least you didn’t have to worry about a tacky bridesmaid’s dress. But all this matchiness had a purpose, and that purpose was to trick evil spirits into attacking a bridesmaid instead of the bride herself.
Gift giving is a practice that has been around forever and is nearly universal. But that doesn’t mean pagans didn’t put their own unique spin on it!
There are all sorts of superstitions surrounding gifts–including things like not giving knives, shoes, or opal as presents.
Groundhog Day is a modern tradition that didn’t evolve from paganism–it’s just straight-up pagan itself if you think about it.
According to the laws of Groundhog Day, if the groundhog sees his shadow on February 2nd, that means we’re in for another six weeks of winter. Obviously this is done in jest, but what else would you describe this process as other than a form of divination?
These days Nike may be a giant sportswear company, but none of their success would have been possible without paganism in ancient Greece.
The goddess Nike was worshipped in ancient Greece as the goddess of victory. She would often be worshipped after a successful military win. So, it makes sense why the company would use her name to promote their brand.
In courthouses across the world you can see depictions of lady justice with her blindfold and scales. These days, it’s meant to represent the impartiality of the law. But actually, these statues have a pagan origin.
Whether we realize it or not, these are actually depictions of the ancient Roman goddess of justice, Justitia. Although the name may have changed over the years, her personification and meaning these days is nearly identical to those in Roman times.
Mardi Gras is yet another Christian holiday that just happens to “conveniently” fall near a pagan holiday.
While these days Mardi Gras may mark the day before Lent begins, in ancient times, it was associated with festivals for Saturn–the Roman god of agriculture. Both celebrations involve wild parties, so it’s not hard to see how the two became associated.
In modern times, we use “Mother Earth” as a way to personify the environment–usually in the context of protecting it. But pagan cultures have had a Mother Earth for millennia.
When you look at polytheistic religions, you’re likely to find some kind of earth goddess personified as a maternal figure. The Greeks had Gaia, Hindus have Prithvi, and some Native American traditions have the Spider Grandmother.
US Medal of Honor
In the United States military, the Medal of Honor is the highest honor a soldier can achieve. They can be given for various acts of valor, and if you look closely, you might just notice something a little pagan about them.
While the design varies depending on the military branch, the Roman goddess Minerva almost always makes an appearance. Considering that she is the goddess of war, this connection makes sense.
The Tooth Fairy
Although the tooth fairy is generally a fun fictional character for kids, children’s teeth were a way bigger deal in ancient times than they are now.
For example, in medieval Europe, baby teeth were buried or burned to keep them out of the hands of evil witches. This is one tradition we’re glad got sanitized and commercialized.