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I'm trying to understand the precise distinction between pagan and heathen. My immediate motivation is that I'm reading Sir Frank Stenton's Anglo-Saxon England. Online dictionaries have been imprecise, often offering the words as mutual synonyms. Some issues: are pagans/heathens necessarily polytheists? Did the Romans refer to pagans (as 'others') while having a multitude of gods themselves? Is either word derogatory? Does heathen imply a lower level of civilisation?

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en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paganism –  mplungjan May 8 '14 at 14:53
For further confusion, the words are used differently in different places, particularly by modern-day self-identified Pagans and Heathens. –  TRiG May 8 '14 at 14:53
possible duplicate of The difference between "heathen" and "ungodly" See especially the top-voted answer by Jon Hanna which explicitly mentions heathen vs pagan. –  Doc May 8 '14 at 19:52

5 Answers 5

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As descriptive terms, both pagan and heathen are out of date, but whereas pagan remains in common use to contrast Abrahamic religion from various pre-modern and revived polytheistic competitors, heathen is usually an aspersion, akin to idolator, infidel or heretic.

In older days, not a few older dictionaries listed them as interchangeable, even assigning circular definitions (i.e. heathen: a pagan; pagan: a heathen). Pagan, too, was more broadly applied: as the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia has it

in the broadest sense includes all religions other than the true one revealed by God, and, in a narrower sense, all except Christianity, Judaism, and Mohammedanism.

Interestingly, the 1898 Webster's Collegiate Dictionary suggests a reverse trend from the modern usage:

Pagan is now more properly applied to rude and uncivilized idolaters, while heathen embraces all idolaters.

But by the mid-20th century, heathen seems to have fallen out of favor as a synonym for pagan; see for example an Ngram of heathen gods vs pagan gods. Pagan and heathen are at once imprecise and exonymic, and not employed by modern anthropologists.

Pagan remains in the common term for the state cults, polytheistic worship, and/or idolatry of the classical Greco-Roman, Egyptian, Norse, and Celtic worlds (as remembered and mis-remembered in the Christian tradition). Outside of some impolite circles, pagan is not applied to the modern major religions, and rarely to folk religion/animism/shamanism. Thus, worshippers of Apollo or Odin are described "pagans," but traditionally spiritual Iroquois or Baka are not, nor the adherents of Shintoism or Zoroastrianism.

Adherents of neo-pagan movements may describe themselves as pagan or heathen; those who choose one may consider the other to be improper, but there does not seem to be consensus.

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Thanks choster, that's an excellent piece of work. So the conclusion is that the words were never used consistently in the past. Their meanings have to be deduced from the cultural context of the author and should be avoided today. –  user24964 May 8 '14 at 16:34

To the limited extent that a consistent distinction can be drawn between the terms, pagan refers to religions practiced by rural peoples in the late Roman Empire, inhabitants of a pagus or country district. The religions of peoples living outside the boundaries of the Roman Empire, either during that Empire's continuance or after it had disintegrated, are more accurately called heathens, since they did not live in a pagus. One difference between pagan and heathen gods could be that pagan gods, following Greek traditions, were deemed immortal, whereas heathen gods could die in time, and their vitality was often seen as varying with the season. Thus, the gods of the Udmurts, who survive east of the Urals, are said to sleep in the earth during the winter.

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A pagan is someone who believes in multiple gods (A Polytheist)

It does not refer to a single religion, but rather a group of historical polytheistic religions.

A heathen on the other hand, is someone who does not hold stock in a major Deity, such as the Christian God or the Islamic Allah, as seen from the opinion of the people who do hold those beliefs. So to a person who believes in a Christian God, technically, someone following Islam is a heathen

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What was Akhenaten then? Assuming he was a monotheistic worshipper of the the Sun-god Ra? Any definition which implicitly assumes the Abrahamic faiths are the only monotheistic religions is already imprecise. –  user24964 May 8 '14 at 16:10
From the point of view of the polytheistic Egyptian priests, Akhenaten was a heretic. –  Peter Shor May 8 '14 at 16:45

One meaning nuance I should bring up here, because you will find it in the wild and it may trip you up, is how believers of these religions self-identify.

In particular, neo-Celtic followers (aka: Wiccans) often informally self-identify as "Pagan". Meanwhile, neo-Germanic followers often primarily refer to themselves as "Heathen".

So if you hear someone seriously self-identify as "Pagan", they probably mean to tell you that they are Wiccan. If you hear someone seriously self-identify as "Heathen", they probably are referring to one of the neo-Germanic systems of beliefs.

Of course if they are joking, they probably just mean they don't hold the beliefs their family would like them to hold.

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Lately, it seems that Pagan = Olympian mythos and Heathen = Asgardian mythos, but I think they were mingled. Heathen in past usage seems to imply a person who is "from the Heath" and generally an untamed infidel, whereas a Pagan was more specifically an idol worshiper.

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