AskDefine | Define heathendom

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  1. The state of being heathen.
    The priest argued to the king that unless clerics accompanied the colony ship, the colony would soon descend into heathendom and barbarity.
  2. From one religion's or creed's perspective, the rest of the world that does not follow that creed or religion.
    My aunt considered all of Europe to be heathendom, and refused to visit us in Amsterdam on religious grounds.
  3. Specifically, the non-Christian world; territories where Christianity is not the dominant religion.
    The Crusaders meant to wrest Jerusalem from heathendom, but they managed to pillage a number of lands in Christendom along the way.
  4. In the context of "paganism": The worldwide community that follows Heathenry, a modern pagan faith inspired by the pre-Christian religions of Germanic tribes, Anglo-Saxons and Norse peoples.



Extensive Definition

Paganism (from Latin paganus, meaning "country dweller, rustic") is a word used to refer to various religions and religious beliefs from across the world. It is a term which, from a Western perspective, has modern connotations of spiritualist, animistic or shamanic practices or beliefs of any folk religion, and of historical and contemporary polytheistic religions in particular.
The term can be defined broadly, to encompass the faith traditions outside the Abrahamic monotheistic group of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The group so defined includes many of the Eastern religions, Native American religions and mythologies, as well as non-Abrahamic ethnic religions in general. More narrow definitions will not include any of the world religions and restrict the term to local or rural currents not organized as civil religions. Characteristic of pagan traditions is the absence of proselytism and the presence of a living mythology which explains religious practice.
The term "pagan" is a Christian adaptation of the "gentile" of Judaism, and as such has an inherent Christian or Abrahamic bias, and pejorative connotations among Westerners, comparable to heathen, and infidel, mushrik and kafir (كافر) in Islam. For this reason, ethnologists avoid the term "paganism," with its uncertain and varied meanings, in referring to traditional or historic faiths, preferring more precise categories such as polytheism, shamanism, pantheism, or animism; however others criticise the use of these terms, claiming that these are only aspects that different faiths may share and do not denote the religions themselves.
Since the later 20th century, "Pagan" or "Paganism" has become widely used as a self-designation by adherents of Neopaganism. As such, various modern scholars have begun to apply the term to three separate groups of faiths; Historical Polytheism (such as Celtic polytheism and Norse paganism), Folk/ethnic/Indigenous religions (such as Chinese folk religion and African traditional religion), and Neo-paganism (such as Wicca and Germanic Neopaganism).



The term pagan is from Latin paganus, an adjective originally meaning "rural", "rustic" or "of the country." As a noun, paganus was used to mean "country dweller, villager." The semantic development of post-classical Latin paganus in the sense "non-Christian, heathen" is unclear. The dating of this sense is controversial, but the 4th century seems most plausible. An earlier example has been suggested in Tertullian De Corona Militis xi, "Apud hunc [sc. Christum] tam miles est paganus fidelis quam paganus est miles infidelis," but here the word paganus may be interpreted in the sense "civilian" rather than "heathen". There are three main explanations of the development:
  • (i) The older sense of classical Latin pāgānus is "of the country, rustic" (also as noun). It has been argued that the transferred use reflects the fact that the ancient idolatry lingered on in the rural villages and hamlets after Christianity had been generally accepted in the towns and cities of the Roman Empire; cf. Orosius Histories 1. Prol. "Ex locorum agrestium compitis et pagis pagani vocantur." From its earliest beginnings, Christianity spread much more quickly in major urban areas (like Antioch, Alexandria, Corinth, Rome) than in the countryside (in fact, the early church was almost entirely urban), and soon the word for "country dweller" became synonymous with someone who was "not a Christian," giving rise to the modern meaning of "Pagan." This may, in part, have had to do with the closeness to nature of rural people, who may have been more resistant to the new ideas of Christianity than those who lived in major urban centers and were cut off from the cycles of nature and the forms of spirituality associated with them. However, it may have also resulted from early Christian missionaries focusing their efforts within major population centers (e.g., St. Paul), rather than throughout an expansive, yet sparsely populated, countryside (hence, the Latin term suggesting "uneducated country folk") until a bit later on.
  • (ii) The more common meaning of classical Latin pāgānus is "civilian, non-militant" (adjective and noun). Christians called themselves mīlitēs, "enrolled soldiers" of Christ, members of his militant church, and applied to non-Christians the term applied by soldiers to all who were "not enrolled in the army".
  • (iii) The sense "heathen" arose from an interpretation of paganus as denoting a person who was outside a particular group or community, hence "not of the city" or "rural"; cf. Orosius Histories 1. Prol. "ui alieni a civitate dei..pagani vocantur." See C. Mohrmann, Vigiliae Christianae 6 (1952) 9ff.
-- Oxford English Dictionary, (online) 2nd Edition (1989)
In their distant origins, these usages derived from pagus, "province, countryside", cognate to Greek πάγος "rocky hill", and, even earlier, "something stuck in the ground", as a landmark: the Proto-Indo-European root *pag- means "fixed" and is also the source of the words page, pale (stake), and pole, as well as pact and peace.
While pagan is attested in English from the 14th century, there is no evidence that the term paganism was in use in English before the 17th century. The OED instances Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776): "The divisions of Christianity suspended the ruin of paganism." The term was not a neologism, however, as paganismus was already used by Augustine.
Less than twenty years after the last vestiges of paganism were crushed with great severity by the emperor Theodosius I Rome was seized by Alaric in 410. This led to murmuring that the gods of paganism had taken greater care of the city than that of the Christian God, inspiring St Augustine to write The City of God, alternative title "De Civitate Dei contra Paganos: The City of God against the Pagans", in which he claimed that whilst the great 'city of Man' had fallen, Christians were ultimately citizens of the 'city of God.'


Heathen is from Old English hæðen "not Christian or Jewish", (c.f. Old Norse heiðinn). Historically, the term was probably influenced by Gothic haiþi "dwelling on the heath", appearing as haiþno in Ulfilas' bible as "gentile woman," (translating the "Hellene" in Mark 7:26). This translation probably influenced by Latin paganus, "country dweller", or it was chosen because of its similarity to the Greek ethne, "gentile". It has even been suggested that Gothic haiþi is not related to "heath" at all, but rather a loan from Armenian hethanos, itself loaned from Greek ethnos.


Common word usage

Both "pagan" and "heathen" have historically been used as a pejorative by adherents of monotheistic religions (such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam) to indicate a disbeliever in their religion. Although, in modern times it is not always used as a pejorative. "Paganism" frequently refers to the religions of classical antiquity, most notably Greek mythology or Roman religion, and can be used neutrally or admiringly by those who refer to those complexes of belief. However, until the rise of Romanticism and the general acceptance of freedom of religion in Western civilization, "Paganism" was almost always used disparagingly of heterodox beliefs falling outside the established political framework of the Christian Church. "Pagan" came to be equated with a Christianized sense of "epicurian" to signify a person who is sensual, materialistic, self-indulgent, unconcerned with the future and uninterested in sophisticated religion. The word was usually used in this worldly and stereotypical sense, particularly among those who were drawing attention to what they perceived as being the limitations of paganism, for example, as when G. K. Chesterton wrote: "The pagan set out, with admirable sense, to enjoy himself. By the end of his civilization he had discovered that a man cannot enjoy himself and continue to enjoy anything else." In sharp contrast Swinburne the poet would comment on this same theme: "Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath; We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fullness of death."
Christianity itself has been perceived at times as a form of paganism by followers of the other Abrahamic religionsbecause of, for example, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, the celebration of pagan feast days, and other practices – through a process described as "baptising"or "christianization". Even between Christians there have been similar charges of paganism levelled, especially by Protestants, towards the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches for their veneration of the saints and images.


"Heathen" (Old English hæðen) is a translation of Paganus. The Germanic tribes were distributed over Eastern and Central Europe by the 5th century, and their dialects ceased to be mutually intelligible from around that time, Christianization of the Germanic peoples took place from the 4th (Goths) to the 6th (Anglo-Saxons, Franks) or 8th (Alamanni, Saxons) centuries on the continent, and from the 9th to 12th centuries in Iceland and Scandinavia.

Pagan classifications

Pagan subdivisions coined by Isaac Bonewits

Contemporary ethnic religion

see ethnic religion There are many surviving traditions of ethnic religion. Organized ethnic religions that achieved the status of a civil religion are Shinto, tied to Japanese identity, and Judaism, tied to Jewish identity. In nationalist definitions, Hinduism may be tied to Indian identity.
Uninstitutionalized folk religion is found mainly in rural and sparsely populated areas. These include Animism, ancestor worship and Shamanism of Asia, Africa, the Americas, as well as New Guinea and other Pacific islands. Chinese folk religion is an umbrella term for uninstitutionalized folk traditions under a secular regime.
All world religions, however, also include folk religious aspects, as opposed to their theological or philosophical aspects, see folk Christianity, or local institutions of revealed religions may become strongly tied to ethnic identity, e.g. Yazdânism (Kurdish faiths descending from Zoroastrianism), Tibetan Buddhism, or various Christian national churches such as the Armenian Apostolic Church, the various Syriac churches, and the various branches of the Orthodox Church, e.g., Anglican Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and other non-Roman churches.


During the expansion of the Sokoto Caliphate in West Africa, Islamic Fulbe (Fula) labelled their non-Muslim neighbours, such as this Kapsiki diviner, Kirdi, or "pagans".


Eurasian ethnic religions became largely extinct in the course of the Middle Ages, first with Christianization in the West and the spread of Buddhism in the East, and then with the Islamic conquests of Persia, Central and South Asia. A notable survival of pre-Islamic traditions are the people of Kafirstan, now shrunk to the Kalasha people, inhabiting three valleys in the NWFP, Pakistan. The 2002 census of the Russian Federation reports 123,423 people (0.23% of the population) as belonging to ethnic groups predominantly adhering to "traditional beliefs", mostly in Siberia and the Russian Far East. In Japan, there is the Ryukyuan religion.

Central America

see Mayan astrology In spite of five centuries of persecution Mayan paganism is alive and well in Guatemala, and is experiencing a resurgence of interest among young Mayans. Recent peace accords signed by the Guatemalan government have provided funds to teach Mayan language and traditional religion in rural schools.

Pagan revivals and new religious movements


Neopaganism includes reconstructed religions such as Hellenic, Celtic or Germanic reconstructionism as well as modern eclectic traditions such as Discordianism, or Wicca and its many offshoots.
Many of the "revivals", Wicca and Neo-druidism in particular, have their roots in 19th century Romanticism and retain noticeable elements of occultism or theosophy that were current then, setting them apart from historical rural (paganus) folk religion. The Íslenska Ásatrúarfélagið is a notable exception in that it was derived more or less directly from remnants in rural folklore.
Neopaganism in the United States accounts for roughly a third of all neopagans worldwide, and for some 0.2% of US population, figuring as the sixth largest non-Christian denomination in the US, after Judaism (1.4%), Islam (0.6%), Buddhism (0.5%), Hinduism (0.3%) and Unitarian Universalism (0.3%).

Modern nature religion

Many current pagans in industrial societies base their beliefs and practices on a connection to Nature, and a divinity within all living things, but this may not hold true for all forms of Paganism, past or present. Some believe that there are many deities, a pantheon of deities, which is known as polytheism. By contrast, pantheism is the belief that the combined subconscious spirit of all living things form the Universal Deity. Panentheism takes this one step further, incorporating the idea that the Universal Deity is both in everything (in the universe) but also extends beyond the known physical universe. Ancient Greek paganism, which tended in many cases to be a deification of the local deity, as Athena in Athens, saw each local emanation as an aspect of an Olympian deity during the Classical period and then after Alexander to syncretize the deity with the political process, with "state divinities" increasingly assigned to various localities, as Roma personified Rome. Many ancient regimes would claim to be the representative on earth of these gods, and would depend on more or less elaborate bureaucracies of state-supported priests and scribes to lend public support to their claims.
In one well-established sense, paganism is the belief in any non-monotheistic religion, which would mean that the Pythagoreans of ancient Greece would not be considered Pagan in that sense, since they were monotheist, but not in the Abrahamic tradition. In an extreme sense, and like the pejorative sense below, any belief, ritual or pastime not sanctioned by a religion accepted as orthodox by those doing the describing, such as Burning Man, Halloween, or even Christmas, can be described as "pagan" by the person or people who object to them and the individuals who choose to claim this title.


Paganism has been previously defined broadly, to encompass many or most of the faith traditions outside the Abrahamic monotheistic group of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. If the Indian religions are included, nearly 30% of the world population can be termed as Pagans.
The term has also been used more narrowly, however, to refer only to religions outside the very large group of so-called Axial Age faiths that encompass both the Abrahamic religions and the chief Indian religions. Under this narrower definition, which differs from that historically used by many (though by no means all) Christians and other Westerners, contemporary paganism is a relatively smaller and more marginal numerical phenomenon. According to Encyclopedia Britannica estimates (as of 2005), adherents of Chinese folk religion account for some 6.3% of world population, and adherents of tribal religions ("ethnogeligionists") for another 4.0%. The number of adherents of neopaganism is insignificant in comparison, amounting to 0.02% of world population at the most, or some 0.4% of the "ethnoreligious" population.



  • Michael York, Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion NYU Press (2003), ISBN 0814797083.

External links


heathendom in Afrikaans: Paganisme
heathendom in Arabic: باغانية
heathendom in Bengali: অবিশ্বাসীবাদ (পেগানিজম)
heathendom in Belarusian (Tarashkevitsa): Паганства
heathendom in Bulgarian: Езичество
heathendom in Catalan: Paganisme
heathendom in Czech: Pohanství
heathendom in Welsh: Paganiaeth
heathendom in Danish: Hedenskab
heathendom in German: Heidentum
heathendom in Estonian: Paganlus
heathendom in Modern Greek (1453-): Παγανισμός
heathendom in Spanish: Pagano
heathendom in Esperanto: Paganismo
heathendom in French: Paganisme
heathendom in Western Frisian: Heidendom
heathendom in Galician: Pagán
heathendom in Indonesian: Paganisme
heathendom in Italian: Paganesimo
heathendom in Hebrew: פגניות
heathendom in Lithuanian: Pagonys
heathendom in Hungarian: Pogányság
heathendom in Dutch: Heidendom
heathendom in Japanese: ペイガニズム
heathendom in Norwegian: Paganisme
heathendom in Narom: Pagannisme
heathendom in Uzbek: Paganizm
heathendom in Polish: Pogaństwo
heathendom in Portuguese: Paganismo
heathendom in Russian: Язычество
heathendom in Albanian: Paganizmi
heathendom in Simple English: Paganism
heathendom in Serbian: Паганизам
heathendom in Finnish: Pakanuus
heathendom in Swedish: Paganism
heathendom in Tatar: Mäcüsilek
heathendom in Turkish: Paganlık
heathendom in Ukrainian: Язичництво
heathendom in Yiddish: אפגאט
heathendom in Samogitian: Paguonībė
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