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Heritage of Heathen

This article was posted originally in 2005. It is an attempt to study the actual root of the word 'heathen' as the word is often claimed to mean 'of the heath' or as a christian term, both theories which seem to be flawed.

Etymological study on the word 'heathen'

the original Gothic bible by Ulfilas
Within heathen circles, the word heathen is as common as a cookie. We use it everyday and it is something we have come to identify ourselves with so much that we can genuinely say we are 'heathens'. But what does that mean, or perhaps more interestingly, what did it mean? In this article I'd like to focus on the older translations and the word's roots and heritage itself, over the perhaps more common discussion of the word.

The written word

As usual when looking into things historic, we find ourselves constrained by the written sources. The first time the word is used in a written source, is in the 4th century. Not surprisingly it is to be found in a translation of the bible. The person handling the pen, however is quite surprising. Bishop Ulfilas, born and raised as a Goth, became a christian and has set himself the task of translating the bible to spread the 'holy' word amongst his people. And thus he starts translating the bible from Greek to Gothic, becoming the first man ever to write down a Germanic language. It is in this translation that we read for the first time, about a haiþnô, a heathen woman. Ulfilas describes her as a non-christian and 'from the land', however it is not entirely clear wether he means to stress her non-christianity or her being from the land. Reason for more research.

One of the first things that may spring to mind is the english word pagan. Almost synonymous words, which makes it likely for them to have influenced each other over the course of the centuries. Unfortunately this is not the case. Rooted in the Latin paganus, it contains a much different root and etymological transformation than the word heathen. But what is even more striking, is the fact that the words could not possibly have influenced each other, because of time. At the time of the writings of Ulfilas, the Roman empire was still in it's 'pagan' rule, where the word paganus was mainly used to indicate non-warriors or farmers. The source must thus be sought elsewhere.


The word heathen derives from the OldEnglish hæðen, cognate to the OldDutch heithan and OldHighGerman heidan, all cognates to the Gothic haiþnô. The most obvious explanation is of course to translate the word as of the heath, similair to the Gothic haiþi (dwelling on the heath). Although perhaps an easy answer to our question, there are some serious reasons why we should reconsider. The heath is a plant which one can find in most places in Europe. It is particularly active in the Mediterranean area's of Europe and in Africa. To name the Northern-European peoples after such a plant would be rather strange, let alone valid. The perhaps somewhat older translation, that heath was meant for forests and other plants is far-fetched at best.

Another explanation, common amongst etymologists, is that of borrowing a word from a foreign language. This phenomena is an ancient tradition and more than common. In this case, scholars believe the word to be an adaptation of the Greek ethnikos (people). In this sense, the word heathen would be more about the people than the surroundings, something which strikes more reasonable. The term itself could be applied to the whole of the community as well as the individuals within that community. A possible source for this word could be the Armenian hethanos (people). Although this line of thinking may horrify several heathens, it is one we should consider more extensively. In fact, we can verify similar thinking amongst the Germanic tribes when we look at the OldHighGerman words Irmindeot (the people, people of Irmin), Irminsul (pillar of Irmin) and Irminmann (man, man of the people, man of Irmin). All words which indicate that community, religion and individual were named alike. The thought of a unifying word for these concepts is thus not a strange one.

However, if we consider the word heathen to be borrowed from the Armenian, we have to evaluate the evidence. Common sense is playing parts here. Why would a Gothic translator chose an Armenian word whilst translating Greek? Given, Armenian and Greek share similarities in both language and religion, but the question remains. A translator would logically make it its first choice to use a indigenous word (in this case Gothic) and only then would he consider borrowing a word from the original language (in this case Greek). Furthermore, the words Haiþnô and Hethanos are to far apart to simply assume a direct connection. We can only conclude the theory to be simple at best.


But if those common concepts about the word really do not last, what then? There is one more option we have yet to consider. That of community. As shown above in the Armenian example, the word would naturally link to both community as well as religion. And thus it is interesting to find another (older) definition of the word heide (heath), namely that of "shared mark". This could point to an early definition of heathens as people of the same (religious) community, something that - in heathen thinking - hits home. If we then look at the already mentioned Irmindeot and Irminmann, we can see a clear resemblance in the words Heathens and Heathen of today.

So in that sense, we should define heathens as:
A heathen was someone who lived in ancient (pre-christian) religious communities in Northern Europe.
If you ask me, that fits rather well!


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