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Who is a Heathen & The History of this Term

Updated on:


Written by: Dawn Black (Witchipedia)


Reviewed by: Tina Caro

The etymology of the word Heathen comes from a Gothic word meaning “person of the Heath” or “dwelling in the Heath” and is similar to the Latin word paganus from which we get Pagan.

It evolved to refer to anyone who had not been converted to Christianity and was often used as an insult to mean that someone is barbarous, uncivilized, undisciplined and is often used as a synonym for Pagan as both words have been used in translations of the Bible in place of the word “Gentile”.


Heathen originally referred to individuals who did not adhere to Christian beliefs during the early Middle Ages, often viewed as outsiders by Christian societies.

The term has evolved over time, and in modern usage, it is commonly associated with those who practice contemporary Heathenry or Germanic Neopaganism.

Heathenry encompasses a diverse range of beliefs and practices, often centered around the worship of Norse gods like Odin, Thor, and Freyja, along with an appreciation for nature and ancestry.

Heathens often celebrate festivals like Yule, Midsummer, and Winter Nights, incorporating rituals and customs inspired by historical Germanic traditions.

Modern Usage

The word has been embraced, however by modern followers of certain Northern and Western European religious traditions, including reconstructionist traditions based on the pre-Christian religions of aboriginal Norse, Germanic, Anglo-Saxon and sometimes Celtic tribal, seafaring, agricultural and herding peoples.

These religions are often collectively termed heathenry and include some forms of Druidry, Odinism, Forn Sed, Theodism, Asatru, and others.

Heathens and Pagans: what’s the difference?

Modern Heathens and Pagans often distinguish themselves from one another, though some folks in the community will use the words interchangeably. However, the term Pagan casts a much broader umbrella than the word Heathen.

Heathens, for the most part, are polytheistic reconstructionists of specifically Northern European ethnic religion and often reject mystical, new age and occult approaches popular among many other Pagan paths.

About Morningbird (Witchipedia's Founder)

I am a homesteading hearth witch who grew up along the shores of the Hudson River and has lived among the Great Lakes for the past 20 years. Together with my musical husband and youngest child, I steward a one-acre mini homestead with herb, vegetable and flower gardens, chickens, ducks, geese and rabbits, and areas reserved for native plants and wildlife. 

I have three children; two are grown, and I have been practicing magick alone and with family and friends for over 30 years.

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