If you asked most people what a heathen was, chances are you’d get some fairly blank stares from a lot of your questioned population. Those who had some religious background would likely tell you that a heathen was a person who didn’t acknowledge god (referring to the Christian god, ruling out Jews, Christians and Muslims), but wouldn’t be able to get much more specific. Others might tell you that a heathen is an atheist, or a pagan, or both. While all of these are common uses of the word heathen, none of them are exactly right, and a few of them are downright incorrect.
Let’s start off with what a heathen is not, to eliminate the candidates. A heathen is not an atheist, since someone who is heathen does have faith whereas an atheist believes in no divine powers, gods or goddesses. A heathen is technically a person who does not follow (and who sometimes doesn’t acknowledge) the Christian god, but this type of umbrella term is actually the word pagan, which refers to all non Judeo-Christian faiths. So that’s out, and obviously a person can’t be a pagan and an atheist at the same time. So what, exactly, is a heathen?
Put simply, a heathen is someone who worships Germanic and Norse gods and goddesses. Odin, known as the All Father, is the chief of the Norse gods and he is popularly worshipped by heathens. So too are gods like Thor and his sons Modi and Magni, along with goddesses like Freya, Frigg and others. Heathens are hard polytheists, and generally hold the view that each god, goddess, spirit and wight is an individual entity and not that they are differing aspects of some higher power. Heathens draw inspiration from the poetic sagas, and from books like the Havamal which offer conventional wisdom. Heathens tend to value their ancestry and bloodlines, and though there is the question of an afterlife heathens tend to be much more concerned with their actions and achievements in the here and now rather than focusing on getting to a beneficial afterlife as many Judeo Christian faiths stress as the most important concern.
There is one more point that should be emphasized; a heathen is a general term for anyone who worships Norse deities. However there are other, more specific faiths within the heathen umbrella. Odinists for instance are those who concern themselves primarily with the worship of Odin, and Asatru are also a more specific faith than simply a heathen. Wiccans, which are generally referred to as general pagans, might also be heathens if they revere Norse gods and goddesses as well. It’s a flexible term, and it may even be thought of as insulting to some people. Therefore it’s always a good idea to ask someone before you call them a heathen… sort of like how you might not be comfortable using the N word if you weren’t good friends with someone that was black, and they hadn’t given you the go ahead for that sort of language.
“Heathen,” by Anonymous at Urban Dictionary
“What Does Heathen Really Mean?” by Anonymous at Eric Shall