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?
As descriptive terms, both pagan and heathen are out of date, but whereas pagan remains in common use to contrast Abrahamic religion from various pre-modern and revived polytheistic competitors, heathen is usually an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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Today Pagan refers to people who believe in nature based religions, "I am Wiccan therefore I am pagan." Heathen is a term used by people of one religion to rudely refer to believers of another religion, "Don't be friends with Jeremy, he's a heathen."
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
Religion: an organized group theological belief system
Spirituality: a personal theological belief system
Pagans were the Latin "country dwellers." Heathens were the Northern European "heath dwellers." Pagans generally were pre-Christain peoples. Heathens generally followed the Northern Ancestral Tradition, which was not an organized religion and beliefs varied from person to person and village to village. Dogma was virtually unknown.
Today, "heathen" generally refers to followers of Neo-Germanic/Norse new age religions (Asatru, Vanatru, Odinism, etc.), and "pagan" is virtually anything outside of the big box religions. Some interchange the terms as the same, and some do not. Each different group has their own definitions of the two terms, which often vary widely. The best historical explanations are that the Catholic Church referred to non-Christians in Northern Europe as Heathens and referred to non-Christians everywhere else as Pagans for those who would and will not conform to the Christian belief system.
Generally, if you are a Heathen, then you follow an organized Germanic/Norse new age religious system. If you do not, then you are a Northern European Pagan. These are explanations from the USA perspective. Members of Asatru in Europe do not necessarily consider it an organized religion, but more of an individual spiritual system. In the USA, however, Asatru and other systems are generally considered organized religions. IMO it is more important that one concentrate on their own personal beliefs, no matter what set(s) of deities is chosen.
Most people today have been raised in a structured religious system, so when they choose an alternate theology, they have no other concept than to belong to an organized religious body. The modern new age religions offer "church-like" environments with regular services (now called "rituals") to make people feel comfortable in their new found religion. This has, in most cases, absolutely nothing to do with the original beliefs and practices the new age group is rooted in. The ancients, if they could participate today, would probably not understand these new age groups at all and look on them as something odd. They would probably call all of them Anti-Christians, Anti-Jews, Anti-Muslims, Anti-Hindus, etc.)
My ancestors were from the scraggly wastes of Scandinavia and the British Isles, so I consider myself a Heathen and follower of the Northern Ancestral Tradition, as my ancestors were from the heaths (open, untilled waste lands). I am also NOT a follower of any specific organized Norse, Germanic, or Celtic new age religious group. I don't care what everyone else believes. It means nothing to me, and I have nothing to prove to any group, nor do I need their"acceptance" or "permission" for anything spiritually in my life. I know right from wrong, good from evil, and what is important to me. You may or may not know. That is totally okay. You will find your own way.
Focus on your own personal beliefs, not your chosen group's beliefs. If you can't do that, join the herd and follow their collective beliefs. Remember:
"Religion is for people who are afraid of Hell. Spirituality is for those who have already experienced it."
Heathen refers to the way of the Norsemen, Odinism, masculinity, people with no interest in the PC crowd, Pagan now is new age hippies and suchlike, accepting all, ie gay marriage etc....whilst not a dictionary definition the above is accurate.
Pagans worship gods other then the 3 excepted Christianity Judaism and Islam or mohammedanism Heathens do not worship Any god ,thats how I see it
The distinction today seems to be an attempt to define as different the neo-Germanic followers from other earth based spirituality groups when the real differences are more in religious practices. I like the distinction of mortal vs. immortal but even this is a little tenuous as some die and return or go away and come back.