Have you, as a Pagan, ever been called a heathen? If so, did you accept it or where you insulted by it due to its association with something negative? It’s a common misinterpretation that the word heathen has something to do with being with out religion or primitive (in a negative way). These negative interpretations of the word are not correct definitions of what heathen really is.
Heathen came from an interpretation of Paganus, meaning a person who was an outsider to a particular group or community and more commonly was used to refer to someone who did not live in the city or lived in a rural area. There are other meanings to heathen as well as the word heathen also comes from the Old English word hæðen which means “not Christian or Jewish”. Historically this term was influenced by Gothic haiþi “dwelling on the heath”, which appeared as haiþno in Ulfilas’ bible as “the gentile woman” (biblical translation from “Hellene” in Mark 7:26). This translation of heathen will bring us back around to the Latin word Paganus meaning country dweller.
The words pagan and heathen have been used in a derogatory manor by those belonging to monotheistic religions, such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam, to refer to a person who disbelieves in their religious beliefs. In more modern times it is not normally used in this way. Paganism often refers to the religious beliefs of classical antiquity, such as Greek mythology and other old religions. Until the rise of Romanticism and the general acceptance of freedom of religion in Western civilization, which is still a touch and go matter in many places, paganism was commonly used to describe any religion that was outside of the established Christians, Catholics and Jews. In some dictionaries you will find that the definition of Pagan is any belief other than Christian, Catholic, Jewish, or Hindu. So what happened to give heathen or Pagan a bad wrap? The answer may leave you with more questions than answers.
Hypatia of Alexandria, who was a philosopher, mathematician and astronomer, was a pagan who was killed by a Christian mob in March of 415 CE. The term Pagan came to be known as a Christianized term for “epicurean” which was used to refer to a person who was sensual, materialistic, self indulgent, unconcerned with the future and uninterested in sophisticated religion. Keep in mind that heathen in also commonly used to describe someone who is primitive and with out religion. From a common Christian perspective these terms have been used historically to include all non Abrahamic religions.
The use of Paganus by the Latin Christians as an all encompassing, derogatory term for those that lived outside of the cities and outside of their new religion was originally devoid of any actual religious meaning. In other places, Hellene or heathen was used as the word for pagan; and Paganos continued only as a secular term, with reference to those that they viewed as inferior or beneath them.
Aside from all of the history behind it, long interpretations and even interpretations stemming from the bible, heathen truly means a gentile person who is not of the city. For all of the books that have referred to the Native American and other such people as heathen, well, they are right, but in the correct sense of the word. Of course, we all know that now Pagan refers to a religious umbrella of many multi deity religions. Maybe many of us are now finding that we are really heathen Pagans or as many modern day Pagans strive to have a close connection to the Earth, that they would like to be heathen Pagans. Next time someone uses the word, keep in mind that they may not really know what heathen is. Educate them.