Paganism vs Heathenism, is there a difference?

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Where do the terms pagan and heathen come from and what’s the difference?

The word pagan is a Latin term which means “nonparticipant” (paganus) or more accurately, “country dweller” or “civilian” in contrast to being “Soldiers of Christ”.

“Pagan” was used by Christians in Anglo-Saxon England to describe non-Christians.  Latin was the spoken and written language of the Christian Church at the time, so it is of no surprise they would use a Latin word to refer to those not members of their church or religion.

It wasn’t until the year 1969 that the Catholic Church stopped using Latin during Mass.

In Old English, the common language spoken in Anglo-Saxon England, the equivalent word used was hæðen (“heathen”).

Hæðen  comes from Old Norse heiðinn, both of which may derive from a putative Gothic word, haiþno.

Both pagan and heathen were terms that carried pejorative overtones in their usage, with hæðen also being used in Late Anglo-Saxon texts to refer to criminals and others deemed to have not behaved according to Christian teachings.

The term “paganism” was one used by Christians as form of ‘othering’ or ‘other than ours (or us)’.

“Paganism is largely an empty concept defined by what it is not Christianity”.
-Archaeologist Neil Price

There is no evidence of anyone living in Anglo-Saxon England as having ever described themselves as being “pagan”. This also isn’t any evidence that they understood Paganism as an alternative to Christianity.

Pagan belief systems were inseparable from other aspects of daily life and adding Christian teaching did not change this. In most cases when an Anglo-Saxon person was converted to Christianity they merely added Christ into a pantheon of other gods and already established pagan beliefs.  This was one of the main reasons the Christian Church adopted so many Norse customs and practices.  It was the only way they could completely convert the pagan.  More info: The Christianization of the Norse


Anglo-Saxon, Gaelic, Germanic, and Norse paganism were not organized religions with supraregional rules and institutions but a loose term for a variety of local intellectual world views.  Basically, paganism was a local belief system that was carried over from one generation to another.  There were no solid rules, gods, or beliefs and it varied from town to town and household to household.

Paganism had a complete lack of any rules or consistency and also exhibited regional variation and changes over time.  No two pagans were alike and in most cases weren’t even religious and could care less about anyone’s beliefs – regarding them simply as being ‘superstitious’, whether they were pagan or christian. 

Anglo-Saxon paganism is best described as a “folk religion” which was more concerned on survival and prosperity in this world they lived in. This is in contrast to Christian thinking which sought separation from their life here on Earth in favor for a life with God after death (or the Coming of Christ).

The term “pagan” was used by early medieval Christian missionaries to refer to those not converted to Christianity. It  was a term used with judgmental connotations and was not used by pagans or other nonchristians to refer to themselves.  (On a side note, “blasphemists” is the term used by the Christian Church when referring to other Christian Churches).

The term “heathen” is also used to refer to those who do not acknowledge the God of the Bible; a person who is neither a Jew, Christian, nor Muslim; a pagan. However its roots come from the Old Norse and is believed by most linguists to have been used as a term meaning “heath dweller”, in reference to those who were “uncultivated’.  It was a term used for those who were not in an organized religion.

The heathens were the irreligious, uncultured, or uncivilized. The heathens were the savage barbarians…the vikings.

Today the term pagan and heathen are used by pagans interchangeably to refer to themselves.




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