Does Paganism have Sin? Yes, it does! …Well, SOME of it does.
Posted on August 11, 2016
There are certain topics that arise in discussion within Paganism which have so thoroughly associated with cultural or religious baggage that there is a great difficulty in cultivating an ordered and reasoned critique of that topic. The concept of ‘Sin’ has recently been brought up over on Patheos in a post by John Beckett. Titled, “Are We Bringing Sin into Paganism?” , Beckett explores the connections between the increase of concern with displays and attitudes towards piety, the confluence of those ideas with what is considered “purity”, the necessity of piety and purity within a Pagan context, and other such themes. Beckett concludes that while “Sin” is not part of Paganism, it could be if the collective Pagan world did not tread lightly, leading to the potential for the intrusion of a Christian-style “sin” within a wider theological paradigm.
His commentators agree with him, continuing with the theme of Christo-centric baggage. In a comment on the piece, one “Woods Wizard” states that “Sin is definitely a Christian concept related to judgement [sic] after death. It also involves forgiveness by a Deity who seems insulted that we would break his rules. But Pagans have no commandments, only guidelines like the Rede or the Noble Virtues. Pagans have no one who sits in judgement [sic] of them at the end of their lives. We have concepts like karma, fate, or the Wyrd. So we have no need of the concept of sin.” 
Beckett and his commentators have fallen into the all-too-typical trap of speaking for the whole of “Paganism”, without understanding the implications of doing so, or the facets of the myriad religions which exist underneath the umbrella of Contemporary Paganism. They declaim, quite vociferously, that there is no sin in Paganism and, indeed, that it has no place within Paganism, because their attitudes towards what is, or is not, sinful are colored by their exposure to the all-prevalent concept of what embodies “Christian Sin”. In doing so they forget that there are traditions which do have deep, important, concepts of “sin”.
What is sin? Without going into the myriad iterations of what might be considered “sin” in a Christian, Mosaic, or Islamic context, we should take a quick look at the etymology of the word. Ultimately, the modern word “Sin” comes from Old English (sinn, senn, synn), and is defined as:
- (theology) A violation of God’s will or religious law.
- A misdeed.
- A sin offering; a sacrifice for sin.
- An embodiment of sin; a very wicked person. 
Important for this discussion is the exploration of the Old English antecedent, for it provides the foundation for the understanding that pre-Christian peoples might have had when approaching this terminology. Bosworth-Toller’s Online Dictionary accounts “Syn” (also: Synn) as:
- With reference to human law or obligation, misdeed, fault, crime, wrong
- With reference to divine law, sin 
We see the multifaceted concept of what, tongue-in-cheek, can be considered the “original sin”. It is both the violation of divine law as well as it is a misdeed or wrong as considered in the light of more mundane, human affairs. The phrase “synne stǽlan” literally means “to charge with a crime” . While a seemingly pedantic counterpoint to John Beckett’s critique of the concept of “Sin”, it is an important one nonetheless, for in the whole of Contemporary Paganism it does come up with some frequency in reconstructionist Heathenry.
Heathenry is a religion established on the basis of law, over disorder. These laws, known as thews in some Heathen circles, form the basis of social understanding and govern interpersonal relationships and ritual practice alike. This is buttressed by the understanding of the Heathen worldview, which is one of concentric rings of duty and obligation which focus from the individual heorþ (hearth), to the sibb (kin), and finally to the folc (folk). This forms the basis of the innangeard – the inner yard – which is cultivated through a series of reciprocal relationships for the betterment of the unit as a whole. Everything outside of the innangeard is known as utangeard, the outer yard. The inhospitable wilderness is as much utangeard as a neighboring, yet unfamiliar, tribal body or people. 
“Sin” is an important concept in Heathenry, because it represents a violation of these laws and a fundamental imbalance in the nature of these relationships, leading to discord and disharmony among the people. It creates a debt between the offending parties, which must be righted with some form of recompense. Violating an oath to one’s folk is as much a sinful act as the violation of ritual mandate or religious precedent, both of which ultimately require restitution in order to correct the imbalance .
Beckett propagates the Pagan misunderstanding that sin is intimately connected to morality, and failure to abide by someone’s potentially strict codes of moral understanding is what causes sin. Further, he sounds an alarmist response that the overt emphasis on concepts like purity and piety only damage the relationships which are to be had between Pagans and the Gods, which devolves into fear mongering the rise of some form of eventual Pagan Ayatollah Khomeini.
Is it not in the best interest of Paganism to dispense with the persistent baggage and hanging on of Christian themes which otherwise pollute our conversation? Do these fearful conflations really have a place within the wider discourse of Paganism as anything more than a nuisance and distraction?
The reconstructionist wing of Paganism is, by large, is a group of religions which places a great deal of emphasis on reciprocity, proper ritual forms, and the nature of obligation. In a religious expression which places as much emphasis on these concepts, how can the misdeed of violation of law not be construed as sinful? What is the difference between religious impiety in this sense, and the violation of an ordered system, as Beckett seems to wish there to be?
John Beckett goes on to say that “avoiding sin requires perfection”, and that is perhaps true if we approach “sin” from something resembling a Baptist or otherwise Protestant perspective. However in a Heathen, and thus a form of Pagan, context avoiding sin requires “following the law”. It requires understanding the dynamic relationships between people and their peers, people and their gods, and the whole of the ordered cosmos. For failing to recognize the vagaries in debt and obligation can cause all measure of impiety, or impurity, or otherwise damage and harm the connection which is made between the mundane and the sacred.
Some Pagans, especially Heathens, understand that “sin” is not some state which can be conferred due to attitudes towards morality. Instead, it is recognized that the world is made up of a series of obligations and laws, webs of obligation and of responsibility, of which the violation of such edifices can cause imbalance and lead to disharmony. That is the nature of “sin”. But to claim that “Paganism does not have sin” is objectively incorrect.
 John Beckett, “Are We Bringing Sin Into Paganism?.” Under the Ancient Oaks Blog, Patheos. August 11, 2016, accessed August 11, 2016, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/2016/08/are-we-bringing-sin-into-paganism.html
 John Beckett, “Are We Bringing Sin Into Paganism?.”
 “Sin,” Wiktionary, last modified August 8, 2016, accessed August 11, 2016, https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/sin#English
 Joseph Bosworth, “Syn”, An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online, Ed. Thomas Northcote Toller and Others. Comp. Sean Christ and Ondřej Tichý. Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, 21 Mar. 2010. Web. Accessed August 11, 2016 http://www.bosworthtoller.com/030025
 Joseph Bosworth, “Syn”.
 Wodgar Inguing, “Innangeard-Utangeard”, Larhus Fyrnsida Online Resource, Accessed August 11, 2016 https://larhusfyrnsida.com/fundamentals/inangeard-utangeard/
 Ashli, “Sin, Thew, and the Bones of Innangeard”, Real Heathenry, July 13, 2016, Accessed August 11, 2016. http://www.realheathenry.com/sin-thew-bones-innangeard/
For one to sin, one must act in discordance with tribal / familial law and custom, thus acting against the cosmogonic law of the gods, the Orlæg of the cosmos.
Anubis weighed the heart of the Egyptian dead. If they weighed more than Maat’s feather of Truth the heart was devoured by Ammit. They were basically obliterated. This is called a judgment, so it does exist in Paganism if you follow the Ancient Egyptian belief system. As you said, this is more about following the established laws.
Reblogged this on Gangleri's Grove and commented:
Another excellent article, this time on ‘sin’ in “Paganism’.
“Important for this discussion is the exploration of the Old English antecedent, for it provides the foundation for the understanding that pre-Christian peoples might have had when approaching this terminology.”
I am unclear how you are taking an Old English word and assuming it predates the context from which it originates. Wouldn’t it be more historically accurate to note that this is an Old English *translation* for an originally Hebrew term, and that Old English has this translation and concept by way of exposure to Christianity via the spread of the religion through monasteries, missionaries and conversions? Does the Old English language and religion predate the Hebrews and their coining of this word and concept so that they’d have had their own, independent of the Hebrew context? Your sentence seems to imply this, but that doesn’t seem historically viable, however you seem to be basing your premise for the post on that very statement. Am I misunderstanding something here?
What “coining of this term” are you speaking of? The association of “sin” as “missing the mark” in both Greek and Hebrew, especially as it relates to spear throwing and archery (Elaine Pagels book, “The Gnostic Gospels”)?
The Old English and wider Germanic cultures had concepts of “sin” which were associated with the violation of law. The application of “sin” as a distinct violation of Mosaic-style divine law was probably (although not for sure) an association due to interactions between a Germanic culture and Christianity. I’m not saying that Christianity didn’t have these concepts, or that Old English concepts predate them, but that the pre-Christian Germanic peoples recognized violations to their laws, which were described as “Sin”, the term which was more directly applied to these Christian themes as they became intermingled.
There’s a lengthy history of Germanic themes and concepts being interspersed within Christian theology and religious construction (see: “The Germanization of Medieval Christianity”). This is probably one of those, where the Old English (and other Germanic peoples) had concepts for law-violating, which were more narrowly applied to religious law as the Church understood it.
My point is: Pre-Christian peoples had concepts of Sin. It’s hardly a Christian-inspired creation.
The key matter of misunderstanding here is the whole problem of “translation.” If a concept in one culture does not exist in another culture into which some text, institution, religion, or other phenomenon is being translated, then there are two approaches: either coin a new word that translates the concepts as understood, or borrow the term from the other culture and render it in one’s own language–one case of this would be the Latin ecclesia, which comes from the Greek ekklesía, and doesn’t really get translated into Latin until the Christian period, despite ekklesíai existing in Greek culture for centuries before Christianity (and meaning something else besides “church,” thus, which Christianity appropriated from Greek culture when it spread within the Greek-speaking Eastern parts of the Roman Empire.) There is another option, however, for translation, and that involves looking at concepts in one’s own culture and seeing if there is a term or phrase that–based on the understanding which people in one culture have for the other–roughly approximates the concept being conveyed in the other culture, and then using that afterwards. What is being suggested here, thus, is that the concept of “sin” in Old English was an instance of the latter, since the root words of “sin” in Indo-European do not go back to the same roots from which the concept of “sin” in Greek (and certainly not in Hebrew, since the latter isn’t an Indo-European language) happen to derive. But, given that Old English is not attested textually until the post-Christian period, it is easy to see why one might get confused about this…just because the language wasn’t written down yet doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist in some form, and even if it isn’t as old as Hebrew and the concept of “sin” in Hebraic cultures, that doesn’t matter since the concept and word in Old English don’t derive directly from Hebrew sources. I hope that is a useful explanation…
Yes, very much agreed, and well stated…
Something that Woods Wizard is also missing out on: yes, there are some polytheist religions that have a judgement after death, i.e. the Kemetic practices, with that whole weighing-of-the-heart thing, and (what many Abrahamic monotheists love to point out) the “negative confession” that relates a number of different offenses and the deceased person saying they have not committed them, etc. So, yeah, those things do happen, and given that there is a great deal of both active participation in and passive influence of Egyptian traditions on wider paganism, it’s pretty foolish to ignore this or dismiss it.
I like this! I always like to encourage people who are willing to really dig into the history!
I think you raise some interesting points, but it seems like there’s some debate surrounding some of the etymology you present here.
(Feel free to contest any of this, I am in no way trying to shut you down here. I just love researching old languages. Again, you article was VERY well done!)
For instance, the Old English word Syn seems to have potential Latin roots. If you examine the Germanic terms that some associate it with, most of them have meanings that are pretty far removed from this concept.
As an example, OE: “Syn” has been etymologically tied to the Old Norse “sjón”, and further the Proto-Germanic “sunjō”. The former means ‘Sight’ and the latter ‘truth’. So if this word existed in the language before any Christian influences came along, it’s doubtful that the meaning would have resembled anything we would associate with the term ‘sin’ today.
More likely is the LATIN root ‘sons’ or ‘sont’, meaning ‘guilty’.
So I think what we might have here is a Latin word that came to consume a similar sounding Germanic word/words.
Hey, thank you.
It is my understanding that Proto-Germanic “*sundijō” (from which “synn” is derived) is generally accepted to mean something “that should not be” in the sense of a crime or maleficent action, derived from PIE *h₁sónts as “being” or “true” (especially as it relates to the verb “to be”, as it developed into Proto-Germanic “*wesaną”)
I also believe that “synd” is the ON cognate to “synn”, as “sýn” is a different word altogether (which does mean sight/vision).
Now I’m not a very good linguist, but I’m not sure that we can claim it was a Latin consumption of an OE concept when the PIE-to-Proto-Germanic comparative developments have maintained the idea of “truthfulness”, as it were. But I fully maintain my own general deficiency in this field, so I could very well be wrong.
I think what we have are two comparatively similar concepts (both a violation of law), which was necessarily narrowed and applied from the Germanic to the concepts which were found in the Classic language Bibles.
Nice to see a sober and historically informed response to an emotional issue. Too often neo-pagans react against their Christian upbringings (real or imagined) in what I can only read as an adolescent manner. If a sin is a violation of a sacred law, then it’s hard to see how any religious worldview could lack such a category, no matter what it’s called.
I have had converts to Buddhism proudly tell me that there is no “sin” in Buddhism either. Makes them sound cool. But anyone familiar with karma and rebirth –the fundamental preoccupation of Buddhism– knows that this is not true.
So, good for you.