History · Organization

“Heathen” vs. “Pagan”

The issue of terminology has come up on an email list to which I subscribe.

Specifically, the use of the term “Heathen” as opposed to the term “Pagan”.

From the point of view of the dictionary, the two terms are interchangeable. That is the point of view of the majority (the vast majority, I daresay) of the Pagan community.

Within the community of those who go out of their way to call themselves “Heathens”, however, it is a different story. In that context, “Heathen” is used to specifically refer to those who practice a faith relating to the Germanic Gods (including the Norse, Anglo-Saxon, and Continental German). It is a term specifically chosen to differentiate themselves from the broader Pagan community, in an attempt to build a specific cultural identity, even in the midst of a diverse population that includes Asatru, Theodish Belief, Odinism, Vanatru, etc. All still cling to that specific cultural origin.

It is, it should go without saying, not an attempt to establish dominance or superiority, but simply a more precise definition of the label. The term was chosen specifically because it comes from a Germanic root word, as opposed to “Pagan”, which comes from the Latin. A Germanic word to describe an exclusively (or predominantly) Germanic faith seems quite appropriate.

The term “Pagan”, on the other hand, is used to paint quite a broader brush, describing Wiccans, eclectics, Khemetics, Religio Romana practitioners, Celtic Reconstructionists, and a myriad inbetween. It is, by definition, a broad term.

Heathens, by prefering to adhere to that label, seek to distinguish themselves from the broader Pagan community while at the same time still belonging to it. Since the dictionary definition is the same, the community association is present. Since the term “Heathen” has a more specific cultural reference, however, it serves to identify those within the broader community who have deliberately chosen to narrow their religious beliefs and practices to a specific (if broad) European culture.

Sometimes, when these distinctions are raised, the Pagans get prickly. Why can’t the Heathens just use the same umbrella term as the rest of us? The answer is, of course, because that umbrella is a little too wide, and covers a little too much ground. Ultimately, I think the reticence on the part of the Pagan community to accept the specific use of the Heathen terminologgy is due to the latter’s insecurity. If the Heathens limit themselves to a single culture, it must surely reflect poorly on those Pagans who are eclectic. Of course, the Heathens don’t have any such intention in mind, but it is projected on them by the Pagans.

Surely, there is enough room out there in cyberspace to allow for the two terms, the one the broader, the one the more specific, and the latter preferred to the former amongst its adherents.

It’s not an insult, it’s just being precise.

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