Call us Heathens!
by Arlea Anschütz and Stormerne Hunt

Published in the Samhain 1997 issue of Pagan Dawn the journal of the Pagan Federation Pagan Federation

Published in Cup of Wonder Issue Number Two


The Oxford English Dictionary defines a heathen as a person "whose religion is neither Christian, Jewish, nor Mohammedan".

Does that therefore mean that all pagans are heathen? Is Heathenry simply Paganism with some vague hint of a barbaric undercurrent? Are you, like us, therefore heathen? No, not according to our definition --unless you happen to be among the minority of Pagan Federation members who share our religion. We would like to reclaim the word heathen for ourselves, just as the word was originally used for our ancestors who held the same faith a thousand years ago.

Who are we? You already know us by many different names (some of them printable in this family publication). Let's consider those names and see why they are either ambiguous or inappropriate. Let's see why it is unnecessary to invent new names when we have a perfectly good one already in the word heathen.

Northern Tradition This is the most popular modern term for Heathenry, especially with non-heathen members of the Pagan Federation. Yet it is also one of the least satisfactory. The term was popularised in the last decade by Nigel Pennick, who uses it to describe European nature religions in general (in contrast to Western Tradition, the term applied to the heritage of European ceremonial magick). Now we have The Pagan Federation Northern Tradition Information Pack defining the Northern Tradition as "the collection of natural folk religions, of a Pagan philosophy, originating from the peoples of Northern Europe, particularly the Germanic speaking tribes and their descendants such as the Anglo-Saxons, Norse, Danish, Swedish, Finnish, and Icelandic peoples." (For the reader's information, the Finnish are a non-Indoeuropean people with a language and mythology unrelated to those of the Germanic tribes.)

The Information Pack goes on to say that Technically speaking, the Pagan/Heathen religions of the Celtic tribes should be considered part of North European Paganism, but have become so developed in their own right, that they can be considered a separate entity." We believe that Celtic Paganism, in all its various forms, is a religion in its own right, not a subsect of ours! It seems to us that we ought to have a name which makes this clear.

We feel that the term Northern Tradition is just too broad. Even if we assume it applies to the pagan traditions of Northern Europe, as opposed to say, the indigenous religions of the Yukon, it could still apply to the pre-Christian religions of the Celts, Slavs, and Finno-Urgic peoples. Most PF members include some elements of Northern European folk tradition in their ritual practices. Northern Tradition simply isn't adequate to label a specific pagan path within the PF.

What we need is a term that distinguishes the pre-Christian religion of the Germanic peoples from the other pagan religions of Europe. By Germanic, we mean those peoples who descended from the speakers of the Proto-Germanic language. In pre-Christian times, they shared a common pantheon of gods and conducted similar religious rites. The Germanic tribes were hardly confined to the North. The heathen religion found its way to Spain with the Visigoths, to Italy with the Lombards, and to Africa with the Vandals.

Norse Tradition is another, similar, term, but instead of being too broad, it's too narrow. It labels all of Germanic Paganism after just one relatively recent expression of it, and perpetuates the fallacy that we are all simply Viking reenactment enthusiasts.

Ásatrú (pronounced "Ow-sah-true") This name was invented in the mid nineteenth century by Scandinavian academics as a scholarly way of referring to the pagan Germanic religion. The Old Norse word áss refers to the heathen gods in general, but also the Æsir in particular. The Æsir are gods associated with civilization and keeping order. Some of their names are enshrined in our names for the days of the week. The Anglo-Saxon gods Tiw, Woden, Thunor, and Frig (Tyr, Odin, Thor and Frigga in Norse) are remembered every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. The Æsir are often contrasted with a group of nature and fertility gods, the Vanir, whose most well known members are (in Norse) Frey, Freya, and Njord. Trú, is the Old Norse word for faith or religious belief, so Ásatrú, in its broadest sense means 'the religion of the Germanic gods', and in a narrower sense means 'faith in the Æsir.'

During the pagan revival in Iceland in the early 1970's, the term Ásatrú was used to refer to the pre-Christian religion of the Icelanders (now, along with Lutherinism, one of two religions officially recognised by the government). Following the Icelandic example, some of the first Germanic pagan organizations in North American adopted the name Ásatrú, and the presence of groups such as the Asatru Folk Assembly and the Asatru Alliance led to the widespread use of the label in the US.

We feel the main drawback to the use of Ásatrú has to do with its narrower meaning. It can be misleading to the extent that it suggests all heathens work either partly or exclusively with the Æsir. The ancient Germanic peoples recognised and honoured a wide variety of supernatural entities including major deities, tribal gods, nature spirits, and ancestral spirits. The Æsir only held prominence in specific times and places and among certain groups of people. Today many heathens who work mainly or exclusively with the Vanir have taken to calling their path "Vanatru", and as a result,Ásatrú can now refer to either the religion as a whole, or to a specific branch of Germanic paganism which honours the Æsir. We feel no need to perpetuate this confusion.

Odinism This term came into widespread use in England in the early 1970s, just as the term Ásatrú was gaining popularity elsewhere in the world. The development of the word Odinism reflects the problems with its current usage. During the romantic period in the late nineteenth century, many European countries experienced a surge of national pride and looked to the pagan past for inspiration. Artists such as William Morris, Lord Tennyson and Richard Wagner repopularised the ancient Celtic and Germanic myths. While the Europeans of the romantic age gloried in the heroic ideals of their ancestors, they were Christians, and they viewed the past with a Christian mind set tinged with ideas about paganism drawn from classical mythology. Since Odin/Woden/Wotan is referred to in the Eddas as "All-father" he tended to be interpreted in romantic art and writing as a Yahweh or Zeus figure, the top god in a hierarchical system.

Modern interpretation of history and mythology paint a different picture. As stated above, different gods gained prominence at different times and places in the Germanic world. Frey tended to be a more popular god than Odin in pagan Sweden, and Thor was more widely honoured in pagan Iceland. Many Germanic peoples paid highest homage to their own local or tribal gods and goddesses. Today, heathens work with a wide spectrum of patron gods.

Unfortunately, in modern times, it seems that to be considered "legitimate" a religion must revolve around a prominent male figure, and preferably, be named after him! So by analogy with Christianity and Buddhism, we find the term Odinism accepted, with the public image of Odin as "supreme god" persisting. Modern British Odinist organizations such as The Odinic Rite, helped establish Odinism as a term synonymous with Heathenry in the UK.

Like the other labels, Odinism has more than one meaning. It can refer to Heathenism in general, or to a specific path within that religion. Many American heathens who identify themselves as Asatru reserve the term Odinist for people who are deeply involved in runecraft and shamanism and work more closely with Odin than with other gods. But within the UK, the terms Asatru and Odinist are often used to refer to members of different heathen organizations. Thus, in some heathen communities, one could not be simultaneously Vanatru and Odinist, whereas in others, it would not be a contradiction. Ambiguity reigns.

Another drawback to the term Odinism is that it gives the false impression that Heathenry, like Christianity, is a personality cult. Calling all heathens Odinists is rather like referring to all Celtic pagans as "Lughists" or to all bards as "Taliesinists".

Germanic Paganism We've used this label at times through this article. What's wrong with it? It's accurate. It's unambiguous... at least amongst those who know the academic meaning of the term Germanic (as we have defined it above). Colloquially, however, Germanic implies something to do with the modern political state of Germany. Thus, the term Germanic Paganism runs the risk of being misconstrued as any form of paganism currently practised in Germany. It also risks being misunderstood as referring to a religion practised specifically in ancient continental Germania, as opposed to one which, along with the Germanic languages and culture, spread across large parts of Europe.

The related word Teutonic, employed by Kveldulf Gundarsson in his books on Germanic paganism: Teutonic Religion (1993) and Teutonic Magic (1994), suffers from the same kinds of problems as the word Germanic, in that many people associate Teutonic with modern Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

The Elder Troth The US based Germanic pagan organization, The Ring of Troth, (founded in 1988) made a valiant attempt at coming up with an unambiguous name for their religion: The Elder Troth or The Troth for short. Troth is an archaic English word related to Norse tru´. It means "faith" or "belief" in the sense "to trust in someone/something". Despite their official line, and despite its use in A Book of Troth (1992) by the infamous runester Edred Thorsson, the term The Elder Troth never really caught on as a name for Heathenry in general. Today more members of the Ring of Troth refer to their religion as Asatru than by the name promoted by their organization. One can speculate as to why this is. Perhaps "Elder Troth" simply strikes people as too arcane or Tolkienesque. Perhaps the term Asatru was already too well established in the US to be replaced.

Heathenry If the problems with all the other terms is that they are ambiguous, too broad or too narrow, why do we choose to call ourselves by a term that is arguably even vaguer than the others? After all, the mainstream connotations of the term heathen range from "uncivilized" to "Satanic". In modern times, the heathen label has been applied to "savages" and "primitives" around the world.

Let's take a look at the development and use of the word. A form of heathen can be found in every Germanic language (for example: Icelandic heiðenn, German heiden, Gothic haithno). The word literally means "dweller on the heath." Amongst the Germanic pagans, it came to have connotations of "wild" as opposed to "domesticated" or "civilized" (Gothic haithiwisks, wild; Anglo-Saxon hæðen, a wild creature.) During the era of conversions, the church was able to exert the greatest political pressure on Germanic peoples living in towns or centres of trade. Therefore, these were the first to be Christianized. The church had a difficult time maintaining control over people in rural areas. The heath dwellers had a habit of submitting to baptism under threat and then returning to their wild pagan ways as soon as the missionaries were out of sight. Thus, the term heathen took on the meaning of "one who practices the old, pre-Christian, religion." Of course, the word heathen also quickly took on negative connotations amongst medieval Christians who associated any practices not sanctioned by the church with Devil worship.

In the early eleventh century, King Cnut defined heathenism in his law code:

And we earnestly forbid every heathenism: heathenism is that men worship idols; that is, they worship heathen gods, and the sun or the moon, fire or rivers, waterwells or stones, or forest tree of any kind; or love witchcraft, or promote deathwork in any wise; or by sacrifice, or by divination; or perform anything pertaining to such illusions. (Translation from Tony Linsell's Anglo-Saxon Mythology, Migration, and Magick.)


In more recent times, when missionaries from England began travelling to other continents, they applied the term heathen, with all its negative connotations, to any non-Christian peoples they encountered, most of whom, like their own heathen ancestors, lived in tribal groups and practised a polytheistic nature religion. Hence the modern dictionary definition.

We like the name heathen for several reasons. It is not a recently contrived term, but one that has been used for many centuries to describe those who continued to honour our gods after the Christian church became the greatest political power in Europe. Ours is a historically reconstructed pagan religion which espouses reverence for ancestors, and stresses that the basis for 'what is' can be found in 'what was'. We feel that the name heathen best reflects these links between the past and present.

Heathen is not a word borrowed from a foreign language or revived from a dead one. It is alive in the vocabulary of every modern language descended from those spoken by ancient Germanic pagans. Thus, the name reflects the fact that ours is a religion linked to a particular culture, rather than a particular place, organization, or personality. Moreover, as a word in current usage, heathen emphasises the continuity between our pagan Germanic forebears and the modern culture of their descendants.

We must admit, we also enjoy taking advantage of the wild, savage, demonic connotations of the term. Our experience has generally been that when Joe and Jane Public ask us about our religion, and we tell them that we are heathens, their first response is a knowing grin (as though this shouldn't surprise them) followed by laughter. This gives us a great opportunity to explain that no, seriously, we are! A relatively painless shattering of their stereotype tends to follow.

Many PF members are proud to label themselves as witches, and work towards changing the image that the mainstream public associate with that name. Similarly, we are proud to call ourselves heathen and strive to restore to that term its ancient meaning: "One who practices the pre-Christian religion of the Germanic peoples."